Advisory chats with Meg Remy of U.S. Girls

Kerri O'Malley

Meg Remy of U.S. Girls

On the literal eve of her latest release, the four-song Free Advice Column EP, I spent some time getting into the mind of the very powerful but also stylish giver of free advice, U.S. Girls’ Meg Remy. “I’ll always be punk, even if it’s just in my attitude,” Remy said, and though she spoke in soft undertones in a Toronto stairwell for the duration of her chat, her strong ’tude and unadulterated honesty brought me back to the real heart of living rough and raw. I talked to Meg about the advice she’s been given, her art outside of U.S. Girls, overcoming the anxiety of performing to emerge as a strong woman to be listened to onstage, and her relationship with her in-laws.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received or given?

Don’t piss into the wind? [Laughs] I don’t know if I’ve ever given any good advice. I’ve been grateful to have some friends really save me at some points in my life by being really honest with me. Saying things like, “Break up with him.” “Move out of his house.” “Get away from him immediately.” “Change your phone number” – that’s actually probably the best advice. Someone told me to change my phone number and it really helped. Sometimes you just have to cut off communication.

Has anyone ever fucked you over with advice they’ve given you?

No. Not friends, but family is a different situation. I’m the weirdo in my family, and my family’s given me advice sometimes that is more in line with the way they live than the way I live. So it’s not bad advice, but it’s advice for another world I don’t live in.

You come across as an extremely powerful, stylish, and self-possessed woman. How do you find that strong self-esteem and channel that energy into your performances?

If I’m being really honest, I struggle with self-esteem issues on a daily basis. It just so happens that the way that I’ve decided to go through therapy for that is by forcing myself to perform in public. Because I have things to say.

Getting out and performing in front of people has been a process for me – and it’s helped, but it hasn’t fixed anything. When U.S. Girls started, I would sit on the ground and never show my face and not look at anybody. Then I went from sitting on the ground to being on my knees. Then from being on my knees to kind of sitting up, and then I finally started standing up, and that was huge! Standing in front of people. Then came looking at them, and I’m still working on that part. [Laughs] Making eye contact and acknowledging the audience…I can only do so much.

But as far as being strong, I’ve always had a basic inner strength that I can pull from, and I don’t know where it comes from. I can’t even say it was taught. I was born with it – it’s just there. It’s not from self-esteem or a good view of myself. I think it comes more from stubbornness and, a lot of times, resentment for the world and me wanting to have my say. We live in a world where, if you’re at all sensitive, you’re soaking up the fucking grease that is out there and all of the nasty images and just nastiness that’s out there, and it’s hard not to be affected by that. It eats away at you.

For someone with a lot of resentment, the music you make tends to be somewhat upbeat.

I don’t want my music to be negative. I maybe want it to cover negative issues or maybe even be telling a negative story that doesn’t have a happy ending, but after you hear it, you feel like you’ve learned something or feel uplifted, not beaten down or like you’ve had a shallow experience.

Are there other strong women in music you admire or emulate?

In terms of modern musicians, I really like Grouper a lot. I think she’s this amazingly self-sufficient, powerful figure for a woman or a man to look up to. I like how she seems to keep to herself but still succeed. It seems like the game is revolving around her, rather than her having to participate in it. I also really like Ida No from Glass Candy. I’ve always thought that she’s incredible. I’ll never forget seeing her play and her being slathered in makeup and wearing this insane, amazing outfit, but then her stockings are completely ripped because she’s playing with no shoes on and screaming and looking so poised and gorgeous but also really fucking tough at the same time.

I’ve seen you at Ladyfest in Philadelphia, on Rookie, and most recently with an all-women cast for your “28 Days” video. Is it safe to say you’re speaking a lot to women, and what messages are you trying to convey to us?

I think my music can be enjoyed by men, but I mostly make it for women. I’m definitely interested in talking about the things that people don’t want to talk about with women. I mean, we’re not living in the fucking turn of the century [laughs] we definitely have progressed, but basic things like our bodies still aren’t our own. We still have these white-haired men fucking deciding what happens with our bodies. That’s crazy! It drives me insane. And we still have men deciding how we feel about ourselves. I don’t know…men still rule the world. Which I think goes hand-in-hand with why everything’s so fucked up. [Laughs]

I think you handle very effectively something that can be really difficult for female performers, which is being feminine while not seeming “sexualized” or overly playing into sex appeal. Do you think about that in terms of your performance?

When I’m performing, I care about what I’m wearing. I like to look nice. I like clothes and fun hair and whatever. But once I’m finally up there, I’m pretty much separated from myself and separated from myself as a sexual being who could maybe be attracting people in the audience. That is just really shut off to me. I don’t know if I project that, in turn, which then allows me to both wear a dress and be saying something. It’s hard to explain because I haven’t experienced a set of mine being removed from the one who’s made it.

