The Canadian-American musician creates dance music that makes you think.
Meg Remy’s favorite topic of discussion is repression. The Canadian-American musician behind U.S. Girls has been discussing it in her music for years, whether she’s singing about patriarchy or late capitalism. Her latest album, the incredibly funky In a Poem Unlimited, takes on some heavy subject matter over the course of its 11 tracks. On “Rage of Plastics,” woman becomes infertile after years of working at a chemical plant. On “Pearly Gates,” another surrenders her body to St. Peter as a means of entering heaven.
While that all may sound depressing, the music is the opposite. For In a Poem Unlimited, Remy enlisted musicians from the Toronto jazz collective Cosmic Range, whose horns and thumping bass bring on disco vibes as the singer croons about darkness. AdHoc caught up with Remy ahead of her Hopscotch set on September 6 to chat about crafting dance music that makes people think, the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church, and how she stays afloat while touring.
AdHoc: In a Poem Unlimited caught quite a lot of buzz this year. What does it feel like to have more people paying attention to your music?
Meg Remy: I’m always a pretty skeptical person. Although I’ve maybe climbed another stair in terms of visibility, I’ll be curious to see how it translates this fall. The turnover rate with things is so quick right now. When I’m [playing] a sold-out show, or [I] see people singing the lyrics—[those] real life like examples feel exciting. It also feels very right. I’ve been working for 10 years on this project, and if I’ve been working for 10 years, I should be having some sold-out shows.
Speaking of sold-out shows, you played three of those in one night for AdHoc back in April. What was that like?
It was fun. It was very interesting to do it how it used to be done—you know, like The Beatles or Little Richard or jazz singers would do multiple sets in a night for months on end. You learn stuff about the stage that you’re bringing to the next set. It was wild to do it once and feel how exhausting it was and to be able to recognize that people’s entire careers were made up of, you know, three sets, six days a week, for six months.
The new record certainly makes people want to dance, but the lyrics aren’t your typical club music fare. What draws you to that contrast?
It’s something I’ve been doing for a long time. It’s just the way I write. It’s the way I talk, too. If I’m trying to get people to listen to me, I might as well be saying something and not just talking about myself. It doesn’t feel exceptional to me—wanting to have this kind of duality between the dance music and subversive ideas—[but] it seems to be surprising to a lot of people.
What led you to write the song, “Why Do I Lose My Voice When I Have Something to Say?”
I was sick in a hotel room after the first Republican debate. It was all the Republican men talking over each other, and I had basically lost my voice from too much travel, but also [from] screaming at the TV. I had a show to play the next day that I really wanted to play because I had a lot of anger and pent-up stuff that I wanted to exorcise on the stage, and I wasn’t able to because I lost my voice. It was a funny thing that just came into my mind: I have something to say and that I really need to say, and here I am; I have no voice. A lot of times you can have something to say and you say it, but it’s as if you have no voice, because no one wants to hear it.
You grew up in Chicago but live in Toronto now. How does it feel watching the current political climate unfold in the U.S. from Canada?
I don’t feel like I’m just watching it. I feel like I’m complicit and involved; we all are. It’s nice to have a border to separate me from all of it, but people talk about it just as much up here, because what goes on down there affects everyone. Canada has its own problems. It has a prime minister who basically just looks good—you know, cute. Other than that, he’s a fucking liar. It’s been challenging to watch it all go down and know that we’ve allowed it to happen. I try to just stay busy so I don’t get overwhelmed with depression.
“Rosebud,” one of the standout tracks on the new record, is a clear reference to Citizen Kane. Are you a fan of that film?
Yes. What I really like about the rosebud [theme in the movie] is how he’s revealing that the media is part of the war machine, and that war is all about generating income for newspapers, arms dealers—all these things. The rosebud thing is just a tidy little way to dive into repression, which is a topic that … I mean, I think repression is everything, so I’m very interested in it. Visually, [Citizen Kane] was [also] very cutting-edge for its time.
Another song on the album that has some heavy lyrics is “Pearly Gates,” which deals with misogyny and sexual abuse. Your album dropped shortly after the #MeToo movement got started. Now that women have began bringing sexual misconduct to light, what’s the next step in enacting meaningful change?
Largescale, I don’t know. For me, “Pearly Gates” is a song that’s touching on a lot of things, not just misogyny—it’s really discussing the Catholic Church, hugely. It’s been a huge source of repression for centuries; a lot of terrible shit’s come from the Catholic Church.
With the #MeToo thing, [it’s like,] “Great. Let’s zoom out a bit and look at the bigger picture now, keep zooming out, out, out, until [we] see how everything works together. We’re discussing the sex abuse scandal with the Catholic Church, so let’s [also] discuss how it’s the largest corporation in the world, how a lot of the land that they own—[and which] they make money off of—is stolen, the mass amounts of people that have been killed or persecuted because of the Catholic Church. It’s such a larger story than just the sex abuse scandal. If your roots are in the raping and stealing of land and people and resources, most likely you’re going to have a sex abuse scandal or some other mutation.
Were you raised Catholic?
Oh, yeah. I have all my sacraments and all that. My family never actually went to church; it was just a traditional thing. I never really felt too invested in it, which I’m grateful for, but I still had to [spend] a lot of time in bible classes and all that shit.
Another institution that’s been called into question recently is the business of big music festivals, and how many lineups are dominated by men. How do you feel about that?
When I think of this, I’m like, “Let’s look at the big picture. Let’s discuss how white men get all the opportunities. But let’s also discuss why festivals are so fuckin’ expensive.” Why is it $13 for a bottle of water at Coachella? Why is Radiohead getting x million dollars, and the little bands get $100? As a woman, I don’t want to just play the man’s game; I want to change the game. I don’t like the game. I think we need to be discussing the game, not just why aren’t we included.
You’re due to play Hopscotch soon, which has Liz Phair billed pretty high up.
I played Hopscotch once before, with my husband’s old project [Slim Twig], and we had a great time. I actually met the photographer Jeff Howlett there. He ended up taking the cover photo for my first record for 4AD called Half-Free, and that’s a friendship I made that was really special that I wouldn’t have made if I hadn’t played Hopscotch. I’m looking forward to going back.
Touring all over the world, as you’ve been doing since March, must be mentally and physically exhausting. What are some self-care measures you fall back on to keep you grounded?
I try to drink a lot of water, and read and write as much as possible. I try to stay away from sugar and booze, and I don’t smoke cigarettes or anything like that, which really helps. I just started doing yoga, [and] I’m gonna try and start doing it on tour.
[Touring] is an unnatural setting. It’s hard to really do much. You kind of just have to commit and dive in and be kind to yourself and put yourself to bed as early as possible and get through it. You could be the healthiest person, [but] you’re still gonna get sick, just from being around people so much, being in the airport, no sleep, performing. It’s not healthy. I love it when I’m on stage [and] when I’m connecting with my friends who I’m traveling with, but other than that, I’m very conflicted about it and I’m not sure what I’m doing.
You’re going to be touring with Tune-Yards soon. Are you a fan of their music?
I just saw them for the first time and got to meet them; we were at the same festival in Omaha. They have a crazy sound and they’re all real nice people. We’re both very different forms of dance music and I think [we’re] gonna be very complementary to each other. It’s definitely going to be the show to go to if you want to dance.
After your fall tour, what’s next for U.S. Girls?
I’m just starting the process of writing a new record while still presenting this one. In my private life and in my brain, I’m working toward the next [album] and what that’s going to look like. I’m very preoccupied with that at this time, which is nice.