"This band could be a Buddhist," Regina Hexaphone frontwoman Sara Bell offers, explaining the ethos driving their sweet, homey indie pop. "Let it be what it is, let it live in the moment, and don't try to force it."
Led by the unassuming Bell, Regina sidles up gently alongside the listener, hips swinging with a tender, artless vulnerability, lips pursed in a big smile. Needless to say, they're hard to resist. The diminutive, generous-spirited redhead formed the band a decade ago with bassist Chris Clemmons, guided by a bad reaction to Courtney Love. Who hasn't been there?
The story's set during Hole's Live Through This tour. At the time Bell was playing with Dana Kletter in Dish. Kletter sang back-up on Hole's breakthrough 1994 album, but had never met Love, so Bell and Kletter went to the show: "It was the height of her sort of despicable antics. She would start and stop songs in the middle, and her band just kind of went along. I guess they were well compensated, but it just seemed so completely self-indulgent," Bell remembers.
At the time, she was struggling with the concept of leading her own band. While a talented musician, she wondered, "How do you convince people to play your songs with you over and over again?" Witnessing Love's self-aggrandizement and the hell she put her bandmates through gave Bell pause. Suffering through Dish's subsequent major-label ordeal (Dish released one album on Interscope in 1995 before breaking up) strengthened her resolve.
"[The Dish situation] was really hard, and there was so much pressure on people in the band to commit. It's fine if that's your commitment, but you get older and everybody has stuff going on. I just never wanted to feel like people had to commit completely and pay allegiance to [Regina Hexaphone]. So it's like when people were around they could do it—sometimes we'd have eight on stage, and sometimes we had three," she says.
For Bell it was also about gaining confidence in her voice. She'd played in several local bands but had never been a singer. As a child, her singing voice was disparaged. Fortunately, she lived in a Durham apartment converted from an old house that had a huge staircase leading up to her place.
"It was 20 feet from the floor to the ceiling," she recalls. "I used to sit on the stairs and sing when I was writing a lot of the songs that would become Regina Hexaphone. I was very intimidated and self-conscious about my voice. But I would sing and it just sounded so beautiful, it made me realize, 'If I can sound the way I sound in this hallway, maybe someday I can actually be a singer.'"
Now 10 years and two terrific albums later, there's hardly a disparaging word for Bell's dulcet vocals or her pretty songs. Regina's latest, Into Your Sleeping Heart, broadens the musical aesthetic with an eclectic blend of songs, from the bounding new wave of "Glory Me" to the bluesy rave "More." Yet despite it all, as Bell discusses the evening's practice she still sounds as humble as when she started.
"We've pulled out some really old songs and I've asked these guys, 'Are you sick of these songs yet?' They said, 'No,'" she says excitedly. "If you don't get sick of playing the same songs for 10 years, then they must be okay songs."
Bell tacks on a zinger that might just as well apply to her own attitude: "It's either really sweet," she says, "or really dysfunctional."
Regina Hexaphone celebrates its 10th anniversary with a show at the ArtsCenter Saturday, Dec. 22, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12.