I watch and wait patiently for my clock to flip the next hour before I call Meg Remy, the artist who performs and records under the name U.S. Girls. I already know what she’d think of me if I phoned any later than our appointed time. “Misogynists are often late,” she writes in her first book, Begin By Telling. “They make you wait so that your confidence and certainty evaporate.”
Remy exudes confidence in everything she’s done: back when U.S. Girls was a lo-fi solo project, through the many videos she’s directed, through to the nine-piece band she’s led in recent years (it swelled to 17 while recording 2020’s Heavy Light, recorded live at Montreal’s Hotel 2 Tango). Now she’s releasing her first book, which is a big deal for the woman who admits to a “reading addiction.” She was offered a deal from Book*hug Press in June 2019, and had figured she’d write most of it while on tour in early 2020. That tour didn’t happen, obviously. Bad for the band; good for the book. “There’s no way I would have been able to accomplish this on tour,” she says. “It took so much out of me emotionally.”
Begin By Telling is physically slight: at 96 pages, it has the length and layout of a poetry book. It’s not a memoir per se, nor is it a series of essays or poems. Rather, it’s a journey into the life experiences that have shaped Remy’s work. Some of them are about intensely personal trauma: abuse, rape, distress. Some are about being a child of the ’90s, how the fall of the Berlin Wall, Desert Storm, the Oklahoma bombing, the Clinton sex scandal, and 9/11 resonated in her own life. Sometimes she connects seemingly incongruous dots between racecar driving, colonialism, and objectification. Sometimes she’s shutting down doorstop evangelists by telling them, “I’ve been to hell and I’m not afraid to die.” The book is meant to be digestible, and, like her songs, lead the audience to larger questions and connections.
“My intention was: How much can I fit in as economically as possible, without also ranting?” she says. “I wanted to leave a trail of breadcrumbs that created a larger picture that was my life. I have a hard time focusing on one area of anything. I find that in my reading habits: I’ll be reading poetry, a play, a philosophy book, a novel, all at once. When you get down to it, everything is all connected, and one leads to the other.
“A lot of the book process was about purging,” she continues. “I wrote a lot, but it’s more about the things I chose to leave out. I needed to do it in a way that was safe for me”–given some of the subject matter–“and not a waste of time for anyone who was going to read it. I hear from friends that they wish they had more time to read, but they don’t, and I thought about that a lot during the process: What is important to tell? The music side of things, for me, is always less-is-more, even around performance. I’d rather leave people wanting more than have them wishing I’d get off stage. Same with albums: I love a good 10- to 12-song record.”
Her lyrics are also remarkable for conveying maximum message in minimal time. Remy is easily one of the best lyricists working in pop music today: her songs are often self-contained narratives rich with allegory. “Pearly Gates,” from 2018’s In a Poem Unlimited, portrays St. Peter demanding sexual favours before entry into heaven. “The Quiver to the Bomb,” from Heavy Light, imagines Mother Nature kicking humans off her land after technology has ravaged it. The pieces in Begin By Telling are no different.
Before she wrote songs, Remy was an avid journal-keeper as a teen, while making and exchanging fanzines by mail in the days before message boards. Her music career began its ascent after moving from her home in Chicago to Toronto in 2010, to be with now-husband Max “Slim Twig” Turnbull. Because of her natural storytelling abilities and approach to political thought, she soon started getting offers to write op-eds for various websites.
No matter the medium, she likes to write long and then edit. Rarely are any of her lyrics a first draft. “Writing a song or a longer text is like when you’re writing a letter to someone when you’re angry or hurt: You’re supposed to write it, put it away, look at it again, and then make changes. You need the initial vomit, and then you refine and refine.
“I find when I have an open creative problem, that hasn’t been closed yet in my brain, I’m processing it all the time: after I wake up, or while cooking, or walking. My favourite part of the process is making something. My least favourite part is when it’s done. That’s why I don’t leave much space between projects.”
There will be new U.S. Girls music in early 2022, but before that, she’s expecting twins next month. Pregnancy and childbirth is, of course, an inevitable whirlwind of the personal and political. No shortage of material for her next book… which she’s already started.
Michael Barclay is the author of 2018 national bestseller The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip. (ECW Press)