U.S. Girls on “In a Poem Unlimited”

Smashing the Patriarchy, Together

Apr 11, 2018 Issue #63 - Courtney Barnett Bookmark and Share


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"I'm roastin' in this van, so I gotta get out of here," Meg Remy, better known to the public as the avant-pop auteur U.S. Girls, says after we've talked for over half an hour. She's calling in early on a Friday morning, alone in a van parked in front of a San Diego Airbnb, getting ready to head to the next city on her tour behind her addicting, incredibly distinct sixth album, the 4AD-released In a Poem Unlimited. Her tourmates are in the Airbnb getting ready for today's drive; although one can imagine the crew being exhausted in the early morning thanks to the lack of sleep, imperfect diet, and unpredictable hygiene that touring can cause, Remy is perfectly alert and sharp. Even at 9 a.m. in a hot van, she's even more intelligent, relaxed, and fascinating than expected.

This van is certainly not the only that she's spent ample time in lately. In the days leading up to In a Poem Unlimited's release, a handful of stories that ran about Remy recounted her take on a listening party: playing the album in the background as she drove guests, packed into a large van, around New York to see various interesting historical sites. Some, if not many, of these sites tied into the themes of oppressionnamely, misogyny, because Remy's nom de plume is, after all, U.S. Girlsthat In a Poem Unlimited so deftly explores. Across 38 minutes of pop that variously hearkens back to late '50s/early '60s oldies, AM Gold, Blondie-esque disco, and velvet-dribbled soul, Remy takes a scalpel to the way that capitalism, misogyny, violence, the military, religion, and the American president, no matter who he is, sap meaning from our daily lives. Her voice, which sprung in part from her youngest years spent singing along to oldies on the radio, is joyously alarming, a clarion call that's nasal even at its gentlest; it can carry narratives laced with irony (the nearly funky "Pearly Gates," the grinding, vocoder-laced "Incidental Boogie") as well as it does reflections on the inner psyche (the irresistibly smooth, soft-dance gem "Rosebud").

U.S. Girls is one of few acts to which the term "idiosyncratic" truly applies, yet its songs aren't just Remy's work. In a Poem Unlimited features roughly 20 collaborators; that it nevertheless manages to so clearly execute one person's vision is among its strongest charms. Remy's proclivity for collaboration, for interacting with people, is reflected in how naturally our conversation, which has here been condensed and edited for clarity, transitions from an interview-style questionnaire to a casual chat about societal systems that mutually burden and anger us. To collaborate requires one to be approachable; on In a Poem Unlimited, Remy's accessibility bleeds right into her songs, resulting in an eccentric pop album that deserves to go down among the year's best.

Max Freedman (Under the Radar): I'm very excited to talk about this new record with you. I'd been looking forward to it since "Mad As Hell" came out, and it managed to exceed my expectations and is my favorite album of the year so far. A big part of the appeal to me is that is posits you as a bandleader more than ever before. It's a direction you hinted at on your previous album, 2015's Half Free. You're guiding a collective through originals, covers, and revisions of old songs. How do you feel that the term "bandleader" applies to you on In a Poem Unlimited?

Meg Remy: I think it applies very well. I've used the term "head curator" for U.S. Girls before, and I think "bandleader" fits along with that. I'm not playing the instruments on this; I'm trusting musicians to translate for me and do their thing. A big part of my job on making these records and doing these tours is organizing: organizing people, organizing the vibe of things, what's gonna happen on stage, what's the set gonna be. I have the largest job overall, and then I kind of salami it up to all the players. I like it. It suits me.

It sounds like you're a conductor leading an orchestra. I wasn't aware that you don't play any instruments at all.

I mean, I do play instruments; I just don't play them the way that these people do. I've played drums, bass, and keyboards in bands, [but]...the level of musicianship that I'm after right now is not something that I can provide.

Okay, that makes more sense. I would've been surprised if you didn't play any instruments. If you're bringing in people to reach the level of musicianship that you don't think you have, how does that shape your approach to songwriting?

