Something More Jarring: the feminist outsider pop of U.S. Girls

In small-town America, Stuart Stubbs met Meg Remy for a breakfast of pancakes, gender equality, Bruce Springsteen appreciation and the need for conscious pop music

To amplify the serenity of Hudson, New York, take the train north from Manhattan for two hours. It’s a gentle and idyllic journey; an elongated descent into upstate living, where there’s nothing to look at except for trees to your right and the great, still Hudson River to your left. The thrill of the city is muted as soon as you pass Yonkers, after twenty minutes or so, and yet Hudson itself seems quieter even than all that silent countryside in between.

Hudson’s train station doesn’t have platforms – first you need to make sure you’re in the front two carriages that stop in line with a freshly painted, wooden building, then jump down onto a small metal stool and skip across the tracks to safety. I arrive on a Wednesday afternoon, the day of the week when everything in town is routinely closed, restaurants as well as shops. Even my hotel is only semi open – when I arrive I’m told not to leave the building without my key card: it’s how I’ll be able to get back in the front door once the one member of staff (Paul) leaves for the day in an hour’s time. It’s 4pm. On my way up the street I pass one convenience store with a sign in the window that reads Open From 11 Most Days. It’s closed. Arriving in an American town as dead as this one feels particularly strange due to how cute it is. The painted railway station looks like a terminal on Main Street, Disneyland: a quaint look that covers the town over, each colonial building perfectly individual and skewed. Take the kids out of Disneyland, though, and it’d feel eerie to say the least, and so Hudson initially feels like the chocolate-box town in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – the one where all the children have been kidnapped and a new face in town could easily feel like the curtains have eyes. Cynicism and paranoia will have you believe that, but quiet though it is, Hudson is simply the kind of place that you never envisage when you think of smalltown America – a sleepy, liberal community, fuelled by the arts and what appears to be the optimum amount of gentrification. Here, if a shop front doesn’t belong to a gallery it’s an antique shop or a thrift store or a furniture emporium. There’s a five-dollar record store that also sells junk, a bar that doubles as a bookshop, a vegan pizza parlour and an opera house that is out of proportion with everything else, even if this is technically a city (America’s first, so Paul tells me). There are no chain stores at all, the occasional building flies the gay pride rainbow flag and when I do finally see a human being they’re driving past the single storey, one-offender-at-a-time-please police station, waving at the officers outside, who wave back as if they’re great friends. If that sounds like a lie, wait until you hear this – one homeowner on Warren Street has erected a colourful, handmade sign in their front window that reads Sleeping Cat Theatre. They’ve then hooked their front curtain behind a chair on which – obviously a favourite spot – their cat is asleep. I presume they’ve done this just because. So when Meg Remy tells me that Bruce Springsteen and Isabella Rossellini have holiday homes here, I get it, just like I get it when she tells me that Hudson is her favourite place to play on her way to New York City, perhaps her favourite place to play anywhere. “I don’t like playing in the city,” she tells me at local dive bar and DIY venue The Half Moon, “so if I have to go there for a show I make sure I book a show here either the day before or the day after. It’s my treat to myself.”

After U.S. Girls has performed it’s getting late, so we arrange to meet for breakfast the following morning, before Remy drives to Manhattan to perform on a pier in Chelsea. Tomorrow will be a much more showbiz affair, which is exactly what she’s dreading about it. She rolls her eyes at the thought of a day festival (this one is called RiverRocks) where people wear flowers in their hair, and particularly at having to perform in front of any logos.

We hang out before we call it a night, mostly talking about how her new record deal with mega indie label 4AD is sure to open more (absurd) doors for her, and how many people will presume that new album ‘Half Free’ is her debut release, not her fifth LP. She admits to being apprehensive about working with a larger label (until now U.S. Girls has released chiefly via Siltbreeze, K-RAA-K and Brighton’s Fat Cat Records) but insists that she feels no pressure to say yes to anything she doesn’t want to do. Already she’s turned down a gig playing at a Louis Vuitton catwalk show on the grounds that there was no fee attached. “Can you believe that!?” she says on The Half Moon’s terrace. “‘Louis doesn’t have much of a budget for this…’ Well, how about you sell one more bag, or give me a bag and I can sell it myself. I can’t be playing shows like that, because they obviously don’t respect me.”

Similarly, Remy cancelled a live booking once she found out that the headliner she’d be opening for was being paid $21,000 while her fee stood at $150. She managed to reduce this alarming gulf by a fraction (finally being offered $650) before forgetting the whole thing. “At first I thought, fuck it, y’know what, I will play the show and make sure it’s the best show I’ve ever played, and then I thought, no, I don’t need this, so why should I put up with it?” Equality on tour, she says, is something she’ll be directly affecting now that she’ll be playing bigger shows as the headliner, with the ability to give opening acts fees they deserve.

