U.S. Girls on Bless This Mess, Motherhood and Leon Russell
Meg Remy talks about how being pregnant with twins shaped her most recent record and how she found radical empathy in Greek mythologyPhotos by Emma McIntyre Music Features U.S. Girls
Since signing with 4AD in 2015, the best art-pop artist title in the world has belonged to U.S. Girls—the moniker of Toronto-via-Chicago musician Meg Remy. Her breakout record Half Free was nominated for Alternative Album of the Year at the Juno Awards in 2016, and she’d go on to make the shortlist for the Polaris Music Prize that same year. But, at least for me, the projects that solidified Remy’s singularity came with In a Poem Unlimited in 2018 (the same year Paste crowned U.S. Girls the best live band) and Heavy Light in 2020—the former of which still endures as, quite possibly, one of the best electronic records of this century. Though, I am personally quite fond of her 2011 split with Dirty Beaches—which, in retrospect, is an absolutely bonkers collaboration that more people should be talking about.
Remy, who has been the face and voice behind U.S. Girls since its inception in 2007, put out Bless This Mess—her eighth record—in February, and it’s still a frontrunner on my albums of the year list. Throughout 11 tracks scattered across 44 minutes, Bless This Mess is a rebirth, a celebration of motherhood and a documentation of finding subdued empowerment in grappling with a dark, chronically online modern world. It’s decidedly gossamer, punctuated, experimental, dance music-indebted and full of Greek mythology anecdotes. To put it succinctly, Bless This Mess is a technicolor, antithetical rendering of its own thesis statement. I am supposed to be interviewing Remy about her appearance on A Song For Leon, the recent tribute album arranged as an homage to Leon Russell. And while her cover of “Superstar” with Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Bootsy Collins is brilliant and stands toe-to-toe with the Carpenters’ and Sonic Youth’s versions, I can’t help but want to pick her brain about Bless This Mess just a little bit.
You could ask any of the compilation featurettes how they made it onto such a far-ranging album but, for Remy, the answer is quite clear and easy: “My manager, Laurel Stearns, is producing it. She’s a legend,” she says. “One day, she called me and was like, ‘Do you like Leon Russell?’ ‘Of course.’ [laughs] She’s like, ‘We’re doing this comp and everyone’s picked their songs, but if you want to look at the list and see if there’s one left that you want to do.’ I looked, and ‘Superstar’ was still on the list, I couldn’t believe it.” I’m with Remy here. If we’re doing a mock draft of songs penned by Russell, I’d wager that, nine times out of 10, “Superstar” is the first track off the board. Under the belief that every song is malleable, she and Bootsy Collins transformed the ballad into a daring disco arrangement. Remy’s husband, Max Turnbull, cooked up the demo beat while she did a scratch vocal on it—which they then sent to Bootsy who, to no one’s surprise, was her first choice for a collaborator and would play bass, drums, Moog synthesizer and build the vocal tag and bridge on the final recording. The compilation is diverse and complicated and, truly, brilliant—but the duet of U.S. Girls and Bootsy Collins on “Superstar” is in a whole different stratosphere.
What makes Remy and Bootsy’s rendition of “Superstar” such a highlight from A Song For Leon, though, is her intention to change it from a narrative centered around a sorrowful groupie and turn it into a multi-faceted, dynamic tale of love and power dynamics. “That’s a really complex narrative at this time, in this day and age,” she says. “I thought that it would be interesting and very worthwhile to try to get the other side of that narrative, from the rockstar—the superstar’s perspective. And that was another way to make the song new and make it our own, to make it, lyrically, a two-sided story.”
When I talk to artists about influences, many of them bring up Leon Russell. His work has so thoroughly instructed everyone, from rock stars to pop icons. He is a part of the American songbook, a text that Remy finds her own devotion in. As is the case with songwriters like Kris Kristofferson and Burt Bacharach, Russell’s penmanship didn’t have a direct influence on her, but their work can be traced through her catalog—solely because their approach to composition and construction has impacted rock ‘n’ roll and popular culture in such magnetic, and often nameless, ways—and she is interested in all of the weird, complex layers around the act of crediting someone for their art and understanding who touched what and when.
“Something that I’ve come to really understand more and more as I age is that, behind the stars and singer/songwriters are all of these other people who put the songs together, massage the songs, whatever. And Leon is just one of those in a long line of many people that I’m starting to become familiar with or expect to see when I look up a song,” Remy says. “Even one person who sat down and wrote a song from beginning to end, their ideas have been infiltrated by the culture that they lived in and all of the music that they consumed before. So, are there original ideas? Are there original songs? I don’t know. So much also happens in terms of where, when and why does a credit get assigned. The woman who wrote ‘Superstar’ with Leon Russell—Bonnie Bramlett—no one ever thinks of her with that song.”
