Uncharted: U.S. Girls

UNCHARTED: How moving to Canada helped U.S. Girls better understand America

In this wide-ranging interview, U.S. Girls' Meg Remy talks about her new community of collaborators, great theatre, and violence.

- Sep 19, 2016
UNCHARTED is Chart Attack's showcase of independent Canadian artists we think you should hear. This time, on the day her album Half Free competes for the Polaris Prize, U.S. Girls' Meg Remy explains why she's already moved past it.

Meghan Remy of U.S. Girls has only recently become a permanent resident of Canada, but she's already being showered with some of the biggest accolades we've got to offer our indie musicians. Not just spots on Chart Attack's Best Canadian Songs of The Year (the highest accolade of all), but a Juno nomination for Alternative Album of the Year, and now a spot on the 2016 Polaris Prize short list. These nominations come for Half Free, the first U.S. Girls album that is even eligible. Never mind that she only recently learned those awards existed; it's clear that Canada has accepted Remy with open arms.

And she's accepted them back, filling Half Free with artists from the little outsider arts community she's found herself in since moving from Philadelphia (via Chicago) to Toronto: her husband Slim Twig, Ice Cream, Simone TB (all of whom she plays with in the mighty Darlene Shrugg), Ben Cook, Onakabazien, Carl Didur, and, somehow, more. U.S. Girls was once an ironic moniker for Remy, considering she was basically the only U.S. Girl. But, she says, opening herself up to collaboration has reinvigorated the project and made her a better artist. All it took was falling in love... and a little bit of feminist theatre performance theory.

Tonight at the Polaris Prize gala, Half Free will compete with other big albums like GrimesArt Angels and Carly Rae Jepsen's E•MO•TION (among others) to be named the best Canadian album of the year (plus a $50,000 cheque). It would certainly be a deserving candidate — a deeply felt, thought-provoking and genre-jumping art pop album that deconstructs the American Dream by amplifying the (mostly female) voices and stories it usually leaves out: war widows, plastic surgery addicts, and emotional labourers. Like another album that didn't make the short list, Half Free reveals its layers gradually, which means I'm not cramming it back into my consciousness in time for the award — it's been there all along.

But not Remy. As she tells me in this interview, she's already over it.

On the occasion of the Polaris gala, I called Meg Remy while she cleaned the Toronto apartment she shares with her husband. In her laid-back drawl, she casually lobbed out fascinating nuggets about a wide range of subjects: the intrusiveness of the Canadian immigration process, what to do when your ambitions outgrow your skill set, how collaboration is a feminist act, what live music audiences could learn by going to see a play, and what's so fascinating about violence.

Then, because she never stops moving forward, she redirected our conversation towards the future and the upcoming records from U.S. Girls and the almighty Darlene Shrugg.

U.S. Girls - Window Shades (Official Video)

Chart Attack: Half Free was nominated for both a Juno and the Polaris Prize. Is this the first time you’ve been eligible?

Meghan Remy: I think so. My last long playing record, I wasn’t a permanent resident yet. That’s what makes you eligible.

So you’re not a Canadian citizen? You're married to Max Turnbull (a.k.a. Slim Twig). Does that speed up the process?

I’m not that far from the U.S. border, but there's also that border between me and everything I knew before, and that really changed my perspective on what came before.

Meghan Remy, U.S. Girls
No, it doesn’t actually. It’s not really like that anymore. [Being married to a Canadian] helps for proving your case that you should be there, but they’re very skeptical of marriages. Like, you have to submit a lot of proof that you’re actually in love: letters from other people who’ve witnessed your love and how they’ve witnessed it, photos of you kissing, all kinds of weird shit. So like any movie that you see together, keep the ticket stubs. For the permanent residency we had to submit tons of documents.

It’s like getting audited for your taxes or something.

Yeah, but like audited for your love.

There's that famous Pierre Trudeau quote how the government has no place in the bedrooms of Canadians. And now this is like "prove it, show us your bed."

I think just after 9/11 security changed, but also they’re attempting to protect the health care system here.

So here you’re being nominated for these very Canadian awards, but U.S. Girls, and especially Half Free, is so focused on deconstructing the myth of Americana. Is that a strange disconnect for you?

I mean, that’s my perspective. I’m American, so that’s where I’m coming from. It’s weird to be nominated for these awards, but then also not, because I’m the only American who worked on the record. The rest is Canadians who have had longstanding careers in the music business and have been working here for a long time. I just feel like, you know, I don’t have much relationship to these prizes because they’re very new in my consciousness. But all the people that worked on the record, it’s nice for them to be recognized among their peers and all that.

Even if you're relatively new to Canada, it feels like the Canadian music scene has really embraced you.

