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How U.S. Girls Emerged From the Underground Onto E Street

Meg Remy’s musical project has always had a little Springsteen in its DNA. But on ‘Heavy Light,’ her new album due Friday, the band has moved into sleek and slinky musical theater without ever tipping over into camp.

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Meet the new Boss, not the same as the old Boss. On Heavy Light, the latest album from Meg Remy’s U.S. Girls, the experimental pop artist has assembled her own E Street Band with a crew of 20 collaborators including saxophonist Jake Clemons, nephew of Clarence. As a lifelong fan of Bruce Springsteen, Remy has always written songs from the perspectives of the downtrodden. In the years following her initial run of lo-fi, home-recorded solo albums, she has surrounded herself with whoever can help bring her subtly shifting vision into focus. This theatrical 13-song suite amplifies a chorus of voices, while Remy looks deep within to examine the baggage she’s been carrying for decades.

Heavy Light was originally called 2020 until Bon Jovi announced their upcoming album would have the same name. While the year of its release was a catalyst, this was also a sly reference to Remy’s hindsight into her own past. That theme remains with three emotionally resonant spoken-word interludes: layered vox pop montages with her guest vocalists’ reflections on their childhood bedrooms, the most hurtful thing anyone has ever said to them, and advice they wish they could give their teenage selves. On “IOU,” Remy sings, “objects in mirror are so much closer than they appear,” poetically acknowledging how her traumas have a way of catching up.

“I always wrote from the point of view of characters before because I didn’t have the courage to stand naked and say, ‘This is me,’” she says over the phone from her Toronto home. “I just decided not to do that anymore and take the risk. If I die or some major shift happens, I might never have the chance. Of course, every record has been about me, it’s just been veiled in some way.”

Remy has traveled a vast distance to arrive at the place where she is today. In 2018, U.S. Girls’ sixth album, In a Poem Unlimited, became a breakout success, earning acclaim from The New York Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, and every outlet in between. Signed to storied U.K. indie label 4AD and Canadian upstart Royal Mountain Records, she found herself thrust into the limelight with the newfound support of a music industry apparatus. In the past three years, U.S. Girls have toured internationally, had songs featured in HBO’s High Maintenance and the Netflix teen drama Trinkets, and performed at Coachella.

This trajectory stands in stark opposition to other rising indie artists in today’s constantly shifting industry landscape. Take, for example, Chicago band Beach Bunny, who share U.S. Girls’ American publicist. The band’s members are all in their early 20s and began selling out venues nationwide before their first full-length album had been released. Instead, they captured young fans’ attention through the popularity of a song on TikTok.

Remy, on the other hand, is 34. Since her earliest releases on underground labels Siltbreeze, Not Not Fun, and Deathbomb Arc, the U.S. Girls project has progressed in a linear fashion. Her sound and approach have steadily become more polished, yet she’s never shied away from button-pushing political beliefs or lyrical topics. One apt example is her 2012 song, “Work From Home,” an intoxicating ode to sex workers.

Emerging from a crisscrossing spider web of noise, punk, and underground rock artists spread across North America, Remy very literally started from the bottom. In her earliest solo shows, she performed sitting on the ground with a daisy chain of cassette players unspooling grimy, hissing loops. As she began to gain confidence, the U.S. Girl stood up and moved toward the front of stages, belting out rhythmic chants with an unmistakable haunted voice. The wall of sound was more specter than Spector.

Before going solo, Remy played drums in the abrasive art-punk band Hustler White with Springsteen stenciled on her kit. Her bandmate Adam Grimord-Isham recalls their first meeting at a Chicago DIY show. Remy introduced herself by handing over a copy of her homemade zine, Kodachrome, which featured personal essays about her love affairs, plus an article on the Camp Trans protests against the exclusionary policies of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.

After moving to Portland, Oregon, Remy borrowed a four-track tape recorder from her friend Eva Saelens, who makes similarly chilling lo-fi music as Inca Ore. In 2007, U.S. Girls’ debut album Introducing arrived as a hyperlimited CD-R before its official vinyl release one year later. Her cover of Springsteen’s “Prove It All Night” sounds like Remy in a trance as her trembling voice is propelled by blown-out percussion. Today, it plays like a trippy juxtaposition to the lushness of Heavy Light.

“It blows my mind to see what she’s accomplished, but honestly Meg is the one person I’m least surprised to be doing these things,” says Grimord-Isham. “She’s always had a drive and a work ethic that went above and beyond most people from our scene. Meg has just kept going and going.”

