Meg Remy recently broke up with the love of her life. No, we’re not talking about Max Turnbull, who is still very much her husband and collaborator in her Toronto-based art-pop project, U.S. Girls. We’re talking about a muse that’s been embedded in her consciousness ever since she was a child growing up in Illinois.
Remy was raised Catholic, in a conservative Republican household, but one where “the radio was always on,” she says. And Bruce Springsteen was the formative Top 40 favourite, whose impact resonated far beyond other early obsessions like Billy Joel and Elton John. Even as Remy got into punk as a teenager, and began questioning everything about the world around her, she kept Bruce close to her heart, recognizing a kindred underdog spirit. And even when U.S. Girls first emerged from a tangle of tape loops and effects pedals, as a Suicide-inspired, do-it-yourself recording experiment, she managed to work in a brutalist, beat-damaged cover of the early Boss standard “Prove It All Night” on her 2008 release, Introducting… Now that U.S. Girls has evolved from the sort of noisy, droning act that might challenge a room into the sort of crack disco-pop crew that can fill a dancefloor, you can more easily detect Remy’s E Street DNA in the cinematic, sax-powered jams that course through U.S. Girls’ stunning 2018 release, In a Poem Unlimited.
But these days, the ability to separate art from the artist’s personal life is a luxury that conscientious music fans are no longer willing to entertain. And while Springsteen is by no means guilty of any R. Kelly-level transgressions, there’s something about him in particular that just doesn’t sit well with Remy. “I recently looked up his net worth,” she says over a morning coffee at her west-end local, “and it’s just not right. Nobody needs 400 million dollars!”
Of course, Remy was under no illusions that rock’s foremost working-class hero wasn’t also a filthy rich celebrity. But at a time when our economy has come to resemble a football game where the dominant players keep sadistically running up the score, Remy is finding it hard to root for even good-intentioned beneficiaries like The Boss. As such, In a Poem Unlimited is a series of requiems for the disadvantaged souls who’ve been left to die on the field, steamrolled by the crushing forces of patriarchy and late capitalism. For women trapped in abusive relationships; workers forced to inhale pollutants at their low-paying factory jobs; and voters continually let down by their country’s political apparatus, even when the person they vote for wins. (The album’s divine, mirror-ball-twirling lead single, “Mad as Hell,” takes aim at a U.S. President, though not the one you think – it’s Remy’s exasperated attempt to reconcile Barack Obama’s nice-guy image with his formidable drone-strike record.)
But as much as it’s an indictment of the modern condition, In a Poem Unlimited also doubles as a coronation of the Toronto music community that’s supported her efforts over the course of this decade. After bouncing around underground scenes in Chicago, Portland, and Philadelphia, Remy re-located to Toronto in 2011 after meeting – and quickly falling in love with – Turnbull, who was conducting his own avant/pop experiments at the time under the name Slim Twig.
“Max was someone I was comfortable enough to work with, and sing in front of, which I’d never done before,” says Remy. “I recorded my first couple of records all in the red – I thought it if it was in the red, that meant it was working! I thought the stuff I was making was much clearer than it was, but when I listen back to it now, I can’t believe that stuff came out on record, and people bought it, and liked it! Max had the technical skills to take my ideas and make them come out clean. He was basically my engineer, cheerleader, and translator, and still is.”
However, in Turnbull, Remy found more than a romantic partner and creative foil. She was also absorbed into his expansive, eclectic network of musician friends, which include everyone from power-pop revivalist Michael Rault to dance-punk duo Ice Cream to shadowy beat-maker Mark Roberts (a.k.a. Louis Percival, a.k.a. Onakabazien). All of them would contribute to, or perform with, U.S. Girls as she cycled through the surrealist ‘60s girl-group flashbacks of 2012’s GEM, to the dubby R&B de-constructions of 2013’s Free Advice Column EP, and the lustrous pop-noir of 2015’s Half Free (which earned Remy a spot on the Polaris Music Prize short list). But on In a Poem Unlimited, Remy opens up the guest list to 20-plus contributors, most notably The Cosmic Range, the Toronto psych-jazz ensemble that serves as her backing band on the record. “They’re like the Wrecking Crew,” Remy raves. “They can just go in, and read charts, and map things out, and play things so proficiently.”
“I’d much rather confuse or surprise people than satisfy them.”
As Cosmic Range ringleader Matthew “Doc” Dunn tells it, the process of adapting his band’s improvisatory instincts to Remy’s resolute auteurist vision was effortless. “Not to sound like a big-headed asshole, but we can play any kind of music,” he says with a chuckle. “We could do classical music, jazz, funk, country music… we can tighten up when we have to. But the reason the record is so good is, Meg is so organized. She’s the most professional person I’ve ever dealt with at this level. She’d probably be appalled to hear me say that, but she really is the film director – she’s in the control room, guiding us with a very light hand. The fact that she can’t, quote-unquote, ‘play’ an instrument, but is able to do all this, is even more impressive.”
But for Remy, In a Poem Unlimited’s communal spirit extends beyond human resources to the song selection. Among the album’s highlights is “Rage of Plastics,” a sly, sultry reworking of a backwoods dirge originally written by her friend Simone Schmidt, a.k.a. Fiver, about a woman reckoning with the infertility brought on by her work in a pollution-spewing refinery. It’s the album’s lone cover, but it’s the song that best illustrates Remy’s vision for the album: to lead unsuspecting listeners toward difficult, topical subject matter via the shiny allure of pop music.
“That song just means so much to me, and I’m so inspired and in awe of it as a piece of work,” Remy says. “The original arrangement on the Fiver record appeals to me because I’m into dark, dirge-y, hard-to-take stuff. But the message is something I think everyone needs to hear, so I always wanted to do it in the style of ‘Black Velvet’ – that’s a hit, everyone loves that song. So I was like, let’s do it like ‘Black Velvet’ and get people to listen to these lyrics!”
So far, that sort of indoctrination process seems to be working. In a Poem Unlimited recently earned Remy her second Polaris short list nod, and this year has seen her accumulate all the telltale markers of a breakthrough indie-rock success: bookings at high-profile festivals around the world, steady satellite-radio play, and profiles in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and – much to Remy’s disbelief – the Wall Street Journal. But if In a Poem Unlimited represents the pristine sculpture that was always embedded in the wall of noise Remy has been chiseling away at for the past decade, don’t be surprised if her next move is to smash it all down.
“I’m going to make another record that will probably be totally different,” she says. “It’s all about not getting bored. And it’s also a little bit of a punk thing of wanting to mess with people – like, don’t put me in a box or think you’ve got me figured out. I’d much rather confuse or surprise people than satisfy them.”