U.S. Girls is Meg Remy’s musical moniker. The Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist’s music traces a circuitous evolution. It encompasses unconventional, challenging sound work as prominently as her vocally-driven explorations of American pop mores (often on the same album). Since 2007, Remy has toured several times in Europe, Eastern Canada and the United States. She accompanies her hugely distinctive voice with innovative set-ups, including combinations of reel-to-reel players, tape decks, and samplers, as well as occasionally singing with a full band. Remy has released a clutch of original records on labels as diverse as Siltbreeze, Kraak, FatCat and her own Calico Corp. imprint.
Her latest album Heavy Light was released in March 2020 via 4AD.
Meg Remy — of the experimental pop project U.S. Girls — recently collaborated with producer Billy Wild (Division 88) on the single “Good Kinda High.” The song appears on the deluxe edition of Wild’s Uninvited Guests — an album of collaborative works that sample the Canadian classical pianist Glenn Gould. The two got together to talk more about the project, and their love for Gould at large. You can read their conversation below.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Billy Wild: One of the things about this project for us was, we really wanted to keep within the spirit of Glenn Gould. We’re kind of quirky producers ourselves, so we had some kinship with him. So we were very particular on the artists that we wanted on the tracks. When you came back saying that you liked that particular instrumental that you liked — I had known about you, but I never really did much research, and I was like, “Oh, wow, we found someone for the finale for this!” I think the interesting thing about that particular instrumental that you picked was, it was originally supposed to be for Goodie Mob.
Meg Remy: Yeah, I can hear that.
Billy: This Dirty South rap song. So when you came to me with like, “I want that one,” I was intrigued and just baffled at the same time. It was definitely one of the last ones I thought you would have picked. What stood out to you about that one in particular?
Meg: I mean, probably I was sensing who it was made for. I think it resonated for me because it sounded the most like Dre or something, you know? One of my favorite singers is Nate Dogg, so I feel like I’m always looking for songs that sound like Nate Dogg’s going to show up on them. [Laughs.]
Billy: That’s awesome, I also love Nate Dogg. Reading up about your background, I don’t know if you still do it, but you sample the songs beforehand and then have the band learn them. What’s that process like?
Meg: Well, I’ve worked in a lot of different ways. Some songs were completely sample-based, released as a sample, but then you gotta figure out how to play it live. So the band figuring it out was mostly for live-setting things. Other times, I’ve made a demo, or someone sent me a demo that sampled. I only made one band record in that way, In a Poem Unlimited — I had someone chart the songs out, so that it was easier.
I’ve sampled myself — that’s kind of how I started, making loops of myself. But then I’ve done larger sampled songs, where you’re clearing a sample. I’ve kind of done the whole done the whole range of things. But definitely if you have to teach your band the sampled thing, it’s like a couple of frustrating practices, then you get the timing and stuff, but you don’t have the feel — because the feel is mostly what you like in a sample, like the fidelity. So yeah, it’s a tough thing, but I love doing it.
Billy: Yeah, I mean, I come from a band background and sampling wasn’t even a thing for me. And then the first studio I was ever working out of, I had the night shift with all the rap guys. I’d be in my little room, like, trying to perfect the perfect pop song and figure out what exact chord progression and stuff I was going to use, and, you really challenging myself musically. And then I’d walk into these guys’ room and they’d be like, “Hey, look what we just made.” And I was like, “Oh, my god.” Not only is that so much easier, but the feel’s right there, you’ve already got the whole mood of the song. And then I guess the fun part for you is that you get to kind of construct it again.
Meg: I find that sampling is actually difficult — yes, it’s easy when something already sounds good and the feel is good, but you have to come up with a new layer that is yourself, because you’re putting yourself onto someone else’s work that’s already existed. You’re saying, “I’m taking your work and I’m going to make a new thing out of it for myself that I’m going to sell, or someone else is going to be on top of.” You’ve got to put a lot of thought into it. I do think sometimes it feels easier, for sure, than trying to find all the musicians, first off, with great feel — like putting a rhythm section together that’s tight and sounds like they’ve been playing together forever. So it’s easier and harder, I guess.
