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the rise of Regan

After years of paying her dues, Regan has come of age musically. Now she must decide where she's going next.


If this was paying her dues, Regan was getting tapped out. During the three years she spent living in a Colonial Heights trailer park, the struggling musician worked at Plan 9 Music, waited tables at Peking Restaurant and commuted to her regular Wednesday night gig at the old Halfway Point bar in the Fan. All she had that was worth anything was a '94 Hyundai and the $600 Yamaha guitar she had saved for months to buy.

"Yeah, I got some f—ing great songs from it," Regan says today, sitting cross-legged on a velvet couch in her stylishly renovated fan town house, cupping a coffee mug.

But that life led to more than inspiration for lyrics. Today Regan's sacrifices seem to have paid off. She has a 4-year-old daughter, a husband and an album that might make her famous.

you come running like a baby to your mama's arms/

is what you are?/ have faith/

all the little people who will call and congregate at your feet/

we all wanna be/ be someone/

and have that one

— from "Carry On"

A hemp necklace dangles from Regan's neck, the thin rope swaying as she leans forward. Her straight auburn hair casually hangs just shy of her shoulders. She wears a maroon tank top and gray chinos. Small hoops line her ears. Her nails are short and bare, and she wears no makeup. She doesn't need to. Her gently freckled cheeks and wide-set, blue-gray eyes are enough.

Her home is lush. It was bought and remodeled by her husband and manager, Mark Sprenkle, who works in construction. And it has all the trimmings — paintings by Sprenkle's mom, Indian blankets, African carvings, antique furniture. But Regan's still a simple girl. She refills water bottles, rides her bike and calls herself a "thrift-shop junkie."

At 28, she has put in the years of struggle and hard work and has come of age as a musician and songwriter. Richmond's music scene seems to be behind her. Regan sings the city's new theme song, "Easy to Love" with Carbon Leaf frontman Barry Privett and the Virginia State Choir. And with the support of local musicians, producers and record stores, her new album has caught the ears of some national record labels. Now is her time. She is finally poised for the big break. And she must decide: Will she sign with a label or go it on her own?

egan has been a student of music since the fourth grade. The only child of divorced parents, she and her mom moved a lot around Richmond. "I was totally a loner child," she recalls. One day in fourth grade the girl across the street invited her to church choir practice. "The choirmaster complimented me, and immediately it gave me confidence and I became obsessed with it," she says. Regan recalls walking a little path next door to the Bon Air Baptist Church and playing in the music room for hours.

Church choir led to the Midlothian High School choir, which led to singing in a band called The Mystic Biscuits. What started off lightly became serious quickly. The band members rode their bikes or walked to practice every night, and soon the band was playing its classic rock covers at weekly gigs. Regan was just 16.

"They were very serious about what they did," says Chuck Wrenn, who was part-owner of the Moondance Saloon when the Biscuits performed as the house band at the bar's weekly open-mike night. "Like all young bands," he says, "they were developing. It wasn't a packed house every time, but they were well-received."

By Regan's junior year the band evolved into a funk/R&B outfit. The group was writing originals, and Regan began experimenting with her only instrument at the time — her voice. "I made a tape with Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston songs, and I'd stand in the closet and sing into the clothes," she says. It paid off. Captured on tape, her soulful wailing sounds as if it could have come from a 50-year-old black woman.

After high school, Regan taught herself how to play the guitar and began writing songs that didn't fit with the Biscuits' sound. In 1994 she broke away from the band to begin her solo career. "I had an emotional side I wanted to get out," she says. (Former members of the Biscuits continued playing funk and went on to form the instrumental groove-jazz group Modern Groove Syndicate.)

After three years of playing wherever she could — mostly at small bars and clubs around town — Regan began to get noticed. In 1997, Bruce Flohr, the talent scout from RCA who signed Dave Matthews, took an interest in Regan on a recommendation from members of Agents of Good Roots. He came to Richmond to see her perform at the Flood Zone. "I thought she had a ton of potential," he says " …and was searching for who she could be as an artist." But they lost touch, he says. "I definitely thought she was talented, and it was only a matter of time before I heard her again."

n a recent hot Sunday in July, Regan tunes her acoustic guitar in front of a crowd of close to 2,000 at the Dogwood Dell amphitheater. "Where's my guitar tech?" she jokes. There is no guitar tech, but there are two giant screens above the stage and three video cameras taping her CD release concert for a DVD to be released at some point. Her second self-released CD, "Coming or Going," out since July 2, delivers a poppier Regan with a new backing band of well-respected local jazz and rock players, including the Dave Matthews Band's touring keyboardist, Butch Taylor. The sound of her harder-edged and more studio-tweaked 2000 release, "First Breath," was difficult to reproduce live. Her new CD delivers a pared-down, rootsy sound. "It was hard to promote ["First Breath"] because it was nothing like the live show," says manager Sprenkle. "That's why the latest album is hitting home. I have a feeling that 10 years from now it won't be dated, but ["First Breath"] may be."