Remy remains grateful for these formative DIY experiences, which she says prepared her to enter “the above-ground music industry.”

“My core was fused in the underground, so that’s where my core stays,” she asserts. “It’s given me a compass to navigate the industry and not take it too seriously. I obviously enjoy opportunities, but understand how it operates on another level that I don’t want to put much stock into. It’s not a very transparent system, and is way too easy to convince yourself that you’re special if you have some kind of success. The truth is that everyone is special.”

Music journalist Stuart Berman has written extensively about U.S. Girls since his review of her 2015 4AD debut Half Free for Pitchfork. There, he described the contrasts between her “diamond-cut melodies and avant-garde urges” with a sound “like your favorite golden-oldies station beamed through a pirate radio frequency.” While he initially connected Remy’s music to a wave of artists like Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls who “roughed up ’60s girl group sounds,” her live shows clued him into the distinctive ways she defies expectations.

“The first time I saw her, it was just Meg in a light blue suit, like Bowie on the cover of his album David Live,” says Berman. “She played a one-woman show with projections behind her, tweaking the sound of her samples to become dubbed out and fucked up. The next time she had a full band and ended with a cover of Wings’ ‘1985.’ Other times she performed a cappella with three other singers. That shows you the wide spectrum of U.S. Girls experiences, even though her voice is always at the center.”

Covers have always been a part of the U.S. Girls’ repertoire, like her infamous take on Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine.” Remy has also paid her success forward by recording songs written by musical peers such as Fiver’s “Rage of Plastics” on Poem and Jack Name’s “Born To Lose” on Heavy Light. Most interesting is the way she radically reworks songs from her own back catalog, three of which appear on the new album: “Overtime,” “State House (It’s A Man’s World),” and the early cult favorite “Red Ford Radio.”

“It was good to revisit those songs since some people have only heard my music since I signed to 4AD,” laughs Remy. “I’ve been watching Agnès Varda’s movies lately, and it’s amazing to see what was always inside her versus what got added on as she aged. That kind of evolution is fascinating. I want to turn that on myself, not just as an artist but also as a human being. Eighteen-year-old me was buying Fruity Pebbles and thinking I was taking care of myself.”

Berman compares U.S. Girls’ musical world-building to an artist like Destroyer, who regularly references lyrics or characters introduced on his earlier albums. He also relates Remy’s approach to Neko Case, Nick Cave, and PJ Harvey, veteran musicians interested in long-game careers that allow them to continually evolve or toss out creative curveballs. Remy may tiptoe into the mainstream, but she will always do it on her own terms. “Mad As Hell,” the catchiest song from In A Poem Unlimited, recalls Blondie’s disco pop while rallying against Barack Obama’s hawkish side.

“Her songs are Trojan horses,” says Berman. “They lure you in with beautiful production, pretty melodies, and great singing, but lyrically they can blow you back. There’s an interlude on Half Free where she’s talking about finding nude photos of herself as a child and how she looked pretty hot. We expect artists to be politically outspoken, but Meg initiates conversations that truly challenge people.”

The recording process for Heavy Light was yet another reaction to her past artistic choices. Remy describes the sessions for In a Poem Unlimited with her jazz-funk backing band the Cosmic Range as “synthetic” with a heavily labored-over approach to its vocals. For this album, she camped out at Montreal’s Hotel 2 Tango studio with a new wrecking crew of musicians including her husband, Max “Twig” Turnbull, on keys; Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury on guitar; and beloved pop artist Basia Bulat joining the chorus. With producer Howard Bilerman (Broken Social Scene, Wolf Parade, Godspeed You! Black Emperor) behind the consoles, they rolled tape and recorded its songs live off the floor.

Singer James Baley delivers one of Heavy Light’s most dazzling performances. He first linked up with Remy through his membership in The Big Sound, a Motown cover band that also features U.S. Girls conga player Ed Squires. Baley’s first collaboration with the band was Poem’s hip-hop-influenced standout “Pearly Gates,” which shares melodic DNA with Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate.” Baley arranged and recorded the backing vocals on “Pearly Gates” in his bedroom long before he met Remy in person.

“I was still living in my parents’ house,” he laughs. “When I set up in my room with a mic and GarageBand, I had no idea what I was going to add. After a few takes I just did what felt natural and sent it to her. Meg emailed me back and said, ‘This is fucking amazing.’ She didn’t ask me to re-record anything.”