Billy: Yeah. It’s funny because then when I started doing it, it became more challenging than before, because then you’re at the mercy of the sample, too. So if there’s something wonky in it, you gotta work around that. You gotta figure out how to make that work.
Meg: For sure.
Billy: With the Glenn Gould stuff, that really became an extra challenge, because not all of it’s in 440 — some of it’s in super wonky tuning. And then on top of that, I’m coming from a rock band background, now all of a sudden, these classical pieces are being thrown at me, and I felt compelled to learn the part as much as I could in terms of playing guitar or whatever. It really gave me kind of a music education.
And the funny thing about “Good Kinda High” — I actually had the beat and the baseline. I wasn’t even intending to make a Glenn Gould song, I was trying to put that West Coast synth line lead thing over to really make it sound like a Dre song. And then I honestly don’t know what compelled me to put a Gould sample on it, but it was maybe the first or second one I heard. I just put it over the bass and the drums, and I was like, Well, that just made it sound exactly like I wanted it to. And then the rest of it kind of fell together from there.
We’ve never actually discussed this, but what is “Good Kind of High” about? Or at least, what’s the essence of it?
Meg: It’s about getting high without drugs, like getting high on music. I mean, I know it’s possible, because I’ve been high on music. Once it was on the table that maybe I would sing on the song or write on it, I was like, Oh, I need to know about Glenn Gould. I shouldn’t just jump into something, you know? So I got some books from the library and read his writing, and he just seems like he was alone all the time — I can’t imagine anyone hanging out with him and keeping up with his brain. So I just took some lines from that book — not his writings or his actual words, but his idea around there not being applause — he thought there shouldn’t be applause at concerts. So I worked that into the lyrics. So it just kind of came from that.
Obviously, when I got that folder of beats, this one was labeled “Good Kinda High.” I’ve had really good luck of that in making U.S. Girl songs, of a beat being sent to me with a title and I just use that as a little cue or a little spark to get things going. It works this time for sure.
Billy: Yeah, I love. It does happen quite a bit where all I need is a title, and I can go from there. So that’s cool, now I understand that applause line a bit more.
Meg: Yeah, for sure. And it’s like, I’m living in Toronto and I’m from the states originally, so coming from an area where people were going to prison for marijuana, and that was being legalized. And now being in Toronto, the saturation of weed boutiques is wild, and how it’s coinciding with the pandemic, I think, is very interesting. I think it was legalized at this time for a reason, so I was thinking about that as well. It’s just like, you go down Bloor and sometimes there’s four on a block.
Billy: It became kind of a joke in the city for a while, like how on every corner that opens up, there’ll be a weed shop.
Meg: [Laughs.] It’s literally like that. There’s people who have no place to live, but we got, like, five hundred weed shops. It’s crazy. But whatever. I like smoking weed, who am I to say?
Billy: Obviously nothing wrong with weed. But now, for instance, the former police chief owns the one weed shop that’s right across the street from our Toronto studio. They go out of their way to have DJ sets, and they’re trying to draw all the artists in Kensington in because they’re like, “We’re the cool weed shop!” And nobody actually looks further to see who owns it.
Meg: Yeah, it’s unreal.
Billy: So, we got some Glenn Gould haters on [the video], in the comments. We had one guy who said, “This is an abuse of the legacy of Glenn Gould. This bullshit has nothing to do with Glenn Gould.”
Meg: [Laughs.] It’s true!
Billy: [Laughs.] He’s not wrong, I guess!
Meg: It samples Glenn Gould, and due to some paperwork, we can say that it’s him, basically. But what’s cool is that people are hearing the name Glenn Gould — I don’t think that that’s a name that should disappear.
