U.S. Girls Have Finally Arrived

Meg Remy is moving very, very quickly. She’s just rushed offstage after soundcheck, introduces herself out of breath with a quick handshake, and then immediately collects herself to do a rapid lap around the block for a photoshoot. She has to move quickly: Her band, U.S. Girls, is about to undertake the daunting and frenetic task of playing three shows in one night at the small Brooklyn club Baby’s All Right. There are a lot of moving pieces, a lot of things that need to fall into place right now.

The occasion lands on the latest leg of touring in support of her sixth LP under the U.S. Girls moniker, In A Poem Unlimited, which came out in mid-February. In the subsequent months, it appears that the album is marking a true arrival for the project, that Remy is finally garnering the wider recognition that her longtime fans have always believed she deserved. Some people didn’t expect that, though, which is how you find yourself booked for a three show marathon in one evening.

“Oh, it wasn’t a choice,” Remy responds, dryly amused but matter-of-fact, when I ask what exactly she was thinking by agreeing to this. “None of the promoters bet on this record doing well, so all the shows were booked before it came out, and all the shows sold out.” The second statement feels loaded: You get the sense that she was betting on it even if others weren’t.

Even if the Baby’s All Right shows are the result of circumstantial demand, there’s something in the air around them. The venue fills to the point where you’re pretty much pressed up against people without room to budge, then it empties, then it does that twice more over the course of the night. There is a feeling, like a small-scale coronation taking place, belated and scrambled together, necessitating three separate installments instead of one single blowout. It’s an exciting energy, when you witness firsthand a restless and idiosyncratic artist start to get their due after years in the trenches.

The process began with Remy’s last collection, 2015’s Half Free. Even that was some late-breaking recognition; U.S. Girls has been in existence for over 10 years now. For a chunk of that time, it was a completely solo endeavor, Remy crafting experimental electronic pop music with the tools at her disposal.

As the years passed, her ambitions broadened and she opened it up to collaborators, leading to more significant left turns and denser music. Half Free was her first release for the revered indie label 4AD, and it was one of those albums that felt like it caught on like a slow-spreading fire, “Have you heard this?” word of mouth and a Juno nomination laying the groundwork for her to break through on her next round.

Half Free was dominated by unsettling, narcotic synth-pop, Remy pushing her voice into sing-song cadences and the borders of a piercing higher register over atmospherics that sounded like pretty songs warped in a funhouse mirror. In A Poem Unlimited is a completely different beast. Remy made it with the Toronto collective Cosmic Range, who helped her achieve its hybrid sound of funk, jazz, psych-rock, and disco. It’s a humid, teeming album, music of exhilaration to counter the angry themes that run throughout.

U.S. Girls as a live entity has, accordingly, taken on a radically different form compared to the last time I saw Remy. That was at the tail end of the Half Free tour cycle: It was simply Remy, her husband Max Turnbull (aka Slim Twig) on guitar, and a second singer. Part of the reason the pacing is so frantic at Baby’s is because it’s not just Remy and a couple accomplices taking the stage. It’s because, in order to replicate what the Cosmic Range did on In A Poem Unlimited, she has to coordinate a nine person band. (The official touring lineup is eight including Remy, but they’re joined by a conga player who happens to be in town from Oakland on the night of the Baby’s show.)

U.S. Girls
CREDIT: Krista Schlueter

The logistics are worth it. Each set at Baby’s feels like a revelation, Remy leading her band through hard-hitting soul burners, letting them cut loose into dramatic jams on the more sprawling, groove-oriented tracks. The setlists are, appropriately, dominated by the new material, but they also recontextualize older tracks to fit the new aesthetic; the Half Free standout “Navy & Cream” no longer drifts along on glacial synths, but instead undulates with sweaty wah guitar. Maybe because there are nine people crammed on Baby’s tiny stage, backlit by its distinctive light wall, the shows feel like pressure bursting, like you’re caught in a heaving cloud rippling with saxophone peals instead of lightning.

