Rock and Roll Book Club: Meg Remy (U.S. Girls) talks about her book 'Begin By Telling'

Meg Remy talks with Jay Gabler. (MPR)

Meg Remy, the artist behind the acclaimed musical project U.S. Girls, is the author of a new memoir titled Begin By Telling (buy now). I connected with Remy to talk about her powerful book and about what's next for U.S. Girls. Watch our interview above, and read an edited transcript below.

Jay Gabler: In thinking about this book I went back and I revisited an interview that you did with the Guardian about a year ago, back when it seemed like you might have a normal album release cycle, and you talked about how when you're talking about your music and your life history, there comes a moment when you ask yourself, do I want to go there or not? And I noticed that same phrase came up in the book itself, in your conversation with Kassie.

Meg Remy: Interesting.

"I don't know if I can go there." Yeah, so I was wondering if you wanted to reflect on comment on that concept of sort of "going there" and what it means to have, in a sense, gone there in this book.

Yeah, that's very good detective work there matching those two things. I didn't even think about that, but that's really, yeah, in a sense kind of telling on myself in a way, saying that multiple times. I think "going there" is hardest to reconcile with yourself. You know, when something comes out loud, whether written or or you say it out loud, it's not just in your head anymore. You're putting oxygen to it, which is a completely different thing than keeping it in some internal space. So I did go there with this book and that was a big part of the process of it was, what is "going there" and when going there means that you have to talk about other people, how how fair is it to include other people in telling your story — especially when you have a platform that they don't have access to, whether or not how bad they were to you. You know, someone has killed your mother, okay, and you're gonna tell this story now in a book. That person who killed your mother doesn't have a book deal. Going there...really grew my empathy. Huge. Huge, huge, huge, which was really healing for me. I think that there being sometimes not going there with everything is actually more healing than putting oxygen to every single detail.

Interesting.

Because I think that, yeah, if you're trying to do a caring act to yourself without thinking about others...the healing is temporary, I think. I think it doesn't last that long unless you are then going to go another step after you kind of do that and turn your gaze, try to put your gaze into the people that are opposite of you and whatever story you're telling or situation, you know?

Yeah, so it sounds like that thinking informed the length of this book, which is pretty short by book standards. It comes up in the book. You kind of to your publisher said, you know, how is this length as a book?

Yeah, I mean, length...that ended up becoming a big joke with me and my friend Kassie that edited the book with me, and it kind of came up from reading Helene Cixous. She's a French theorist. She talks a lot about language; like, Derrida's obsessed with her. She's really amazing. She wrote this thing about, you gotta free the book. The book doesn't need to be in a sans-serif font. The book doesn't need to be X amount of pages long with an introduction by some academic. That really resonated with me.

You know, I grew up making zines which are my favorite books, kind of. I read a lot and I'm able to because my job means that I make my own hours, you know, so I have a lot of free time. I know that most of my friends that have more nine to five jobs or have kids or whatever, they have a really hard time finding a space to read, you know, to even go there, so I really kept that in mind while writing: that I want this to be a book that anyone can read that has any amount of time at their disposal and also level of other books they've read. You know, it can be hard sometimes when a book, maybe, does have something for you in it but you can't get to it because you haven't read all these other books that, like, you need to read in order to understand this one.

So, it is short. It's a joke that it's short, but it's also the length that it was supposed to be and that it presented itself at. I did try to add stuff and it wasn't right. I was adding it because I was worried what people were going to think. You know, oh, I'm going to get some review or something that's going to say this isn't a book. Reading Helene Cixous and also Tillie Olsen, who is an amazing woman who wrote a lot about how women censor themselves because they're...you know, we're often writing within the context that was created by an academia that's pretty male. And so those two women and then working with Kassie as an editor gave me the strength to just, you know, let it be what it wanted to be.

Yeah, totally. Well, to go back a step then, as a multimedia artist how did you land on a book/zine...the format that this project has taken as a piece of written material, versus something you might have addressed through album form or a film or what have you?

Well, the publisher just reached out to me [in] summer 2019 and said that that I'd come up in an editorial meeting they were having and would I be interested in ever working in this form? And I said yeah, you know, I've always thought about that and I have done some writing and this would be a really interesting challenge, a new form. So they said sure, just pitch us something and from the beginning it really seemed like it was going to be a kind of a collage, a quilt, a quilted thing, which is kind of a form I often work in even with music and in performance, so the form was very natural to me and just evolved. I don't know, it's the way I've been working, so it came to be...it just presented itself.

So, if this project then started a couple of years ago, quite a lot has happened in the world in the last couple of years. What's it been like to complete this project and publish it and now be in a position to see it start to hit bookshelves given everything that's happened in the world in 2020 and now 2021?

