U.S. Girls is untangling the misogynist mess of America

The time is right for Toronto-based artist Meg Remy's subversive brand of political pop

U.S. GIRLS with JAMES BALEY at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Thursday, April 19, doors 8:30 pm. $15. ticketfly.com, rotate.com, soundscapesmusic.com. Sold out.

There’s suddenly a lot of attention on U.S. Girls, and Meg Remy finds that kind of funny.

“It’s great that people are interested now,” she says, breaking into a grin. “Because they weren’t before.”

Remy has been touring her sixth U.S. Girls full-length album, In A Poem Unlimited, which has aligned her with the mainstream cultural zeitgeist in ways few would have predicted when she was still singing unsettling lo-fi girl-group echoes over tape loops in her basement in Philadelphia.

Released in February on 4AD and Royal Mountain, it’s simultaneously her most accessible, fleshed-out album and her most powerful indictment of her home country’s deep-seated culture of violence, from the killing of First Nations people to slavery to militaristic colonialism, all reverberated in gendered violence.

It’s a protest album you can dance to. That might sound heavy for an unabashed pop record, but it comes at a time when people are more open than ever to discussing and rooting out abuses of power, especially regarding sexual impropriety, both of which are major themes in her music.

“Themes – everyone’s always asking me about themes,” Remy drawls in her inimitable Midwestern deadpan, friendly and confrontational in equal measure.

“These are the themes I’ve been exploring for 10 years now. They’re the things I think about and talk about and make music about. 

“The theme is me, you know what I mean? And I still have a lot to learn, too.”

She’s explaining all this at a bakery in the west end – far enough west that I had to double-check the location her publicist gave me. 

But it’s no mistake. This quiet stretch of the Kingsway is where Remy lives with her husband and collaborator, Maximilian Turnbull (formerly known as Slim Twig, also a singer/songwriter and producer), who she’s lived with in Toronto for seven years since relocating from Philadelphia and Chicago, where she grew up. 

They live here partially by chance – they happened upon a good deal – and partially by choice. Their almost-suburban lifestyle keeps them from overspending, and there’s a cemetery nearby they like for walks.

One thing they don’t have is the internet, and that’s also by choice. The couple reads a lot, makes art, listens to records and borrows movies from their nearby public library branch. They can check email on their phones, but when they need to go online for any extended period of time they come to this bakery.

Hardly the stuff of TMZ, but Remy is an old-school singer/songwriter at heart. She’s somewhere in the mould of Springsteen or Tom Waits or Madonna, able to subvert and expose the dark underbelly of Americana while wearing its popular modes of expression. That sensibility has remained intact as her style has glided between noisy art-pop, shadowy and surreal R&B, and her latest mutation into bright and shiny disco (or her next, which she says will likely be a big band take on Frank Sinatra and Harry Nilsson).

It’s not like she’s trend-hopping – Poem is part of a U.S. Girls continuum that’s stretched back over a decade. But that hasn’t stopped many from trying to write it into a tidy 2018 pop culture narrative. 

“I think a lot of journalists come in with their article already written and then they plug in quotes later,” she says. “They want [my music] to fit into a nice feminist package that they can link to current events, and they make it fit.”

She would know. The next morning, her label is flying her to Paris for just one day, during which she’ll do 13 interviews. 

When I see her a month later at the NOW cover shoot, she has trouble remembering what we talked about. “I’ve done literally 75 interviews since then,” she laughs. 

So it makes sense when, as she poses in a slightly stained outfit she calls her “dirty whites” and an alert comes up on my phone about new rape allegations against Canadian pop-rock band Hedley, she has a comeback at the ready: “It’s too bad we don’t have a time machine.”

It’s enigmatic, but it recalls a moment from our earlier interview. 

Velvet 4 Sale, one of the first singles from her album, is a groovy, double-entendre-laden revenge fantasy about a woman buying a gun to reverse the lack of safety women can feel just walking down the street and “instill in [men] the fear that comes with being prey.” 

When I ask about the title, she says it’s a phrase she lifted from Norman Mailer’s novel An American Dream.

“And I fucking hate Norman Mailer. I really despise him,” she says, locking in with unwavering eye contact. “Do you know he stabbed his wife? Twice? And while she lay bleeding he said to the people witnessing it, ‘Don’t touch her, let the bitch die.’ It’s like he got off on this. And you know what happened to him after that? He ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize. Twice.

“This was before Cosby and before Harvey Weinstein this was in 1960,” she says. “And that really got me thinking. People in positions of power have been getting away with shit for decades. Forevvver.”

