Then and now: Simone Denny looks back on the 20th anniversary of Love Inc.'s debut
The powerhouse vocalist behind "Broken Bones" and "You're a Superstar" opens up about walking away from Canada
If you grew up in Canada in the late '90s/early '00s, your body knows the song, even if your mind doesn't recall it quite as quickly anymore. The relentless beat driving Simone Denny's cathartic growl as she sounds the alarm of pulsating resistance: "I've got broken bones/ not from your sticks and stones/ but from the names that you call me."
"Broken Bones" was ubiquitous in 1997, and it made the Toronto-based band Love Inc. a massive, almost overnight success story. The band was founded by DJ/remixer/producer Chris Sheppard, alongside fellow producer/remixer Brad Daymond. Denny joined as the band's vocalist, and she quickly became the most visible member of Love Inc. The group released its self-titled debut in 1998, and with the help of a second blockbuster hit, "You're a Superstar," and high rotation on MuchMusic, the record went platinum.
Love Inc. racked up two Juno Awards, logged thousands of kilometres on the road, and found themselves the unlikely mainstream Canadian representatives of Eurodance. Through Denny's commanding vocal performance, "Broken Bones" and "You're a Superstar" became liberation anthems, and Denny herself seemed an irrepressible force who wasn't afraid to name her pain in the former, and a triumphant dreamer in the latter. Denny — a Black, plus-sized woman — was strength personified.
And then almost as quickly as they'd arrived, the band was, essentially, over. Daymond left in 1999 — Denny says he was "removed" from the group — and went on to write songs for *NSYNC and a variety of other high-profile acts. Sheppard and Denny followed up Love Inc.'s award-winning debut with 2000's Into the Night, and then Denny left the band.
Twenty years after the surprising success of Love Inc.'s breakthrough, CBC Music spoke with Denny about the rise and fall of the band. Please note that this conversation precedes Daymond's tragic passing on Aug. 3 due to complications from cardiac arrest.
According to Denny, she and Daymond had been in conversation and were excited about the possibility of reconnecting, which makes the story of Love Inc. one not just of ego, money, music and sexism, but also of friendship, collaboration and legacy. What follows is Denny's story of how belting out empowering songs like "Broken Bones" and "You're a Superstar" helped her know her worth and walk away from Love Inc.
Congratulations on the 20th anniversary of Love Inc.
Can you believe it's been that long?
It's crazy, no! You had worked a little with Chris Sheppard before Love Inc.
How I got started with Chris Sheppard — I used to do a lot of session work, studio session work, demo work. As a vocalist you get hired by different writers and producers. Anthony Vandenberg was a well-known producer in Toronto and he recommended me, I think, to Greg Kavanagh and Chris Sheppard and then I went in and did the session and I got to be honest, I knew of Chris Sheppard, I knew of his music. I wasn't like a hardcore, you know, dance and electronic person at that time.
Then Chris just literally, out of the blue, I guess he'd been planning this all along, I think he wanted to take it to the next level because he had a relationship with BMG.... Basically you have to credit Chris with bringing dance music to Canada. He is the one who brought it and then put it into full force so I guess he wanted to take it to the next level and not just do it on a small level, which was quality records he wanted to do it and go big so that was BMG and make it a more of a mainstream act by giving it some pop influences yeah and so that's how Love Inc. was when he called me up and he said, "Listen I'm starting a new group," and he's like, "I want you to be the lead vocals." I said, "What kind of music?" "Dance and house music influence but I really want you to do the vocals. Are you in?" I was like, "Absolutely." And that's literally how it was born. Then I met Brad, who I guess he [Chris] had brought on already at the time, and we just started writing and that was it.
What were those first writing sessions like?
They're great ... writing with Brad was a lot of fun particularly. I did most of my writing with him and he's very funny and light-hearted. He's really, really enthusiastic about music so he's always a good time. So every time we wrote a track it was a lot of good energy flying around, you know, it was good.
Had you done a lot of songwriting before that?
Little bits here and there privately, nothing that I had put out so that, for me, I guess would be my first major release, you know, on a label, which was fun.
It's just such a different level of vulnerability, I think.
Absolutely. Before I was doing more R&B, and soul, that would be the bulk of the things that I was running with, a style that I was writing in, so this was definitely a first.
What was it like being a dance band in the Canadian music climate in 1998?
You step out into these things, at least for me. Maybe Chris had a better idea of what was coming, I had no idea it was gonna go that big. OK, we'll have some radio hits, it'll do well but BMG was the monster machine you know with the publicity and it was everywhere. It really shocked me because the Christmas before, we went to the BMG Christmas party, they were playing it there. By March we started to shoot the videos and then it literally just went "Boom!" out of nowhere and it just shot off.
Being part of that at that time was just really something special as I look back on it, you know, again it kind of blindsided me. It went that big I mean, there was a point where I couldn't walk down the street or go to the mall or go to anywhere for that matter without people knowing who I was. It was something, it really was, something to see. It really changed my whole life. I'm smiling as I'm thinking about it now. I was really honoured to be part of something like that. I loved it and I think it's cool, it's really informed who I am as a musician. I love to be part of something that's groundbreaking. Rarely will you see me go with something that everybody else is doing. I like to have room to put my stamp on it, whether it's vocals, my stage presence, writing, and that's what I was allowed to do with Love Inc. For me it's beautiful to know that I was part of something that shaped a generation musically and that so many people have so many fond memories.