Regan picks and strums her guitar, sometimes singing with a guttural throaty anger and other times with sweet breathy sincerity. Her songs strike a balance between intelligent rock and marketable pop. She is self-taught in playing guitar and uses it like a percussive instrument. Although she can read music for piano and voice, she plays the guitar by ear. "Half the time I have no idea what [notes] I'm playing," she says.

Regan gets compared to Jewel a lot but doesn't see it herself. "She's got a folk thing and I'm definitely not folk," she says. But don't call it chick-rock either: "I hate being put into that category, they don't say 'dude rock.'" Besides, Regan doesn't even listen to many female artists. She's inspired by Sting (especially "Dream of the Blue Turtles"), Peter Gabriel, U2, Bjork. Right now, she's listening to Bobby McFerrin's new album ("The rhythmic pattern is so bizarre") and the pop singer-songwriter John Mayer ("It's kind of cheesy but I like his melodies. … I try and figure out, 'Why do people like that? Why does it work?'").

Musician/producer David Lowery has been known to call her the "Bj”rk of the South" because she changes her image so much. He worked with her when he produced an EP that never got released. On it, Regan sang her quieter, more emotional songs with Cracker's country-rock sound backing her up. Prior to the work with Cracker, Regan was blonde and harder-rocking. She's taken some criticism because her past work has been all over the musical map. But she seems to have come into her own with her current melodic, "acoustic groove thing," as she calls it.

Redeye Distribution, the nation's largest distributor of independent releases, is sending Regan's new CD, "Coming or Going" to record stores across the country. "She brought in her CD and we just loved it instantly," says Stephen Judge, Redeye's marketing director. Redeye immediately put it on a compilation CD of Southeastern bands called "Radio Redeye," Judge says. This will be on record-store counters in August. According to its Web site, of Redeye's 1,300 artists, "Coming or Going" is currently the 17th most demanded record nationwide, "which is great considering the majority of her pull is regional," Judge says. "It's a grassroots thing, we believe it will slowly build."

Here in town, Plan 9 Music put "Coming or Going" on its listening station, and four weeks after its release the record is the No. 52 best-selling record in the store.

"I have a feeling it's going to be a consistent best seller locally," says Plan 9's Marketing and Promotions Manager Kelly Wilkes, who also expects a rise in sales when college students return in August.

Local support is vital, but national interest and, more specifically, signing a record deal, is what Regan needs to catapult to the next level. Regan has had interest from record labels throughout her career, but, Sprenkle suspects, they were turned off by her being pregnant and later, having a child. "We had a bunch of labels interested [around 1997] but when everybody got wind that she was pregnant they all kind of flew away," he says. "She is a mom and she is a wife and those are two things that work against you because everyone thinks you need a sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll image."

Regan played live until she was five months pregnant then went into the studio to record her first album as a solo artist. She worked on "First Breath" for two years. During that time, her daughter, Haley, was born and soon Haley was propped in a carrier within view while her mother recorded and co-produced the album with John Morand at Sound of Music Studios. Haley sat up for the first time during those sessions, Regan recalls proudly.

It wasn't long before the record labels were sitting up, too. Recently Sprenkle has been getting e-mails and phone calls from talent scouts representing Jive Records, J. Records, Atlantic, MCA and Sarah McLachlan's management company even though he hasn't sent out a single album to any of them. "I haven't done one thing [to contact the labels] and they're calling us like mad," he says. Most of the labels, though, are interested in turning Regan into a Britney-Spears-like pop star. Some want her to have less of a singer/songwriter vibe, others want her to dance more, and some have even said they want to have other people pen songs for her and put Regan's name on them. None of this interests Regan. "That's not what I have in me," she says simply. She hopes to always have a hand in the production of her CDs, which is also difficult to negotiate, and she hesitates to turn over control of what has been the only career of her 28 years. "I've been working my ass off for so many years, if it was taken out of my hands it would be kind of scary."

hat makes Regan work is not only her spunky, tomboy, strum-and-wail, but also her new band. All of the musicians in Regan's band have studied music, which helps because she writes her songs on the acoustic guitar and relies on them to contribute ideas and fill out the sound.

