Cindy Lee Mixes Old-School Chanteuse with New-Eon Indie Balladry

Canadian musician CIndy Lee headlines a synth-heavy lineup at The Walrus on Halloween night | Vanessa Tignanelli, courtesy of the artist

While a broken heart isn’t required for romance, it seems like something has to give. Cindy Lee, the creative alter-ego of Patrick Flegel, is a bridge between the reverb-rich music of ‘60s girl groups and the guitar freefall of indie rock. Following the 2012 dissolution of Flegel’s former Canadian band Women, Flegel began releasing music as their drag queen persona: Cindy Lee. 

Since 2012, Lee has released an engaging body of work, including Tatlashea, the critically-lauded Act of Tenderness, Malenkost (both released in 2015), Model Express (2018), What’s Tonight to Eternity? (2020) and the baroque electronics of Cat o’ Nine Tails (2020).

Even for the pan-genres of independent music, Cindy Lee is wholly enigmatic yet invitational. There’s an otherworldliness surrounding Lee’s music: drenched in echo, with gentle and deceptively simple melodies, swooping and sliding solos, and a tabula rasa of dense analog synths and glacial noise. In Lee’s hands, these disparate elements not only work, they achieve the certain goal of creating immensely engaging songs.

On their song “I Don’t Want to Fall in Love Again,” Lee lays it all out in the simplest of terms (“Help me, I don’t want to fall in love again / Show me, show me who I really am”) and splits the difference of feeling haunted and possibly being healed. While Lee’s music is routinely described as bordering on David Lynch-weirdness, and can at times plays like a chanteuse singing from the clouds of a celestial fever dream, there’s always a substratum of tenderness glimmering through their mix of sound collage, guitar, and echo-rich singing.

The recent collaboration “In a Moment Divine,” finds Lee working with Steven Lind and Thomas Di Ninno aka Freak Heat Waves. A Canadian duo known for equal genre-splitting; they are the ideal musical allies for Lee. 

Cindy Lee and Freak Heat Waves, along with Severed + Said, Golden Clouds, and Everything To Me perform on Halloween at the Walrus (tickets here). The Jacksonville Music Experience spoke to Lee via video call from their current home of North Carolina, the day before their upcoming 24-show national tour, while they were parked at a decidedly punk rock venue: a laundromat in Raleigh.

I’ve read more than once where your music is described as “confrontation pop.” Is that a description you initiated?  

No. I’m like your pretty typical musician, where you feel like really grudging towards the press. And you’re just like, “Oh my god, it’s all wrong and it’s bad!” And then, “My friends and family are gonna read this,” which is also something I’ve had to just resign myself to and not take so seriously. Like, no one really cares. (Laughs). But no, I swear to God, I never called it [confrontation pop]. So no, that isn’t how I’d describe it.

So, if pressed, how do you describe it?

To me, it’s just like oldies. I think it’s really traditional music. Even the more shrill things are more traditional, if I think about Nico or The Jesus and Mary Chain. 

Is it that reverb sound? Most famously something like the Supremes and the Motown mix or Phil Spector. What I hear in your music is a vast experience. There’s a grandeur about it but then you augment it with washes of noise and guitar.

Yeah, just high drama. I’m into it. I like soap operas and even professional sports, if you get into it. And for me, the greatest thing is people freaking out when it’s undue. I always get a kick out of that and to me the funniest thing ever. So there’s that element of humor about it, too. There’s also the spectacle to it: “I feel the worst.” (Laughs). I seem to enjoy anything that’s over the top.

But there seems to be this thread of lushness to what you do.

I think my outlook and output has changed a lot since the last record I put out. But it’s funny since I’ve always been a daydreamer but I’ve realized the difficulty in trying to create “old school” where everybody had their department that was highly specialized. From the songwriter to the person who picked the songs to the three people who arranged it around the piano, to the engineer, to the producer and then the 30 musicians who ended up tracking it. So trying to do that yourself? I realized I’ve done it on some songs where I tried to do all of that myself. And it’s kind of funny that I try and be this one man army. But one person can actually “fake a band” and sometimes it sounds just as real.

How did you invoke this alter-ego of Cindy Lee? I’m not asking this as a psychoanalyst (laughs). I mean more as the creative aesthetic or a decisive identity to present this certain music.

Yeah, that “diagnosis” slant is something I’ve been kind of disappointed in from doing interviews and press. I don’t know. Like, for example, when I put that last record out, and did publicity, it just kind of got boiled down: “It’s gender dysphoria and being queer.” To me those are like “student” words or buzzwords. A lot of people who might live that way might not even use or even be aware of these terms. And I’m also from the prairies. It’s still a city, but in that department. So, I just wasn’t surrounded with a lot of that theoretical kind of academic stuff, especially surrounding [gender identity]. I’m kind of tired of that stuff. But what I’m getting at is if people knew my life story, it all makes perfect sense. And for the people who know me, (laughs) it does make perfect sense: “Oh yeah, that’s what Pat is doing.” But I always focused on the music because I always loved the torch singers. And it just boils down to the figure onstage, singing. And back to that old school thing, where there’s one person representing this whole band and team that worked behind them. But lately I’ve been more like, “Oh, I just sing a pleasant song and do some flashy guitar.” And hopefully people will have a good time. You know, it’s very simple.

How did you hook up with Freak Heat Waves? How was it collaborating with them? 

They’re both Alberta boys. They both grew up in Medicine Hat, which is like three hours away from Calgary, and that’s really small town compared to Calgary. And I just met them through music when I was younger. So I’ve known them for ages. And they’re both now situated in Victoria and Montreal respectively. Working with them was fun just because that song we did together, neither of us ever would have done ourselves. I had the song and it was almost like an Amanda Lear-vibe or a straight-up disco track. I just kind of handed it off to them and then Stephen Thomas just messed with the arrangement and this style and just totally shifted it. And they dragged it into this weird zone. For some reason, it’s difficult for me to even write anything uptempo. But we were all pleased with how that tune turned out.

Cindy Lee performs with Freak Heat Waves, Severed + Said, Golden Clouds, and Everything To Me at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, October 31 at The Walrus in Murray Hill; tickets are available here.

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