“Hudson is not a typical American town,” says Remy as we sit down to a breakfast of short stack pancakes, juice, tea and coffee. It ended up being a late night – she left The Half Moon at a reasonable hour but had to wait up for her backing singers, Amanda Crist (who also makes up one half of electro pop duo Ice Cream) and Isla Craig. You can see it in her sore eyes. “It’s typical of liberal America,” she says, “but if we were in Texas right now… it would still be friendly and look quaint and cute, but the vibe would be different as a freak walking down the street.”

Remy has always considered herself that way, and in her 30 years she’s seen enough of the States to become an authority on what’s out there. At school, as a defining loner in a tiny hometown in Illinois that she won’t tell me the name of, she formed a punk band called Slut Muffin with her only friend. When her parents divorced she and her mother edged closer to Chicago but remained in the middle of nowhere until Remy moved to Portland. Then Philadelphia. Then Toronto where she currently lives with her husband Max Turnbull, who professionally goes by the name of DFA musician Slim Twig. “I think I was running from ex-boyfriends,” she says. “I’m a Cancer, so, as a crab, I take my home with me. Wherever I am, there I am.

“I think it’s part of my personality – I get antsy. Whenever I start feeling stale, I want to mix it up.”

For its history and refusal to go nose-to-nose with New York, Philly is Remy’s favourite city (“Being there makes you feel like you’re in a Bruce Springsteen song”) but it was Portland that inspired U.S. Girls and got Remy building a DIY network as she began to tour up and down the west coast.

On arriving in Oregon, she played guitar in a band called Hux – an aggressively angular group that she describes as “very early 2000s.” “I just always wanted to get bloody at shows,” she says, “break a bone or smash our faces or something.” She drummed in a shambolic punk outfit called Hustler White, too, named after an art porn movie by Canadian director Bruce LaBruce, followed by Silver Cream, a free jazz project, fully improvised and made up of two unaffected guitars. It was the solo woman of Portland that inspired Remy most of all, though, and musicians like Inca Ore and Grouper offered a blueprint for making music without having to deal with band mates or compromise intent. Remy had discovered the ritual of recording music alone and liked it so much she began U.S. Girls as a project for herself.

She started by making 100 CDRs to pass out at shows and on to friends, which lead to two albums proper on Philly label Siltbreeze. ‘Introducing’ was released in 2008, followed by ‘Go Grey’ in 2010. The tone of these early records is unrecognisable from the albums that followed and especially the forthcoming ‘Half Free’. Unapologetically experimental, U.S. Girls was laying to warped tape a particularly dark brand of hauntology, where static and drones were occasionally joined by Remy’s wailing moan at unpredictable intervals. “When I was alone, that was what was coming out,” she tells me. “Weird and haunted. That first record was me at the end of my rope, so that’s what it sounds like.

“Those first two records were pretty unhappy times,” she says. “I was in relationships with bad men, which I chose – I chose to be with those people – but I was stuck in a pattern which I think had been set for me from childhood. It was bad men, booze, drugs, depression.” She laughs.

You can hear the moment when Remy’s life flattened out, when she stopped running from ex-boyfriends and found love and solace in Toronto and Max Turnbull – it’s all over her 2011 album ‘U.S. Girls on K-RAA-K’. It’s hardly a shiny pop album, but for the first time Remy was collaborating with others on U.S. Girls, including Turnbull and producer Onakabazien, who added something that was notably absent on ‘Introducing’ and ‘Go Grey’ – beats. Remy’s true, strange voice was emerging, too – a strained Ronnie Spector-ish whine that’s full of soul but not completely easy to listen to.

“Meeting Max changed a lot of things in my life,” she says. “I think I’d been searching for an ally and companion for a long time. These bad men or troubled friends or whatever, it never worked out – with Max it wasn’t just romantic love; we spoke each other’s language, with music and art and what we want to do. My music changed so quickly, from his help but also because I had a new emotion to pull from.” Proving the point is ‘… on K-RAA-K’’s cover of Brandy and Monica’s ‘The Boy Is Mine’ – the first track that Onakabazien worked on.

“Around that time I started standing up on stage,” she notes. “I used to close my eyes and get through it, like early sex or something.”

