If the celebrated artist Cindy Sherman had gone into music instead of photography, it might have looked a bit like U.S. Girls, the solo project of enchanting singer and collage artist Meghan Remy.
Remy started out making solitary, grainy-sounding drum-and-vocal music using a cheap drum machine, reel-to-reel tape machine and her own high vocals, often with heavy reverb and double tracking. It could make her vocals sound disembodied and ethereal, floating above her limited instrumental abilities. But her pop instincts were impeccable from the start, even when transmogrifying Bruce Springsteen's "Prove It All Night" into a tribal burial chant. It's as if Remy is the leader of a ghostly girl band you might hear on an old car radio late at night, but instead of pop platitudes from a male perspective, she is dreaming she is Jack the Ripper, or injecting emotional realism and women's issues into the "alien, factorylike" landscape of pop music, as she describes it.
Originally from the Midwest, Remy lived in Portland, Ore., Chicago and Philly before meeting her husband, the film actor and musician Max Turnbull (known as Slim Twig) and moving in with Turnbull's filmmaker parents in Toronto, where she has lived the past two years. "It's great. Big, clean, very safe city. Stuff works here. I feel good being away from the states," she says. "I learned a lot about where I came from by removing myself. And there's free health care here. The media reports things in the states with an outsider's eye, and I've developed that. It's interesting."
Her new album on Fat Cat Records, "Gem," is her first effort at a full band recording. She uses her husband's backing group and incorporates brilliant moments of glam grit and dreamy 1960s pop made new. ArtForum once described her music as "particularly blunted Lee 'Scratch' Perry remixes of 'Cambodian Rocks' covers of Western pop tunes." But really, it's just 21st-century pop music by an artistic chameleon who believes that less is often more.
Style: Your work has these great influences, '60s and '70s pop music, girl groups, singers like Ronnie Spector, but it still sounds modern.
Remy: It's a lot easier to try to replicate your influences rather than internalize them and spit out something new. I'm hyper-conscious of making modern music that isn't a rehashing. All of that Phil Spector stuff, anything on the radio from '50s to '70s, I've completely dissected all those radio hits and pulled the things out that I liked: smart recording techniques or good melodies or a good set of words. A thing I always use is repeating a line, almost infinitely, which is still common in radio pop, repeating the hook.
It would be my worst nightmare to be considered a retro band. Horn-rimmed glasses and a bouffant bob. I'm just trying to make music that sounds 2013 — the post-post-modern world we live in. Modern music means it's going to have a nod to the past, no matter what. I want to nod, but not time travel.
What do you make of critics comparing you to Cindy Sherman?
I love her work and she's an artist I really respect. I can kind of understand it in a sense because of my working with characters, and different things that affect me being a woman, being alive. I definitely have had fun with dressing up, dressing up other people as me, using their photos as my promotional materials. I see some comparisons there. I'm grateful to be compared to someone like that rather than [the band] Best Coast or something. ... This record is highly personal, emotional lyrics and ideas I like to flirt with. Talking openly about prostitution, abortion, stuff like that — what some people call me toying with feminism. I don't ever think about the word feminism. I think about women's issues more.
On this record, you've used a backing band for a fuller sound.
I've always known how to use my voice as a pop tool, but not how to make music. When I first started, I thought my music sounded like pop music. You slowly become aware that it's not when you start getting labeled with noise, all these things. So making this record was a dream come true and a big challenge. It also made me realize I don't want to be straight pop. I like having an odd element still in there. So I don't know if I'll ever make a straight record again, with a full band. I feel like I completely abandoned my old ways for these new ways when really I'd like to mesh both together.
But this tour will be like your old shows?
Yes, I'll be performing solo with cassettes and an old reel-to-reel tape machine, drum machines and vocals — but I've learned a lot more about sound quality and what I'm doing. I used to think when things were "in the red," that meant they were working. So I spent years with everything in the red. Completely blown out. Too much level. I think things will be a little clearer coming through the P.A. now.
All of your art, from collage work to photos to your music, seems to share a certain aesthetic.
The main impulses are to make beautiful things that are pleasing to me, that are highly emotional and that take the stance of less is more. I like to use very few pieces within the collage, lacing only two or three images together. That's something I also do in my music. Just using drums and vocals. If it sounds good, why add more? They're both just another way to express myself. For some reason, I feel the need to do it publicly — the only one in my family (laughs). I had no precedent for it. [I] was not involved in school plays. ... I got involved with punk music. My first boyfriend was in a band ... but I don't feel that what I have to say is better or more valuable than the next person. I just had the urge. I don't know what will come of it. S
U.S. Girls performs with Slim Twig and Richmond locals Flossed in Paradise and Age of Asparagus on Feb. 11 at Strange Matter. Doors at 9 p.m. $7 cover charge.