U.S. Girls’ Meg Remy Is an American Badass Living in Canada
Remy tells us what it's like to film a quasi-protest video in front of the White House and her new album 'Half Free.'
Photo by Drew Reynolds
So far, Meg Remy is the only artist in the history of the world to record full-lengths for both the shitgaze-vending Siltbreeze and the avant-pop-leaning 4AD labels. And while it’s pretty easy to argue that there is a sizeable gap between the visions of those labels, her work under the moniker U.S. Girls appearing on both rosters makes a lot of sense. When Remy began U.S. Girls in 2007, she was a transgressive artist practicing DIY methods through many different outlets that often invited countless collaborators to participate. Her four-track recordings for Siltbreeze Records were grounded in noise, like a severely damaged AM gold radio broadcast. But over time, Remy has pushed the boundaries of her music to become both more accessible (i.e. real FM-ready pop) and challenging. Her discography reads like a standard experimental act, as she’s opted to spread her music across multiple formats via no less than 18 different labels.
When she met and later married Slim Twig (aka Max Turnbull), Remy moved from Philadelphia via Chicago to Toronto, and quickly found herself at home in her husband’s deep-rooted, DIY music scene. Becoming a Canadian didn’t change all that much—her music was still represented globally, be it through Belgium’s KRAAK, England’s FatCat, Toronto’s Bad Actors, or even her own label with Turnbull, Calico Corp. However, signing with an international imprint as influential and groundbreaking as 4AD could potentially give Remy the breakthrough that seemed very unlikely back in the Siltbreeze days. With her 4AD debut, U.S. Girls reveals her place alongside the label’s roster of cunning misfits like Grimes, Ariel Pink, Scott Walker and Bradford Cox. Inspired by the storytelling of Cassevetes and Springsteen, Half Free is one strange fever dream that utilizes the raw honesty of her earlier recordings. While it’s not as overtly pop-minded as 2012’s girl group-obsessed Gem, Remy steers her ship into more contrasting directions, while strengthening her ability to fuck around with melodies and hooks. It’s an undoubted evolution in sound, but it’s tough to find a piece of music that doesn’t fit the classic 4AD mold better than Half Free right now.
Noisey: Are you now a Canadian citizen?
Meg Remy: I have permanent residency. It basically gives me all of the perks of a citizenship, but I still have a U.S. passport and I can’t vote.
Vice interviewed Win Butler of Arcade Fire, and he said because he’s still American it’s illegal for him to endorse a political party in Canada, which seems crazy.
Oh yeah, I believe that. I’m sure that’s the extreme of it and I doubt they ever would. But if he’s not a citizen and he’s in such a position of power they can.
So that means you can still vote in the U.S. election. Will you?
Fuck no. I never have because: 1) There has never been a candidate I’ve liked enough, and 2) The system is totally rigged. And I don’t believe in a two-party system. And I think the whole thing is fucked up. I’m not gonna choose the lesser of two evils. That’s how I felt with Obama. He’s still a fucking politician. His record has proven his evil. All that surveillance stuff. I think his presidency is a nightmare. I think not voting is a good way to protest. It’s too bad you can’t vote in that position, like voting to not vote. There’s a box you can check. I’m definitely not being heard, but I have the advantage where I’m being interviewed right now, so maybe one person reads this and hears what I have to say. And I talk to my friends about it. I think we’re all on the same page. Most people I know do vote, because it’s what you grow up with, especially in America where they say, “Voting is your right! People died for it!” But I’ve never voted in an election.
To switch topics in a major way, congratulations on signing to 4AD. Did they approach you?
No. I just wrote them an email, and I knew someone who worked there. After I started making demos for the record, I sent demos to a few different labels and everyone passed on it. So I was kind of thinking I’d just put it out myself and I remembered I knew this person at 4AD, so I sent them the demos and that was pretty much it. Okay, so it was an unsolicited email, but it worked [laughs]. I didn’t think I’d ever hear from them.