A Song For Leon proves one truth: Leon Russell was the type of musician who had a certain energy moving through him—the kind of kinetic force that is greater than any amount of money, notoriety or credit. It’s all obsolete in the face of musical power. “It’s as close as you can get to sacred art,” Remy adds. “The closest thing you can get to something eternal. It really transcends all of the bullshit that we put on top of it. How do you claim a song like ‘Superstar’? That song is a truth that so many people have experienced. How can you say it’s even a song? It’s a story that belongs to so many people. It belongs to the ‘groupie’ and it belongs to the rockstar. It belongs to the manager and the tour manager that has to watch all of that shit go down. It belongs to the person who cleaned the hotel room or, maybe, saw those people leave it. Stories—they’re all of ours.”
When Remy made In a Poem Unlimited, it was the project that sent her to the moon. Almost every major outlet gave it an 80/100 or higher and would cement U.S. Girls as one of the most important electronic projects of the era. It was my first foray into Remy’s music, and a pretty damn rewarding one at that. Songs like “Rosebud” and “Pearly Gates” and “Poem” remain in my regular rotation—the latter of which is one of my favorite performances of all time, across the board completely. She had finally started to see folks coming out to shows and singing her own words back at her—it was her first real brush at the stardom her previous five records had been greatly hinting at, and it set a precedent for what Heavy Light and Bless This Mess would need to be. “If you get ears on a record, then you’re gonna want ears on every record,” she adds.
One thing that always interests me about artists who don’t break through until a handful of albums in is how their understanding of their own creative destiny evolves and changes with different intervals of success. When I ask Remy what the turning point for her was after signing with 4AD, she offers a pretty candid answer—prefaced by her assertion that she doesn’t turn thinking about fate or potential into her currency, preferring to gush over recording an album live for the first time with people and instruments behind her.
“It was unbelievable to me that I got to make the record in a studio with a band, and it was a really good fucking band,” she says. “I had to really look at how far I had come in my ability to be able to collaborate on that level, considering I had started this project just recording all by myself. And I would have never worked with anyone else, because I was too embarrassed to reveal I had no musical talent. I had things to say; I had a knack for a performance. I don’t even know if it was a knack, it was just an ability to seek oblivion in a performance. To see that I had come all this way where I could sing in front of a band in a studio and not crumble from embarrassment—and saying ‘No, I don’t want it this way, I want it this way’—it was amazing that I had made it to that point and that I had a label support that.”
Remy put out Heavy Light in 2020 and a memoir, Begin By Telling, in 2021—and both projects are, as she calls them, “exorcisms.” Both created this visceral, anthemic tapestry that told stories through body language and tilted a focus on gospelizing radical empathy. In a lot of ways, they are this interwoven, definitive statement—as if you could’ve looked at the two projects as the end of U.S. Girls, or at least a chapter of it. And, for Remy, it almost was. “COVID happens and I’m at home in this time of pause, and what was revealed to me—after completing these two forms, which both really seem to be like doors closing on my work—was how do you carry on after that? And then, the stoppage of COVID and all of the things that were revealed about our world during that time very much opened up to me that there’s no rules and I could whatever the fuck I wanted to next—which is something I’ve always known and lived by, but it just got more juiced up.”
For Remy, it became urgently obvious that the next chapter she wanted to explore in her life was having children. She and Turnbull began trying, and she got pregnant with twins pretty quickly after. Heavy Light and Begin By Telling saw Remy exercising a lot of anger, as did In a Poem Unlimited. “I still had a big belief in politics, which has completely evaporated now,” she says. “I still was trying to really tell people what to think and do and I was angry and pointing lots of fingers. I don’t have much anger anymore, other than at myself. I’m in a period now where, from Bless This Mess on, I’m making work as a mother. And that is a completely different paradigm, not just in the details of how I work and the time that I have to do it and the brain space and the physical space but, having grown two beans in my body and then giving birth to them and then feeding them from my body for two years—in the midst of so much change on this planet and in culture and the ways of living—to be a mother at this time, it’s a very specific lens to have on the world. I will never not be a mother again. Even if my children died, God forbid, I’d still be a mother. So that’s where there will be a delineation in my work, pre-mother and postpartum.”
The impact that motherhood had on U.S. Girls and on Bless This Mess arrived immediately. The cover brandishes a very pregnant Remy cradling her own stomach. She’d gone from being 150 pounds to 230 pounds, because she had three-times the blood and three-times the hearts in her body. We joke that if you give Bless This Mess a bad review, then you are—by proxy—giving her two children and her changing body and mind a bad review, too. “They’ve only just now started to do the research on what happens to the brain when you give birth,” she adds. “Your brain actually, physically, changes size. There’s so much that happens to you physically, which affects cognitive emotion, your parasympathetic nervous system, all of these things. I made a record in those conditions, it’s kind of the ultimate vulnerability to do something like that. I have an addiction to being vulnerable publicly.” As you would expect, Remy samples the sounds emanating from her breast pump on “Pump”; she nods to the bond of living through bodies, births, deaths and machines on “Outro”; there’s a call to breathing exercises while labor that juxtaposes with the insurmountable weight of climate chaos and internet dependency on “Futures Bet.”
