Patrick Flegel: “When I did the first Cindy Lee cassette my life was a wreck… Taking responsibility for myself and caring about myself, that’s leaning in a different way for me, to realise that I am worthy”

Handmade collage by B.

Canadian artist Patrick Flegel creates heart-wrenching, hauntingly devastating music with project Cindy Lee. Sounding akin to classic 60s Girl Groups but recast for now, with atmospherics and dreamy melody, the sheer beauty of these somber and at times wild songs that push and pull in many directions make for compelling listening.

Why is music important to you?

PATRICK FLEGEL: It makes me feel good. I’ve loved music since I was a kid. It’s a really uplifting thing, yeah?

Yeah! Why is recording music one of your favourite things to do?

PF: It’s just so engaging! It’s a certain kind of headspace where you’re not thinking about anything else. I guess it’s kind of an escapist thing… [pauses; a siren is sounding in the background]… sorry there’s just this crazy storm here, a full on downpour, lightening striking the trees!

It sounds pretty full on where you are! When you go to record, do you have a song that’s fully formed or do you create as you’re recording?

PF: Writing and recording are kind of the same thing to me but I’ll be rehashing and thinking of stuff constantly, pretty obsessively. It’s a pretty time demanding thing. I play guitar all the time and that’s usually where things will start or I’ll come up with something. A lot of the stuff I have released, people would say they’re “demo recordings” but I am usually just happier with it and over it by the time that’s done so I’m not going to go into some studio and redo it… sorry, I’m kind of thrown by the storm and everything happening here, I’m squatting in the street [laughs]. I just go until I can’t anymore, it’s definitely a bingeing, obsessive kind of thing.

I read that you’re actually working on a new record already called Diamond Jubilee?

PF: Yeah, I am. That’s the tentative name for the record but I actually moved to North Carolina, temporarily anyways, that put a wrench in things. I’m going to be moving into a house to set up a temporary studio and I’ll start on that. I wanted to have it out this summer but obviously circumstances has put a wrench in a lot of things. I also came down here. I think I’ll finish it by Halloween.

Nice! That’s exciting news. I can’t wait to hear it. What prompted your move to North Carolina?

PF: My partner! We wanted to be together so I came down here.

Aww that’s lovely, I love love! It’s my favourite thing besides creativity and nature. It’s really important.

PF: Yeah, it’s kind of the bottom-line [laughs].

You’ve already put out two albums this year – What’s Tonight to Eternity and Cat o’ Nine Tails – and with the one you’re working on that will make a third; did you expect to put out that many albums this year?

PF: Yeah, that’s just what I want to do. When you’re working with a label, it can take a year before your record comes out, even though it’s done. There’s a way things are normally done and then the way that I would like to do things. I just have so many ideas all of the time and it’s all that I want to do—it’s what I’m driven to do. I want to make more music more often, it’s that simple I guess.

Do you feel that there’s a connection through all three albums? Do they tell a complete story together or are they separate things?

PF: I have no idea of what I’m going to move into but I wanted to move into the more positive, I don’t know if that will be in terms of sounds or the lyrics—it’s just where I’m at. I feel like everything that I have done so far is really doom and gloom and taboo and the dark corners of things. Now that’s not what I want to put out into the world, not even because of what’s happening [the global pandemic], I think things have always been bad [laughs]. It’s just where I’m at personally, where I’m at as a person… you were saying that love is more important, I want more of that kind of feeling, something that makes people feel good. The kind of music I have been listening to more, over the last four or five years, has been basically easy listening, light music [laughs], that’s kind of pacifying, background music. I have no idea what it is going to sound like or whether it’s going to be doom or gloom again, let’s get real [laughs]. What I have in my head is a pleasant-sounding record that’s comforting and isn’t just some kind of hell ride!

I think you’ll surprise yourself!

PF: Yeah! You always set out to do something but you never know. By the time it’s wrapped up, for better or for worse, you’re in awe of what actually happens. It might be a bad thing, or a good thing [laughs].