That maxim permeates through the world of U.S. Girls. The opening track, Rage Of Plastics, is a cover of a song by Fiver, aka Toronto singer/songwriter Simone Schmidt, written from the perspective of a woman who’s become infertile from working at an oil treatment plant. 

The cover united a “crew of amazing ladies” – Basia Bulat, Jennifer Castle and Ice Cream/Darlene Shrugg’s Amanda Crist – in the studio to sing backup, while Schmidt helped teach the band the song, which they transformed from a slow and mournful dirge into a glammy rock and roll rave-up that gives new shades to its core examination of hypocrisy, sickness and the inescapability of capitalism.

“What I love about that song is how it goes from the bottom up and [shows] how it all connects,” says Remy. “[Schmidt] always brings it back to the land, which is so crucial. And that got me thinking, too.”

Although Poem is a very American album, it could only have been made here. Her backing band this time around, the Cosmic Range (and the separate eight-piece band she’s been using on tour), is an instrumental combo of space jazz and funk freaks that includes Turnbull. (“It’s the second time I’ve stolen my husband’s band,” she jokes.)

Her last album, Half Free, was mostly beat- and sample-oriented, made primarily by Remy, Turnbull and Louis Percival (aka Onakabazien). This time the trio gave demos to the band to chart out and arrange for a kitchen-sink array of instruments like clavinet, synthesizer, sax, vibraphone and backing vocals.

She had to trust others in order to get the big, lush sound she wanted, to “challenge myself and make music that grows and reaches people in different areas,” something she’s been able to do more since falling in with a community of local artists and musicians.

U.S. Girls

Samuel Engelking

As deliberate and multi-talented as she is – she makes her own album art, directs videos, dances, sings and acts – she approaches everything with a purposefully unschooled DIY ethic.

When asked if she helped chart out the music, she bristles. “I’m punk. I can’t do shit.” Does she have an art background? “Hell no! I have a volleyball background,” she scoffs again. 

The lack of formal training allows her to approach her work in a wide-open way: not knowing the rules makes it easier to break them.

“Because I have no music or art background, when something is new to me, I’m like, ‘Holy shit, I want to know everything.’”

While writing In A Poem Unlimited, Remy randomly picked up a short history of modern drama in Australia and it blew her mind. After reading all the plays she could get her hands on, she realized how much the little things can have a big impact on stage. 

She fought to get the lights turned off for her spotlit, a cappella performance of Sororal Feelings at the 2016 Polaris Prize gala, for instance, and afterwards it was all anyone was talking about.

Theatre plays a major role in her current live show, which is heavily performative, with techniques picked up from Caryl Churchill’s non-naturalism, Samuel Beckett’s absurdism and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism, among others.

“Everyone’s always comparing me to Lynch, who aesthetically I like,” she says. “But give me Pinter. Way weirder.”

Remy loves when words on the page spark an image in your mind, and you can hear that in her detailed, character-based songs, which often take on the personas of the women who are silent subjects in American literature and music.

A classic U.S. Girls critique is one that you barely even notice at first, a commentary from the inside out. Remy’s role in the local supergroup Darlene Shrugg (who are playing July 27 at Lee’s Palace), for instance, rewrites the sounds, riffs and bombast of 70s hard rock through a lineup that’s four-fifths female. 

On the road, she says she notices the power dynamics of men in bands – acting in condescending ways to female musicians, or using their status to coerce sexual favours. Even if they don’t do those things themselves, they look the other way when their bandmates do.

This “systemic misogyny” is part of the DNA of rock and roll culture, and she suggests this might be why the #MeToo movement has been slow to reach the music world. It’s masked and perpetuated by notions of “groupies are asking for it” and “what happens on the tour bus stays on the tour bus.” 

“These things add up, and now we’re in a big mess,” she offers. “People don’t want to start pulling on that thread, because then you’d lose all your favourite bands. 

“We’re talking about Ducktails and [Hedley], but what about fucking Led Zeppelin? What about Mötley Crüe? The information is out there. We read the books about them and we’re like, ‘Ha ha ha, these guys, so decadent.’ But then we’re not writing these exposés on them.

“So, yes, it’s great that people are starting to understand the language and the layers of these power structures a little more, but there’s still so much to learn. You know, you want it to all happen now, but that shift takes time because you’re undoing so much. 

“It’s a lot to untangle.”

Read Carla Gillis’s essay on rethinking her rock fandom in the age of #MeToo here. 

richardt@nowtoronto.com | @trapunski

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