From the Tombs to the Stars: A Conversation with Amy Millan

"Skinny Boy" - Amy Millan

By: Brandon Forbes

“When disappointment is a slow burning fire,” sings Stars’ Amy Millan on her first solo record, “let it drown beneath my feet.” Such a maxim adequately addresses the Canadian singer’s outlook on life – press through the heartbreak and the sorrow and stand tall. Millan, who has been at the crux of the “Canadian Invasion” of the indie scene over the last few years, is an active member of power pop outlet Stars as well as musical űbergroup Broken Social Scene. With this year’s solo offering, Honey From the Tombs, she has released a collection of genre-bending, roots-oriented country that manages to give nods to both Johnny Cash and Brian Eno while retaining her distinctive pop songwriting style.

Though all of the songs in this collection date from many years ago, Millan stands by their relevancy and even a cursory listen prove these tracks can stand outside the shadow of Stars. Compelling opener “Losin You” meditates over an evaporated relationship with acoustic picking, while driving “Headsfull” laments “my head’s all filled with memories and tomorrow’s dog is growling at me” over distorted bursts. “Ruby II” and “Blue In Yr Eye” strike a more traditional bluegrass note, while “Skinny Boy” and “Come Home Loaded Roadie” fit in more with Millan’s writing for Stars, relying on unique pop structures with keyboard and synth accents. Quiet emotive number “Baby I” makes a strong case for country song of the year as it gently meditates on moving forward in the wake of devastating loss. Through all the aural diversity of Honey, a unity does persist: good songwriting. With such a distinction, its well worth spending time unearthing these honeyed musical riches from Millan’s past.

Before headlining a bill with Damien Jurado in Chicago recently, Millan the chance to chat about her temporary solo musical status, drunken VFW Legion experiences, and why Thoreau is solace for the sorrowed.

How is your first solo North American tour going?

It’s fantastic. We’ve been having a really great time. I really put this band together so I could hang out with Dan and Jenny Whiteley, who are my great friends. I cover a Jenny Whitely song, “Baby I,” on the record – it’s the only cover song on the record. It’s an incredible song and she’s an incredible songwriter. She is completely unambitious, plays small gigs, and lives in a beautiful farmhouse. When I heard the song, I thought ‘I’ve got to play that song so people can hear it’. She played the first half of the tour with me, and her brother has come on for this second half. The three of us were roommates for two years and we’re best friends. I’ve pulled together this great group of musicians: lap steel, saw, flute, keyboards – it’s definitely not a solo project. At one point, there were eight of us on stage so I am definitely not alone.

It’s been great not to have the tension with history that comes with bands that have been together for a long time. Sometimes it’s nice to move away from something you’ve known so well. It’s like leaving your family and going to camp to meet new people and not knowing the idiosyncrasies that will drive you crazy about them yet. But there’s a nervousness that comes with that too. I broke into terrible rashes when we started playing together in our first rehearsals because none of these people had ever played together and I had never been the person in charge of so many people before. Really, I had hives coming up on the backs of my legs I was so nervous.

How long did you get to practice before you went out on tour?

Five days. I’m on the road with Stars and Broken Social Scene so much, and I told them that we’ve got two more tours to do in the fall, so rehearsing is over after these five days. In between those tours I have to tour with Broken Social Scene and then go to Vancouver for three weeks to record the new Stars record, then come back and do more solo touring before I go back to Vancouver to work with Stars.

You guys seem ridiculously busy. It’s amazing to me how you’re able to keep it together with so much going on.

Well, I think we were not busy for a long time. When we were writing those records from a couple years ago, like Broken Social Scene’s You Forget It In People for instance, all of us were very depressed. Metric was coming out of a bad record deal and so was Stars. We had nothing to do but to write, live in Toronto, and work odd jobs for money. I think we have that time running through our blood and the ends of our hair, this time where nobody wanted us, so the fact that there is so much to do now and that people actually want to hear us means that we won’t stop working. It’s the best kind of problem to have.

