Birthed Not Built: U.S. Girls Talks Springsteen, Snowden, and “Half Free”

Liz Pelly

U.S. Girls is the songwriting moniker of Meghan Remy. Since 2007, Remy has slowly built the project, using multi-layered, experimental sounds as the backdrop for her projecting her own feminist voice and vision. On her new album, her 4AD debut Half Free, Remy worked with friends and collaborators who made beats and produced, freeing her up to focus solely on the greater ideas being communicated; she used each song to paint a picture of an everyday person and their particular struggles. Surrounding its release, we talked about the driving narratives of her new work, trying to offer a feminist take on Bruce Springsteen, and what it means to be only half free.

You’ve put out a lot of records. When it came to making Half Free, what did you feel like you needed to do creatively next?

This record came about because I had done an EP collaborating with this guy Onakabazien, who is a friend of mine from Toronto who makes beats. The EP went so well working in that form, where he would make a beat and then give it to me and then I would write all the vocal arrangements and record my vocals, and then he would change things around and mix it. We thought, we should make a whole record in this form because it’s really working for us. It was crazy just having someone else who focused on the music and then I could focus on the words. It really changed things. We started making this record together but I quickly realized that I wanted to start making beats too, and I had other friends who’d made beats they wanted to give. So it kind of expanded from just he and I to lots of people. And so that’s kind of what I wanted to do with this record – was collaborating with as many people as possible. And make it a modern collage. And for my main job to be focusing on the lyrics and really taking a lot of time to do that. And then doing all of the videos and stuff now, too. It was a good way of working for me.

I feel like that would be very freeing, to be able to focus on the driving ideas rather than the intricacies of the sounds.

I’ve really realized that asking for help and opening yourself up to other people’s ideas, and their talents, makes your work better. You can go a lot more places when you have more people driving.

I don’t know if it was being into punk music when I was younger, and then getting into noise music. I think I was just into the right things and learned to not give a fuck about anything other than making stuff. And to not give a fuck about money, fame, what other people say. None of that stuff.

When it came down to your part—figuring out the lyrics and overarching themes—what were the ideas you wanted to communicate? How does it fit into your goals for your previous records?

I don’t think I consciously contrived it. I don’t know if I’ve ever done that. I just let it build naturally. Now it’s all let itself to be this.

I think it fits in with my past work. It fits into just the trajectory of where I’ve been going. First just learning how to make music on my own. Getting that little bit of knowledge. And then adding content to the music. You know? It’s been these baby steps, and now I’m at a point where everything is coalescing. Got the music, got the content, got the visuals. Got the stage show going. This is just how it was going to go for me. I’m maybe a slow learner or builder. But I’m also planning on doing this for a long time. I’m just letting things go naturally instead of pushing them or trying to hire out people. Make things work when they’re not. Just letting things go, and yet still being ambitious and pushing myself. I’m all about things actually being birthed instead of built. You know what I mean?

Yes. It is more sustainable to learn on your own, and do things yourself.

And it’s far more interesting. Because you can’t go back. If you start with something that’s very complex and synthetic and so put together and so perfect, to then step back—if you wanted your next thing to be very stripped down and full of cracks. People aren’t going to let you. You know what I mean?

Lots of young people are so obsessed with getting famous like this. [Snaps]. They’re doing everything; they’ve got all the pieces in place from the get go. Before they even play a show. What about the work? Is the work any good? It’s weird. I feel grateful—I don’t know if it was being into punk music when I was younger, and then getting into noise music. I think I was just into the right things and learned to not give a fuck about anything other than making stuff. And to not give a fuck about money, fame, what other people say. None of that stuff. I’m grateful that I got that foundation to then grow on. Because I couldn’t do it if I was out worrying about what other people thought all the time.

This record clearly has these driving narratives – how would you explain the stories you’re trying to tell?

I think it because pretty apparent that I was just going to kind of make a different character for every song. A different female character that was expressing some sort of inner narrative. Whether she’s telling a story, or her inner thoughts, or recounting her life, or something. I wanted each character to be different. I’m just attempting to put a magnifying glass over everyday things. Instead of glorifying these images of women that aren’t everyday things. I just want it to be real. Like real life. The past few years I’ve been thinking a lot about listening to my mom talk on the phone. I did that a lot as a kid. I was always eavesdropping. Not on the other end of the phone, but she’d be in kitchen on the phone with her girlfriends and she’d get off the phone and I’d be like, “Soo, what are you talking about?”

