Just Ask the Gentleman – Sasha

Track Title: You Can’t Get It Back
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Simply put, Gentleman Reg is a natural performer. Onstage he is affable and relaxed, teasing and bantering effortlessly, making his dulcet falsetto, choice weapon of the numinous queer intruder, that much more pleasurable and easy to yield to. In studio his work doesn’t lose this knowing, romantic charm. His new album Jet Black is melodically sanguine but lyrically sly with traces of Marc Bolan and T-Rex, Junior Boys and David Bowie circa Modern Love. Reg himself calls the album a shower rather than a grower and says, “It was all about what would make the most impact upon first listen. It was always what was best for the song. If we had to rip a song apart and piece it back together in the studio then we did.” Although he claims that, “Nothing was treated as precious”, the results most certainly are.

Sasha talked to Reg in Toronto about his first album in five years, Liz Phair, betrayal, student politics and this issue’s theme, trespassing.

Sasha: Trespassing is NMP’s current topic. Do you ever feel like a trespasser in this world?

Gentleman Reg: I often feel out of place in many different social situations. I’m very introverted, so there are many times that I get into situations and then realize too late that I shouldn’t be there. The whole time I was at university I was constantly out of my element, whether in class or in board meetings or at International Socialist meetings. It was never me at those classes or meetings, it was who I thought should be there.

S: Where would you have rather been, or been better suited to be, if not at board meetings (what kind of board by the way?) and IS meetings?

GR: Well that’s the thing. I guess it was a time in my life of self-discovery. Like I didn’t know I was gay until I was into my twenties, so in that sense maybe it’s exactly where I was supposed to be. But in retrospect, it seems foolish and like another life. Board meetings were just campus groups, CFRU the radio station, the school paper, different hiring committees—all by consensus of course!

S: Have you ever trespassed for real, and what were the results?

GR: I’ve jumped into outdoor swimming pools in the middle of the night in summer and never been caught and had the best time. I snuck backstage once to try and meet Amy Winehouse and realized immediately that lining up to meet someone is totally lame.

As a child my life revolved around trespassing. On construction sites, or abandoned houses or others property, that was where the adventure was to be found. A lot of my youthful activism involved trespassing. Taking over the president of the university’s office for a week. I don’t know what we ever gained from doing that. Fun memories I guess.

S: What were the circumstances of the office take-over? What university? And where did you grow up?

GR: It was some sort of tuition freeze protest. It was at Guelph, that’s where I did high school and university. Otherwise, I lived in several different cities in Ontario and also in Germany as a child. Military upbringing.

S: Every interview is essentially an exercise in invasion. What do you hold private and what are you public about?

GR: I don’t talk a lot about my family, not specifics. I try not to get into stories about past band members or business relationships gone wrong. Or gossip about famous friends. Some stuff is just not cool to disclose, and it’s just not my personality to do it. Not in the press anyways. Privately is different. I likely won’t ever talk about the first time I had sex. It’s tricky though, because I can appreciate people for giving it all away. Sometimes I feel like a liar, or a less interesting version of myself when I keep the juicy bits to myself.

S: Or it gives you more mystique. Why does it feel wrong to discuss your family?

GR: Only because I’ve hurt people in the past by talking about personal things in the press, so I try not to anymore, even though it’s difficult, since obviously it’s all a part of my story.

S: Do you actually enjoy going out or are you happier at home?

GR: I do enjoy going out. It just has to be the right place/situation. I’ve just found in the last year I’ve enjoyed my solitude more than drinking with strangers. And I’m also coming to terms with living single as a way of being all right. It doesn’t have to be only a way to be until you find a partner.

S: Who has been the most significant trespasser in your life? Who came in uninvited and really shook your shit up?

GR: A boy who lives far, far away and will remain nameless! I wouldn’t say he was uninvited, but definitely unexpected. We took a fantasy much too far. The imagination is so powerful—it made the reality an impossibility.

S: Which outsiders have influenced your style?

GR: LadyFag from NYC. She literally used to style me for things like video shoots. She’s not only a friend but a style icon for sure. When I was younger I was obsessed with female bands from Japan—Shonen Knife, they were at the top of my list. Also Kahimi Karie, Takako Minekawa, Buffalo Daughter, Pizzicato Five and Cibo Matto, even though they were based out of NYC. I’m sure the influence got into me somewhere/somehow.

S: What mainstream trends have influenced your style?

GR: Well I’m a child of the ‘80s so it’s impossible not to say Boy George, Cindi Lauper and Madonna. All those freaks who somehow broke through to the mainstream, and were somehow just accepted. It was all surface of course, but visually it made an impact.

S: Did you choose falsetto as a range or did it choose you? Why do you use it? It is such a deliberate and unusual range and one that goes right for the heart. Funny, because false is the root word, immediately implying fake, phony. What is the purpose of this vocal range to you? How does it make you feel when you hear it, say from Antony Hegarty or Jimmy Somerville?

