Nine Songs: U.S. Girls
Meg Remy is drawn to music that embraces imperfection.
When we meet in a bohemian London café, Remy cuts straight to the artist she is today, where over eight albums as U.S. Girls, not only has she carved a singular creative path, but one that’s refused to compromise. “Something I’ve learnt about the music industry is the art of just letting it do its thing. You have to make your life what you want it to be and put things into perspective. It’s about realising that silence and nothingness is as valid as being prolific.”
In the countdown to that eighth record Heavy Light, Remy sits down with us to mull over her career and the songs she loves. No stranger to the music industry, she dives into the differences in the creative process from her last release. “For In a Poem Unlimited I really wanted to hone my attention to make a really polished, flawless record, using radio forms of the vocal. I wanted everything to be stylised, aesthetically pleasing and smoothed out so it could be played at Sephora.”
This time around Remy took the opposite approach. Heavy Light was recorded live, a nod to her past and current inspirations, as well as a desire to create art in the moment. “It had to be made that way. It’s like jumping out of a plane. You have to land, and if I do that it's great, I get to carry on with my life, but if I crash, I die. I wanted to be OK with being transparent and that a voice is not a computer. If there's an emotional performance and the meaning carries through, that’s what matters. It’s not a pitch-perfect, self-contained thing.”
Heavy Light dips into Remy's impressive back catalogue, plucking aspects from older songs and reworking them. “We often say if we could go back and do something differently we would, but you can only do things the way you can in that moment. I wanted to see how the originals stood up and if they still resonated with me.”
Over the course of our conversation what becomes apparent is the key inspiration for Heavy Light was Remy herself, rather the character driven narratives of her previous work. “It was to bare myself and deal with the consequences of doing so; an act of self-love for myself and others.”
Much of Remy's lyrical content plunges into the darker pools of personal experience, acting as a cathartic outlet and Heavy Light maintains that same focus. I ask if it was like shining a light on her openness as a writer and Remy explains “It’s like a wound that needs oxygen, a lot of the time you’re not supposed to put a bandage on it right away, it needs to air out. I have a lot of healing to be done and if it was up to me, I probably wouldn’t address it, but through my work I encourage myself to do so and I can maybe help others. I’m addicted to cathartic things.”
Remy's Nine Songs reveal a similarly cathartic love of music. From the storytelling masterclasses of Springsteen, the musical theatre of Meatloaf and songs that are sometimes flawed and unpolished but are no less beautiful for that. But underscoring all of them all is emotion and a love of creativity without compromise, where imperfection is perfection under a different name.
“Society is focused on perfection and that gets carried over into art. I make work that’s filtered through the music industry as a necessity, but I try to focus on the music. I’d give my life for music. We need times where there’s nothing going on and we’re struggling, so we can appreciate when creativity is flowing. Sometimes it flows, sometimes it doesn’t and that’s it. Your mind can’t always be flowing!”
“A friend introduced me to this song and when I first heard “Night of the Assassins” I instantly wondered ‘What is this?!’ It contains another song from the ‘60’s, “I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March, and has the bassline of that song it in it.
“It’s an early version of someone sampling something and the fidelity of it has a real vibe, an atmosphere that completely fills the room whenever you play it. I became obsessed with it, how the vocals are so buried and yet it doesn’t matter, because it’s not about the words. It’s a rare sound, but it’s so familiar when you hear it.
“Night of the Assassins” references girl group music so heavily and that’s something that I’ve always done, some of my favourite pop music references the girl group era. I love how Les Rallizes Dénudés took tropes from the girl groups and turned it into something new. I like how noisy this song is, whilst still being very pop-oriented. The fidelity and the harshness factor doesn’t take away from its sweetness either and I love that combination.
“I really love texture and I see texture as an instrument. Les Rallizes Dénudés didn’t try to record this song well - it sounds like they just put a mic in the corner. It was more about the performance and whoever was there got the best performance of it, rather than listening to it. It seemed like the recording was an afterthought, and I liked that.
“It’s thinking about how to make records with no money and no skill, because it’s very different to know how to write and record a song, they’re completely different skillsets. A good song can come through even if you’ve recorded it on your iPhone in the back of a room. If it’s catchy, it’s going to come through.”
“When Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits came out in the ‘90’s, my dad bought the CD and we listened through it together. “Atlantic City” was so stark and that really scared me, it seemed like such a basic song, but at the same time it was so dramatic. It talked about things that I’d never heard discussed in a song before and that really stuck with me.
“One thing that I really loved about it, and that informed my work, is the idea of the ‘story song’ - a song that has dialogue. I love songs that sound conversational, that contain a tale of ‘he said, she said’, or when a singer’s covering both sides of the dialogue. This song sounds like a sound-film or a play, which are both things that I really love in music. “Atlantic City” was the first time that I realised that kind of song existed, or could exist.
“I’m fascinated by the unique way that people talk; I do things like keeping journals of conversations that I overhear. It’s the way that people speak, their turns of phrases and how each culture or the family that you grew up in really dictates how you talk, the words you use and your delivery.
“The way that people speak is very lyrical. No one talks exactly the same and I try to pull that conversational aspect into my songs, always. I used to make music years ago where the vocals were indistinct but as I’ve gotten older and my vocals have gotten clearer, I feel more pressure on the quality of the lyrics.”
