U.S. Girls on Staying Punk While Going Pop
Meg Remy’s spent the past ten years painting the sounds she grew up with in DIY colors.
The Meg Remy of 2008 and the Meg Remy of 2018 present a case study in sharp contrasts. Ten years ago, the Illinois-bred artist better known as U.S. Girls could be found performing solo behind a table full of knob-twisting gear in dingy DIY venues, subjecting her ghostly melodies to obfuscating noise and obliterating echo effects. These days, she fronts a plush seven-piece soul-funk ensemble (complete with backing singers and a sax player) at some of the world’s most renowned festivals, singing songs that are as lyrically provocative as they are musically seductive.
But as Remy sees it, there’s little philosophical difference between what she was doing before and what she’s doing today. From day one, her goal was to make pop music with a multilayered, artful approach to sound; now, she has the resources and connections to fully realize her vision. For her latest album, In a Poem Unlimited, Remy called upon her extended community in Toronto, where she currently lives with her husband, Max Turnbull (aka Slim Twig). Backed by local improv psych-funk ensemble The Cosmic Range (of which Turnbull is a member), Remy is able to live out her disco-diva fantasies while speaking directly to the tumult of our times through songs that unflinchingly address abusive relationships—both in the domestic and systemic senses. Here, Remy explains how she’s managed to reconcile her love of pop music with her belief in punk principles.
Spotify for Artists: At what point did you make the leap from being a music fan to making music of your own?
Meg Remy: I always sang and talked into tape recorders. I had a Fisher Price thing with a mic built into it, so I would sing over songs, or do little radio plays and things like that. But I got my first boyfriend in eighth grade, and he was into punk—he started teaching me about punk and showing me all the riot grrrl stuff, which was like, you didn’t know how to play an instrument, you just need a desire to do stuff.
Was punk a means to an end for you, or a design for life that you still ascribe to?
I think my [musical sensibility] evolved beyond punk, but punk is still the basis for it. I grew up going to Catholic school in a very conservative Republican household, and then someone came along and showed me there was a different way to making music—that it doesn’t just have to be Billy Joel. And punk relates to so much stuff, from politics to the food you eat—these things all evolved from me getting into punk, and learning that the way that’s prescribed is not the way you have to do it. And that there’s people out there that will support you. Punk taught me about making your own family: finding your chosen people, so that you can become an individual within the world. I definitely haven’t lost my [punk ethos], it’s just looking more … elegant [laughs]. Punk is a gateway drug. But I never turned my back on any of the pop stuff I liked before. While I was getting into punk, I was still listening to Top 40 radio and watching MTV. It was like, “I can listen to all of this, and critique it, so I can see it for what it is, and take the good stuff I like from it and leave all the shitty imagery behind.”
How has that sense of community guided you through your career?
I’ve always been lucky to get in with good people wherever I moved. The first place I lived as an adult was Portland. That’s when I started this project … I didn’t know much about older avant-garde music at the time. On one drive to California, I got to hear Suicide and Silver Apples for the first time, and I was like, “What is this?” And it was insatiable.
From there, I went back to Chicago, and got involved with a lot of people I knew from high school, so that was really easy. Then I moved to Philly, because I started working with Siltbreeze—[label head] Tom [Lax] kind of brought me there and told me where to go, and what’s happening. So I’ve always been lucky to have access to good people and information … but it’s been nothing like Toronto, and I think that just has to do with me being more confident to use the resources that are around to their fullest extent. Never before would I have been able to gather my favorite musicians and go into the studio. That’s what’s so great about this record [In a Poem Unlimited]: It’s so varied and all these different people from these different backgrounds are bringing their best stuff to the table, and we made one crazy sculpture.
How has the experience of making and touring In a Poem Unlimited inspired where you want to go next?
This record was the first time I’ve ever been so involved in the production and the mixing, at this level of complication. And I really got into it, and I learned a lot. So the next record will come out in early 2020, and I’m going to record it all live, with everybody in one room … I just want to capture really good performances with good players, and see how that translates. Because I’m really seeing how performance in the live setting is something that is just so special.
You made this record with a lot of friends who’ve plugging away for years with little widespread recognition. Now that U.S. Girls is enjoying a higher level of visibility, do you feel a duty to promote their music along with your own?
I think that’s a person’s responsibility, always, in any way of life. If you have some opportunity in this industry, you should be pulling your friends up with you. If you’re a person who’s come into money, you should be sharing it with people around you. If you have some garden with an abundance of food, share it. If you have a car, you should lend it to friends who don’t have a car. That just feels natural to me.