“It’s very simple. It wasn’t like some mapped-out thing. … I was just thinking about what I would like to see when I walked into a bar, because I’d love to see a torch singer. I just didn’t see that. I wanted to do it then, because that’s what makes me happy.”
Orlando Weekly is speaking to the musician behind Cindy Lee — Patrick Flegel — on the phone as Flegel and Canadian electronic duo Freak Heat Waves drive to Louisiana from Houston. (Where, it should be noted, they bought an armload of mix CDs from DJ Screw’s famed record store.) Flegel is cautioning readers — and writers — against reading too much into Cindy Lee with a sociopolitical lens. It’s showbiz, protests Flegel. But what gorgeous showbiz!
Cindy Lee is the onstage alter ego of Flegel, a guitarist and songwriter previously known best as part of buzzed-about indie-rock band Women. Women splintered in 2012, and Flegel soon focused all his considerable creative energies on the Cindy Lee project, creating an intensely intimate and otherworldly body of ballads informed by torch singers and classic pop.
Cindy Lee’s music is evocative of some not-too-distant past but it’s an ephemeral, dreamlike nostalgia born of late-night car rides with ghostly AM radio signals fading in and out: girl-group sounds, glam rock and obscure college radio deep cuts not tied to any particular year. We recommend you start with 2020’s set of timeless heartbreak transmissions and lo-fi weepers What’s Tonight to Eternity — you won’t look back. We promise.
Listening to What’s Tonight, it’s both easy and nearly impossible to pin down influences — Julee Cruise, Walker Brothers, the Shangri-Las, none of the above? Flegel cops to one formative 1960s influence.
“The biggest one was Dara Puspita [The Flower Girls]; they’re from Indonesia,” says Flegel. “There’s something about the whole package that I just fell in love with. When I was starting Cindy Lee, that was a big inspiration.”
Cindy Lee could have very well been just a recording project, and that would have been just fine. But instead, Flegel has created a whole persona to perform these songs — à la Ziggy Stardust (or again, maybe not) — taking the stage in a mod dress, wig and full makeup to fully channel and embody these spectral, gorgeous ballads. “The way I perform live now, it’s drag. I see it as a drag performance,” says Flegel. “But it’s also kind of shy. ”
While Cindy Lee may seem fragile and crystalline on record, Flegel is perfectly content with the grind of the road, playing music in new towns to new people every single night. “Just being able to play really loud, it’s the funnest thing ever, and people have been showing up and that feels amazing,” says Flegel. “It’s definitely a grind but this is the life I chose. I love it. It’s carny love.”
And while one could be forgiven for thinking it’s a chore getting dolled up every single night in rock clubs, bars and DIY venues across the country to play these fragile, skewed songs, Flegel deep-sixes that notion. There are no suitcases stuffed with stagewear; Flegel wears the same tailored dress every night, like a uniform almost. Like the Supremes or the Ramones.
“I’ve been more focused on performing and I’m a creature of habit. I also like if you see a picture of somebody and then go see them play, they’re wearing the same things as in the picture,” explains Flegel. “There’s not some high-concept thing going on. I just want to be shiny and feel beautiful. That’s my agenda.”
For this tour, Flegel is sharing stages with the aforementioned Freak Heat Waves, longtime friends from Canada. This particular touring package grew both organically out of their personal camaraderie — “they’re like family to me,” says Flegel — and musically from a recent collaboration on this year’s “In a Moment Divine.”
“It was a disco song I’d written in 2015 or 2016,” says Flegel. “It has an Amanda Lear vibe. I love her.” Indeed it is, a swooning rush of lush synths swirling around a shuffling house beat, perfect for late-night assignations and comedowns. The trio play the song together nightly.
The Cindy Lee and Freak Heat Waves tour almost improbably includes five Florida dates — a lengthy campaign by any standards — and it’s an itinerary born out of wanderlust. “I’ve never been down to Florida but we all wanted to go down there because we really wanted to see it and hang out and I’m really excited about it,” says Flegel. “I have no idea what to expect. We wanted to hit Florida pretty hard. I think mostly it’s like, yeah, just curious about it.”
Flegel is a bit leery of much of what has been written about the music and performances of Cindy Lee — perhaps understandably. But even after talking about mutual ambivalence toward most music journalism (except for OW’s cadre of music scribes, duh), we find ourselves asking Flegel about one word that keeps coming up in writings about Cindy Lee: haunted.
“I’m cool with that,” admits Flegel, maybe feeling the mood of the Halloween season (or maybe that’s just us). “There’s definitely some Drac energy in my music. It might be a cliché, but I do identify as a lunatic so I do think there’s definitely some moon madness in there too.”
Come howl at the moon with Cindy Lee, Orlando.
Local/regional support from Tiger Beat, Flipp_er, DJ Audromeda
8 p.m., Nov. 1, Will's Pub, 1042 N. Mills Ave., willspub.org, $13.
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