U.S. Girls' Ambitious New Album, Featuring a 20-Piece Band, Is Actually Their Most Intimate
Published Mar 04, 2020If you could give one piece of advice to your teenage self, what would it be? Can you remember the most hurtful thing ever said to you? Do you carry it still? These are some of the questions Meg Remy would like to ask you.
The 35-year-old singer-songwriter, bandleader and producer has been crafting music as U.S. Girls for more than a decade, excavating the politics of domestic life and the weight of capitalism on the human spirit through a menagerie of vivid characters. Her latest dispatch from the front lines — the floor-shifting Heavy Light — finally reveals Remy not only as a master of the character study, but a master of the self. It is a piercing, unrelentingly beautiful record, moved by the voices and bodies of a 20-person band.
"I'm nervous about doing it live at the shows," Remy tells Exclaim! "We haven't done a show yet, and there's a possibility that I'm gonna cry when I do these songs! And what will that look like, y'know?"
There's never been a U.S. Girls record quite like Heavy Light — with narratives pulled from Remy's own life, the album is a reckoning with the past, an acceptance of vulnerability and an attempt to hold oneself accountable for one's own world. As she sings on the shimmering, soulful ballad "IOU," "I know full well what makes the shadows on my walls, 'cos I cast them there all by myself."
"The characters that I've created were always just masks that I was hiding behind," she says. "I think it's just that the mask is more thin now — it's like one of those clear masks, where the features are painted on it — but you can see the skin."
It's a shift that she calls necessary, a shedding of the protective barrier that she'd so carefully constructed. "I got nothin' to lose. And I'm just gonna be earnest and not be shy about it, or feel that that's corny or lame or not cool or something," she says. "You don't know when you're gonna die. And you don't know when the thing that you're doing is maybe gonna become impossible to do. I think it's possible that we could wake up one morning and there's no more 'music industry' — where it's just like, this is not happening because L.A. fell into the ocean."
And yet, for all the introspection and fear and self-exposure, Heavy Light rarely finds Remy alone. Recorded live on the floor at Montreal's Hotel2Tango with some 20 musicians and singers — including Basia Bulat, E Street Band saxophonist Jake Clemons and Remy's partner Maximilian 'Twig' Turnbull — the record is a far cry from the four-track tapes and harsh noise that defined U.S. Girls' early output.
Instead, it's a burst of collective humanity, a coming together of body and voice that takes the lush rhythms of 2018's In a Poem Unlimited to more spacious heights. "Before the sessions — or, I'm about to go into rehearsals this week — I'm nervous before the fact, thinking 'Oh, I'm a fraud, I'm gonna be the least prepared or I'm not gonna be able to convey what I want,'" Remy says. "But then, once I'm in the room, it's just such joy. And it's so exciting, and time stops. The focus that comes over me and the connection with people — it's like a drug. It's wonderful. I can understand, through it, maybe feelings people have… like, positive experiences in church."
It's in this spirit of connection that the record's three interludes were born. "I put people into a room and really hijacked them. They had to answer these questions alone, and it was a really interesting experiment," Remy says of spoken pieces woven together from the overlapping voices of various band members answering three simple prompts: What advice would you give your teenage self? What's the most hurtful thing someone's ever said to you? What was the colour of your childhood bedroom? "It was shocking, y'know? I'd never heard anything like that. When I listen to them, a wave of emotion hits me. And it really makes me feel empathy, and like I wanna hug people or something," she says.
She describes these interludes and the pounding, ever re-emerging "Red Ford Radio" as the summation of her work — incisive and tender, chaotic and human. That she can create these works in this way — that Heavy Light exists at all, in all its splendour and compassion — is not something she takes casually. "When I started this project, I was 20. I think when you're 20, you maybe think everything's possible and nothing's possible. But I think I wasn't even sure I'd be alive at this age. So it's all pretty surreal."
Here she is, on the precipice of releasing what is arguably the greatest record of her career thus far, celebrated and supported by peers and fans the world over. She can count Iggy Pop among her admirers, and can say that she and Bruce Springsteen — her blue-collar poet hero — have shared a sax player.
She's made it a long way from the dirt and solitude of her early days. Meg Remy has become a force, though she's still understanding how to reconcile her past with her present — who she is with how she sees herself. "I think what I need to work on now, mostly, is me validating myself," she says. "And I think that's where I'm at, and where I keep hitting a brick wall. So, we'll see. Check in in ten years."
Heavy Light comes out March 6 on Royal Mountain / 4AD.