Yeah, I think I’m at an advantage because I’m considered exotic or something, you know, because I come from the outside. It’s almost like the Canadian scenes are just more welcoming of things that come from the outside than of their own things.

U.S. Girls - Sororal Feelings (Official Video)

I think there's some truth to that. Many of the best authors in Canada, like Michael Ondaatje, whose book Coming Through Slaughter you allude to in "Sororal Feelings," are first or second generation Canadians. There's a long literary tradition of people leaving where they were born to better understand where they come from. 

It’s not like I’m that far from the States. It’s only, what, an hour and a half to Buffalo. But there's also that dividing line of the border between me and everything I knew before, and that really changed my perspective on what came before. Seeing this election cycle from an outsider perspective, sort of once removed from the land, is interesting. I definitely feel safer having come up here. Safer and saner.

It must be a privilege to watch from the outside.

Yeah, but it was definitely a privilege to leave there. Most people are stuck in it.

Were you really trying to get out?

I think that falling in love really forced the move and was the main fuel for that, but I’ve been at odds with America for a long time and was hoping to get out. I had never thought of Canada, though. I always thought that I’d end up in Europe. But I’m glad I didn’t.

U.S. Girls until now has seemed like a very solitary project, like you could have been doing it from anywhere. But now it seems like you've found yourself in a real community of artists here. 

Falling in love with someone who is truly my ally and who I trust has really opened me up to collaboration, first with him, and then collaboration in general. My work in all mediums has grown in a way I never could have imagined, because of collaboration. When it's many people working on something rather than just you, you’re going to have better results, because everyone’s got a different skill set that they’re bringing to the table and they can contribute something to the final product. It’s always nice to open it up like that.

So would you say U.S. Girls has turned into more of a band?

Falling in love with someone who is truly my ally has really opened me up to collaboration, first with him, and then collaboration in general. My work in all mediums has grown in a way I never could have imagined.

Meghan Remy, U.S. Girls
“Band” —  I don’t really relate to that, but it’s definitely like a collaborative group. I always say I’m like the head curator. I’m the final one who says yay or nay on how things sound or what’s going on, but it’s being touched by so many people before it finally wraps up. And I think that’s a better way to work.

You worked the other way for so long, so is that something you had to be convinced of?

My ambitions just grew beyond my skill set. I was working pretty much strictly in an experimental world previously when I was alone, and I was a little bit stuck there because of my limitations with instruments and recording equipment and things like that. I think I made interesting work at that time, but it was very isolated and singular and it needed help evolving. I wasn’t going to be able to evolve on my own, especially as quickly as I have.

So then do you consider Half Free a big leap forward?

Yeah, but I’ve been doing these songs for about a year now and I am bored with them. I’ve moved beyond them, especially since I’ve already started writing new material. The last little chunk of shows I did for this album I was trying to mix things up more performatively because I wasn’t entirely able to musically.

U.S. Girls

Photos by: Kristel Jax, from How Up Here Festival aims to rebrand Sudbury

Would you say there's a concept to how you approach live shows?

I’m getting more into theatre, reading a lot of plays and seeing plays, getting interested in a live performance going beyond just playing music or like dancing around, kind of giving it another dimension with possibly a narrative or improvised action that allows the audience to decide what’s going on for themselves. Just trying to put on a show in the hopes that people are so enthralled that they don’t look at their phones. It’s like pulling teeth trying to get people to pay attention these days, even if they’re into the music.

Men, when you’re a woman, they seem very unpredictable. It’s like a dog — are they gonna bite me or are they gonna lick me?

Meghan Remy, U.S. Girls
There’s something that I started noticing going to plays: when you go to a play, people turn their phones off. And they don’t look at their phone, because if your phone went off when someone was delivering their lines you would be shunned publicly in that space. It would be a huge embarrassment. Even to see a lit up screen in a dark theatre, you don’t see that because there’s a respect there with theatre. And the knowingness of the audience’s role, which is you’re there to witness something. It doesn’t really cross over the same with musical performances. There’s not that respect, or that understanding of what the audience’s role is as an audience, which is to consume something.

What prompted you to get into theatre?

I had no real background in it. I hadn’t really even seen a play until recently. I just had no idea. So I read a little kind of primer on theatre, and from that took notes on the plays and playwrights and time periods that seemed interesting to me, and I’ve just been reading them all.

My favourite that I found is Caryl Churchill, who’s a British playwright who’s still alive. She’s really incredible. I’ve just been reading so much of it. It’s feminist-based work, and her main thing is collaboration. She thinks to collaborate is a surefire way to ensure that you’re not operating in a patriarchal way. So each one of her plays is kind of different depending on who she’s collaborating with, and yet it still has her touch on each thing. I obviously relate to that coming from how I operate U.S. Girls. She has a play that’s really incredible called Top Girls that I’ve really fallen in love with. It’s set at a dinner party with famous women throughout history. It’s very funny and very real. It really struck something with me.