But becoming a parent—especially a mom—is a huge sacrifice that changes your voice and your movements and your musicality, as you begin taking care of yourself so you can then sacrifice that part in order to create a life for someone else. When Remy’s kids were in-utero, in the early months, it was a joyous, novel thing for her that quickly turned into emotional turbulence and a struggle to just keep up with rigors of making a record. “It was like, ‘We’re recording and the babies are here! They’re on the record.’ and then, being pregnant with twins, it becomes a very real physical limitation very early on. By six, seven months, I was pretty full and my body was working really hard. I didn’t know where my diaphragm was; my breath, I had no connection to it. I couldn’t stand for long, I had to sing sitting down. I was extremely emotional and hard on myself about how my voice sounded and about my stamina. Sometimes, I would have a studio day booked and I couldn’t get through it, because I was so self-conscious about how I sounded. I would just dissolve into tears. It was really difficult conditions towards the end, plus a pressure I had on myself to finish it before the babies came—because I was like, ‘I’m not going to have time once they’re here.’ Of course, if you put a deadline like that on yourself, you’re not meeting it. I did not get the record done before.”
The first thing that Remy worked on postpartum was, actually, “Superstar.” There’s a picture on her Instagram where she has a baby in her arms and she was wearing a big button-up shirt she was practically living in at the time and she was tracking the song’s vocals. In that photo, Remy was still battling with swelling and fluid retention, having to continue sitting to sing. Her kids were born in April 2021 and she’d had shows booked for that August, all of which she had to cancel—because there was no way she was getting on stage. “I was nowhere near prepared to be confident on my pins. My legs were shaky; my ankles, my feet, everything was all messed up,” Remy adds. “Although I’m an artist and that’s in my DNA at this point and I don’t really put it second to too many things, my kids are really the most important thing in my life right now—because I’m their caregiver. It’s not just about physical closeness, either. Emotionally, intellectually—I need to be there for them, because the experiences they’re going to have right now are what will form them for the rest of their lives. And I want to do the best job I can—not just for them, but for every other person that they’re going to come in contact with. Because, we’re basically walking around just meeting everybody’s parents.”
The standout song on Bless This Mess, “Only Daedalus,” taps into Greek mythology—especially the story of Icarus and his father. Remy was drawn toward that kind of storytelling because she was experiencing something epic in her body. “[Because of[ the grandeur and the bloody chaos, life-making stuff, I needed those stories to make sense of my own life,” she notes. The story of Icarus and his fate of flying too close to the sun is a well-understood myth—as is the moral interpretation of it, to not be too ambitious and to listen to your parents’ guidance. Remy didn’t know about Daedalus, how he created Icarus’ wings and the labyrinth. She drew parallels between her being a musician and him being an inventor, as they both pull things out of thin air and fashion them into something worthwhile—and that snowballed into her thinking about dating and having partners and being a parent, about how she no longer wanted to live in the frustrations that plagued her last few records.
“What really stuck with me with Daedalus was reading this story about him where he was exiled and he was lost,” Remy says. “A king wanted to find him, so he sent out his messenger with this riddle, which was ‘How do you get a thread through a shell?’ The king says, ‘Go out with this riddle and whoever can answer it, that will be Daedalus. That’s how we’ll know it’s him, because he’s the only one that can solve this riddle.’ The messenger finds Daedalus, because he solves the riddle. What he says to do is tie the string to an ant and lure it through the shell with honey. There’s something beautiful about that, it’s a very evocative image that stuck with me. Daedalus’ life story is just full of metaphors at every turn. That’s what myths are, right? Myths are to help us make sense of our life. You may be faced with something where you’re like, ‘Fuck, how am I going to do this? How am I going to thread this shell?’ I think it helps to visualize metaphors. All of this is connected to radical empathy and critical thinking—these things that are, I think, skills we inherently have as human beings but are buried right now.”
The Daedalus piece really stuck with me after I got off of my call with Remy. I think back to what she said about Leon Russell, about the ways in which the energy of brilliance can supersede credit. When Icarus flew too close to the sun, everyone forgot about his father. When the Carpenters turned “Superstar” into a #2 hit, everyone forgot about the kooky-dressed, bearded guy who wrote it. There’s something to be said about whether or not Bless This Mess will be remembered as this crystalline, grieving and nakedly beautiful portrait of Meg Remy’s time as a pregnant woman in a post-COVID, chronically online world—or whether it will be remembered as only a great U.S. Girls project. You build the wings, you birth your children, you write songs that other folks will turn into smash hits. It’s a cycle of humanity turned aglow by the splendid romance of pulling magic out of thin air.
U.S. Girls is currently on tour, grab some tickets to a show near you here.
Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.