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Celebrating Canada's 2SLGBTQI+ Communities
Northern Light: Simone Denny

Northern Light: Simone Denny

Singer-songwriter Simone Denny opens up on revisiting her past, restoring her art and reclaiming her time…

By Elio Iannacci

Singer-songwriter Simone Denny is one of dance music’s most proficient shape-shifters. In a matter of seconds, her vocals can veer effortlessly from sultry to ferocious and passionate to pained. On stage and in studio, she exudes a queen-like presence and gives choruses such aural complexity, weaving a sonic texture into them that is either enraged, radiant, rapturous or restrained. The Toronto-born singer’s diverse skillset – which can be heard on hits such as “Dreamcatcher” (with BKS), “You’re A Superstar” (with Love Inc.), “All Things Just Keep Getting Better” (with Widelife) and “Drama Queen” (with Barry Harris) – have been part of the soundtrack of queer clubs for nearly four decades. Weeks before preparing to stun crowds at Toronto Pride, Denny spoke to IN about the lessons she’s learned, the hard-won victories she’s won, and the deeply cherished connection she has with the 2SLGBTQI+ community. 

Those who know your work understand that you are a true groundbreaker in the field of Canadian dance music. Do you see yourself as someone who has changed history in Canada?
I didn’t recognize it until I took a pause during COVID and people would tell me that at one point in the ’90s and 2000s, I was the only person of colour representing the Black community on Canadian radio. I guess I’m starting to change history. 

Songs you’ve done with BKS, Love Inc. and Widelife had massive crossover to the US and Europe. Was there a moment where you were overwhelmed by how much you were being played?
Yes. I was walking down the streets in New York and I could hear the song [BKS “Dreamcatcher” (feat. Simone Denny), Love Inc. “You’re a Superstar” (feat. Simone Denny), and Widelife “All Things (Just Keep Getting Better)” (feat. Simone Denny)] playing in almost five different stores. Then I heard it on KTU [a radio station which reaches nearly five million listeners] – so that was huge. When I started to do shows at that time, I’d be on the bill with people like Cyndi Lauper, Ultra Nate and Inaya Day.

Lyrics on your track ‘Cliché’ such as ‘Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight / don’t bring sand to the beach / don’t judge a book by its cover / Practise what you preach’ sound like rules to live by. Do you live by them?
I do. I do practise what I preach. I try to stay true to who I am. When I’m doing any song, it has to be something that moves me. It does not matter what the music genre is, I have to feel it. 

Northern Light: Simone Denny

How did you navigate not being a cliché period in an industry that encourages boxing people up as products or easy-to-understand concepts?
One particular producer that’s from Canada who had a studio then said I ‘didn’t have the look’ of a star because I was a curvier girl. As soon as all the tracks I did with BKS – songs like ‘Dreamcatcher’ and ‘I’m in Love With You’ – were doing well, he called. I tell many artists, you have to know who you are, what you want, and that your talent is valid. You get a lot of recommendations from failed musicians and everyone thinks they are an expert. Had I listened to that producer, I would not have achieved any of the things I did.

Fast-forward to ‘All Things (Keep Getting Better)’ – the song preaches about a certain Utopia that isn’t always a reality. Is singing about equality a way to manifest it?
Oh yes. That’s how I approach the music industry. I don’t care what colour you are, what your religious background or sexual orientation is, once you like the music, come and party with me. If your hands aren’t in the air by the time I’m finished singing, I’m not doing my job. I’m here to make a space for everyone. 

Like Taylor Swift, you rerecorded your huge hit with Love Inc. – the anthem ‘Superstar’ –  with Belters and Micky Modelle to take back what was yours. Was the rerecording process a reclamation?
Absolutely. I left Love Inc. at a point where I realized money wasn’t right. Treatment wasn’t right. I wasn’t being looked out for and wasn’t given fair opportunities. I should have been credited for writing on those big songs because I put in the work. I love my audience and that energy exchange we had, but back behind the scenes with Love Inc., there was so much turmoil and negativity.

The kind of bitterness that comes from such a bad work experience can kill a career. Did you feel you prevailed?
Well, I let go of the sourness a long time ago. It took me about a year because I was really hurt. I had worked really hard to get to that point in music and it was just very painful to have had to walk away from the group at that time. Rerecording ‘Superstar’ fell into my lap. I always check my Instagram and I got tagged by the Belters in a version that they had created. I was 10 seconds into it and I called my manager so I could work with them. I loved it and I felt it was time. I also did a new version of ‘Broken Bones,’ which just came out. It’s with the Sunset Brothers and Micky Modelle. Remaking it also felt so empowering and right on time. 

You have been quoted as saying, ‘The contract with Love Inc. was like being in a type of enslavement.’ What did it stipulate?
It would have been an enslavement because the contract amendment that was sent to me stipulated I would not have been ever able to do anything else – sing, write or perform – outside of Love Inc. without permission. That solidified me leaving the group. As soon as I refused, rumours started flying and they tried to paint me as a diva. Anybody that knows me knows that I’m not, I’m so low-key. 