It's been the way I've been writing songs since Half Free and a little bit before. [I've long been] working with people whose tastes I align with...one of whom is Max Turnbull [aka Slim Twig], another of whom is Louis Percival [aka Onakabazien]. We have the same tastes and speak each other's language. They're bringing me a beat or some chords, and then we're working and doing the arrangement together and making the structure, and then I'm writing the vocal melody and all the lyrics, and that's dictating the structure. All around, it's a collaborative thing; it's about..."let's get the best verses, let's get the best choruses, let's get the best song, let's get the best album, let's get the best live show." In order to do that, you have to collaborate.

It's very much you executing a grand vision and bringing in the people that are appropriate to do it.

Any grand vision can't be done alone. Imagine going to the moon as one person. [Laughs] Anyone who acts like they can go to the moon on their own is a liar [laughs].... Although I'm a song constructor, I'm still writing all of the vocal melodies and all of the lyrics. I'm still writing the songs.

I listened to In a Poem Unlimited something like five or six times before learning that "Rage of Plastics" is a cover and "Incidental Boogie" is a new version of an older song. How do you choose among the options of recording new songs, redoing older songs, and covering other artists' songs in an album? Is it true that "Time" is a cover or at least an adaption of an already existent song?

"Time" is a cover of a song by a writer named Micah Blue Smaldone from Maine. We changed the arrangement quite a bit, [such as] that long jam section at the end.... I wanted to cover songs that were modern. I didn't want to do the easy thing; we all know great songs are written in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, and everyone's obsessed with that. I wanted to do things that were modern and by people that I knew to try to [put them on] whatever platform I've been given at this time.

Thematically, those songs fit into the themes and structure of the album so well. "Rage of Plastics" is a song that I really wish I had written for this album, and I'm lucky enough that I got to do a different type of arrangement for it and represent my friend Simone Schmidt, who wrote an absolutely incredible song.

One thing that can go overlooked about your music is that, even though you're addressing deadly serious topics, there's an undercurrent of humor in your lyrics. When I listen to "Sororal Feelings" from Half Free, I'm devastated by what the narrator has been through, but I also get a sense of melodrama. The five versions of you giving the finger in the "Mad As Hell" video is a little cheeky, and the sneering feel the song has can make me chuckle just a bit. The two In a Poem Unlimited interludes are just plain hilarious. How consciously is humor a part of your storytelling, and why?

Huge. I think it's the best defense mechanism for dealing with this planet. If I wasn't able to laugh, I would just be crying all the time. I think we can laugh at the same time as well. I do it a lot. I was just doing it with a friend the other day! It's about relief, and a good cry is the same relief as a really good laugh. It scratches the same itch, in a way.

I am very serious on the topics I write about, but I'm not an academic. In a sense, I'm an artist, but I'm also a entertainer, so that has to be in there as well. No one will come to a show just to be devastated, or maybe some people would. I think it's important, and I'm glad people seem to be picking up on the humor. I think it's very in line with our times.

Your voice can add to the humor. The way you sing is incredibly distinct; it's nasal and striking, it makes sure your lyrics are heard bluntly, it's incredibly robust, malleable, and affecting, and it's so addictingly shrill that it occasionally feels like a subtle parody of early, low-quality 1960s and 1970s pop music. How much do you consider your vocal delivery part of how you impart your humor? And how have you learned to sing so distinctly?

I just learned from singing along to oldies radio, so you nailed it entirely. I can remember being young, and any time The Ronettes would come on the radio, it did something to me. There was some sort of chemical reaction. My voice comes from that; it comes from where I'm from. It has to do with my accent. It has to do with the loud household I grew up in. It has to do with my mom's voice; my mom sounds like this. It's a lot of things.

My vocal delivery is shrill, and instead of changing how I sing and changing my voice, I long ago decided to embrace it. As I've gotten more detailed in the production of things, it's been able to be tamed a bit and made a little more palatable for the masses. [Laughs] It is what it is. It's a real voice, and I kind of just let my freak flag fly a bit.

[It's] just the way I talk. I'm an incredibly, incredibly sassy human being. There's a lot inflection, a lot of meaning that comes through the tone of my voice and how I use it. It's not just on the album; it's when I'm talking to anyone on the street or my friends or whomever. Voices are powerful, and if you actually use them preciously, or even not preciously, and be unconscious with it and just let it go, it's gonna work a lot of magic. I'm often writing from a character-based [point of view], so I'm changing my voice to fit those characters.

Taking things a step further, how, if at all, does the idea of kitsch play into the way you build your characters, their viewpoints, and their words?

