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, Meg Remy, book, cover 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)

Sometimes the video store in Marieville, Québec (about 40 minutes east of Montréal), would receive compact discs, those precious pieces of plastic that once had the power to reveal an entire universe to someone, and occasionally even open the doors to their future. “The video store in Marieville survived more than a majority of others. I vividly remember its checkered flooring. I remember the employees were eccentrics,” says Thierry Larose, paying tribute to these oases of culture that were, before the advent of streaming platforms, these places inevitably impregnated with the smell of fluorescent yellow popcorn.

Thierry LaroseBut why are we talking about the video store in Marieville, a quaint little town in the outskirts of Montréal? Because that’s where Larose grew up. And because his first album, Cantalou, opens with a song, “Club vidéo,” which is to this record what “La Monogamie” was to Trompe-l’œil by Malajube: a thirsty, tragic, and intoxicating fresco, tortuous yet celebratory, balancing murmurs with roaring guitars, in which the singer announces – with a remarkable sense of unforgettable method – that he’s not the kind of person who’ll tolerate banality.

As he sings, Étions-nous faits pour ce que la vraie vie nous propose/ Que faire de notre penchant pour le grandiose/ Quand tout autour nous rappelle à l’ordre et à l’habitude? / Viens on va se mettre un film” (Were we made for what real life has in store for us / What about our penchant for the grandiose / When everything around us begs for order and habit? / Come, let’s put a movie on).

“When the video store received batches of CDs, they sometimes came from Dare to Care/Grosse Boîte,” says the 23-year-old artist, referring to Malajube’s record label, which was also home to the artists La Patère rose and Avec pas d’casque. Today, it has been re-christened Bravo musique after Béatrice Martin bought it, and Cantalou  is the first official release of the new label. At the same time, the pre-teen Larose was a devout listener of the Radio-Canada’s Bande à part sessions, and the show Mange ta ville, hosted by Catherine Pogonat, which allowed him to explore the teeming local Montréal scene by proxy. “I dreamt about it all!” he says.

“The minute I saw the Dare to Care/Grosse Boîte logo on a CD at the video store, I knew I’d most likely like it. I bought Trois chaudières de sang [Avec pas d’casque’s first album] and I remember thinking it was so raw that it was unbelievable someone had released that on CD, and that I could do that too. It’s incredible that it made it to Marieville among all the Michel Louvain and Patrick Norman.”

After a two-year stint at the University of Sherbrooke in English studies, Larose took the opportunity presented by an internship in Montréal to seriously tackle songwriting. He participated in the 2019 Francouvertes with little stage experience, but an undeniable instinct for choruses that settled permanently in the minds of those who heard him – a rare quality that was noticed by Alexandre Martel. The latter musician, who has manned the console for Hubert Lenoir and Alex Burger, has now co-produced Cantalou.

“I asked Martel if we could go big and use all the good songs on side A and the rest later on,” says Larose, admitting that he applied the same approach as Malajube’s Trompe-l’oeil, which began with a bang before settling down halfway through, and ending on fireworks (“Rachel” and “Les éléphants” being Cantalou’s “Étienne d’août” and “St-Fortunat”).

Although the B-side of Cantalou – the most 2006-sounding record of 2021 – also contains its moments of grace, it had indeed been a long time since the first few tracks of an album had been as exhilarating as its 1- 2- 3-4 punch: “Club vidéo,” followed by the gumball grunge of the title track, then the heady “Les amants de Pompéi,” and “Chanson pour Bérénice Einberg” – this last a kind of “Ducharmian” fan fiction piece dedicated to the glory of the main character of L’avalée des avalés (translated twice as both The Swallower Swallowed and Swallowed). “It’s a 100 percent sincere love letter to someone who doesn’t actually exist,” giggles Larose, a savvy lyricist who knows how to evoke a lot while saying little.

Ben non, moi non plus j’pleure jamais voyons donc” (“Of course I never cry”), he sings on Cantalou, with something in his voice hinting at the fact that the truth lies elsewhere, a trick he borrowed from Leonard Cohen. “The first time I heard such a thing was in ‘Chelsea Hotel #2,’ when he says, ‘That’s all, I don’t think of you that often,’ and you totally get that it’s so not true. I love it,” says Larose

So, what are we to do with our penchant for the grandiose when everything calls us back to order and habit at the moment? “Watch movies,” says the man who claims to have been influenced by filmmaker Richard Linklater – specifically, the bittersweet notes of his Before trilogy. “The next best thing when you don’t have access to the grandiose is fiction. That’s what I always fall back on. Writing temporarily fills that void for me, and when something grandiose happens for real, I feel like it was worth the wait.”