Throughout the night, it feels like an Event, maybe because of its unusual conceit or maybe because of the diehards it attracts. The band has provided giant foam fingers of the sort you’d see at a sporting event, but instead they’re giving the middle finger and are emblazoned with “Mad As Hell” on said middle finger, after In A Poem Unlimited‘s furious disco lead single “M.A.H.” Fans wave them in the air at the appropriate moments.

Funnily enough, it’s the earliest crowd that seems the drunkest, like everyone decided they needed to turn up real fast for a 7:30 gig. By the end, Baby’s has overflowed, fans from the past shows crammed in the front bar with the new arrivals. The final set starts late, and spills out over 2AM, finally closing what must’ve been something like 12 total hours of exertion for U.S. Girls.

***
“How are you feeling today?” I ask Remy the next day around lunchtime. We’ve met in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, at a coffee/kolache shop, to talk about the aftermath of the show, but also the aftermath of In A Poem Unlimited, how it feels to have it out in the world and have a few months’ worth of people’s reactions.

“I’m tired,” she cracks. But she doesn’t seem it. She can’t be, really. The band has to be back on the road ASAP, for yet another gig down in Philly. There isn’t time for U.S. Girls to be slowing down, taking a breather.

And Remy never really gives off that vibe, even as she jokes about the frazzled and somewhat disoriented stretch between the second and third gigs the preceding night. Instead, she is constant, buzzing energy, quick to help a conversation veer from the machinery of making music into abstract philosophical musings on everything that’s fucked about the world order and technology and capitalism.

I ask Remy if the higher level of attention surrounding In A Poem Unlimited has affected her in any kind of way, if her creative process or ambitions feel impacted by the press accolades and sold out shows. If she’s fazed by the buzz, she doesn’t let on. “[The fact that] it’s clicking is nice, but I’d be continuing on if it wasn’t as well,” she says. “I’m lucky I’m an older person with this happening, because I’m set in my ways. That’s why it is slow, I think. I’m in no rush.”

Instead, she’s been doing her thing, gradually attracting more ears, like a magnet slowly collecting adherents with each pass. “I don’t want to be shoved down anyone’s throat, and I think that is why people are happy to find this record or find U.S. Girls, because it wasn’t something that was actively marketed to them and so it feels more special,” she continues. “That means something to me. I don’t want to ever force someone to consume me, and I don’t want to be a product. I’m just a person.”

But at the same time, Remy felt like she had something on her hands — those promoters didn’t bet on it, but she knew In A Poem Unlimited was special. “It’s not surprising to me because the record’s really good,” she says, with a refreshing dose of directness and confidence, about her latest work catching on. “It felt very next level for us. It felt good, it sounded good — everyone [who worked on it] could tell people were going to relate to it because they did, and I did. It’s not surprising to me.”

Part of the reason Remy’s now connecting to more people has to, inevitably, do with accessibility. The earlier U.S. Girls albums had plenty of the same conceptual depth as the more recent ones, but they were coupled with music that was at times equally difficult. In the press cycle for In A Poem Unlimited, Remy’s talked about using pop forms as almost a Trojan horse, a fun and direct vessel for narratives that grappled with systemic issues of sexism and violence against women.

The album’s opening track, “Velvet 4 Sale,” may boast welcoming melodies and rhythms; it also comes with great gravity, considering it’s a rape-revenge tale that turns the guns on abusers. The aforementioned “M.A.H.” stays true to its title, but couches it in instrumentation that finds a fusion between ABBA and Blondie. (Half Free‘s twisting, titanic closer “Women’s Work” feels like the only entry that predicted In A Poem Unlimited in that sense, given that it sounded like a nightmarish inversion of the legendary Swedish pop outfit.) One of the album’s best songs, a re-recorded version of the pre-existing U.S. Girls composition “Incidental Boogie,” somehow manages to locate a funk that’s swampy and robotic at the same time; it’s a highly addicting and infectious song, and its narrator talks about being hit by her partner.