Between dance music, you also recorded an R&B-fusion album called Stereo Dynamite Sessions. A track that sticks out is actually called ‘This Ain’t Our Time.’ There’s an analogy for artistic journeys in one of the song’s lyrics: ‘Darling, give it time, let them change their mind.’ Tell me about the pressures of waiting for an industry to accept you.

Northern Light: Simone Denny

There’s a lot of waiting for the audience to catch up or for me to catch up with them. I know I can confuse or blow people away when I do other genres of music – like I did a country-rock song with Graham Trude two years before country became a big part of the pop conversation. The song is called ‘Home Crowd’ and industry people were like, ‘I don’t know what to do with this.’ 

Then Beyoncé releases Cowboy Carter. Do you think that project forced mainly white country music programmers to rethink their stances?
They had no choice. When I recorded TK, a lot of people were like, ‘That’s country – it’s more white people music.’ I know the history of country music and rock, so those comments never fazed me. We, as people of colour, should be doing all different genres and shouldn’t just be locked into hip-hop or R&B. Beyoncé has blasted the doors open because there have always been Black country artists, always, but they’ve been shut out.

You never left dance music and even tributed it by recording a tribute to legendary house music with ‘Sensation’ and ‘Twilight.’ Is it important to you to recognize house as part of our cultural fabric?
Yes. So much of dance music unfolded in house in this country, so it should be thought of as an important part of Canadian music. The Canadian industry doesn’t quite understand the depths of this music, thinking, ‘It’s just for a niche audience.’ But it is mainstream all over Europe, the Middle East and South America. There are no hang-ups there. 

Lady Miss Kier once told me there was such a resistance to house music by her label, even though it was on the charts. She said Deee-lite was often called ‘too Black and too gay.’ Was that something that you ever faced?
I got the opposite, actually. I was usually told by Canadians who don’t understand the genre of music that I was singing ‘that white girl stuff.’ I know that house comes from Detroit, Chicago and New York – out of the Black American experience – but when I started, many didn’t [realize that]. 

Do you see yourself on stage as an actor playing a character or as a painter, using your voice as a palette when performing?
A painter and a vessel. It is truly an honour to look into the audience and see joy manifesting as you sing – and painting those vibrant colours through notes.

How do you feel this country should show its support to dance music?
By acknowledging it. I’ve been petitioning for Love Inc. to be inducted on Canada’s Walk of Fame. I get the feeling that they don’t feel Love Inc. was important enough in music history. People email me on Instagram and Facebook and they keep asking why we haven’t been asked. Maybe they don’t understand what Love Inc. brought to the table? It was the first dance music group to go platinum in Canadian history, period. The Canadian mainstream still doesn’t understand how much work and touring I’ve done and how much touring around the world. 

As well as being part of the main voice on soundtracks to TV series that have changed television…
Queer as FolkQueer Eye for the Straight Guy and The L Word. I’ve been supporting the gay and LGBTQ+ community forever…before it was seen as cool to do so.

Northern Light: Simone Denny

Have you learned anything from being so connected to the 2SLGBTQI+ audience? Do you think they’ve learned anything from you?
To not look at society as a whole for the love you need. They taught me to find my people. Every time dance and house music divas get up on stage, we’re willing to go against society because we see an audience that does the same. We see a beautiful group of people who have loved and supported us, and we want to give that love right back.

Throughout pop music and rock and dance music, there have been collaborations like Grace Jones and Keith Haring, Madonna and the House of Xtravaganza, and you and Barry Harris with your song, ‘Drama Queen.’ Why do you think this union of queer artists and female pop artists has had such an impact?
Do you know why? Simply because mutual respect and understanding fuels the collaboration. Barry Harris, to me, is one of Canada’s greatest treasures. He had the biggest remix with Whitney Houston’s ‘It’s Not Right (But It’s Ok)’ in Thunderpuss (music producers Barry Harris and Chris Cox). When we got together and just did ‘Drama Queen,’ we were creating a world that that puts a priority on equality…because that’s our reality. 

Let’s talk about your new music. What are you most excited about that you’re working on that you can talk about?
I’m working with a couple of producers and starting to produce myself. I’m stretching myself creatively in ways that I never did before. Tapping into DJing. I think that can only help me with my writing and my creativity.

So I’m wondering, do you find that Pride is like an incubator or that allows many legendary singers such as yourself, and Thelma Houston, CeCe Peniston, to not only keep up your artistry, but experiment?
It can be. You can experiment and try new things and see what works – but most of all, I see it as a place for all of us to co-exist and celebrate each other. It gives me a chance to connect with my audience in my city. 


ELIO IANNACCI is an award-winning arts reporter and graduate student at York University whose research interests include ethnomusicology and gender studies. He has contributed to more than 80 publications worldwide, profiling icons such as Barbra Streisand, Lady Gaga, Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé. His academic work is supported in part by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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