I know you’re still working on the new record but to me in a way it sounds kind of like a rebirth, like everything you’ve gone through on your last two albums, all the doom and gloom, the heaviness and darkness, it’s almost like you faced all these different things and now it’s like a triumph over those things and a much deserved celebration.

PF: Yeah, I would like that. Of course things will still be a hot mess and complicated but more personally I’m leaning in a different new direction than I have, my head isn’t in the place it was… that’s where the title comes from too… just the mentality of self-victimisation and self-indulgence, this inward, often selfish state of mind you can get in when you’ve got some mental health shit going on. I just don’t want to hear it anymore, over time I’ve just wanted more pleasant sounds. I’m not listening to this hell ride, anguish kind of music, I want music to make me feel good or have it really take me somewhere… just spiritual music in general where I would think of gospel music or choral music. Where it is terrifying and confronting some dark things but ultimately it’s… oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Would you say that you’re a spiritual person?

PF: Oh, yeah, absolutely! It’s hard to talk about in short without sounding kind of woo-woo. For me it’s a more big picture perspective. If I think about universal consciousness, that’s where my head’s at. Part of it would be that I see things in the big picture, what I mean is, 300 years ago the clothes that people were wearing and the things they were saying and the big ideas they had, we look at it now… in the future people will look at us in the same way; I feel like there’s this perpetual oblivion that everyone’s in. In that context it seems like unnecessary human suffering, or it seems redundant. All this domination and exploitation, greed and whatever, it seems redundant to me in the big picture, whatever people are in competition for, in the bigger picture I don’t see the point in this competition that everyone’s got.

Do you set timelines for yourself making your Cindy Lee work?

PF: I just make the time to do, it takes a lot of time to do it. It sounds haphazard to a lot of people I think but it actually takes hundreds sometimes thousands of hours to make a record, from the conception of a part that turns into a song, to the actual mastered final version of twelve songs or whatever.

When you get lost in making music and time goes by and you’re not even noticing, is that in a way a meditation for you?

PF: It absolutely is! You don’t think about anything else and it’s a whole self-expression. It sounds ridiculous but it really is a transcendent state of mind; you’re not even there or something. It’s like any kind of physical activity like maybe chasing a ball or having sex or any visceral thing like that, I feel like music ties into that where you’re just fully engaged and you might just forget your own name [laughs].

I feel that way with interviewing. I just do it because I enjoy it and I like sharing music, art and stories with people. I’ve done it well over half my life. No one is paying me to do it.

PF: If you make that sacrifice for a while – I mean it’s a total crap shoot as well – if you actually do what you want and do it well, whatever that means, maybe the two will cross over at some point where you don’t have to do things you don’t want to. Or maybe you don’t want the money to intersect with what you’re doing ‘cause it takes the fun out of it. Thankfully there’s just enough people that like my stuff that I can keep my head above water and float. These days I feel you can do anything and people are pretty open-minded. You don’t even have to fit in. Someone will show something to me like Kendrick Lamar’s albums and I’ll be like, what the fuck? This is one of the most popular music in the world! This music is wild! It’s unique and jarring and strange.

I’ve often found with some of the artists I’ve interviewed over the years, when they get popular and get some money they change and it makes them more sad. They wanted those things for so long but when they got them they realised it wasn’t what they thought.

PF: Oh yeah, I experienced that in my own life on a very minor level. To play music and tour like I did when I was younger, we’d do an album cycle, I didn’t even really know what that was at the time… I didn’t enjoy it at all – I had some good times – but the lifestyle of playing 150 to 200 live shows in a year and not making anything new, doesn’t appeal to me at all [laughs].

When I found your Cindy Lee stuff I thought it was just so cool, I didn’t know anything about your past bands.