Well, it was interesting. So I started the research and my kind of preliminary notes for it before COVID then was planning on...I put out a record last March and had all this touring booked to promote it and thought, I'm gonna write it on tour. Which was...it would have never happened! A tour is not...you know, I read on tour, but...I didn't know. I'd never written something this involved, so I just thought, oh it'll be fine, I'll fit it in.

Then COVID happens, lockdown, no touring, and it was...it seemed like a gift to the book. You know, this is a very selfish way of looking at COVID. I'm just explaining my personal perspective. But the tour was canceled and I was able to focus, really focus on the writing, which was great because...it wouldn't have happened. I'd probably still be saying to the publisher, oh, I need another year if this was...everything had stayed the same.

And then it being this topic that was so heavy and feeling pressure to fit it in. Like, how to write something and not address this at this time? And yet, you know, I had just been reading one of Gore Vidal's novels, and there's the the Spanish flu in one of them and it's really barely touched on. It mentioned something about masks and then that's kind of it, so I only mentioned it once in the book where it actually felt relevant fitting it in. It felt like a really slippery slope. Again, that "going there" thing: if you're gonna go there and dissect COVID, that's a whole book in itself. How are we gonna begin? God, it's like...that's a whole new set of research I would need to do, and so working on this project during this time was good for me.

It was actually good for me to have something to focus on, something that made me have a schedule of, like, you know, kind of going to work on it. I ended up renting, like, subletting a little office space and I had it two days a week and I would work at home but then I would go there for these long extended days to kind of take everything I had worked on at home and put it together and it gave me structure so I wasn't kind of free-floating like I know happened for a lot of folks: like, what? There's no, you know, there's there's no clock any more. What the f--k is going on?

I also think I have been preparing for this, something like this, for a long time. I think it's probably been, for me, at least the past 10 years of knowing that this was a possibility, of a global...I always thought it was going to be, and I think it probably may still be and it's not that this isn't connected, I thought it was going to be a weather thing. COVID is connected to climate; you can't separate it from any of these threads that are coming together at this time that are demanding attention. So I've, yeah, I felt ready. I'm grateful for it. I'm grateful to be able to find positives in it and structure and I'm also grateful that I haven't lost anybody to it. I don't actually like that word, lucky, so I didn't say that, but, yeah.

Yeah, and I think from a reader's perspective, although the book deals with um you know some some longstanding traumas and and issues that have, you know, been around for a long time and events that happened in the past, the timing doesn't feel like a coincidence because it feels like a time where all of us are confronting traumas of all sorts that we might have had the privilege to ignore in the past or swept under the rug. You know, confronting changes in the climate, changing...you know, the vulnerabilities in our health care system, racial trauma. So, yeah, so your book felt [like] part of that process for me as a reader.

That's great. I'm glad that that felt that way. It felt that way for me, and I...yeah, I think that confronting trauma or just, you know, dealing with whatever it is in your life that's keeping you from running efficiently or opening up to the larger questions of, like, what is life and what's birth? What's death? You know, these things that I think are maybe where our time should really be spent on this very short time we have here on this planet instead of dealing with all this garbage that gets thrown on us. But I've really found that what goes hand in hand with sorting through your trauma is sorting through what you've done to others at the same time. Again, it's really...it takes two to tango, you know. Honestly when I started working on this book, I had to admit a lot of things about myself that were not very flattering and it's never...I don't think it's ever just someone else.

Well, we are a music station so I've got to ask where you're at with music. You released this incredible album and were all set to tour. You were going to come to Minneapolis. And then COVID happened and and the book happened which, you know, was great that has been able to happen, but what's...what are the next steps for you as a music artist now?

I'm making a record right now that will come out sometime early 2022 and I've been working within these limitations and just creating the record pretty much over e-mail with friends, which has been fun. It's, again, been, you know, what can you do? You know, I could sit around and be really bummed out that I can't have the same experience I had on Heavy Light, which was being eight days in a studio with 20 people and it was like music summer camp. It was so amazing, and we were like, you know, doing something that's now like a lethal weapon. You know, like six people singing around a mic.

You can't do that now. Instead it's just using the limitations as the parameters of the project, which has been a much better way for me to to deal with it and it's made a new kind of sound come out. Doing a lot of MIDI stuff, MIDI mimicking real instruments. Trying to still get that live group feel, that very full feel, but synthetically. And then, meditating a lot on living in a city and what a city is now. I'm from the suburbs outside of Chicago, so, why did I move to the city and always want to, as a teenager? those things that aren't really available now, what does that mean and what have cities always been? Are they maybe fronts? You know, I think they might be fronts for these vast systems that are of oppression, that we think it's worth it because look at this great city, look all there is to do. So the record's kind of becoming a city music record, a record for going out when you can't go out.

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

April 22: Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (buy now)

April 29: Why Solange Matters by Stephanie Phillips (buy now)

May 6: A Little Devil In America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib

May 13: Billie Eilish by Billie Eilish


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