For a band with a multi-person name, you’ve done a lot of your music alone. What do you do independently for the new EP, and for the whole band, how much do you do yourself?

I made the EP with a friend. His music name is Onakabazien. We worked together before. He made all the beats for the record and then gave them to me, and I wrote all of the lyrics and the melodies and recorded the vocals. So that was a collaboration and a joint record. It was put out by a record label here in Toronto called Bad Actors, and that just happened to be someone we know. He heard the stuff and wanted to put it out.

I’ve collaborated throughout the whole process of making U.S. Girls. I never really thought I’d be able to do it all on my own, and I still feel that way. I know so many talented people who are talented in ways I am not and that I can pull from. They’re willing to lend me their skills, and I get to work it into what I do. But, you know, I play alone; I sell my artwork at shows and things like that. As much as I collaborate and am supported by labels, I still feel like I’m on my own at the end of the day. I feel independent and in control of what I’m doing. I’m the boss [laughs] of U.S. Girls, but the boss needs help too.

As the main force behind U.S. Girls, how do you maintain your creative energy to keep putting new stuff out?

I never had much of a dry spell when it comes to creativity. If I’m not working on music, I make collages or help someone else out with one of their creative ventures. It goes back to the fact that this is like therapy for me. I’ve been without insurance as an American for a long time [laughs] and I can’t afford to go to a therapist. I was lucky to find out at a young age that it’s really healthy for me to be making things, even if no one sees them. Even if I’m expressing concepts to myself in my own room.

Right now, I’m keeping busy. I have an art studio here that I’ve been renting for the past few months that’s separate from my music studio. I’m trying to go there and amass a body of work just to say I made a bunch of stuff in one year, you know? I don’t have a job. I’m very broke. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be productive and prolific. I think keeping busy is what keeps me alive.

Aside from music, what other media do you work with?

I mostly do collage. But I’ve been getting seriously into making videos. I did some music videos, and I made a short piece with super 8 that an art and design school here showed in their library, “Inside the Village by the Grange.” I made the music for that, but it’s not a song – it’s more atmospheric. That’s probably one of the best things I’ve done this year. It was challenging and exciting, and I got to work with my sister-in-law and my mother-in-law making it – we collaborate on all the videos. It was my first time shooting film. I shot three rolls and most of them were pretty out of focus. [Laughs] But I made it work.

I’m feeling like video’s going to be my next big thing. In my life right now, I’d rather be making videos than making music. I’m so drawn to that medium. I’m addicted to it. I’m hoping to apply for some grants up here and make something that’s not a music video again. It’s similar to music, for me. It’s creating a world that people can come into.

Have you made videos for U.S. Girls?

Yeah, I made “The Island Song” video and the “North on 45” video. For the “28 Days” video, the director and I came up with the concept, and we did the editing together. And there’s a video coming out for the song “Overtime” off of the new EP that I made as well.

So you said you collaborated with your mother-in-law and sister-in-law and do that a lot. Assuming you three are close?

Yeah, my husband Max and I live with them. Max’s parents are both artists themselves. They make films. And Max performs under Slim Twig. He and I run a record label together. His sister Lulu is an actress, and we have collaborated on things a lot. She also makes collages. So we’re kind of two peas. [Laughs] We’re really close. She’s the one in “The Island Song” video and the “North on 45” video, and she’s the main character in the piece that I shot on film.

It’s a very rare meeting of the minds that happened with all of us. You know, Max and I falling in love, and then in turn, his family and me falling in love. I don’t think it happens all the time. I feel grateful to be in that situation. Because I couldn’t live with my family.

So with all of this going on creatively and otherwise in your life, what are you hoping to do, and do you think you’re on track to achieve your goals?

Basically, my dream would be to make a living by being an artist — making music and making videos and collages and whatever. I don’t really have any interest in being famous. I just want to make a modest living so I don’t have to work a job other than being creative. It’s hard to try and make music and then you have to go to your day job on top of it, and Max and I would like to have a family while we’re sufficiently living off of our art.

And to have long careers. To be making art until our hands don’t work anymore — changing as we age. I look forward to being a 70 year-old woman with grandkids, maybe, and making a new album or film or putting out a book of collages or something. I don’t need to be rich. I don’t even want to be rich. I just want to be able to go to the grocery store and buy what I want and not be able to struggle for the daily stuff and to feel that I haven’t wasted my time just working to live, you know? Because a lot of people do. And maybe they don’t feel like it’s a waste, but for me, I would feel that.

But it’s going to be a long process. [Laughs] We’re not near living off of our work yet, and there’s often the temptation to take the quick route; to kind of sell yourself. But I really feel like in the end all you have is your work and your integrity. I don’t think I’m dying anytime soon, so I can take my time. I’d rather people respect me and form in an interest in following things I do rather than a quick sell of some fancy press photo and some big campaign behind me that takes my life out of my hands.

U.S. Girls Free Advice Column EP is out now on Bad Actors.

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