PF: I’m most excited about everything I’ve been doing lately, that’s pretty normal for a creative person I think. I feel alright about it. Speaking of doing things that you don’t’ necessarily want to do, if you want to sell units sometimes you have to do stuff… I got a publicist for the last record, but you watch the press and publicist (who’s a friend of mine) people stumbling around queer… branding you… the whole thing makes me squirm, the way people talk about… just branding myself as queer, which I do align with that in my values and beliefs and the way I see things as far as I understand that stuff, but it’s also a funny thing to be branded by that… does that make sense?

It does. How has Cindy Lee helped you grow?

PF: It was a personal thing with… being from Calgary, I noticed it when I lived in Vancouver, Montreal, these places that grew up with the values in their family were very liberal or more left-leaning and got fast tracked into a way of seeing things and certain values… there was absolutely no representation of where I’m at now in my life when I was growing up, like none! It was stunting. When I was twenty-five I had an epiphany, realisation or meltdown revolving around my identity, my sexuality and these kinds of things. I feel like that’s maybe something some people go through younger. It feels like something that should have happened to me as a teenager but didn’t. It was a kind of revelation about things… I kind of ended up turning on that as well, I could talk about that for a long time. You start wondering what’s really motivating you to counter your masculinity with this superficial aspects of femininity and then the aspects of your personality in your mind that are aligned with femininity and then over the years kind of realising that it’s just using the same framework… for me to counter masculinity with these sign posts of femininity, or particularly the way I dress… I ended up feeling that I don’t know how much that adds up… for example, I talk about the Devil a lot in my music and that’s the opposite of Jesus or God, but it’s a hilarious thing to use this ammunition to fight against something, and have it be from the same book. It’s a long, weird road the way that I look at myself and feel about myself and what that means. So that’s been lumped into this creative process and publicly being put out there, growing up in public.

I’m grateful for people that have paved the way so it’s permissible for me to cross-dress in public and not in my experience get any trouble for it. People are actually congratulatory about it and that makes me feel weird [laughs]. Sometimes people talk to you like you’re a hero for cross-dressing. That’s a funny aspect of it. I think my experiences with gender identity… that’s probably why the music has so many hardcore ups and downs, bi-polar [laughs].  

Talking to you now, you seems so happy.

PF: Oh yeah, I am. I had some pretty tumultuous periods, that are behind me; probably the last two or three years I got my feet on the ground. I had a pretty sloppy existence [laughs].

What helped get your feet on the ground?

PF: My relationship with alcohol definitely has been a huge thing, when I did the first Cindy Lee cassette [Tatlashea] my life was a wreck but when I did Act of Tenderness and Malenkost there was a period where I didn’t drink for three years, nothing. I’ll occasionally drink now, but it’s something I’m always considering; I would attribute it to that. Taking responsibility for myself and caring about myself, that’s leaning in a different way for me, to realise that I am worthy and not inferior, basic self-help things. When I stopped drinking it was amazing, that’s the most creative stretch that I’ve had to that point, when I went sober. That’s been a consistent thing since then. I live like I’m retired or something, I live very slow; I eat, shower, sleep and make music, just really basic things that appear to be easy for other people [laughs].

Do you have routine to your day?

PF: I just go with the flow. I have things set up so I don’t have a ton of obligations and I can do things at my own pace—I’m living very cautiously! [laughs].

I heard a [David] Bowie interview and he was saying like “art’s a car you can crash over and over and walk away from” which I appreciated. He talked about how chaotic his life was when he was younger and how he wanted to pour that insanity into his music… it may be obvious but I think that’s really the kind of person I would like to be, I’m taking care of myself and the people I care about and maintaining things in my life and then in my creative world I can just go straight to hell if I want to! [laughs].

Anything else you’d like to share with us?

PF: I guess I just wanted to mention a couple of things as a buffer to what I was saying about spirituality so it doesn’t sound dumb. When I was a teenager I took a lot of psychedelics and that ties into my overarching… I’ve seen it! I’ve seen what I think reality actually is—infinite and formless and beyond our description.  

Please check out CINDY LEE. Cindy Lee on bandcamp. Get vinyl edition of Cindy Lee via Superior Viaduct.

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