U.S. Girls
CREDIT: Krista Schlueter

It’s a strange and complex thing, an album that sounds like this while trafficking in such heavy, real world shit. That was part of the point. “I think dance was the thing,” Remy says simply when explaining her gravitation towards In A Poem Unlimited‘s exorcisms by way of jazz-funk. She wanted to give people something they could move to. “Shit is so heavy right now, and I feel like we’re really disconnected from our bodies,” she continues.

But it wasn’t just about a catharsis. In her typically heady fashion, Remy starts explaining how the brain operates better when the body’s active — that idea that you do your best thinking while on a walk or run. In A Poem Unlimited might make you move, so that a revelation appears. By her estimation, after all, she’s simply going back to a more elemental form to catalog destructive patterns that society is only just now, just barely beginning to reckon with.

“It’s earth music. It’s very present. It’s our bodies,” she says of the lineage the album was tapping into. She adds a smirk and an addendum: “Indie is not earth.”

In fact, the album sounds out of time, detached from almost anything else in the indie landscape right now. The musicians involved were more inspired by hip-hop; the goal was to make an album that sounded like the samples in rap music of these old jazz and funk greats, these serious players. A layered work of pop fantasy, the type of thing that was inspired by rap production yet was made to sound like something from decades past that might’ve inspired rap production itself.

That upending and collaging and reframing of pop history has always been a through line with Remy’s work, like when she’d bury a melodic sensibility quoting oldies and ’60s girl groups in discomfiting synth worlds. Part of it comes from the vast amount of music she and Turnbull listen to at home. Part of it comes from Remy’s manifesto for art in the 21st century.

“That’s what everyone should be doing,” she argues. “In this post-post-post-whatever we’re living in where we have access to everything, we should be digesting it, and putting something out that is our digestion of it, filtered through our unique experience, instead of just taking the stylish elements and appropriating them.”

It’s a conscious appraisal of how we consume pop culture today, with the backlog of pop history in our pockets at all times. And while it may have always informed Remy’s work, it feels more crucial and more vital now, the deeper into unforeseen territory we venture. “That’s just a given to me, that’s just how I think an artist needs to operate,” she adds. “We have no choice, we aren’t islands anymore. It’s hard to make new things. That’s why the individual person is so important. This is the only way something can be new.”

Remy only has time for the future, really. In a lot of the press around In A Poem Unlimited, people justifiably wrote about its feminist concepts within the context of the recent #MeToo moment. Remy has a complicated relationship with her album being positioned that way, in that manner that all albums can be slotted into some narrative happening “in Trump’s America” now. She acknowledges that there’s something useful in a piece of art helping unlock new ideas for people, but is quick to add none of this is new in her music. Instead, she’s looking forward: Tracing her conflicted feelings about that cultural moment with what she sees as a mainstream commodification of feminism, she envisions everything speeding up, intensifying, resulting in true upheaval and reorientation.

“I’m hoping that these conversations evolve, that they go another level,” she explains. “It’s not enough, it’s very surface, it’s very packaged … I don’t want to take anything away from anyone. Words matter. But we need action, too.”

From there, we talk of institutional sickness running through Western culture. Remy talks of utopias, of the hope she sees on the social front with something like the Parkland teens organizing and fueling a nationwide call for new laws, new parameters, new thinking. For her part, she’ll still grapple with that in her work; she is always doubting, always questioning, and trying to filter that into some shape that’s digestible, that can start a discussion with someone else.

As Remy put it earlier in our conversation, part of the problem with these political hooks for albums is that an interview about making pop music isn’t the ideal venue for parsing the complexities of these issues. And, as it goes, before we’re able to solve all the world’s problems and dream up a new societal order, Remy has to get back on the road. We walk outside into a sweltering April afternoon, the remnants of last night’s shows still sweating out of our systems, and say goodbye quickly. Then Remy turns on her heel, and breaks out into a full run towards her tour van, off to the next place.

U.S. Girls
CREDIT: Krista Schlueter

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