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Death, Taxes, and U.S. GIRLS

Meg Remy’s fearlessly genre-defying pop project is as daring and fresh as ever.

by Gaby Harrie

Photos by Emma McIntyre

Having shut the door behind her, Meg Remy and her sunny disposition are sitting cross-legged in the corner of an equally sun-soaked room. Jovial, present, and emanating all the cool wisdom in the world, it’s tempting to ask Remy if the mess she references in the title of her latest album, Bless This Mess, is in the room with us right now. 

One of the most celebrated songwriters and performers to emerge from Toronto’s underground music scene, Remy has been the chaotic mitochondria of the ever-shifting, experimental pop project U.S GIRLS for more than 15 years. The project’s perpetually fearless albums continue to amaze audiences, earning three Juno nominations for Best Alternative Album and habitually appearing on long and shortlists for the Polaris Music Prize. 

If you were to travel back in time and bump into Remy in 2007, you would find a starkly different artist carrying around an oversized reel-to-tape machine with which to fuzzify her noise rock creations. While this could be true about the beginnings of most musicians, Remy is unique in that you might have just as strong of a reaction if you were to find her again in 2010 or 2015 or even 2020. Art-pop, 60s pop, soul, disco, punk rock; across eight fiercely independent albums, she has found a way to seamlessly absorb every musical identity without ever losing her own in the process, always incorporating her distinctly off-beat, psychedelic, mind-bending flourishes.

Now in her late 30s, sitting in a tranquil corner of the home she shares with her twin toddlers and her husband/collaborator Max ‘Slim Twig’ Turnbull, Remy reflects fondly on her discography. Through her very first game of Fuck, Marry, Kill, she provides the most synthesized rundown of her catalogue on record. “Wait, so is this like M.A.S.H?” she asks surprised. “Fuck, Marry, Kill! Amazing. I’m writing this down.”

Her choices were between the sultry warped pop of 2011’s U.S. GIRLS on KRAAK, the politically charged electro-funk of 2018’s In a Poem Unlimited, and Bless This Mess.

Fuck U.S. GIRLS on Kraak. That one is definitely, definitely fuck. In a Poem Unlimited is so dangerous that I have to kill it. That record’s just me getting dirty and really saying what I thought, and I was very angry. I’ve tried to maybe kill that in myself a bit. And I would marry Bless This Mess. That’s my angel phase. That’s the one you want to take home and live with. For sure. For sure.”

Working alongside collaborators like Ryland Blackinton of Cobra Starship and Alex Frankel of Holy Ghost!, Remy created Bless This Mess in the midst of both her first pregnancy and the global pandemic through a series of Zoom meetings. Now living in the comparative freedom of 2023, Meg Remy is envisioning U.S. GIRLS listeners bumping her R&B, soul-pop fantasia in an environment that, like the record itself, is nostalgic, refreshingly varied, and oddly revealing. “In my dreams, they would be in the coolest all-ages roller rink where there’s a real DJ, like how there used to be when I was a kid. And it’s young people, and they’re with their parents and then, like, the teen sect that is there to do the hand-holding dance. Then older people that are bringing booze secretly and have been roller skating for decades and know all the cool tricks”

As part of her “angel phase,” this album is less preoccupied with the mess outside and more concerned with the mess inside. Notably missing from the album is the ardent indignation, the themes of capitalist critique, feminism, and social commentary that had previously prevailed regardless of genre. In place of that, Remy offers a deeply existential look at “bodies, birth, death, and machines” through the lens of a matured artist and new mother. 

“I really am over anger. I’ve found that it’s really useless. I’m not going to be super negative and all, ‘The world is shit, and we’re going for climate catastrophe.’ But then, I’m also not going to pretend everything’s fine.” The formerly furious songstress embraces the relief of inevitable death, finding every silver lining and offering them to the audience with a comforting grin. “It’s about being balanced and knowing that I was born and I will die, that my children were born and they will also die, no matter what. All the beauty and the muck and the shit and the things we can’t live without and the things we can’t live with, all that stuff comes between those two poles.”

Already plotting her next record, Remy plans to take her earnest introspection even further, emboldened by the honesty of an unexpectedly mainstream hitmaker. “In the past few years, I’ve been inspired by Billie Eilish and her brother in a major way in terms of just their adventurous production styles. I find her lyrics very forward, and I believe her. I find her perspective very interesting.” Though Remy admits she was unaware of the famous siblings’ habit of sneaking quotidian sound effects into their productions — keep an ear out for a dentist’s drill in the chorus of “Bury a Friend” — interestingly, she also pulls off a similar feat in Bless This Mess. The song “Pump,” features a beat made entirely of the sound of her own breast pump, creating the mother of all earworms and perhaps the first universal pump song. “My friend who just had a kid, she’s pumping again, and she’s always calling me and singing it. You could sing it to any breast pump; it doesn’t matter what brand it is, they all have a very similar tempo and rhythm.”

Part of U.S. GIRLS’ edge and perpetual freshness comes from Remy’s eagerness to challenge herself with the new, both musically and practically, as she faces the realities of today’s landscape. “It’s gotten less and less where you can make a living as a musician. Since I’ve been touring and playing in bands, fewer and fewer people are able to do it because everything’s working against you.” 

The privilege of being able to go on a tour is not lost on Remy, who is more excited than ever to bring her music across North America. “Oh my God, I don’t take it for granted at all. I mean, it’s absolutely nuts that I still play shows, and people show up, and still, something occurs between them and me and the musicians on stage. I still find something to pull out of me in the performance space that hasn’t been watered down in any way or shifted by the precarious nature of the music industry and the world at large.”

It’s clear from the vivacity with which Remy describes her tour that audiences are in for it. The show, which pulls from every corner of Remy’s discography, features “keyboard wizards that have, like, eight arms,” “crazy percussionists who are playing live acoustic percussion, but then also drum pads,” and, of course, the obscenely talented Meg Remy, shape-shifting right before your eyes as she sings her way through 15 years of self-discovery in experimental technicolour.