"Superstar" actually is the one that I get the most stories about. [People would say] "I was going through a divorce or I was going for a job or I was going through a rough time with my family or something, or my boyfriend or girlfriend," and it's the stories over the years that I get from that song. It's really humbling ... rarely does a singer get an opportunity to sing on something that changes people's lives so much and have a huge effect and continues to have an effect because I just did the shows. We did a show for kids 16 and under, and there's a whole new generation of kids and they're singing it at the top of their lungs. They know every word to "Superstar," it just keeps going.
"Canadian" music has often defaulted to folk or rock but there is a dance story as part of this country. Was there any resistance from the industry in the earlier days or did you feel any resistance?
I never felt any resistance per se, I guess we circulated within the dance community and once it went pop and mainstream it just was like boom. I was expected to do hip-hop or soul or R&B, that would be the resistance that I got. [It] was from those communities going, "Well, why are you doing this?" I still get that to this day, of people going, "Well, why are you doing this kind of music, I don't understand?" and I'm like, it's fun, it's uplifting, it's different and that's where, like I said before, that is where you'll find me: where I can make my mark. I don't really see the point as a musician of doing the same thing that everybody else does and, you know, being Canadian I proudly wave that flag, when I go around I'm telling everybody ad nauseam, like "I'm Canadian, this is Canadian music!" These are all Canadian producers, these are all Canadian writers, we don't just do rock and folk, we do dance and house music and we do it well. It's well received worldwide
Let's talk about "Broken Bones" because "a dream is just a wish that a heart makes" is basically the best line.
Chris used to work with a producer, Cory Bradshaw, and I think Cory had written some lyrics originally and you know when he left, when Chris had to move on to Love Inc., I think he kept some of those concepts and put them into "Broken Bones." Brad and I are the ones who actually took a bunch of notes that Chris had and we just arranged the lyrics to what you hear now is "Broken Bones." ... There's certain lines like, "A dream is just a wish that a heart makes," I can't tell you the amount of times that I've had people say that line to me.
Do you remember recording it?
I had the worst allergies of my life. I was overenunciating to make sure that my voice came through clear.
Especially in 1998, we were in the midst of a certain sort of wave of empowerment for women. What does it mean to you to have been an inspiration point for young women?
I am all about empowerment for women. That's who I've always been. I'm really lucky that I had amazing role models and my family to look up to and I think it just carried through to my music. Also being a curvy, plus-size girl, too, in an industry where everybody was size two or zero. I had to speak loudly and boldly. When they're listening to it in their car, they're not looking at me, they're listening to my voice. It really warmed my heart when I heard Adele say that as well. It's about the talent, it's about my voice.
I'm a champion of radical fat activism and radical size acceptance. I've always thought, well, we're talking about music, we're talking about an aural experience!
We get certain voices out of certain bodies. You're not gonna get my voice out of a size zero, it just doesn't happen. I realized over the years my fans didn't care. They just loved me. They loved what I was doing, they loved what I was about. Years later people keep telling me, "You gave me so much confidence because of the way you looked and the way you dressed." The last MuchMusic Awards we were on and Aqua was there, they had just won a MuchMusic Award and everybody around us we were just hanging out. They're like, "Oh, you guys are gonna win." Out of nowhere this young lady walked up to me and said, "I just want to say thank you," and I was like, "For what?" and she's like, "You always rep for the curvy women, thank you so much!" And that always stayed with me. Here I am doing my thing, and I didn't realize that people are actually taking note and they're actually watching what I was doing. I don't know what her name was, she slipped back into the crowd and I never saw her again but it stayed with me. I said, "Wow, I'm really empowering women and I'm really proud of that."
So much of women's work is made invisible, so when you suddenly realize you're very visible to somebody, it's a powerful thing.
That was 1998 and really the body confidence movement really only kicked in maybe in the last five years, so there I was back then without even realizing it! I hope wherever she is, if she ever sees me somewhere, she says hello. I want to thank her. The music, the fashion, it's all one thing, it's all one voice for me. I tend to be very bold and outspoken with certain things and I just tend to live my life and dress to suit myself and I'm glad that women and people are hearing my voice and feeling empowered.
How did Love Inc. dissolve?
You know, the usual ways with bands, it always comes down to money or ego, I just got to a point where I didn't feel like I was appreciated for what I was doing. I think for a lot of the people in the group, it was the same thing and we just got to a point where I was like, "It's time to go." I didn't want to draw it out. It was just time to go. It had had its run, and I was like, "You know what? Rather than be negative, it's just time to go and move on to newer things and kind of carve my own legacy out as a vocalist on my own."
I just read an interview from 2000 in Billboard and it was in advance of the second album's release where all these industry guys are interviewed, and you're interviewed, and Chris is interviewed, but all of those industry guys are really talking about Chris non-stop and erasing you from the equation. It really bothered me reading it.
That's why it was time to go. There just got to a point where people started referring to me as Love Inc. I think that caused a little bit of tension in the group but it's a natural thing for people to feel that way because I'm up front. That plus money issues and whatnot … it was one of the hardest decisions I had to make because it really was a project that did so well and I knew I would miss them and I knew I'd miss performing, but am I happy? No. When I go out onstage, I carry that with me and I don't want to go out there and people see me sad or upset. If I go up and sing "Superstar," I gotta believe that. It's very real for me because the audience is right in my face.... Chris asked me to come back a few years later, but I had moved on…. I never regretted leaving.
There's this idea in the industry that you can always get another woman vocalist.
Honestly, I was told that repeatedly: 'You're replaceable.' And I said, 'Okay then. It's time to go.'
I have universally found it to be totally untrue. It's just a power move and it's not cool.
Absolutely. And, if I don't go, people in the industry would never respect me. And I thought that was a very bad image to put out there. That I was going to accept my contribution being diminished — I was like, this is not good for women. I always thought about the greater impact and the ripple effect.