When Baley joined U.S. Girls in a jaw-dropping vocal-only performance at the 2018 Polaris Music Prize gala, his direction for the other singers was to imitate the hushed, sneaky tones of Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin. He brought that same style of playful instruction to the Heavy Light sessions, but didn’t hold back the powers of his voice. On “Overtime,” Baley unleashes gospel-style screams in a gale force duet with Clemons’s sax solo.

Remy’s own influences for the album are no less specific. Her idea to work with a group of vocalists came from Dylan’s Gospel, the 1969 album by the Brothers & Sisters of L.A. These in-demand session singers (including the Rolling Stones’ Merry Clayton and T. Rex’s Gloria Jones) were hired by producer Lou Adler to perform Bob Dylan songs in the style of a church choir.

Adler may be better known for producing The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which provided a partial inspiration for U.S. Girls’ “4 American Dollars” video with its disembodied dancing lips. Remy also borrowed this exaggerated concept from Samuel Beckett’s Not I, revealing both the depth of her cultural knowledge and interest in theater. This is perhaps most sonically evident on Heavy Light’s “Denise, Don’t Wait” with its martial snare rolls, vibraphone shimmers, and pained harmonies that sound like the emotional centerpiece of a musical.

“Woodstock ’99” pulls off an unexpected trick, interpolating the lyrics and melody of Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” while sounding like a sassy piano medley in the tradition of Bowie’s Hunky Dory. “And Yet It Moves / Y Se Mueve” features bilingual lyrics translated from English to Spanish by vocalist Kassie Richardson. It’s another daring departure that could become the album’s crossover pop hit, yet comes complete with a political underpinning.

“English and Spanish are both colonial languages,” says Remy. “They’ve erased or whittled down the original languages that were spoken in places where they emerged. That was really interesting to me. The lies told about these languages are the same, but they keep us on different sides.”

“The Quiver to the Bomb” drills into listeners’ ears with an unrelenting single piano note reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” (itself swiped from The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”). As the song unfolds, it blasts off into a space opera with congas, vocoders, and synths that zap like lasers. That may sound futuristic, but Remy’s lyrics were inspired by the horrors of history after visiting New York’s National Museum of the American Indian.

“If you look at the evolution of weapons from the quiver to the bomb, it’s scary how far we’ve come in the last 200 years,” she says. “When you realize how old this planet is and how new humans are, we don’t even register on the scientific scales used to categorize time. It can feel like we’re living at the end of the world, but we’re really less than a speck in the last 5 billion years. That was helpful for me to realize as a meditation.”

Heavy Light marks another boldly realized step forward from one of today’s most status-quo-challenging musicians. While U.S. Girls’ velvet is still for sale, the nightclub disco funk of In a Poem Unlimited has moved into sleek and slinky musical theater without ever tipping over into camp. As an artist who began with the fidelity of a Walkman, it’s a thrill to hear her songs bathed in the glow of Broadway lights.

Of course, it all loops back to where Remy came from with the coarsely beautiful cover of her song “Red Ford Radio,” which became one of U.S. Girls’ calling cards a decade ago. While the original version on her second album, Go Grey, sounds like a horror film in slow motion, it now conjures a gang-chanted invocation of ancient spirits. Remy’s musical spells remain unbroken because she never left the little girl who cast them behind.

“For me it was interesting to see that was a sturdy song that could be redone,” she says. “I first recorded it at a time when I wasn’t thinking about it technically or how to make it quote-unquote ‘right.’ It was more like a sound collage, or almost a resistance to music. But I was on to something there: opening a little portal into myself and pulling something out. My favorite part of books, movies, or songs is when you can tell that they’re real. It’s so much more vivid that way.”

Heavy Light’s title was inspired by Franz Kafka, who wrote the aphorism “A faith like an axe. As heavy, as light.” At its core, the duality of feelings permeating the album’s lyrics could have poured forth only from Remy’s mind, heart, and soul. Yet its sounds of traumatic pain emancipated into triumphant release have been evocatively channeled by the singular strengths of her collaborators, an E Street Band for a new era.

“The Bruce thing is a cross I nailed myself to a long time ago, and I guess I’m still carrying it around,” Remy laughs ruefully. “One thing I appreciate is that he’s not one of these performers who makes it all about him. It is still, but he’s a really generous collaborator with his band. He understands the equation that if other people are shining, it shines back on you. I think I have a lot of personality, so I prefer to have people around who do as well. Capitalism makes us think there’s only room for one, but it makes the work better for everyone when there’s more joy.”

Jesse Locke is a writer whose work has appeared in Aquarium Drunkard, Bandcamp Daily, and Musicworks Magazine.

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