“I love this track and I first heard it when the video was premiering on MTV. I’d watch that channel from the minute I got home until I went to sleep for my whole life, and I couldn’t wait to hear “Are You That Somebody” again.
“I didn’t know anything about production then, but now I know it’s a Timbaland song and that baby sound, the groove, the video, it’s all just so good. I wanted silver eyeshadow so badly after that! That sound is forever, remember when The Gossip started covering it in their garage style? Even then it’s still good. “Are You That Somebody” could be covered in any way, it could be a country song and it would be great. Oh my God, this song is eternally modern.
“I love how fragile she is in it, she’s asking, ‘I’m worried, are you going to take care of me?’ I like that she’s being unsure and vulnerable and with such a good voice. To me, vulnerability is always the most interesting tool. It’s what I seek out from artists, literature or anything. To see how people deal with their vulnerability, or if they do deal with it, and allow themselves to be vulnerable or not.
“I know that all I really have as an artist are my experiences and presenting them in some way. It’s always been my main goal to be as transparent and vulnerable as possible.”
“I love Crass and I like that lots of different people sang in that band. There wasn’t just one lead singer, throughout a record you’d get various voices coming out.
“I don’t know a band that I was really more into on all levels. Their aesthetic level, the collage imagery that they used - it was so political, so cheeky and so clever. No one was safe from being made fun of by them, even themselves.
“This song would still really work now, and it still sounds very relevant. It’s not claiming to know anything. I don’t take life too seriously and I think if you do you’re setting yourself up for a lot of disappointment and self-loathing. Humour is always the best medicine.”
“There’s this movie from Chicago that was filmed in my hometown, called Adventures in Babysitting. The movie starts with this song and it opens with the protagonist dancing on her bed, getting ready for a date, lip syncing to it and combing her hair in the mirror.
“I don’t know why exactly, but I was obsessed with it and I still love that song. It made me feel the first tinglings of sex or something, which you don’t really know how to put into words when you’re a kid. I had this weird feeling and it made me feel a certain way.
“Darlene Love sings on “Then He Kissed Me” and she has that classic voice that we all know so well without knowing who the voice belonged to. At the time I was probably about seven years old and I used to listen to a lot of ‘Oldies radio back then.
“I love music that’s loud, lush and densely arranged, lo-fi songs with a distinct vocal line and character in the voice on top of that. It’s a Phil Spector song, so it really sounds like The Ronettes too. I didn’t know what it was at first, but when it came on the radio that was always my favourite sound.”
“I was in college and getting into more experimental music when I heard this song. I didn’t know anything about experimental music or anything about jazz or free-jazz, but I was lucky to have a lot of older friends who liked to educate me and school me, who got a kick out of me getting so amped up about music. They were always ahead, and one person in particular would always bring me CD’s they’d made for me. This track was on one of them.
“At the time I was writing in another band, but I was mostly a drummer. It was maybe two years after hearing “Peanut” that someone gave me a four-track and I started making secret recordings that I wasn’t telling anyone about.
“Before I heard “Peanut” I didn’t know that you could use the voice without saying words, or that you could use it as an instrument, that you could hold notes with it, scream or screech, or that the voice was so versatile. I didn’t know anything about improvised music either and it just blew my mind. I realised that this was something that was possible too!
“This song made me realise that anything’s possible in music, as long as the intention is there and the emotion is there. It doesn’t need to be a pop song or last three minutes from start to finish. It doesn’t need to have any parts, it can simply be a meandering meditation.
“When you’re young and you find out about something new it’s so fucking amazing, but when you’ve known about something for thirty years it can lose its potency. I discovered this song when I was really getting into the possibilities of sound, and being a bit older, I still experience it now.”
“My first records were so influenced by Suicide and a lot of experimental music. I always wrote and produced my own music and it was my only choice. If I wanted to make music I had to do it myself, because I could never afford a studio and I was too shy to go into one anyway. I didn’t know who to ask for help then.
"I made these tracks and I acted like it sounded that way on purpose! It was more that I didn’t know what I was doing. It was only after working for a long time that I realised I could ask for help and bringing more people in made my music open up."
“This is such a beautiful love song; it’s the yearning. It’s another one of those songs that could be done in any way and it would still sound amazing.
“I remember being at a community park picnic when I was four, they had a DJ on after a long day and by that time the parents were probably drunk. I was swinging on a swing and the DJ put “Unchained Melody” on and it punched me in the stomach. I can remember going to my Mother, crying and wanting to know what the song was. It haunted me and it still does every time I hear it.
“Unchained Melody” kind of sounds like the ocean, it sounds like it’s this rolling, heavy track. And again, it’s a Phil Spector song with the production that I always love. When I hear it, it feels like it’s mine and I feel like I made it… Or I wish I had made it!”
“My parents loved Bat Out of Hell and there was a lot of shameless singing along to this song in the car. There are no musicians in my family but we would always perform in the car, playing the piano on the dashboard, singing songs together and getting real crazy.
“This is another big song from my childhood and it showed me it’s OK to be corny. I like a lot of music that’s mixed with theatre and Meatloaf wasn’t afraid to do that, he wasn’t afraid to cross over into that slightly cheesy sound. People have a lot of bad things to say about musical theatre and maybe rightfully so, but I love it when music can be cartoony, where you can visualise it in cartoon form, what it would look like and what the characters are saying.
“I also like the female backing vocals in “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth.” It’s really ripping off Phil Spector and its really indebted to that ‘60’s stuff. It’s just a banger!”