Photo: Colin Medley/4AD
Exclusive: Meg Remy On U.S. Girls' Ongoing Art Pop Music Experiment
On a Friday evening of the first warm day of the year in New York City, Williamsburg's newest live music institution, Baby's All Right, is at capacity for the earliest of three highly anticipated sold-out sets by U.S. Girls.
The decade-in-development brainchild of Meg Remy, U.S. Girls have veered and plowed its way across the art pop landscape, leveling entire sections of noise, funk, blues, soul, and disco in their path. The project's current iteration on display is stunning — an eight-piece jazz-psych outfit playing Remy's carefully crafted pop concoctions with unshakable precision and untamable freedom. Right from the set's opener, "Velvet 4 Sale" it's obvious why this is the hottest ticket in town and why they had to add two more sets to meet demand.
"Velvet 4 Sale" also serves as the opening song on U.S. Girls' latest album, the immaculate In A Poem Unlimited, Remy's sixth under the U.S. Girls moniker and second with influential indie label, 4AD. Evolving from her one-woman band beginnings to integrating a variety of collaborators, the album shows Remy's experimental pop genius in a new, more complete light.
"I kind of exercised what I could do as a solo artist," says Remy. "And the few collaborators I've had over the past couple years, we had kind of exercised our working relationship as well to the point where we would have just been making the same thing again, possibly. So instead of abandoning those people or abandoning anything I ever did before, it was like, 'Let's take all these things that I've done previously and all I've learned before, and then present it to these musicians and see how they translate it.'"
Remy recorded demos for the album and then fed them to Toronto instrumental jazz band the Cosmic Range, leaving them to animate the song sketches and record their interpretations. Remy would then edit and re-edit the results to conduct a sort of pop-science experiment with the clear variable being genre.
As with many governmental scientific advances, In A Poem Unlimited was a breakthrough driven as much by the political climate as by anything else.
"[I made the] record coinciding with the  election going on in the States, and everything was very bleak and it felt like a very good time to take a risk," says Remy.
"I got into music to have fun, to avoid the grind, to avoid the life that the powers that be want us to have. I want to be an example." — Meg Remy
Following the recording experiments, Remy began playing live with the Cosmic Range in October 2017. However, due to scheduling conflicts, she was quickly forced to adopt a loose lineup policy to keep up with her tour schedule.
"Each position I have two to three deep for replacements," Remy explains. "When you're playing with musicians at this caliber you can trade off. And their musical vocabulary is so large that they make my job stress free, which allows me to focus on my singing."
Her set at Baby's All Right certainly had its scripted moments, with the band's eight musicians halting to the same complete stop or diving into a new section with a salvo of sound. But the magnetism of U.S. Girls' live set hinged upon its spontaneity.
"I think the whole thing for us is very experimental, almost behavioral studies, to see how far can we push ourselves," says Remy. "How can we surprise ourselves with how we're willing to act in front of people on stage? How committed can we get to these characters that we invent for ourselves up there?"
Meg Remy of U.S. Girls performs live at Baby's All Right on April 13, 2018
Photo: Nate Hertweck/Recording Academy
With a group of talented musicians to support her, Remy adds that she is "free to focus more on performance, and trying to put on a performance that I would want to see. That's what we did with the record, too. Making a record we all would want to listen to."
But U.S. Girls latest album and live set go well beyond providing pop pleasure. The project demands more of its audience by embracing the gaps in classification, accessibility and time it creates.
"I like feeling uncomfortable. I like bringing that into the set," says Remy. "We do that with the moment of silence we have in the set, which is something that really makes people squirm. They don't really know what to do with it."
Indeed, the moment of silence just before U.S. Girls kicked into "Rosebud" hung with uncertainty and felt awkward and long, a reminder of Remy's refusal to simply go through the motions.
Another standout moment in the live set was the upbeat In A Poem Unlimited closer, "Time." Acting as a theme for the entire project, the song executes a shift, especially live, that rips through the performance's hard outer shell and forces a personal and reflective confrontation with the audience.
"The beginning of ['Time'] is structured and the end changes night to night," says Remy. "It's my favorite part of the set, for sure, because most of the set revolves around almost ignoring the audience, or being very full of a lot of sass and attitude … and presenting Kassie [Richardson, the group's background vocalist] and I as women that are not taking any s*** — we're not there to smile for you or be pretty. And then the end is very [much about] confronting the audience and wanting to be with them really look at us, and look at them."
"It's new every time. We're doing something. We're not just phoning this in. We're not just showing up and hitting the marks, and that's super fulfilling." — Meg Remy
The creative distance U.S. Girls have traveled, from lo-fi song patchwork to live free-form fusion, begs the question of what's next to conquer. In fact, Remy has started writing for a new record. On top of gathering her notes and sketching out lyrics, she's already road-mapped a new throwback approach focused on "very stark storytelling."
"The next record will be very process-based, but in a very different way," says Remy. "I want to record the album all live, vocals and everything all in the room, like how Frank Sinatra used to do. I want to challenge myself as a singer and see if I can do it."
An integral part of Remy's creative process continues to be the city of Toronto, where she and her husband Max Turnbull aka Slim Twig have lived for several years.
"The people I've gotten to know over the past eight years of living here are some of the most incredible musicians," she says.
It may not come as a surprise that Remy's creativity is far from limited to the medium of music. She's active and accomplished in creating music videos (for U.S. Girls and for other artists), short films, projections, collages, and more.
"Music is one little facet of my career as an artist. It's the one that I have to focus on right now because there are the most opportunities there, but what I'm hoping is that music is going to be an entry way for me to then be able to focus on other mediums whenever I want with as much time and attention as I do music," says Remy.
One shining example is the video for "Rosebud," which is as gorgeous, symbolic and entertaining as the song itself.
"My friend and I made it," Remy explains. "My husband Max was in the video. I edited it and we made it in two days. I'm really pleased with it."
Looking ahead, Remy feels very at home with 4AD. The label boasts a reputation as one of the most significant independents shaping music culture since its inception in 1980, with a roster including Pixies, the Breeders, the National, Grimes, and Future Islands.
"I had never really followed 4AD bands or knew about the cult status and the respect they had, and I very quickly did learn about it," says Remy. "It makes sense to me that I ended up with them because they're interested in artists. They care about integrity, and they trust the artist … I feel like I can grow a lot there."
After witnessing Remy and her band challenge, intrigue and electrify the room at Baby's All Right, it's comforting to know there is a label willing to support artists as unpredictable and uncompromising as U.S. Girls.
"There are so many other artists on the label now, past and present, that I feel grateful to share a roster with. I'm really lucky."