She says that performing remains a test, although you’d never know it from her rooted onstage stance that’s suitably badass for a musician as fiercely independent as her, and I’m not surprised to hear that she welcomes the challenge more than she favours the comfort of a supporting band. That was her set up at one point, and it did make performing more bearable for her, but then…

“It got too easy. As soon as you have a set up on stage that is remotely traditional, the audience are like, ‘oh, I get this. There’s drums and guitars and a girl singing. I can digest this; I can get into this; it’s simple.’ And I could see that; I was like, ‘what the fuck, this is really pleasing!’. I was giving it up too easy. I like when people are enjoying it, but it’s fun to make people feel uncomfortable. There’s enough entertainment that makes you feel safe – I’d rather something more jarring, where people leave thinking, what was that? I don’t know if I liked that but I can’t stop thinking about it.”

On October 25th ‘Half Free’ will replace U.S. Girls’ 2012 album ‘Gem’ as Meg Remy’s most quote-unquote commercial-sounding record yet. She originally slated it as a joint release with Onakabazien, before other producers worked on tracks for it, including Ben Cook from Fucked Up, who released U.S. Girls’ 2013 EP ‘Free Advice Column’ on his Bad Actors Inc. label and contributed to ‘Half Free’ track ‘Red Comes in Many Shade’. It’s a mournful ballad about the sorrowful subject of a bad relationship. Musically speaking, it’s not typical of the whole record’s tone, which shifts pace as it skips from dub to glam rock, to Moroder-ish disco, to ‘Velvet Rope’ RnB over its nine tracks. It’s this eclecticism that gives ‘Half Free’ much of its appeal, but the star turn is really Remy’s vocals and, even more so, what they’re conveying.

“I’m trying to make conscious pop music,” she says, and the clue is in the name – U.S. Girls has always been a project by a feminist artist fighting for gender equality. The first song that Remy was truly audible on was ‘… on K-RAA-K’’s ‘State House (It’s a Man’s World)’, and ‘Half Free’ continues her quest to be a voice for the everywoman, just as her hero Bruce Springsteen became a voice for the everyman. So ‘Damn That Valley’, whilst Remy’s party banger, is the desperate cry of a war widow, and the opening ‘Sororal Feeling’ is from the first person perspective of an abandoned and abused wife who signs off each chorus with the evocative line: “And now I’m gonna hang myself / Hang myself from my family tree.”

Remy wrote disco track ‘Window Shades’ after watching the Katy Perry tour documentary Part Of Me, telling me that the scenes in which Perry is desperately trying to save her marriage to a disinterested Russell Brand – to no avail – are all too familiar to her. “It was really brave and honest of her to include that in that movie,” says Remy. “It changed my mind about her. She’s no fake.”

Of course, you could argue that unrequited love and husbands going to war and never returning aren’t in the same ballpark, but the truth is that relationships are a huge part of life and U.S. Girls isn’t interested in fuelling the false impression that feminism is about hating men and denouncing love. She’s passionate about the topics she sings about, but far from humourless, which is how ‘Half Free’ contains a silly skit called ‘Radio Play No. 1’ – a phone conversation between Remy and her sister-in-law about weird sex dreams involving parents. It ends with a blast of canned laughter on a punch line that I won’t ruin here.

Remy says that a lot of the characters on the album are full of hurt. “It’s about pain and confusion, due to the world we live in and life,” she says. “It’s got a very grey feeling.”

I point out that she’s so happy these days, though.

“But the world isn’t,” she says. “There are moments when I want to tear my hair out – people are so fucking asleep. Even the people you know, even me. I’m still checking Twitter. Why do we have to do that every day? Why has that become an hourly thing for some people?”

For a brief moment we go silent and look at our pancakes.

“I don’t know that people are looking at their phones and the Internet for what it really is,” he continues. “There’s some shit going on that we’re going to find out about, and it’s going to be too late, probably. I mean, Edward Snowden is amazing and a fucking hero, and you ask the average person who he is and they’d be like, ‘oh, isn’t he that guy that got caught with that stuff or something?’. He sacrificed his life to say something very important, and I don’t mean this just from a government standpoint, but advertising and corporations are starting to corral us, basically, and we’re just getting herded in until eventually there’s just total control.”

‘Damn That Valley’ first had me thinking that the title ‘Half Free’ was a reference to war. Then I decided it must be womanhood, in a world that still discriminates. “It’s to everything,” says Remy. “That’s the thing – that term applies to the whole world. To having children, to marriage, to working. Even if you have this great job and all this money, you still have this boss.

“I don’t know if freedom has ever existed. I’ve never been free. I can’t be free from my own mind.”