I’m pretty certain that label was aware of your music.
Yeah, I’m sure I had that advantage yet still I was lucky. It was the right time, right songs kind of thing.
You’ve released music through so many different labels over the years. Is that how you prefer to work or is that just how things have happened?
I think it was just because I was friends with people that ran at each of those labels. With the exception of maybe FatCat, which was a different kind of thing. And I just come from a noise background, where you put out one million releases: CD-Rs, tapes, and singles on little labels. I think I just preferred that more casual, handshake deal with my music for a long time. It was comfortable for me, and then I guess it just changed. And now with 4AD, they make it comfortable with a nice mix of business and passion. They know what they’re doing, they know how to run a business and get a record out, but they’re also interested in music and art and the people they work with having longer careers. And they’re smart to work that way because they have credibility.
I noticed you credit all of the performers as equals. Why is that?
Do you see yourself as a solo artist? Yes and no. I see myself more as an executive producer of U.S. Girls or the head curator. The kind of music I’m making now requires a lot of people to pull it off because my skill set is only at a certain level, when it comes to recording, or playing drums or piano. It used to be more of a solo project. I guess I’m just the final approval. It all has my stamp on it. But a lot of people go into making these songs. And the record wouldn’t exist with everyone that played on it.
How did John Cassavetes and Bruce Springsteen help inspire this album?
Two very American artists. [Laughs] I think it’s mostly just the way they write characters. They both let it all hang out and show people’s flaws. It’s not about glamming anything up, they’re dealing with emotional realism. Springsteen is all about the average person, which he is far from now, but in my books he can’t do wrong. It’s such a weird confliction for him because he is richer than rich, but he’s still a good guy. At every show he donates money to a soup kitchen or a food bank that he finds in each town. He does a lot, still. And you just don’t see him in the press much. That’s a difference. He is rich and famous, but he doesn’t need to be in front of the camera all the time and live that other side of the life, which a lot of celebrities need to take on. He is as good as it gets when it comes to famous people. And Cassavetes wrote about common themes that a lot of us explore. I wouldn’t say his people are the average Joes. More like average well-to-do white people.
You’re known for writing a lot of your songs from the perspective of a character. Can you tell me about some of the characters on Half Free?
Oh… there are so many. The one that started the whole process of wanting to do these characters was the war widow character in “Damn That Valley.” That was so specifically, detailed-oriented written from a character’s perspective, with dialogue and everything. I just got interested in how many different types of perspectives I could write from and what kind of detail I could fit in with these characters to make them come to life and feel different on each song.
What can you tell me about “Telephone Play No.1”?
That’s a skit [laughs]. I wanted to do a skit like they do on hip-hop records, but not have it violent or full of too many expletives. I wrote out some dialogue and sent it to my sister-in-law. We’ve done a lot of video and film work together. She’s the best actor I know. So I sent her the lines and told her we could improvise but try and make it seem natural. Then I called her the next day and recorded it, and that’s what came out. I just wanted to do that classic skit with the phone ringing. I haven’t heard that in a while, but it seems classic to me. I also wanted it to be pretty strange, not safe and comfortable. And I think it’s very confusing, and I like that about it. I think people will get different things out of it each time you listen.
You also explore gender inequality with this record. Feminism is becoming more of bigger discussion now more than ever in music. How do you feel about where it’s at and the alleged progress it has made?
I don’t think any progress has been made. Not really. Remember the music festival poster this summer where if you took all of the male acts off there were hardly any female acts? It hasn’t changed in our day-to-day lives or in music.
So you don’t think Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé calling themselves feminists every chance they get isn’t opening up some kind of dialogue to discuss equality?
No, because they’re still airbrushing themselves on the covers of their records, which I think that kind of technology is making a human being, not a human being. Erasing pores is anti-woman, anti-human, anti-feminist, anti-everything! I think it’s just a fashionable term and it’s being used for capitalist purposes.
I bet Forever 21 is selling t-shirts with “FEMINIST” on them as we speak.
