By Alan Ranta
VANCOUVER – Life hasn’t changed all that much for Meg Remy since Half-Free, her 2015 album under the U.S. Girls banner, earned a Juno Awards nomination for ‘Alternative Album of the Year’ and landed on the shortlist for the Polaris Music Prize. Those accolades came near the end of the promotional cycle for her fifth full-length, as she was putting the finishing touches on her sixth, In a Poem Unlimited. As such, she hasn’t toured much since then to gauge crowd reaction, while typical journalists speaking to her these days think she’s still an emerging artist, but that ought to change with the feathers this challenging, dynamic record will ruffle throughout its cycle.
“I just want people to react honestly to it,” Remy yearns. “Oftentimes, things that people end up liking, they, at first, have an adverse reaction to, and then later they realize it’s stuck in their paw. I don’t think people want things shoved in their face, and told what to like. Unfortunately, that’s kind of the way the industry works; they beat a dead horse… Labels, managers and people like this have an equation that they think works, based on previous successes or whatever industry standards. I find that frustrating and limiting. It’s a fine line; you have to play the game, but, for me, it’s more important to retain integrity.”
Integrity is all over In a Poem Unlimited. It’s part of a larger cultural conversation. “Incidental Boogie” has an aggressive industrial-pop sound, yet the lyrics paint of picture of a woman abused for so long that she becomes accustomed to it, appreciating a man who doesn’t leave marks when he beats her. For men who may questions like “why didn’t she just leave?” when they read about sexual assault survivors, this is the complicated answer. “Pearly Gates” critiques St. Peter, who attempts to use his position of power to coerce a woman into sexual congress, basically saying he’ll get her into heaven if she fucks him, while “Velvet 4 Sale” reclaims a phrase from noted wife-stabber Norman Mailer, and flips it into a contemplation on the violent tendencies among women, or the lack thereof.
“Men are lucky that women aren’t inherently violent because they’d be dead right now,” Remy ponders. “All the times that men are fucking with women, if we were responding the way men do to things… It would be a bloodbath.”
Existing almost in contrast to the poetically executed yet viscerally grounded lyrics on In a Poem Unlimited, drawn from life experiences within and stories pertaining to the socio-political circumstances that made the #MeToo movement so very necessary, there is an unblinking dance music influence to be heard. She acknowledges the likes of George and Gwen McCrae, KC and the Sunshine Band, Andrea True Connection, all the things that weren’t disco yet influenced by disco like Glass Candy and “I Was Made for Loving You” by KISS, as well as Madlib, Ghostface Killah, and all the hip-hop that appeared on MTV in the ’90s.
“There was definitely a purpose, an intent with this record to make things that could be danced to,” asserts Remy. “I’ve never been at a concert where there’s dancing where violence has broken out or I’ve ever felt really uncomfortable. Dancing is a joyous thing. It’s fun to do in a crowd because you are your own person dancing, so you’re an individual, but you’re part of a larger machine, which is the group, so I like that it satisfies being an individual and also realizing that you’re part of the human race. We knew we would tour with this record, and the state of things right now, I think that people really need some dance therapy. I know I do.”
U.S. Girls is, itself, something of a larger machine. Meg Remy is clearly the head chef in the U.S. Girls kitchen, but she is quick to give credit to the close circle of twenty-plus friends who helped to cook up In a Poem Unlimited, and make it sound like something someone would want to sample. Initially, she’d toyed with the idea of having Michael Rault track the whole record, singlehandedly. However, after sitting in on another session, he suggested getting eight-piece, Toronto-based galactic funk band The Cosmic Range do it. Remy’s husband, Max “Slim Twig” Turnbull happens to play in The Cosmic Range, so that was a no-brainer, though Rault would still play bass and help arrange “Mad as Hell” and the cover of “Time” by Micah Blue Smaldone.
Musically and spiritually, Turnbull supported Remy through the album process, earning co-writing credits on three tracks. Steve Chahley returned in the producer’s chair, continuing his work from Half Free and the self-titled debut of Remy/Turnbull project Darlene Shrugg. Louis Percival (a.k.a. Onakabazien) figured heavily into boom-bap of “Pearly Gates” and the disco-infused Nine Inch Nails vibe of “Incidental Boogie.” Simone Schmidt of Fiver lent a hand in Remy’s rendition of “Rage of Plastics,” and fellow Polaris-nominee Basia Bulat floats around in the background, among other contributors.
“I’m not really a musician’s musician,” admits Remy. “Being in the studio and doing all that stuff was very new for me, and a big challenge. It helped me develop more confidence, and realize that just ’cause I’m not a crazy guitar or piano virtuoso that it doesn’t matter, that I can be good at the things I’m good at, and the things that I’m not, I can ask for help.”
Helping her to translate the In a Poem Unlimited experience to a live setting will fulfil another of Remy’s wishes. She’s bringing an eight-piece ensemble on tour, including herself. It’s a big extravaganza band, like she dreamed of as a kid.
“I sing and do cassettes still, and then there’s drums, two guitars, bass, keys, saxophone and a back-up singer,” Remy exclaims. “There’s Americans and Canadians in the band, a good mix of old friends and new friends. I’ve been lucky to gather a group of people around me that want to do this, and we’re all on the same page. We’re looking to go out and do a bit of a rock and roll exorcism.”
Exorcize your dance demons with U.S. Girls at the Biltmore Cabaret (Vancouver) on March 25.4AD, Art-Rock, Biltmore Cabaret, electro-pop, synth-pop, U.S Girls