“I’ve matured a lot during the past two years. You can hear it in my music,” says White-B over the phone.

Without being a 180-degree about-face, his second EP, Double Vision, is indeed more composed and deeper than the rest of his work. “I’d somewhat lost my way,” he admits when the subject of his first EP, Blacklist, comes up. “I was too focused on the vibe and not enough on the lyrics. I decided to go back to the basics.”

Thus, Double Vision is more reminiscent of the raw spirit of Confession risquée, his first mixtape, than the smoother approach of Blacklist, an eclectic project with some pop interludes. Apart from Toxic, “a beat that wouldn’t be out of place in a club and that would please everyone,” this new offering is pure White-B: trap beats, simple lyrics, punchy lines, and a precise, melodious flow, able to modulate its intensity with impressive ease.

Yet, any comparison to the early days of White-B stop there. On this third solo project, the member of the 5sang14 crew displays a more concise, homogeneous, and refined artistic direction, the result of a collaboration with talented producers like BirdzOnTheTrack, Alain, and Ruffsound. This playground was conducive for the rapper to let himself go into more raw emotions than he usually does, and distance himself from hard-hitting street stories. Hence the “maturity” to which he refers.

“The main difference is that I earn a living with my music, now,” he says. “That’s probably why I rap less about the street, or at the very least with a more refined approach. I look at it from a distance because I know it’s impossible for me to go back there.”

White-B confides several times on the mini-album, notably on the engaging opening track, “Traine en bande.” “Mes pensées sont noires/Gothiques” (“My thoughts are dark/Gothic”), he professes, as a sign that the last two years weren’t as rosy as his immense success might lead us to believe. “Some nights I can’t even fall asleep,” says White-B. “There’s a million things going through my mind. My spirit is dark,” he confesses. “What people don’t know is that I’m under probation since 2017. It’s like being in jail, but at home. Because of my special status [as a musician], I’m allowed to go out, but only in the presence of a few select people. All that weighs on me, even though my career is going well.”

At the other end of the EP, “Maman ça ira” also refers to his peculiar situation. “That black cloud hovering over me for the last few years also affects my mom,” he says. “I’ve lost track of the number of court appearances where she was by my side. But the good thing through it all is that she sees all the efforts I’m making. I’m 25, I just bought my first house, and within two years I’m going to buy a duplex where my mom and my brother can live. She sees all that I’m accomplishing, and she knows my past is well behind me. She saw the good and the bad and she’s never told me to give up music. She’s always told me to go for it.”

White-B Like many rappers with a torturous path, it’s ambition that keeps White-B afloat. The constant motivation to excel is at the heart of the EP’s themes, as much through its resilient portraits as its odes to the American dream, and money. “Ambition is what guides me,” he says. “A lot of people have tried to run me down, but instead of complaining about it, I use it as motivation. At this point, no one can stop me.”

The situation is very different from that of a few years ago. While accumulating hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, the rapper had to live with repeated concert cancellations from skittish promoters, influenced by police warnings. The target audience of the rapper and his cronies was considered unsavoury.

The balance of power changed when White-B and his team began. doing business with serious promoters. In 2018, 5sang14’s sold-out show at Club Soda marked a notable advancement for Montréal’s burgeoning street-rap scene, one whose artists are far from unanimous.

“Even then, the police tried to scare venue’s people… But the demand was so great [that they didn’t succumb to the pressure],” he maintains. “You can’t stop a machine that’s full steam ahead.”

The following year, 5sang14’s performance at the Francos de Montréal in a packed MTelus confirmed the phenomenon. Since then, the squad has signed with one of the biggest hip-hop labels in the province (Joy Ride Records), accumulating millions of views and plays in the process. In the last few weeks, White-B has been awarded two gold singles for his songs “La folle” (with Capitaine Gaza and MB) and “Mauvais garçons” – an honour awarded for the equivalent of 40,000 singles sold (or 6 million streams). “And there’s more coming,” he promises.

The next step will be exporting himself. I want to put the Québec flag on top of the Eiffel Tower, says the Québec rapper on “Traine en bande.”

“The Eiffel Tower is the symbol. I do want to take this to France, but also to Africa. It’s the continent that makes Francophone rap so popular at the moment,” he says. “I want our flag and our local scene to be recognized at the same level as other Francophone rap scenes of the world. We don’t get the credit we deserve, but it’s only a matter of time.”