Remy sees her themes as being relevant to American women, and by proxy all women in western culture. When I ask her what gender relations are currently like in North America she laughs as she exhales “totally fucked.”

“It’s 2015 and a woman in the States still doesn’t have total control over her body,” she says. “It’s absurd. All of the images we’re inundated with, and rape culture, and how everything is set up to protect and for the benefit of men… I read about this college student who was raped and the college refused to punish the man who raped her so she carried a mattress around to every class she went to for two semesters, as a protest. That’s an incredible statement, and that’s how it is. There’s always going to be some reason to protect the man in a case like that – either there’s no ‘proof’ or it’s his word against hers, and I think his will always win. Yoko Ono fucking said it – ‘Woman is the nigger of the world’. There are male groups that have had it hard, but when you break it down, woman of all colours have it the worst.”

U.S. Girls’ new album closes on a song called ‘Woman’s Work’, about the false representation of female beauty in the media and how corrosive and endless these unattainable body images have become. Remy says that just because she wrote about the subject, it doesn’t mean she herself is immune from these warped pressures. I think I’ve suffered from that my whole life,” she says, “body dismorphia, due to the images that you see in the media compared to the one you see in the mirror. You could never look like what you see in the magazine, because that’s not real. It’s airbrushed and whatever, and it creates a disconnect. But it’s something I always struggle with. Like, you don’t want to leave the house because you feel you look bad. It doesn’t happen to me every day, but if I’m being honest… Even cool people – not that I’m saying I’m cool – but women who are educated and read and know all about this bullshit, you’re still brainwashed and susceptible to it. That’s partly why I cut off all my hair – it was one less thing to worry about in that department.”

‘Woman’s Work’ ends on a flooring line: “You arrived in your mother’s arms / But you will leave riding in a black limousine.” The slow jam of ‘Navy & Cream’ (a “neurotic, existential kind of thing”) packs a zinging parting shot too: “Now she wants a tattoo of a tear drop on her finger / But it won’t fix a thing / Her child is her enemy.”

“That’s totally about my family,” says Remy, “and it’s also about families in general. I think a lot about families, and how we’re born into them and have no choice, and most of us feel a sense of loyalty, even if we don’t get along with them – you feel this pull to keep in touch and keep up appearances with them. I think that’s bullshit. I think you should find your family where you find it, and you shouldn’t stay tied to something that’s not good for you.

“I think a lot of parents have children who hate them, and they don’t know it.”

I presume that Remy isn’t close to hers, but she says that her and her family (her mother, father and two older brothers) are just different. “I’m an alien or something,” she says. “I’m close with my mum still. I got great things from my family – very valuable traits that I use daily. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have my family as very good examples of believing in myself.”

Growing up in Illinois, the Remy household was a musical one, without anyone in it being a musician. Music fuelled conversation and mapped out the lives of Remy’s folks, who’d hear a pop song on the radio and reminisce about where they were when it was first released and what time it reminds them of. The radio was always on and Remy’s mum made sure that her daughter was never embarrassed by the act of singing aloud, leading by example. Then Remy discovered punk and Bikini Kill and realised that you really can sing however you like.

“I don’t think I’m a very good singer,” she tells me, “I just think I’ve got balls or something. I think my voice is very weird – it’s not for everyone. That’s why it’s not pop. It could never reach a broad audience – it’s not digestible enough.”

Ask Remy what music she first fell in love with as a kid and she’ll answer you in in a heartbeat – Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Beach Boys and Boys 2 Men, but especially Springsteen. His is a name that crops up in each of the previous articles I’ve read on U.S. Girls, regardless of the fact that the two have little in common stylistically and thematically.

“But I mention him in every interview because I’m trying to meet him,” says Remy. “Any time I can mention him I will. Like, we’re playing this show today on the pier in New York, and there should be some people there, and it’s in Manhattan, so I’ll be thinking, there might be someone here who knows Bruce, or someone in his band, so I’ll mention him.” She laughs. “That’s what you’ve got to do.

“I’d like to meet him and have a drink with him and I would just like to know, from him, his intentions for what he’s been doing this whole time.”

I ask what she thinks they are.

“I have no idea.”

And what about your own intentions? What are they?

She lets out a laugh as we collect the bill. “To be honest and exposed and raw with myself, in the hope that it will encourage others to be more real with themselves, and uncomfortable. But also just to make music that has a message of some sort. I love love-songs, too, and I write them, but it’s just taking the time to really focus on the lyrics and create a mood and convey emotion, and just to challenge myself and never take the easy route. And just not being influenced by all that crap that comes along, and not becoming spoilt. Like Louis Vuitton.”