U.S. Girls on "Heavy Light" - Just Breathe and Perform | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, August 9th, 2020  

U.S. Girls on “Heavy Light”

Just Breathe and Perform

Mar 06, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Her last album, 2018's In a Poem Unlimited, was hailed as a politicized pop masterpiece thanks to lyrics that decried drone strikes and condoned violent vengeance for abused women. But Meg Remy, who performs as U.S. Girls, says she hates the word "politics," especially in relation to her music, despite continuing her vibrant social commentary on her new album Heavy Light.

"I really despise the word politics. And what it continues to be a facade for," Remy tells Under the Radar. "I almost wish there was another word for it. But I would say that, yes, I work with the shades of politics."

There certainly are plenty of shades and nuances in her new songs. Bright disco grooves and a star saxophonist guest turn make opening track "4 American Dollars" instantly catchy, even as its lyrics dig into its namesake nation's yawning wealth gap. "Overtime," meanwhile, evokes classic Motown dance hits musically, though its lyrics detail a widow grieving her alcoholic lover. And "Woodstock '99" pairs the notoriously sexual-violence-ridden festival of its title with tender lyrics about motherhood. Below, Remy tells us about her decision to record those Heavy Light songs live, why she interviewed her bandmates and included their answers on the album, how ditching her phone altered her musicality, and more.

Kyle Mullin (Under the Radar): What sets Heavy Light apart from your previous work?

We recorded the album all live. That's the first time I'd ever done something like that. So that was the biggest groundbreaking, challenging part of it. It's a way I'll probably always work from now on. Well, I shouldn't say I'll never go back, never say never, but recording live was such a fulfilling experience. And it's also so efficient. I can't imagine going back to working in the overdubbing way, or a layering way.

What compelled the decision to record live?

On my previous record, I spent three days recording the tracks, and then I don't even know, eight months or so, on overdubs and vocals. We really produced the hell out of it, and that was the point, that each song almost be like a genre study. It was a matter of zeroing in on things and making them just so. Very stylized. A lot of computer work.

And when we toured that record, it was quite an experience doing it live. There wasn't the ability to be perfect. We had to just put it out there. And it was interesting to see how the songs evolved because of that performance element. You just have one shot each night when you're in front of audiences, and you do it. I loved the sound of each musician, individually and as a whole, and I thought recording live would help us reach that same place as we do at concerts, where a certain mindfulness takes over, and you're not really thinking about the product or the final outcome, but instead just being in the moment.

On a more basic level, I wanted to record this album fast. We recorded it while touring the last one. And I only had eight days to do it. So recording live was the best way to achieve that quick turnaround.

How was it challenging?

I had to prepare for weeks in advance with a vocal coach, to be able to sing that much every day for eight days straight. But also to not psych myself out at the mic.

And you were able to avoid being psyched out?

Of course! That's why I worked so much in advance, to determine where my breath went on each line, practicing until it becomes second nature, like you are when you're touring, you're so in the music that you're not thinking about hitting notes. So it was a lot of prep work, and when recording time came I could just breathe, and perform.

Aside from the live element, this album stands out for me because of the collaborations. What was it like, for instance, to have [current E Street Band saxophonist] Jake Clemons, nephew of famed [former] E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, on this album?

We'd played a few shows with him, and hung out with him, and enjoyed him as a person. But as a player, he's phenomenal. I walked up to him at a festival once, in all my awkwardness, and told him "You're an incredible sax player. Do you want to come play with us?" Because I don't play an instrument like that, and when someone is so efficient and has such a unique tone, it blows me away. Working with him was just a no brainer.

It's pretty brave to walk up at a festival and take Bruce Springsteen's saxophonist away from him.

[Laughs] Well we'd never tell Jake what to play. I hope it's as fun for him as it is for us.

Another highlight on Heavy Light is the interludes, or skits. You've been interviewed by a lot of journalists, so how did it feel to be on the other side of that, asking questions to people for these skits?