I don't relate to kitsch as much as I relate to cliché. Kitsch feels very culture-based, whereas cliché feels more broad. I don't relate to kitsch. Kitsch makes me think of retro, and that's something I want to avoid at all costs.

That's really interesting to hear you say. When I listen to U.S. Girls, I do get a sense of retro; the things that it reminds me of are, as you say yourself, based in the oldies. I know that's not what you're going for-you manage to sound modern-so tell me about your relationship with cliché.

Clichés are clichés for a reason. Whether they're truths or not...they're important for discussing the topics that I'm trying to work on. I don't know how to elaborate on that much. To elaborate on the topic of cliché, we'd have to do a whole book on it. [Laughs]

In general, where do the characters that you build come from? Are they based on your experiences, experiences of others that you've read about or know personally, or hypothetical situations that you assign characters to? I'd love to hear specific examples.

It's all of that, and it comes from my experience being a woman on the planet. It comes from stories that friends have told me. It comes from things I've witnessed on the street. It comes from books I've read on larger topics that I want to whittle down to some distilled and digestible example that could maybe open people's minds to the larger topic. "Mad As Hell" came about during the election process of everyone being so focused on Hillary and Trump, and yet I just think it doesn't matter who's in office; it's all fucked. It came from me looking at the military budget and the way that dollars are actually spent and what Obama spent on drones and what drones are and what they do. That song came from that.

It all comes back to...reading books constantly and talking with my friends and having deep discussions with my friends. I don't socialize in a public way much; I talk on the phone a lot with my friends, and friends come over for dinner and for discussion. With my friends, I talk about books and what's going on. My life is very focused on learning and how to explain the things that I've learned.

When Half Free came out, you were asked pretty often about what it's like to write overtly political lyrics as someone born and raised in the U.S. but now living in Canada. I assume you wrote much of In a Poem Unlimited during the Trump era, even though "Mad As Hell" came together during the election cycle. Now, as the creep of late-stage capitalism, full-blown fascism, and the patriarchy just continue to reach extreme, borderline parodic levels, you're in Canada again, looking in at the U.S. at an even more extreme time. How has that affected your songwriting this time around?

All these songs were written before the election. This is an Obama-era album. [Laughs] It was written [leading up to] the actual election day. It was being written during the whole fucking circus that is American politics, so there is some connection there.

I think we've been in a fascist state for a long time; [now] it's kicked up a notch. We've been fascist to other people around the world. It's coming home now, and we don't like it, but we were okay with exporting it for years and decades. We need to eat shit now, because we didn't stand up for all the people that were being oppressed in the name of the country that we live in for all this time.

For me, it makes a lot of sense that Trump won. Hopefully it's a good thing, where it makes people look at some things, and maybe some change will occur. None of these discussions would have happened if Hillary had gotten in.

As part of the In a Poem Unlimited experience, you gave fans and critics the chance to hear the album while you drove them around New York in a van and gave them a tour of the city's historic symbols of oppression. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think you've ever lived in New York. What is it about New York, a supposed bastion of progressive thought, that made it the best city for this tour? I suspect your answer will tie into a lot of what we just discussed.

The van tour that we did was a publicity stunt. The label wanted to do a listening party; I said, "I don't really want to do a listening party. My favorite place to listen to music is in a van; how about we get a van and drive these people around?" They were like, "That's not gonna fly. Journalists want a hook. They need a story. They need something to chew on or write about. They don't want to get in a van with you." I didn't agree. If someone was like, "Do you want to come into my van and listen to my new album and drive around?"I would say yes.

The label came up with this idea of picking locations to make a route that connected to the album. Not all of the locations were symbols of oppression. There were positive and negative places and events that I chose to put on the map. You need the light, and you need the dark. I agreed to do that, and I did the research, and it was very fulfilling and very meaningful for me.

I think it's a very good point that you have that I've never lived in New York. I was an outsider coming in to comment on it, which I'm very aware of, which is why I took so much time and got my friend with me to do my research. I brought in another person, and we had other people checking our research to ensure that we were saying things correctly, but also, I don't think it matters that it's New York. The location that we chose could be any city, any town. Every town has these symbols; every town has a fucking catholic church, and that's something to think about. It was an amazing idea; I had a great time, and I think the people that went on it had a great time. I learned a lot, and it connected a lot of pieces in my mind in regards to the album, and in regards to how America works, and history and who writes history, and the distinction between myth and history, and how we really need to rewrite history because it's completely made us 100% unprepared for where we are now. That's why people were so shocked by the election: because their history is wrong.