GR: Falsetto is definitely something that chose me. The problem with it is once you realize you can go there, it’s hard not to do it all the time. With this new album, I changed a lot of the vocal parts to lower melodies, to get out of my falsetto. It’s almost like if it’s overused it lessens the value. I also don’t have the power or breath support that I would like when I’m in falsetto, so it’s not always appropriate.

As well it can become a gimmick or an easy way to grab an ear, so it needs to be used selectively. I actually wish the range in my actual voice was larger so that I could sing higher without resorting to falsetto. Some one like Rufus can sing incredibly high before he goes falsetto, that’s something admirable to me. Antony and Jimmy are otherworldly. I wouldn’t compare my falsetto to theirs for a second.

S: I want to elaborate on this. Falsetto again, is a “false” range yet it accesses such profound and intimate emotions. I’m interested in your thoughts on this—how “falseness” and “artifice” can sometimes touch us so deeply.

GR: I don’t know if I would agree that it always touches us. Falsetto can often be incredibly cheesy if used on the wrong singer. A lot of R’n’B does that, and a lot of female singers use it as a sign of emotion, but it’s not. Someone like Sarah Mclachlan uses it at the ends of a lot of her phrasing, and it creates this wispy effect, but to me it sounds like a cheap effect. I saw her and Cindi Lauper sing a duet last summer, and it was just so obvious that Cindi was a true individual, a force of a singer and has a completely unique way of using the voice, but when Sarah would sing it just sounded amateurish and lazy. Using Antony as an example, it’s true, he hits deep, but to me it’s the way he uses his voice that does it, not the voice alone.

S: What do you enjoy about being a musician?

GR: It’s one of the things in my life that I actually feel like I do well.

I feel like I’ve worked on it and it’s progressed in a logical manner.

I have such intense memories involving my favorite singers. I hope to give some of those to other people. There’s traveling involved, so I’ve seen a lot of the world through my music. And I’ve collaborated with tons of other artists, filmmakers and video-makers. I love seeing my music set to visuals.

S: Did you grow up with music or any other art form? How did it come into your life?

GR: My parents are both singers. Music was always there in a von Trapp style way. Music lessons were always encouraged and supported, as well as theatre. I started writing songs around 8 or 9. Oddly I can still remember some of them, even though they only exist in my head.

S: Who are some of your favourite artists and why?

GR: For painting Yoshitomo Nara. He paints amazing and mysterious kids. It’s hard to say why painting speaks to me the way it does. A lot of my favorite songwriters are people I know: Kevin Drew, Elizabeth Powell, Emily Haines, Bry Webb. There’s something amazing about knowing a person on a basic daily level, and then getting to see something they make come to fruition. I’m constantly surprised and challenged by the music that’s right around me.

S: What is your favourite thing to do when you have time off?

GR: What’s time off? I’m not good at taking holidays. When I do I’m visiting with friends. They’re all over the world at this point, so catching up is rare, and when it happens it’s amazing and intense.

Otherwise right now I’m in go, go, go mode. Creation, looking ahead, making things, hoping that in twenty years I’ll love what I did with my time.

S: Talk about your experience writing and recording this last album.

GR: Since it was done completely independently it just took much longer than I would have liked for it to see the light. It didn’t physically take long to write or record, but to find the right label and get released took a long time. I know now that it was all worth the wait and everything happens in its right time, but sitting on art is never comfortable or fulfilling. I’m dying for some feedback and reactions, good or bad. The song selection we chose for the album had the live show in mind, so there are less ballads and mid-tempo stuff than in the past.

S: Let’s talk little bit about the song on Jet Black called “Oh My God.” As a recovering Dutch Calvinist myself, it’s hard not to see traces of that oppressive and unforgiving religion in it.

GR: Unfortunately religion was never a force in my life. It was around me, but only in a weekly Sunday church going experience, or saying grace before dinner. I let it go as soon as I was allowed. For years I had a desire to write a song called ‘Oh My God’. The title came first. The lyrics fell below it and are a mixture of so many things I don’t think it would do the song justice to fully explain them away. Within each line there are several things going on. I do get asked about that one a lot though.

S: There is a song on Jet Black called “When Heroes Change Professions.” What about when professions change heroes? How has being a musician professionally (something that can be exhilarating and disheartening in equal measures) changed any heroic aspirations you may have had, if at all?

GR: Truth be told this song was originally inspired by Liz Phair, and the overwhelming negative response she received towards her being, when she decided to try out life as a pop star. She was really vilified for it. But what struck me most about the negative press was how personal it was. It was like her doing something else artistically was so offensive to people that rather than just put down the work, they completely put her through the wringer for betraying them, and ultimately all her past achievements, which in the end, shows how much of an effect the original songs had on people. But the song is saying, just don’t wait around. If you looked up to something or someone and that thing leaves or changes, it’s up to you to deal with that yourself. They have no responsibility to you.

Sasha is a sex columnist whose work has appeared in Canadian weeklies for over 14 years. She is also the co-artistic director of the Scandelles, a multi-disciplinary performance group from Toronto. She has seen Gentleman Reg perform many times and once had the pleasure of putting on his Boyfriend Song when she was DJing a party and watching him turn pink as a baby as the crowd went wild.