Meg Remy is walking through Manchester, England, when she spots a beer garden full of revelers. This gets the Chicago-raised, Toronto-based musician, who records as U.S. Girls, thinking about their apparent apathy toward the sorry state of the world. “How would you even begin to explain to the beer garden people why they should give up a system they think is working perfectly?” she asks.
Remy, 33, has been refining her answer to that question over a decade of radically tinged DIY music. She unveiled U.S. Girls as a deceptively named solo act in the late 2000s, sketching out vivid female characters and Brill Building hooks that she buried under static and echo, like a radio station losing reception midway through a road trip. Over time, Remy has upped the melody-to-noise ratio, and her following has slowly grown with her evolving sound.
U.S. Girls’ breakthrough sixth album, In a Poem Unlimited, is a provocative leap forward into pop. One of her aims was to make “something that could be played in situations where thinking isn’t usually encouraged,” Remy explains over the phone. “There’s songs on this album that could be played when you’re shopping at Forever 21.”
She sounds positively thrilled by the thought of smuggling her ideas into public spaces, and listening to In a Poem Unlimited — which she recorded with a few dozen musicians, including members of Toronto jazz-funk ensemble the Cosmic Range — the scenario doesn’t sound so far-fetched. R&B slow jam “Velvet 4 Sale” is a feminist revenge fantasy that imagines women reciprocating male violence, with Remy urging a wronged confidante to “instill in them the fear that comes with being prey.” In “Pearly Gates,” gospel backing vocals set the stage for an unholy encounter with St. Peter, who abuses his power as heaven’s gatekeeper in much the same way Harvey Weinstein abused the casting couch.
Written long before the 2016 election, “Mad as Hell” is the album’s catchiest and most divisive track, a disco torch song that implicates Barack Obama in the long history of American militarism. “The war rolled on, I left that land, my home,” Remy coos over a beat worthy of Blondie’s Parallel Lines. “We watched your hair go gray, that stressful, manly shade.” Her problem isn’t just with Obama, Remy tells me, but with an office that champions big corporations and the military-industrial complex, whoever the occupant. “No president could be my president, because the very nature of the job is to keep these structures in place,” she explains. “When you look at the amount of money the U.S. spends on the military, you can see why the country is falling apart. It’s like a house: The plumbing is fucked up, you have no heat, you have no water, but you’re going to spend all your money on the landscaping out front.”
As the American left remains locked in seemingly endless internecine conflict, Remy is making music that seamlessly fuses feminism, environmentalism and resistance to capitalist abuses. Sometimes, a song does all three at once: Poem‘s “Rage of Plastics,” a jazzy, horn-driven cover of a song by Toronto singer-songwriter Fiver, tells the story of a factory worker whose exposure to industrial chemicals robs her of her fertility.
Remy tries to live and make music in accordance with her egalitarian principles, too. Because she’s credited as a producer of Poem, I ask if she identifies with the growing movement among high-profile women artists like Grimes and Neko Case to empower themselves by producing their own work. “I’m not interested in power at all,” she replies. “I could never claim that I produced this whole album on my own.” (Remy tends to give a co-producer credit to everyone who offered substantial input on a song.) As she sees it, the bigger problem is the way the recording process itself reinforces gendered hierarchies. “The studio really is a man’s world,” she says. “They’ve set it up that way. It’s hard to walk in there and start making suggestions.”
A few weeks after our phone call, as Remy and her seven-piece touring band soundcheck before a one-off New York show at Brooklyn Steel, it strikes me that an artist with such an intense aversion to hierarchies might feel uncomfortable as a bandleader. On a rickety bench in the club’s industrial-chic lobby, she tells me that she thinks of herself as a “band mom” or a curator more than as a boss. “In terms of the music, I lead certain things,” she acknowledges. “But everyone has their own leadership role at a certain point in the set or in the rehearsals.”
Onstage that night, surrounded by a semicircle of musicians, Remy captivates the crowd with her hypnotic singing and dance moves that alternate between cold, almost Brechtian pose-striking and disco-queen abandon. But the curator also shares the mic with co-vocalist Kassie Richardson and periodically steps aside to give her comrades on guitar or horns the spotlight. When she first takes the stage, she plays a recorded excerpt of the famous speech Canadian environmentalist Severn Cullis-Suzuki gave at 1992’s Rio Earth Summit, when she was just 12 years old—and Remy shushes the audience so we pay attention.
Shows like this one, which allow her to interact with her audience on a personal level, are especially sacred to Remy because she keeps her distance from conversations about her music on the internet. “The live setting is the only time that I’m really engaged in dialogue about the work,” she says. “There is a connection being made, and it’s one that made someone leave their house to come see what you’re doing. It takes no effort to press a ‘like’ button.”
Now, U.S. Girls are poised to connect with the beer-garden people, too, bringing their sizzling rock show and its consciousness-raising interludes to a handful of summer festivals. But if that new audience ends up savoring her melodies without absorbing her message, Remy can understand that. “People need a fucking break from life,” she says, “and music is wonderful medicine.”
Besides, U.S. Girls wouldn’t be the radical project it is if Remy were the type of artist who insists on telling people how to experience her music. “I controlled so much about how it was made,” she says. “To then control how it was consumed would just be fascist.”