I don't know what a good metaphor is for this, but it's like, you have to take some math exam, and you've been preparing for a biology exam, and you're like, "What!?" [Laughs] We've been lied to. Unfortunately, the only people that know the truth of our history are the people that were fucking annihilated by it, oppressed by it, personally experienced it, and were diminished by it. They'll tell you where and what the real history is.

Completely. By listening to the people who have suffered through it, instead of the media and the government and propaganda.

Yeah! The media or the state-sanctioned account of things are never going tothe sooner we realize that the government is a PR firm [laughs], we can understand a lot more.

You also have songs on In a Poem Unlimited like "Rosebud" that seem to be less explicitly political in how they discuss introspection, love, and romance so candidly. How politically do you see these topics in this patriarchal, misogynist society?

The personal is the political. All of this stuff is the same. A song like "Rosebud" is the same thing. It's a song about personal history; [with] the way that the government's lying to us, we're lying to ourselves all the time about our personal history and what happened to us. We're making the vital lies that we need to carry on, which is a technique that humans do; we lie to ourselves in order to continue. Through my personal experience in my life, I've realized that the more you dig in the muck, the more you look at that stuff and you air it out, the more healing occurs, and the more empathy you get, and the more life becomes difficult, but it becomes more meaningful. I think that's a big thing: We need meaning. We don't need happiness.

A song like "L-Over," that's a song about how misogyny has been able to run rampant due to texting. I think texting is a misogynist fuckin' tool from the gods. [Laughs] Technology and misogyny [can be related to] the government; you can relate that to all kinds of things. These topics are all the same thing.

I wanna hark on that "texting is a misogynist tool from the gods" quote for a second. I think I know what you're getting at, but I have to hear more about that.

Okay. Uhh...[pauses]. I don't know how to clarify that for you.

Is it just the fact that technology lowers the barriers to things like anonymous men being completely terrible to women on the Internet with death threats and outwardly sexist comments, or is it things like Tinder culture?

Yes. Yes. All of it! All of that! You can be a coward [with texting]. A coward with power. But then there's the other side of it-the person who's feeling wronged by the text needs to see what the hell is going on and stop it and block the person or get over it and move on.

We're in a time now where we're getting our meaning from these phones and these screens. You meet a person that you like, and then there's something there, and then you're texting, and if they don't text you right back, it creates this inner anxiety.

The late-night texting, booty call texting, has just gone up another level than the phone. It's harder to call someone for a booty call. That takes more courage. But to just text a couple of words? That's not so hard, and if they don't respond, the person doesn't care; whatever, they just jerk off or go to sleep or something. [Laughs] I think all of the phone stuff and Internet stuff has made cowards out of all these fuckin' men, but it's given them a cowardice in that power, and that really pisses me off.

I'm with you there all the way. You think about someone who's being violent to someone else on Twitter, and they seem to put on all this power, and they can make somebody feel so threatened, but it's probably somebody behind a computer screen who doesn't have any meaning and gets off on this, who, if you were to meet them in person, would probably cower and just be terrified.

Yeah! I grew up with a rule of, "Don't say anything behind someone's back that you wouldn't say to their face." I've always lived that way, and I really believe in that. When you think about that, you'll catch yourself a lot of times questioning what you're saying to someone about someone else, like, "Ooh, if they heard this...I wouldn't want them to overhear this." On the Internet, that rule is just erased. It doesn't exist, because you can do it all anonymously. It's a free-for-all. It's a free-for-all of abuse.

And you can't see someone's face or body language or voice to see how they're reacting.

No, exactly. Meaning, all over the place, is being dwindled and erased and morphed into a kind of painting...but then here I am, talking to you on an iPhone! [Laughs] You know what I mean? That's what hard; I'm critiquing these things that I'm fully a part of. I want to shed light on that and admit that. I think that's the only way towards getting anywhere: if we all admit our own part within this stuff.

[Note: This article originally appeared in the digital version (for tablets and smart phones) of Under the Radar's Spring 2018 Issue (March/April/May 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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