When you are playing on this tour are you playing any Stars songs or only your own stuff?

I give a little sweet treat to the old-school Stars fans that have left their ears open for my new stuff. I know that some people come out who haven’t even heard my solo stuff just because they know me from Stars. I try to give them a little piece of what they already know. (Note: Amy’s sweet treat was “Look Up” from Stars’ Heart.)

Are you doing any covers on this tour?

I’m doing a Death Cab for Cutie cover, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” I was going to play in Calgary so I said to the band ‘We have to learn this song for Calgary.’

Because Bangkok wasn’t on this tour.

(Laughs) Well, when I do play Bangkok I will definitely play that fucking song.

You know you will have arrived when you play Bangkok.

(Laughs) I have played Osaka and Tokyo with both Broken Social Scene and Stars. We were on a huge Canadian bands tour with Death From Above 1979, The Dears, and Metric. It was four days of complete upside down world. It was a whirlwind event with lots of karaoke and just being with friends in these other bands. We used to see each other all the time in Toronto, Montreal, and New York, but now the longest stretch I got to see my good friend Emily Haines recently was that four days. Anyway, I toured with Death Cab with Stars and I used to go out and watch Ben play “Into the Dark” every night. My record has a similar feel to that song, so I thought it would be a great song for me to bring into the set and it went off really well in Calgary. So we’ve been playing it ever since.

You’ve described Honey from the Tombs as a toxic roots or dirty country record. Did you grow up listening to country?

I did. I remember seeing Coal Miner’s Daughter when I was young and I really fell in love with that sound. Country/bluegrass/mountain music seems to me to be the most lonely, yet participatory music there is. You can be absolutely feeling your saddest and your loneliest, but you’re singing with your family and everyone around you. So there’s an interesting dichotomy between these songs about being lonely or about murderers and the fact that you’re singing them surrounded by people that you love. I find that so incredibly fascinating and beautiful and, as a kid, I wanted to be a part of that world. So many people I know, like Torquil Campbell of Stars for instance, grew up listening to headphones in their room, passing the day with Morrissey or The Smiths. But I wasn’t that way. I was much more interactive. So I would just go jam with my friends. We would find these old VFW Legions where they would serve you alcohol underage and you could play for these old war veterans and we’d have mandolins and guitars and banjos and we would sing. I heard most of the songs I later realized were traditional songs by singing to these veterans with my friends. Ralph Stanley, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, George Jones - basically, I heard these artists’ songs from the mouths of friends before I heard them from a record. I ended up writing songs so could have something to sing with my friends.

Are some of the songs off of Honey from that early period?

They don’t quite go back that far, to when I was seventeen. The songs on Honey actually come from my twenties.

“Baby I” is certainly one of the strongest songs on the record. The video, which is beautifully shot, seems to suggest death as perhaps an additional theme lurking behind what seems to be a song about a relationship ending. What’s your take on this idea?

The video was indeed beautiful. It was shot in La Mancha, Spain. In terms of the idea of death and loss, I think that a lot of times the fear of death or the fear of your lover or your family dying can deeply affect your idea of relationships to begin with. I’m quite obsessed with the idea of death and, having experienced death in my family at quite a young age, it’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to write songs about death for such a long time. We’re born alone and we die alone – these are the things I try to grasp onto and remember. The song “Losin You” was written about a guy who, in retrospect, doesn’t really deserve it, but at the time I felt very strongly about him leaving. It has some of this obsession with death in it as well.

The song “Wayward & Parliament” is somewhat different than the dirty country sound of much of the rest of the record. Was that distinction something that occurred in the studio when you went to record?