I probably was more into it than I should've been. [Laughs] I really enjoyed the control element of it. Also, this record was personal for me, and I had to share personal things with everyone who worked on it, so that they understood where the songs were coming from, and what I was trying to convey. And because I shared with people, they were willing to share with me. It was kind of a mutual cycle. It was actually really beautiful, and also shocking and intimate. It was a special day when we did that.

So those are your bandmates in the skits? I didn't realize.

They're people who worked on the record, yes.

Is it scary for you to perform such personal songs, and did hearing such intimate answers from your band alleviate some of your fear?

I don't know if scary is the right word. It's definitely risky. Or intense. I sometimes fear that people will think... well everything we all do comes from ego to an extent, but I don't want people to think I'm over-sharing to please my ego. That's a fear I have sometimes. But I carried out this exercise with people I knew well and trusted. So it was actually pretty easy to do, to be vulnerable with these people. Once we were in the studio, the train had left the station and we agreed we were going to do this thing.

Many of the characters in your lyrics are vulnerable as well. Like the character on "Overtime"-he sounds very downtrodden, and going through a tough, marginalized existence.

"Overtime" is a song about a woman standing over an ex-lover's grave. And she's lamenting that she had left this person because he was an alcoholic. Not just that—she thought he was spending all of the money he made on it, when really he was only spending overtime pay, and his regular wage came home. And with that distinction, she realizes she made a mistake in leaving this person, and he went over the edge of his addiction and ended up dying after that. She's critiquing herself. Because we all have our addictions. It's a song of regret.

It's interesting, I was fixating on the male character

Yeah.

—but the protagonist is the wife.

Exactly.

What was it like to write from that grieving wife's perspective?

Well, that's actually an old song of mine. It originally came out in 2013 in a completely different form, a different recording. And I decided to rework it for the record. In terms of this record, it was actually a really special song that we brought back to life. I think I wrote the lyrics for that song in 2012. Now when I'm playing it live, I'm getting to go back to my younger voice and it feels like I'm answering a call inside myself. It's been therapeutic, in a way.

It was also interesting to go back and realize that older work is still valid, that the song stands up and can be done a lot of different ways, and can keep living and growing.

Did doing that bring back some memories as well?

Definitely. To listen back to the original version of that song, it was wild how much I'd progressed as a singer. I hadn't taken vocal lessons yet back then, I was just opening my mouth and letting whatever come out. I wasn't thinking about the musicality of my voice at all, I was really only thinking about the words and the characters. So, to see my progression, to see how my skills have sharpened quite a bit, was meaningful.

That's something the Wall Street Journal pointed out in their review of the new album: how your music is as political as ever, but that your skills are sharper, and it adds a crucial artistic dimension.

It's hard to explain, because I really despise the word politics. And what it continues to be a facade for. I almost wish there was another word for it. But I would say that, yes, I work with the shades of politics.

But this record is different in a sense, because I'm trying to move away from preachiness. Or trying to act like I know anything. On previous records, I really had some hard line stances, and I could be very antagonistic, and aggressive. And I'm trying to get away from that, in my personal life and my music. Because so much of what we think we know is just our opinions, which are based on our experiences. So I'm trying to move into a more thoughtful, open introspection that allows for an outward empathy, for every living and non-living thing on this planet.

Was there something in particular that caused that realization?

So many things. It's a combination of ageing. And being married for 10 years now, the longest I've been in a relationship. When you're in a relationship that's functioning for that long, it's very revealing. I've also been changed by the state of the world, where we find ourselves, and doing a lot of reading and thinking and talking with people, and getting rid of my smart-phone too. Cutting myself off from a phone, from that daily exposure to that realm, really shifted my brain. It was like, whatever that horror film is, where you take the glasses off and everyone's a skeleton or zombie, the effect has been like that. It's been shocking to not look at the news, to not indulge in it at all. And when you do, it looks like the most mutated, vile cancer. I can't even explain it. So there are a lot of things that lead to that. I could go on and on and on about it. 

How has ditching your smart phone affected your artistry?

It got myself more into my body. I'd been so much in my brain, that I needed to root myself in my body, and feel my body. It affected how I want to operate. The people I want to work with. How I want to achieve something. All of these things.

www.yousgirls.blogspot.com

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