U.S. Girls - Damn That Valley (Official Video)

It makes sense you'd get into playwrights considering how Half Free is written in the voice of a variety of different personas. Is that something you're continuing on the next record?

It seems like the new record is less character-based and more hitting on overall themes in a general way. And the lyrics are getting, I think, way more violent. I'm dissecting violence a lot more because it’s something I don’t relate with and yet it’s everywhere. And it’s a very male thing in my mind, the way I think of it. Why don’t women result to violence the way men do? And what if we did? What would that be like?

Pop is commerce. Pop is directly related to the capitalist hole we find ourselves in. And I don’t know if I could fully be able to go there.

Meghan Remy, U.S. Girls
Being a woman, I have to go through my entire life experience feeling hunted. Walking down the street by myself at night, although not every time do I feel scared, it happens where I’m freaked out. I’m walking and all of a sudden a man comes out of a building, I jump. Or sometimes if I’m on the subway and a man just sits next to me, I get scared. Because men, when you’re a woman, they seem very unpredictable. It’s like a dog — are they gonna bite me or are they gonna lick me?

I'm just trying to sort through all that stuff because the violence that women experience on an individual basis from other individual men, in my mind it mirrors the violence that’s going on around the world. It’s the same as the police brutality that’s happening in the States, it’s the same as the bombing of the Syrian people. There’s a connection there for me. And it’s male power.

Discomfort has always been a part of your music, and that seems like a strange thing for pop music, which usually aims to make you feel good. I wouldn't exactly call U.S. Girls "pop," but it definitely has one foot in that world, especially compared to your noisier earlier albums. 

I think the pop form is the bait. And then some people they take the bait and they let it go. They only get that, they only get the pop part of it. But some people, they swallow that bait and they’re hooked. They go one level deeper, and then maybe another level. And they get to the other stuff that I’ve attempted to put in there. But I try to make things so that whether you go deep or not you can enjoy them. On the surface or under the surface level, either/or.

But I don’t think I could ever be a pop “act.” Because you have to lose control in order to become a true pop act. And I don’t mean "lose control" like go crazy, I mean lose control of your work and yourself. And you have other people dictating a lot of stuff. You know, pop is commerce. Pop is directly related to the capitalist hole we find ourselves in. And I don’t know if I could fully be able to go there.

U.S. Girls - Woman's Work (Official Video)

So you have the performance art aspect, the pop aspect, the noise aspect, the theatre aspect, and it seems you can play them up or down depending on the show or venue.

Yeah, and I think that’s a thing that people have been doing for a long time, using the pop form to express other things. I think Yoko Ono did that really well, I think Frank Zappa did that really well.

You and Max are making different kinds of music, but you seem to share this autodidactic spirit. You're both constantly reading and consuming and thinking about other people's art and how it relates to your own. 

That’s our life’s work: creating work and consuming the work of other people, and trying to figure out what the hell is going on in this world and where we fit in it.

Meghan Remy, U.S. Girls
Max more so than I with the music, he’s just got a voracious appetite for music. Always on a daily basis he’s just sorting through things he hasn’t heard before. Old, new, anything, he’s just constantly broadening his tastes. And I think in terms of films and books and things, he and I are on par. That’s what we’re interested in. We don’t go to bars or we don’t really socialize much, because we really settled in with each other and broadening our minds together and apart, and that’s our life’s work: creating work and consuming the work of other people and trying to figure out what the hell is going on in this world and where we fit in it.

We filmed a live Noisemakers session with Darlene Shrugg [Remy's band with Slim Twig, Ice Cream, and Simone TB] early this year and it seems you've been kind of quiet since then. What's happening with that band?

We’re just finishing a record. It’s pretty much done, and it’s great.

It’s been a long process. We’ve been working on it for awhile. We don’t know who’s putting it out yet. It’ll get out come hell or high water, however we’ve got to do it.

It’s a heavy record. Everyone on it is a crazy singer, crazy player. There’s a lot of voices on it. There’s a lot of people singing on it. And it really feels like a democratic kind of group effort where everyone gets their chance to shine, to say something. I think it’s going to be an undeniable rock record the way that I think we’re an undeniable live act.

Darlene Shrugg perform "First World Blues" in a loft | Noisemakers

You haven’t played that many shows, so it almost feels like a bit of a secret. 

I think that’s kind of a nice thing. We’re all people that have lots of musical stuff going on. Ice Cream is busy, Max is busy, Simone TB is very busy, I’m obviously busy as well. So Darlene is a project we take very seriously but is really for joy. We know the music is good, we know we’re good live, and that’s good enough for us. We don’t have to push ourselves down people’s throats because we know that people will see us eventually, and that’s all it takes.

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