No, I write all my songs on guitar and by myself. One of the reasons I had to release this record is because it was something completely different from what I do in Stars. All these journalists that say they can’t believe I released an album like this I find just insulting. Why would I want to do a separate record that sounded the same? I haven’t broken up with Stars and I will continue playing with Stars and write pop songs with them. The whole reason I did this record is because that’s what I do when I’m alone in the bedroom with a guitar, and I’m still going to keep writing songs like this. At tonight’s show there are two new songs you’ll hear that aren’t on Honey. They are still along the same vain, though I don’t mention booze nearly as much as I used to. I’m going to talk about ghosts and thieves going forward more than I talk about whiskey and bourbon. I’m going to lay all that to rest. It used to be all true, though. That song “He Brings Out the Whiskey In Me” is about Dan Whiteley and I, who were roommates at the time, staying up until five in the morning clinking our whiskey glasses together and drinking until the sun rose. Those references to whiskey are definitely based in true experience.

But you asked about “Wayward and Parliament”. That song comes from this experience I had working in a coffee shop in Toronto. The owner had something like 3000 CDs and I made it one of my goals that I was going to listen to every single one while I worked there. One of the people I discovered while working there was Brian Eno. I became obsessed with him and the way he could find melody in stillness and monotone and loved the way his records were produced. “Wayward & Parliament” was written in my Brian Eno phase. I was hoping he would hear that song and we could travel to space together where he could produce my next record on Mars. He’s an absolute genius. His style grew into me.

But the biggest influence on this record is no doubt the Rick Rubin & Johnny Cash American recordings. The bravery of Johnny Cash to go to that musical place with Rubin, and be ostracized by his community and not to be played on the radio was amazing. The old parameters and boxes and genres that people wrap around music are crumbling. I’m really glad I waited to release this record, with it’s rock and country mixing, until after this movement began because I think people can understand it more now. Cash and Rubin changed my life in that regard. Johnny Cash was 70 years old when he made that move. I mean he covered a song off of Beck’s first record. It’s just amazing.

“Rowboat” is definitely a great song made even greater by Cash’s cover. On Honey, the song “Hardhearted” has this parenthetical reference as an “Ode to Thoreau.” Is this a nod to Henry David or just a passing reference?

It’s definitely a specific reference to Thoreau. I wrote it during a tough time in my life when an old band was breaking up and I was running away from home. To cope, I went up north to Ontario with my brother and hung out by the lakes and he helped me co-write this song. At that time, I just felt like Thoreau had got it right. My heart had turned to stone and all I wanted to do was to look at birds and watch the water levels change. I read Walden, a bunch of his essays, and his diaries as well. It ended up being a song for him because I empathized with how much he felt sorrow. Humans broke his heart so much and he had such a big heart which could love so much that this sadness caused him to channel his love into something that he could love, which was nature.

Which of the songs off of Honey do you most enjoy playing right now?

These songs are very much like old friends. I used to only play them sporadically when I would be at a party and everyone was drunk and they’d ask me to play a song. Now I feel like that I’ve finally gotten them out there and I can’t really make a decisions as to which one is my favorite. It’s like, “I have ten children. Now which is your favorite?”

I saw on the Arts & Crafts website that Stars is releasing a remix album this winter. Were you a part of that process?

That was really Torquil’s baby. He’s been really obsessed with remix records for a long time. Since he would always talk about it but never do anything, I kind of dropped out of it. But he’s actually done it now, and it sounds really good. It’s called Do You Trust Your Friends and there’s some really great stuff and there’s some stuff that people will have to interpret on their own, but the whole point is: do you trust your friends? The contributors include Apostle of Hustle, Kevin Drew, The Dears, and Metric but my favorite one is by the Junior Boys who did a remix of “Sleep Tonight” that I like better than the original off of Set Yourself on Fire. It’s exciting when that happens, when someone can find a way to interpret a song in a new way that sounds so good. It’s perfect to hear a project like that before going into the studio to record our new record. It helps you see it’s OK to do new stuff and switch things around a bit and make something that’s completely different.



All opinions expressed by Brandon Forbes are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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