By Vish KhannaFive years after releasing his last album Darby & Joan, Gentleman Reg is as poised for stardom as ever, thanks to internationally renowned record label Arts & Crafts, and another smashing new collection of majestic pop entitled Jet Black. A musical hero among his contemporaries and a key, original artist on Toronto's influential Three Gut Records, Reg Vermue has come a long way since his nascent days as a painfully shy folk singer from Guelph, Ontario, yet success on the scale of some of his peers has eluded him.
Something of a gay icon in Canadian indie rock, Vermue's gorgeous, high-register voice and pale good looks have led to film and soundtrack work in recent years (most notably in Shortbus), but not nearly enough to justify the lack of new Gentleman Reg songs to his fan base. So where's he been?
"Well, I had a baby; that took a lot of work," Vermue chirps playfully. "No, I didn't have a baby, but maybe I will some day. When Three Gut dissolved [in 2005], there certainly was no pressure to get going. But as soon as I decided that it was a time to make a record, it was made in a year and then took another to come out."
Like Reg's previous releases, Jet Black is the work of a gifted musical mind, one gravitating more and more to the sweet and sour pop that suits it best. Though ushered along by a familiar supporting cast, including collaborator Greg Millson, producer Dave Draves, and contributions from Jim Guthrie, Bry Webb (Constantines), Shaw-Han Liem (I Am Robot and Proud), Katie Sketch (the Organ), and Liz Powell (Land of Talk), Jet Black is Gentleman Reg at his most focused, covering relationship fare in his own inimitable style. Ironically, it's the end result of Vermue meddling with tradition.
"It was definitely more experimental in approach," he explains. "It's very much a studio album that we built up from the drums and guitar. And then we said, 'What does this song need to be complete and interesting?' Dave's great because he's an engineer and producer but he's a musician too so, if he has an idea for his Rhodes, he goes over and does it, and then there's an amazing Rhodes part. So, there was a real immediacy in that sense. I was more open to letting go of my ego as a songwriter and saying 'Oh, maybe what I wrote in my bedroom isn't the best song; maybe it can change.'"
Since he was a teenager Reg Vermue has been composing tunes in his bedroom, but many years passed before he embraced the spotlight he so happily soaks in now. Enamoured with pop music video stars of the '80s, Vermue thought making music was a vocation for alien superstars. The mid-'90s punk and DIY aesthetic nurtured by a young crew of wannabe musicians in Guelph opened his eyes.
"Bands like Fugazi, Jale, Mecca Normal, or Kinnie Starr would come and play Guelph and it was an exciting time," Vermue recalls. "I wanted to be a part of it so I started a band with Tim Kingsbury [Arcade Fire] and Jamie Thompson [Unicorns/Islands] and it was the first non-folk-y thing I did."
Dubbed Gentleman Reg and the Stealth Cats, the band was auspicious for the players involved, providing their first gigs with original songs by a quietly determined, visionary artist. "It was pretty satisfying to come up with bass lines for his stuff," Kingsbury says of Reg, his first true bandleader. "His songs were pretty jangly, his chord progressions left room for fun, melodic bass lines, and his singing was already up there, in that emotional register he sings in. The songs were pretty basic compared to now, but the chord progressions he put together weren't very obvious. He'd use weird, jazzy chords and write full-on pop numbers with them."
In spite of his early musical sophistication, Gentleman Reg was certainly not the extroverted performer he is today. "Someone told me something that I'd forgotten," Vermue admits. "When I first started writing songs and singing them for friends, I had to turn around and sing away from them. I had forgotten I did that and that's pretty fascinating to me - that I was that shy - because I can't even relate to that person now. I love being on stage and it's actually where I feel most comfortable in an odd way."
A noticeable shift in Reg's work occurred after moving to Toronto and coming out as a gay man. The longhaired, sad-eyed wallflower that skulked behind microphones in Guelph vanished, leaving a dynamic, fiery, big city pop star in its wake. "There was a moment where I decided to use specific pronouns when I was writing and that's an automatic switch," Vermue says of the transformation. "I don't know if it changed the songs or had anything to do with the music, but then again I'm a male in indie rock who's obsessed with Madonna and Courtney Love. That's a little more faggy than if you were talking to, say, Bry Webb; he'd have different influences. I don't necessarily have to be singing about sex or anything queer, but it's still gonna be from a different place."
That distinction has proven to be something of an obstacle for Gentleman Reg, fostering distance between his own career trajectory and that of some of his closest peers. He's collaborated heavily with Final Fantasy, the Hidden Cameras, and Broken Social Scene and there was a time where his friend Leslie Feist may just as well have opened shows for him. Given his penchant for writing infectious singles, Gentleman Reg's cult status is both a gift and a curse.
"Singer-songwriters like Reg are harder to pin down," long-time friend Jim Guthrie argues. "You can make some lazy comparisons but, when it really comes down to it, nobody really sounds like him. And you have to come to Reg; he's not an overnight sensation, although I think he could make a record with that impact. He's not 'rock' or even quirky 'indie rock'; they're pop-rock songs and he has a weird and beautiful voice. It's exposure and he needs the right platform."
For his part, Vermue is happy about his new venture with Arts & Crafts, the reliable Toronto label releasing Jet Black. Though he has modest expectations, he's keen to bring his music to new fans. "The one thing I'm excited about is that, with all this talk about people not buying music, people are still going to see live music. There's greater emphasis on that and I feel like I've developed as a performer over the years. And this is the first time that my records will be out in Europe and the States so, in that sense, it's almost like I'm just beginning because all those people haven't heard me before. Europe may be bigger for me in that sense, just because of what I do."