U.S. Girls is the moniker for Canada-based, Chicago-born singer-songwriter Meghan Remy. Starting as a noise pop project in 2007, U.S. Girls gradually transformed into a dark pop machine, culminating in 2015’s breakthrough Half Free on label 4AD. The album struck gold in meshing Remy’s deceptively sweet vocals with lush samples and foreboding, political lyrics that rewarded multiple listens. Eschewing tape decks for a full band, U.S. Girls’ latest album In a Poem Unlimited presents a bright, heady mix of funk, disco, 60s soul, and classic pop. Remy’s previously dark and monochrome rhythms now shine in Technicolor, but they have lost none of their lyrical bite along the way. The album has garnered rave reviews, as MATIJA ZIVKOVIC reports.
Where are you in the world today?
I’m on a whole other day, not even on the same day as you! I’m in Toronto, Canada.
Your music career has been interesting – you started off experimenting with tape loops and sampling, and then you moved in a progressively more pop direction. What are some of your early experiences with music and your early influences? And what eventually led you to looping and sampling?
My earliest experiences with music were just listening – I was obsessed with the radio. I had a lot of cassettes, I made mixtapes from the radio. When I turned 10 I started calling into radio stations. I’d call and they’d put me on the air because I was a little kid, and I was calling to sing. People thought it was funny. I sang and requested songs. Back then I never thought about being a musician or playing an instrument, ever. Nobody in my family was a musician. But then as I became a teenager I got into punk, and what you learn with punk is that anyone can play. You don’t even really need an instrument – you can just scream, or whatever. So I started singing along to CD’s in my garage. I got a little amp with a mic. Then I got a bass, then I got a guitar… When I was 17 I moved to the West Coast and got enmeshed in the music scene in Portland, Oregon. That’s when I started seeing more experimental and conceptual music. That’s when I learned about tape and recording on reel-to-reels and four tracks. It started there and I was hooked. I like collaging and it was a natural extension of that, except in the audio world – making collages out of sound.
One of the most distinctive parts of your music is your voice. It’s hard to place – there’s a lot of different influences but it most reminds me of 60s girl groups – the Ronettes and the Supremes, things like that. What were some of your influences there?
All of that! (laughs.) I can just remember when the Ronettes would come on the radio and I could hear Ronnie Spector’s voice. The way I felt, the way it made me feel was so crazy – I learned how to sing by singing along to those songs until my voice took on that character. It also has a lot to do with my accent, being from Chicago I had a very pronounced accent. Some of it’s natural, some of it’s affectation!
I loved your last album Half Free, you used sampling but also took it in a more pop direction. What spurred that change?
Half Free came about because I started working more intensely with [producer] Lewis Percival, who makes a lot of hip hop beats. It went from being avantgarde, weird sampling to being more hip hop structured. Working with him producing the tracks made it naturally go in that zone. I couldn’t have done it on my own – I needed someone in front of me, pushing me, getting me to try things and go out of my comfort zone. He was a big part of that.
Your new record In a Poem Unlimited is much more multi-coloured. It has a full band behind it. How did you go about recording it – was it recorded live?
What we did is we made demos of all the songs. The demos were in various states – some of them were samples, some were just guitar. We took them and had them charted out. And then we went into the studio and the band tracked the bed tracks in three days. Then we did overdubs and tonnes of editing, and then the vocals took over a year. The main goal was to make an album with a band that sounds like people would want to sample it. That sounds like the original source material.
Like 70s funk, drum breaks and all.
Yeah. In the past I’d sampled all that before, but this time could we make it, and could we use it? And I think we did.
To me In a Poem Unlimited sounds brighter and less dark than Half Free, was that something you’d aimed for?
Yeah. I think if you want to reach the most amount of people, you have to trick them [laughs]. You can’t do it with depressing darkness – people don’t want to go there. Some people do, but most don’t. It’s like a bright shiny object, it’ll get their attention.
You’ve always had a darkness and message behind your lyrics, with topics talking about women’s oppression and politics. What was your lyrical approach on In a Poem Unlimited, what are some themes you decided to tackle?
The themes are the same as the ones I’ve been doing for the whole 10 years of this project. They’re the things I think about, that I think are important and that I want people talking, asking questions, and thinking about. It’s personal and political – I think we all need to start at home and dissect ourselves if we expect anything to change elsewhere. A lot of it is just me… it’s a mass of my brain in a way!
The song Velvet 4 Sale stuck out to me lyrically – what is it about?
That song is one woman talking to another woman, and the woman is trying to convince her friend that, instead of continuing to be scared as an unarmed woman in the world – scared of walking down the street and all of a sudden there’s a guy walking up behind you – instead arming yourself, getting a gun, and killing men. Trying to play the game that men play, which is a little boy’s game with guns – men are always running around shooting people. It’s – you know – it’s a joke really. A gun, it’s a false power. Violence is a false power. It’s something you do because you don’t have the brain capacity to come up with another action, so you just shoot someone. Women aren’t really violent, we don’t do that. It’s dissecting and imagining if we did. What if women started arming themselves and killing their attackers – what would that look like? And men are lucky that we don’t really do that!
So you live in Canada, but you were born in Chicago?
Yeah, born in Chicago and been living in Canada for the past eight years.
Along that line of gun violence, America certainly has that issue. Australia not so much, and I’d imagine not Canada either. Living in Canada versus the U.S. in general – how is life different?
Well there’s less guns for sure. There’s less people. But the problems that exist in the U.S. also exist here, they’re just not on steroids the way they are down there. Everything in America is so… heightened and cartoonish. It’s so filtered through the media that everything is unreal. Up here things are more organic. But there’s still racism, there’s sexism, there’s a judicial system problem, there’s a military problem… it’s all here too. There’s a problem with the land and natural resources, given what’s happening with the pipelines. It’s all here as well. It’s what’s happening right now in general – everyone outside is so glad they don’t live in America and that they don’t have Trump, it’s made them stop dissecting their own homes. And that’s dangerous.
And how about Australia, have you been down our way before? If so what did you think?
Yeah we came there for the last record. We really loved Melbourne. We had the most fun there. We went to New Zealand too. In Australia we were opening for Sleater-Kinney. They were great shows and you’re nice people, we’d love to come back.
As a closer – the album is out, what’s the next step?
We go on tour. We start touring March 5th and we’re gone through May and probably more after that. We’re focussing on performance and connecting with people live. Travelling around and seeing with our own eyes what’s actually going on out there.
Will this be with a full live band? Your previous live performances have been yourself and your electronics – have you played with a band before?
Yes this will be with a full eight-piece band. I played with a four-piece band very briefly in 2012, but this is the first time I’ve played with this many people before. It’s quite a production. Tell anyone you know at any festivals to have us! It’ll be a really good show.