Andrew Winn, former frontman of the jazz-rock group Agents of Good Roots — a group whose popularity resulted in a major label deal in the wake of Dave Matthews' success, but never gained enough momentum nationally — serves as lead guitarist. He plays the electric classical guitar in a unique style blending his classical training with his rock and jazz roots. He has known Regan since her early days as a solo artist and has served as her mentor over the years, teaching her about music and the industry.

The band also features sax player J.C. Kuhl, also an AGR alum, as well as a current member of Modern Groove Syndicate and other jazz groups around town. The rhythm section features Richmond's premiere young jazz players; Patrick Turner plays stand-up and electric bass; Robbie Sinclair plays drums; and Daniel Clarke mans keyboards. All of them can be found almost any night of the week playing in different groups such as the Devil's Workshop, Modern Groove Syndicate and with John D'Earth.

The band's heavy jazz influence naturally adds an improvisational element. "I don't want to say that we're a jam band," Regan says. "It's pop/rock with a little improvisation in there. It's exciting because I don't know what we're going to do." During the Dogwood Dell show Regan began snapping to count off a song and the band joined in and they ended up improvising a snapped intro, which led into Edie Brickell's "What I Am." The band's enthusiasm for Regan's music is evident, as well. Sinclair calls Regan "inspiring," and Clarke says simply, "I love the album and you can quote me on that!"

Onstage you can see their enthusiasm too. At last week's Friday Cheers show, the band couldn't stop moving as they played. Bobbing and nodding to the beat while Regan danced, strummed her guitar and engaged the audience. Her seasoned stage presence comes off with honest sincerity, like her music.

But where will her albums go from here? With technology today, it's easier for musicians to produce and promote their own albums. Many musicians are avoiding signing contracts with labels. It's possible that Regan could be very successful as an independent artist. Considering she doesn't have a Web site and hasn't toured heavily to promote herself — she currently averages about three shows a week along the mid-Atlantic — Regan has had some impressive successes online. "First Breath" was the best-selling CD on for 12 weeks in 2001. Her songs have been played more than 72,000 times and she has earned almost $4,000 from the site, which allows listeners to hear songs free but charges when a customer wants to buy a complete CD. She has also done well with, the site created by Beatles producer, Sir George Martin. Her song "Today" reached No. 1 there out of 70,000 songs in June 2001, and overall it's ranked No. 9. She has sold CDs to people all over the world and even played as part of two sold-out festivals in Germany.

i'm the one who's in the sun

catching angels/

i take my time, i do just fine/

i'm never waiting/

i go along, i sing my song,

and hold my head strong/

nothing to prove, nothing to lose/

just keep on keepin'

— from "Rollin'"

Artistically, Regan seems to have come into her own. Now the question is: Will she go the commercial route?

Regan's seasoned band member Winn has some advice for his protege about labels knocking on her door. There is a difference between artistic creation and the commercialization of music today, he says. And he warns against losing sight of "the initial creative spark that happens before commodities can be bought or sold."

Winn also points to the McDonaldization of today's radio music and says that creating music is a very personal art. "Creating music and making a living playing music are two very different things," he says. "Most people that are creating art aren't doing it for the fame." Winn also says that he believes Regan shows a natural songwriting ability and that she has "just begun to tap into her unlimited vocal potential."

Regan's new album has enough of a pop sound that it could probably make the radio with some big label promotion behind it. Her music is intelligent and mature. She's exploring unconventional instrumentation and singing about universal emotions and experiences. And she's come far. Sprenkle points out that she's a year younger than Dave Matthews was when he broke big, a year younger than Sheryl Crow was when her first album came out, and several years behind Bonnie Raitt and the Police. "She's in a serious writing mode; she's not bubble gum," he says. "You have to be in your mid-20s before you can write serious stuff." Maybe now she's ready to be signed.

RCA's Bruce Flohr seems to think so. "It sounds like she went through the process that a lot of artists don't go through and [then] get signed too soon or signed by the wrong label," he says. "I'm not surprised she has label interest and I have no doubt she will one day be a successful recording artist."

And what does Regan want? Despite her successes she seems nonchalant about pushing her way to stardom. "I don't really need it but I guess if it happens that would be good too," she says. She is not casual about music, though. It's her passion and it's all she's ever done. When asked about her goals, she's at a loss. "I don't know if a musician ever feels satisfied by where they are as far as knowledge, because there's so much to know and so many different ways to look at things."

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