Billy: That was definitely a conscious decision when we decided to release it as Glenn Gould. Because this project is actually, like, seven years old. Getting anybody to really understand why we would do something like this was one thing, and obviously clearing all the samples was its own thing. And then the estate changed hands, and that was another thing. But then when it actually came time where it was like, “Alright, you guys ready to release something?” It was like, what is this going to be called? I thought, Is it crazy to just put it out as Glenn Gould?
Meg: [Laughs.] Yeah, it is. But I love it.
Billy: There’s a few classical people who have made their point to me personally, and to anybody who’s listening, that I am a disgrace and will burn in hell for this. But I was a 20-something year old rock-pop producer, never sampled anything in his life, didn’t give a shit about classical music. And by discovering this guy, he spoke to me more than Rick Rubin or any of my producer heroes, because he thought of this stuff the exact same way as I did. Except he was a classical pianist and he didn’t have the resources at the time that I have. When we would talk to his engineers and stuff, and everybody who knew Glenn says that they can’t tell me for sure that he would have liked it, but chances are, there are some things—
Meg: I think he would have liked it!
Billy: There are some things he would have hated — he really didn’t like vulgar stuff. But they said, “He would have loved the fact that you can do it. He would have been tickled by that, and he would have been so invested in the process you guys did to make it.”
Meg: For sure. I fully feel that and believe that. There’s just no doubt, because if you read what he wrote about things, he really was for technology, and for technology and music. I agree, the process he would have appreciated.
Billy: And on that point, too — he was the first classical musician to use tape splices.
Meg: I know!
Billy: And they gave him shit for that! his own community was like, “Well, that’s not how you do it.” And he was like, “This is like you asking me to film a movie in one take.” And then the other thing was, his interpretations of Bach were his interpretations of Bach. They were nobody else’s, and people were going, “You can’t play Bach that way.” And it was like, “Well, nobody knows how Bach would have played it because there was no recordings. It’s just what’s on this piece of paper, so this is how I choose to do it.” So in a way, in that spirit, we’ve chosen to flip the Bach sample to sound like a Dirty South song, and do a song together on it, and in the spirit of Glenn Gould.
Meg: Yeah, and just in the spirit of music. It really is too bad that there has to be any kind of hate for anything musical. It’s like hating the way a bird sings or something. That doesn’t mean you have to like everything, but it’s like, “Oh, that’s just not for me.” It doesn’t have to be this vitriol.
But I can understand — I know the classical world is trying to hold on to something, they’re trying to preserve something in this time where things are just evaporating, morphing. They’re really trying to hold on to something that references an earlier time. But I just think maybe they’re mistaken, then, as we all are about time — you just can’t hold time down, you can’t preserve anything or make anything stop. Time’s also not linear. We’re sampling Glenn Gould playing Bach, but in what time is, Bach is probably playing right now. [Laughs.] Like, who knows what’s going on? Bach is sampling us in some other dimension. [Laughs.]
Billy: I think they’re really trying to preserve what they see as a pure form of music. And the only argument I have to that — and I’ve had arguments with classical musicians about this — but the concert hall, or what used to be known as the concert hall, used to be a beacon of innovation. Why was it that Bach and Mozart and all these people were basically reinventing the wheel musically, and there were new instruments being introduced and new technology for how they actually built the concert halls, and then it just stopped, the innovation? As brash as it is to throw a hip hop beat and bassline and make a pop song out of an originally classical music piece, I think it’s more just evolution. How else are we going to bring Bach to the masses?
Meg: Well, I think Bach is with the masses because of the Beatles. My husband and I have been watching all the Beatles onslaught of material — the eight hour doc and the Rick Rubin show and all that — and it’s like, they’re so Bach. I think Bach is pop. That’s what’s so weird about classical people getting upset about it in pop — it’s a pop song, basically. Because pop is just broad. It’s just like, if I played it for my mom, would she be like, “Yeah, this is good.” And that could be a whole range of songs, but your mom’s got to be like, “Yeah, it sounds good.”
(Photo Credit: left, Drew Reynolds)