95.3 / 88.5 FM Grand Rapids and 95.3 FM Muskegon
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Cindy Lee became the music world's underground success story of 2024

The retro-pop artist Cindy Lee doesn't sit for interviews, use social media and rejects the streaming era's demands on independent artists.
Photo by Meaghan Garvey/Illustration by Jackie Lay/NPR
The retro-pop artist Cindy Lee doesn't sit for interviews, use social media and rejects the streaming era's demands on independent artists.

It's a happy indie parable for 2024, the way the headlines tell it: a hard-working veteran of the late 2000s underground self-releases, with no promotion, their 32-track magnum opus via sketchy download link on a GeoCities website designed like that of the Heaven's Gate cult circa 1997. You won't find that album, Diamond Jubilee, on your streaming platform of favor unless it happens to be YouTube, which presents the double album as a two-hour listening gauntlet with no breaks between tracks. Cue the Pitchfork rave from deep out of left field, attached to it the highest score the review site has doled out for a new release in four years. In a flash, the name on everybody's lips was Cindy Lee, the glamorous stage persona of Canadian musician Patrick Flegel, whose post-punk band, Women, burned hot and fast for a few years before disbanding in 2010.

Flegel does not use social media, no longer sits for interviews and releases records on small labels or alone, opting out of the streaming era's marketing and distribution paradigm almost entirely. "Where I'm at right now, I feel like goin' rogue," Flegel said last year, encouraging artists to take their music off of Spotify, where they're "begging for a penny a play." (There's an option to donate a suggested 30 Canadian dollars beside the free album download link on their website.) "If I can swing it on my own," they continued, "I'd much rather bet on myself and have total control." Within days of Pitchfork's review, Cindy Lee's 27-date spring tour had sold out nonetheless. Whether that's a net good is hard to say; the day after Lee's show at Milwaukee's Cactus Club on May 3, it was announced that the remaining 12 dates would be canceled for personal reasons. In any case, the story was the stuff that indie dreams were made of 20 years ago. But things are very different now, which is to say, much worse, at least if you're an independent musician and not, say, Spotify's CEO Daniel Ek, for whom Flegel has some choice words if you scroll down on their website. ("THE CEO OF SPOTIFY IS A THIEF AND A WAR PIG.")

To extol the vintage charms of Diamond Jubilee's presentation is easy; pinning down the record's timeless sound, less so. Those who've heard the noisy anguish of much of Flegel's past work might marvel at its lightness, what you could call easy listening. Like many others, I came to the music of Cindy Lee in February 2020, when their haunted-sounding fifth album, What's Tonight To Eternity, set a perfectly bleak tone for the coming year. Flegel's been working on Diamond Jubilee since at least that year, when they referenced the work-in-progress as a feel-good counter to their previous records' "doom and gloom and taboo." You can feel the years of effort in its deceptively breezy record-collector rock, ambitious and accessible at once.

Like the midcentury girl groups at the center of the moodboard, Cindy Lee's songs are about love — having lost it, most of all. Lee is lonesome, Lee is blue, Lee is riding the Greyhound to the Canadian border with nothing but their memories. Depending where you come from, you might follow these wistful melodies all the way back to The Ronettes and The Righteous Brothers, stopping along the way at Motown soul or Velvet Underground fuzz or the cool camp of a band in a Russ Meyer flick. Or maybe you were bumming around the blog scene 15 years ago, when a bumper crop of bands (Women among them) were distorting retro pop sounds, as if all the young, urban millennials had rewatched Twin Peaks at once. Lately I find myself returning to this era of blog-centric music discovery with a nostalgic fondness that ought to be reserved for one's first love — oh, to be a music lover in the age before the algorithm!

Cindy Lee performs these songs as a down-'n-out diva: black beehive wig, gold sequined dress, white New Balance sneakers, as if at any moment they might decide to hit the bricks. I'd half-expected to see them slumped outside the Cactus Club, chain-smoking morosely in the manner of their cartoon likeness on Diamond Jubilee's cover. The show was billed for 10 p.m., though the openers, Freak Heat Waves, hit the small stage close to 11 to a packed but polite room of punks on dates and nerds out past their bedtime. Like Lee, the Canadian duo sound chiller than it used to, the band's post-punk angst cooled to a trip-hop simmer with vocals from Steven Lind that float out in a sleazy, time-stretched purr. Perhaps you recognize that name, the only other besides Flegel's on Diamond Jubilee's credits. (Flegel wrote and played each of the record's instrumental parts, recorded on digital 8-track, but for Lind's occasional contribution — mainly synths that arpeggiate and swirl like a stoner's iTunes visualizer circa 2009.) There was no introduction as Lee emerged onstage to accompany the Freaks on the band's 2023 track "In a Moment Divine" with eyes low and mood obscure. I couldn't read the expression written on their stoic face: too severe to be called shy, but deeper than disinterest. Happy? Well, no.

Then everything disappeared but Cindy Lee and their guitar, a cherry Telecaster which they held without a strap and brandished like a weapon. I have never seen a living person play guitar like they do, with a casual mastery I'd imagined was reserved for those who've made deals with the devil. Punctuating dreamy melodies with feedback exclamations, the music seemed to come from long ago and far away, with a tone so sharp it hurt. Lee played over an instrumental backing track, staring past the crowd out toward some mystery horizon. At times they set aside the Telly to sing in plucky falsetto: "Deepest darkness, deepest blue..." (Writers have likened the vibe of the vocal performance to that of Blue Velvet's Roy Orbison scene, though for me, it's James' shrill and earnest girl group in Twin Peaks that springs to mind.) Here and there, a song was followed by a muffled "thank you" or the curl of ruby lips in the suggestion of a smile. The 45-minute set closed with a trio of songs older than Diamond Jubilee, last of all an instrumental (2020's "Cat o' Nine Tails III") in whose wake the room was held in an instant of stunned silence. Then the cheers erupted, and Cindy Lee was gone.

I myself am nowhere near as principled as Flegel, nor as savvy as I once was in my young DIY days. In a vain attempt to burn Diamond Jubilee on CD, I quickly learned my fancy laptop didn't have the means, which made me feel ashamed. Was I really so content to let a tech company outline the parameters of my access to the things that make me glad to be alive? (Fingers crossed that when you read this, the external CD burner I ordered will have arrived.) I've grown uncomfortably familiar with that kind of impotence, the sense that for the modern era's supposedly boundless choices, less is possible than before. How quickly we forget that we have other options, that the tech industry's scalability obsession needn't be our own. When music critics write of the success of Diamond Jubilee, they celebrate a victory against their own perceived irrelevance, and in their newfound hope they tend to make it weird, flattering themselves with questions like, "Is Cindy Lee the future of music?"

To put it bluntly: no, nor should they have to be. I don't expect Diamond Jubilee to be a harbinger of anything. What Lee represents so thrillingly is nothing but themself — so much so that when Freak Heat Waves announced on Instagram that the remainder of the tour had been canceled "for reasons beyond our control," I felt weirdly relieved. In an era dominated by fan service, you could almost forget that it's personal. Gut instinct, plus a message on their website posted before the madness ("THIS WILL BE CINDY'S LAST AMERICAN TOUR"), gives me the feeling that I may have witnessed the last-ever Cindy Lee show. What we're left with is the music, which isn't a glimpse at the future but a reminder of something we already knew — art is for making however we choose.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Meaghan Garvey
[Copyright 2024 NPR]