Hearing her gossip and hearing her talk to her friends about their problems showed me just, how life is complex. For men and women, but my perspective is a female one, that’s the one I know well, so that’s what I wanted to explore. Everyday life is worth looking at. And it is glamorous because it’s what we have and it’s what we share with the whole world. We don’t share fame, or wealth, or great beauty. Only very few people get to experience that. I don’t know. I just wanted to make everyday things have their moment.

I think it’s cool what you’re saying about drawing from your mother’s phone conversations. I was just talking with one of my friends the other day about how, growing up, we wanted to be so different from our families and to reject everyone who wasn’t into the same music and art and stuff. But as you grow up you realize how much you can learn from your families. It speaks to this general idea that is important to keep in mind, to not write people off just because they don’t immediately appear like they are into the same stuff as you.

That’s something we all need to do in general more. At the end of the day there’s all these general, basic things that most people have in common. With women, most women get their period. These basic things. All humans shit. You could be the fucking president of the United States, you’re still going to shit everyday. You still have to do this thing. And I think there’s a lot of stuff, when you get into subcultures, you want to ignore those everyday things. I at least wanted to rebel against my family, cut that off, I want to be totally different from them, didn’t want to acknowledge them. “I’m different, my experience is different.” Until you get older and you start realizing, subculture or not, it’s just different clothes, but the same kind of experiences. You still get your heart broken, you still get mad at your friends, you experience death, injustice, people going away, people coming. It’s just kind of like, taste that separates us in that sense. And knowledge. How much have you learned, how much do you know, how much have you pushed yourself. We’re not really that much different from our families, I don’t think.

Everyday life is worth looking at. And it is glamorous because it’s what we have and it’s what we share with the whole world. We don’t share fame, or wealth, or great beauty. Only very few people get to experience that.

In the past you’ve referred to yourself as a feminist counterpoint to Bruce Springsteen.

Bruce Springsteen is my all-time favorite songwriter. I grew up listening to him from the time I was born. He’s just my favorite. He’s done this for a long time, trying to shine a light on the average person. And talk to them, about them. I liked that. But he doesn’t really have that many songs from a female perspective. No one’s ever really done that. So I just wanted to do that. So I’m trying.

I think Bruce is a feminist, hugely. He has a song like “The River”, about a girl who gets pregnant too young. And that’s her life now. And she wishes she could turn back time.

He’s kind of a “what you see, what you get” kind of person. Which is what I am. Sure I like clothes and hair and makeup and all that stuff is fun, but I would never want any of that stuff to trump what the songs are about. If people are going to think about me, or write about me, I want it to be about what the songs are about first. Instead of style. When you’re a woman, they want to push you into those fashion arena, and do those things. They don’t do that with men. Which is so annoying. I’m just standing my ground with it.

Can you speak about the title of the record, Half Free?

It’s multi-tiered. That phrase could have many different meanings. You could look at it as, you are half free, or you are half controlled, depending on if you’re an optimist or pessimist. I thought it was a clever name, and people would want to know more. Same with my band name, I still get asked to this day, why did you name it that? It’s because I knew you would question it. It’s more for other people to think. I know what it means to me, and why it resonates with me. But I want people to take their own meaning from it. It’s a title that anyone should be able to have an idea about. If you’re a man or a woman or a child or someone on their deathbed, or a gay person, a straight person. Everyone has experienced a lack of freedom whether they want to acknowledge it or not. If you have an iPhone, or you’re on social media, you’re half free. It could be anything really.

Subculture or not … it’s just different clothes, but the same kind of experiences. You still get your heartbroken, you still get mad at your friends, you experience death, injustice, people going away, people coming.

What do you mean by that—if you’re on social media, you’re only half free?

They’re tools for [control]. Those tools are fun and they can do good. But if your day revolves around your phone, making a thing, and then checking it, you’re not in control of your actions really. It’s like Pavlov’s dog. With the bell and the saliva. I don’t know. Social media is being used, that data is being collected, and then being used to sell you things. It doesn’t matter what subculture or how cool and informed you think you are, you’re being sold something. And that data is just going to be larger and larger, and they’re going to be able to control us down to the N-th degree. To the point where we are actually not making any decisions, though we think we are. Because we’re clicking things, and we’re signing up for things, and we’re ordering things.

We’re all essentially employed to do micro-labor for a bunch of corporations.

Yes, basically. We’re robots for a very small group of people to get very very very wealthy. And it’s completely fucked. It’s insane to me how people don’t think of Edward Snowden as a goddamn hero. He should be on the $50 bill. Nobody’s talking about him, nobody’s helping him, nobody’s dissecting that stuff that he came out to say. He’s a hero in my book. Everyone was initially shocked and now we’re just back to it. It’s still going on.

 
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