Toronto-based singer Leah Canali has long been an uber-fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, turning her talents to reinterpretations of the music of RuPaul.
We caught up with Canali to take a look at her drag-race song-book.
When did you first start watching RuPaul’s Drag Race?
The first season that I really got into was Season 2. I’m from Boston originally, and lived with a few really great drag performers that were in the Boston scene around the time the second season aired. I knew Jujubee because of this, and we were all rooting for her.
Who are some of your all-time favourite cast members of RPDR from across the seasons?
I’d have to go with my Boston gals, Katya and Jujubee. I think they’re two of the most clever and well-rounded queens that have been on the show. I also love following everything that they’ve done post Drag Race. Some other faves include Alyssa Edwards, Bob the Drag Queen, Jessica Wild, Nina Flowers, Trixie, Ongina, and Latrice.
What drew you to start covering the music of RuPaul?
I’ve been a big fan of Ru since the 90s, when she had her first VH1 show. I’m also just a huge fan of the art of drag. As a musician, I love finding music that – at its core – is just good songwriting. Ru’s music distils down from dance mega-hits into simple acoustic arrangements quite easily. This is the mark of a really good song - can you strip away all of the production and still have an amazing song underneath? RuPaul does that better than any other queen. I also love the positive messages and pure diva magic that is in each of her tracks.
Sissy That Walk was the first cover I did. I used to do these cabaret shows – All My Friends Are On Broadway – in which I told stories about my career as a singer and some of the interesting people that I’ve met along the way. In the part of the show that I talked about living with with drag queens, I’d do a slowed-down jazzy version of Sissy That Walk – one of my favourite Ru tracks - and people really responded to it. I decided to take it one step further and do a video of this cover, featuring the Toronto Vogue Ballroom scene, and that ended up going viral. The rest was history, and I began really exploring my love for drag covers.
You’ve also covered the music of Trixie Mattell - any other drag queen tracks in your repertoire?
Does Dolly Parton count? I’m working on expanding my drag repertoire. I’ve actually had quite a few requests from my YouTube channel to tackle some Jinkx Monsoon, so she’s next on my list.
The covers that you do are more reinterpretations – you’re giving new life to familiar tracks. Is that difficult to do?
It really comes down to the basics. If it’s a strong song before all of the production and studio magic, it makes it much easier to strip it down to its purest essence.
I won’t lie, there are definitely songs that I’ve tried to remake and they just didn’t work out. I’m very lucky to have a really strong band of musicians that are willing to try things out. Sometimes I hear an arrangement in my head and I think it won’t really work, but then we play it and it comes together exactly how I pictured it. Other times it turns into something completely different. Music is often about trial and error, being willing to take chances and see how they pan out.
What sort of feedback do you get in response to your covers?
Since dropping my first Ru cover the response has largely been extremely positive. I get the occasional troll, but by and large people seem really into the covers that I’ve put out.
I’ve been so lucky that RuPaul himself shares the work that I’ve done. I’ve had the honour of meeting and talking to Ru a few times now, and he’s always so positive and encouraging of my voice and my music. It’s pretty surreal. I always say that RuPaul launched the careers of over a hundred drag queens, and one very grateful vocalist.
Are there any RuPaul tracks that are on your wish-list of songs to cover?
I went pretty big on my last cover and did the Ru track Main Event with a string quintet and gospel choir. That was a big dream cover of mine for a while. I’d love to try and figure out a way to remake Call Me Mother, but that track is pretty perfect as is. I think eventually I’m going to have to tackle Supermodel – it’s the ultimate!
Does the music of RuPaul influence the original songs that you create?
I’d really love to be an LGBTQ dance music icon, and RuPaul’s music so seamlessly marries disco, camp, and dance pop it would be impossible not to be influenced by it. I also love how RuPaul’s music is so obviously indicative of what he likes to listen to. He doesn’t force himself into following trends for the sake of chasing notoriety. He releases music that’s so authentic to who he is as a performer and musician. He’s not chasing trends, he’s making them.
I strive to first and foremost create music that I like and that I believe in, not necessarily something that’s popular just in that moment.
What are some of your goals and ambitions for the months ahead?
My goal is to always keep putting out music and hope that people will keep tuning in to hear it. A long-term goal would be to work with RuPaul – it’s my dream to someday do a track with Ru.