For years, Meg Remy’s U.S. Girls project was a mostly solitary endeavor. The Illinois-raised, Toronto-based multi-disciplinary artist recorded a half-dozen albums of her excellent, idiosyncratic noise-pop according to her own singular vision, and she toured as a one-woman operation.
“I used to do everything, from the tour managing to all the music on stage to selling the merch,” Remy says in a telephone interview from a tour stop in Austin. “Getting to where I was staying and getting to the train the next day — I did it all.”
Things have changed for U.S. Girls on all fronts. Slowly but surely, Remy has developed a community of artists who contribute mightily to the project, including her husband, Max Turnbull, who records as Slim Twig, and the jazz/funk fusion band in which he plays, the Cosmic Range. Both were among the 20+ artists in total who helped shape the new U.S. Girls album In a Poem Unlimited, on which Remy shifts her sound from art-damaged ’60s soul to sumptuously funky pop with a message.
Throughout the album, Remy explores themes of female identity, sexism, relationship violence, gendered power dynamics and beyond. “You spend hours in the mirror hating, but you can get that power, too,” she sings breathily in “Velvet 4 Sale,” the album’s slinky opener. “It’s not you, it’s them. You should get it, too.” Later, “M.A.H.” is a bona fide disco glitter bomb whose danceable groove conceals seething lyrics like “As if you couldn’t tell, I’m mad as hell. I won’t forget so why should I forgive? Supply me with one reason why, boy.” In “Pearly Gates,” Remy juxtaposes a story about St. Peter offering entrance to heaven in exchange for sex against a convincing G-funk backdrop.
On Wednesday, March 21, Remy will bring an eight-person version of U.S. Girls to Denver for a show at the Larimer Lounge. Westword caught up with her for a conversation about Toronto, Trojan horses and her growing community.
Westword: How’s touring with a big band?
Meg Remy: It’s been great. It’s been super-fulfilling, particularly musically, just to be on stage with live instruments finally. (Before) I was kind of tethered to what my tape loops and things like that were, so there wasn’t much room for improvising — maybe in movement and in the vocals and the order of the loops and things, but now we’re improvising every night, and it’s super-fulfilling.
Do you ever stand back and just watch because you don’t have to be doing something?
Yeah, I can’t believe it! There’s times I’m almost in tears on stage because I just can’t believe, number one, the caliber of players that I’ve managed to gather around me. But also, they’re such sweet humans, each and every one of them. It’s like I won the lottery.
Have you always wanted to bring more people into U.S. Girls?
It’s always a goal. I have all the goals. I want to do music for a long time, so I want to try everything. It’s one of the things on the list, doing it this way. It’ll be a new thing the next time around. I’m happy to check this off and say that I’ve done this, but i’m interested in constantly evolving and changing and challenging myself. That’s the best part about this.
How does Toronto play a role in the music you’re making now?
I’m not sure I would’ve come to this way of working if I hadn’t lived in Toronto. I think I maybe would’ve stayed more in the avant (or) noise-y kind of zone, where I was for a long time. Which is very DIY, where I didn’t need anyone but myself. It was about my expression. Moving to Toronto is when I started learning about the joys of collaborating and how collaborating is good because you allow yourself to be vulnerable. I think that the best stuff in the world happens when we allow ourselves to show other people that we’re vulnerable.
Does In a Poem Unlimited sound the way it does because of the people you worked with? Or did you have a vision for what you wanted to do regardless of personnel?
Of course. It doesn’t sound that way because of me. I don’t play on the record at all. If you have to find a kernel of where it comes from, it comes from me and my husband and collaborating with him and taking risks and feeling safe enough to take those risks.
The album sounds this way and it’s being received in a certain way because so many people worked on it; I just think it’s very apparent. It’s like we had more than twenty people coming and bringing their best skills to the table and making a whole piece that way. If you build a house, it’s going to be much stronger if you have a plumber and an electrician instead of trying to do it all yourself. I paid these people to play on the record, but everyone had an interest in it. Everyone understood the ideas behind the songs, what the album was about, what I was trying to do, and were very game for translating and putting not just their skill into it, but their emotion and energy, too. I think you can hear it.
The album’s final form — is it close to your original vision, or something completely different?
I think it’s exactly how I wanted it to be and how we were working toward it being. I mean, we didn’t rest until it was just so. It had to be just so, and I think we all felt that way because the songs induced a certain feeling in the people that were working on them: “Okay, there’s something going on here that’s successful.” Not successful in the way of money, just successful in the way of achieving something that’s not abstract. It felt very concrete, what the songs could be if we didn’t sleep till they were perfected in their beds. And that’s what we did.
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I’ve seen this album described as a Trojan horse, with weighty messages “hidden” inside pop songs. Was that your goal from the beginning?
I’ve been working in these sort of veiled forms for a long time, slipping these ideas and words in to try and get people to digest them. That’s what we were really trying to do on this record, even more so because we were working in such a strict pop form. So it was definitely on purpose. But I don’t think we realized just how much the music was going to be such a crazy Trojan horse. Now it’s the kind of shit corporations would want to use, the music’s so fucking catchy. It’s like, “Ohhhh, you don’t realize that this song is against you.” We really succeeded beyond what what we thought we could do.
Everything can’t be education, obviously. Humans need entertainment and they need distraction and they need to just feel good. Music is a joy and it should remain that way, but obviously I’m hoping that people are going to go a step further with it. But I have no control over that. I made the stuff. I make the videos to try and speak to those songs. And then I can’t do anything else past that. But the time we’re living in, there’s no time limit on when you can consume these things. As long as the Internet continues operating, it’ll be there.