Oh, I’m sure. I’m sure you can also get one that says “SLUT” though too [laughs].
Would you say feminism is hitting a new low then?
I don’t know if it’s a low. For me feminism isn’t about women, it’s about equality for all human beings. The gap between the rich and the poor is so fucking huge right now. Not to mention the gap between corporations and human beings and all that power these corporations and government has over us. I feel the world is at a low point, which means feminism is not succeeding. Feminism is the hope for a better world. It’s just not about women only. That’s why I am a strong believer in men having a say in this topic of feminism. I don’t believe in, “Oh, you’re a man, check your privilege at the door and just shut up while we tell you how it is.” I don’t agree with that. Men are gonna have to be on board if shit’s gonna change. And then have to be in the conversation as well.
When I heard your song “Woman’s Work” I immediately thought of Kate Bush’s song. But that isn’t where your idea came from?
The term “work” comes more from plastic surgery. Like, “Oh, she got work done.” It’s song about a woman who can’t stop getting plastic surgery. Which is basically every fucking woman in Hollywood and all of these creepy, ugh, plastic people that are walking around these days.
Yeah, the first one that comes to mind is Kylie Jenner, and she just turned 18 a month ago! Yet it’s pretty obvious that she’s had so much work done.
If you’ve got money you can do anything. And your parents sign off on it. I know a girl who got, in the 60s even, got a nose job when she was a senior in high school. They thought it would help her because she was depressed [laughs]. I think it’s more common than we think, and it’s been that way for a while. I bet it’s braces now in some parts of America.
You previously said you wouldn’t make an album as pop as Gem, but I’d argue that Half Free is. What do you think? And why did you feel you wouldn’t?
[laughs] People keep saying that. I guess it’s just my ear. I don’t think it is. It’s all pop music. I’m just trying to write catchy songs. I guess I was just so focused on the lyrical content… but it’s definitely poppy, but it’s a more challenging album than Gem. And Gem was more rock and this one isn’t.
You and your husband, who goes by Slim Twig, both have new releases out, which you both appear on. What stops the two of you from joining forces and starting a band together instead of focusing on separate projects?
We have a band called Darling Shrug, which is all women and then Max. It’s Simon TB on drums and then two girls from the band Ice Cream. We’re just finishing a record now. We have only really have played in Toronto. That’s kind of our joint thing. Max and I work so much on each other’s projects, and we’re both control freaks to just totally abandon ship and join forces. And we’re very different in the kind of music that we want to make or our goals are super different. I think we’re better just helping each other out.
Are you guys still doing Calico Corp?
Yeah! The last thing we did was the Zacht Automat album, which was a big release for us. It took a lot of money to put that out, and we’ve just been so busy with our own stuff. We have lots of things that we want to put out, it’s just all of the vinyl presses are so backed up. We kind of want to do an art book instead of a record. We started it with the purpose of releasing all kinds of artifacts, not just records.
You’re an accomplished director and direct or co-direct most of your own music videos. Is there one in particular that you’re most proud of?
I don’t know. I really like “Damn That Valley” because still when I see it I’m like, “Hell yeah!” It gets me going. It’s like American Badass, which is what Max calls me. He says my record should have been called American Badass. That was batted around for a little bit. Instead of Half Free, American Badass. And I think I did miss the boat by not calling it that.
Like the Kid Rock song.
[Laughs] Yeah! It’s his joke for me, but when I see that video I remember how great it was to make. That’s my sister-in-law Lucy in it. Making it was just a trip. We filmed it just as tourists in DC. They didn’t know we were doing it. We just set up a tripod and filmed. And it was great of 4AD to agree to release that as my first single for them. I thought that was pretty bold of them. And I appreciated them letting me make a political statement like that.
My favourite video of yours is “28 Days.” When my daughter’s old enough, I’ll show it to her.
When your daughter’s the right age someone needs to teach her how to follow her cycle. That is the most important thing a young girl can figure out so they don’t have to take birth control.
Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.