U.S. Girls’ New One Is All the Rage

With “In a Poem Unlimited,” Meg Remy turns pop into protest.
U.S. Girls’ New One Is All the Rage

With “In a Poem Unlimited,” Meg Remy turns pop into protest.

Words: Erin Osmon

photo by Colin Medley

February 22, 2018

Meg Remy is mad as hell, but she’s not humorless. From her home in Toronto, the multi-disciplinarian leader of the collective U.S. Girls explains that she’s just learned of Donald Trump’s desire to stage an extravagant military parade through the streets of Washington, DC. It’s an act of Freudian overcompensation in her view. “I want to start saving my period blood in a jar in preparation,” she says with a laugh. “The absurdity of a military parade makes me want to make an action that’s the same level of energy. For me it makes reality vibrate.”

In an era of “alternative facts,” Remy believes such demonstrations bring certainty to the truth. To wit, there’s really no denying a tank doused in menstrual blood. She speaks emphatically about the criminality of the United States government, and the unjust power dynamics and systems that govern women’s day-to-day lives. These sorts of examinations are the bedrock of Remy’s latest album, In a Poem Unlimited.

U.S. Girls began as a solo endeavor in 2007. Remy used tape reels and samples, along with her distinctive, disco-inspired singing voice, to create abstract and experimental pieces. But over the last decade she’s evolved the moniker into a collaborative reflective of its plurality, focused on the act of reframing pop music’s lyrical themes and sonic structures. She’s also a committed writer, video artist, and collage artist. She insists that there are no lines between disciplines, particularly within the context of U.S. Girls, where she often conceptualizes the music videos and album cover art.

“I always had the goal of making a really pure pop record,” she explains of her decade-long evolution from making noise records for DIY labels to joining the roster of iconic British indie 4AD. Her commitment to pop music is largely a product of nostalgia’s might. “I watched so much MTV,” she says. “I switched between MTV and VH1, and would watch it all night until I went to bed. That coincided with me getting into punk, too. I always kept an ear open to pop. I was never judgmental of it or embarrassed of it.”

“I always kept an ear open to pop. I was never judgmental of it or embarrassed of it.”

Today she works in collaboration with her husband Max Turnbull (who also makes music under the moniker Slim Twig), Canadian beatmaker Louis Percival, recording engineer Steve Chahley, and a host of friends and peers who either wrote music for the album or played on the sessions. Remy’s tilling of her private mind garden informs each song’s theme. The lyrics are so important to the body of work that the compositions are often reverse-engineered based on the tone and message she wants to present through the words.

For In A Poem Unlimited, Remy first gathered a series of demos and musical ideas from her collaborators, and then tweaked them to align with the melodies she sang. Next, she had all of the music charted. Toronto musical collective The Cosmic Range, as well as a cast of guests, played from those charts in the sessions.

Remy meticulously honed her vocal performances. She did several takes for each song, using varied vocal mics. After choosing the mic that achieved the desired sound, she re-recorded the song, positioning herself around the room for an added layer of emotion or tone. “Sitting on the ground, laying on the ground, laying under a bed… Really getting into the particulars of how to get the voice to match the words that are being sung,” she explains.

To express her concerns, Remy created a cast of female characters to sing through on her albums. Though the characters reflect her thoughts, they don’t necessarily express her opinions. It’s a rigorous act of self-examination, but also a form of protection. “Making characters, it’s a mask for me,” she says.

“Men fart and they have to take credit. ‘Oh, that was me!’”

The conception of such personas is so consuming that it becomes a full-time job—and one transcending disciplines at that. “It’s not just a musician’s work,” Remy adds. “I’m reading. I’m writing. I’m going to the library and looking at big photo books for ideas. It’s not just sitting in a room and strumming out some chords. It’s questioning everything I see and everything that I think is a fact.” This includes a critique of President Obama’s drone program, citizen surveillance, and the false good/evil dichotomy of America’s two-party political system on “Mad as Hell,” while the emotional terror of abusive relationships and power dynamics is posited on “Incidental Boogie” and “Rage of Plastics.”

On “Pearly Gates,” Remy summons the musical vibe of “Regulate” by Warren G, but recasts it through a feminist lens. “Never, never be safe even if you’re in the gates / Give it up / You’re just some man’s daughter,” sings a chorus of voices. The song subverts the treatment of women in the 1994 hit, in which the rapper speak-sings lines like, These hookers looking so hard they straight hit the curb / Onto bigger, better things than some horny tricks.” It’s a clever dissection of the relationship between pop music and the commodification of women’s bodies, and gives insight into how listeners can be so easily blinded by an infectious hook.

With a sprawling cast of more than twenty contributors, Remy explains that the process of outlining credits for In a Poem Unlimited was daunting. It’s a delicate balancing act between honoring her collaborators while not diminishing her contributions. “I try my best to illustrate how the record was made, but I also want to respect that this was my idea and this is something I’ve been working toward for a long time,” she says. She’s quick to add that she believes the idea of credits is a male construct—something not as important to women. “I think it comes from the fact that for centuries women have been doing work that goes uncredited and unappreciated, like raising children,” she says. “Men fart and they have to take credit. ‘Oh, that was me!’”

Still, she’s appreciative of the journey. In 2016 her 4AD debut, Half Free, was nominated for a Juno Award and shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. Soon, she embarks on a sixteen-show US tour with her friends in The Cosmic Range, a tour she excitedly describes as a rock-stravaganza. True to form, she has a good laugh at the luxury of touring with such a large ensemble. “It’s absurd,” she says. “I can’t afford an eight-piece band.” For Remy, though, such bold displays are essential. FL