Stars’ Amy Millan

Canadian indie pop band Stars will be touring Australia later this month in celebration of the recent release of their sixth album, The North. In addition to headlining Perth Festival, Stars will be gracing the east coast with sideshows in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Through The North the five-piece – consisting of vocalist Torquil Campbell, singer and guitarist Amy Millan, bassist Evan Cranley, keyboardist Chris Seligman and drummer Pat McGee – have attempted to express all that the members of Stars have learned and lost throughout the years. Their efforts have clearly been successful, with a recent nomination for Best Alternative Album at this year’s JUNO music awards in Canada.

We caught up with a jet-lagged but still admirably vibrant and articulate Amy Millan.

Alana Mitchelson (Everguide): How did Stars come to be? When did you first meet the other band members?
Amy Millan: 
Well, Toronto is a really small town and we’ve kind of been in the peripheral of each other’s lives since we were kids. I remember the first time that I ever saw my partner Evan Cranley, the bass player whose idea it was that I join Stars, and I remember there was this place where we used to be able to hang out as teenagers and, you know, take our drugs and stuff (laughs). There wasn’t a lot of drinking, but there was a lot of music. We were involved in the political movement against the first Gulf War and I remember just laying eyes on him. He had his trombone and he was only 14 at the time.

Torquil and Chris have known each other since they were eight. So yeah, it was a family affair. Torquil and I actually went to high school together and we didn’t even know until later that we were there at the exact same time, except he was a year older than me. But had we met I’m sure we would’ve become friends immediately.

We’ve known each other all our lives and we’ve been to parties with each other since we were in our very early teens and we all loved to play music. We just wanted to be able to stay in this place that was making music with our friends forever and somehow we’ve managed to do that so far.

EG: You write the songs yourselves?
Yes, as a band. It’s a very collaborative group of people and there is nothing that we don’t all bring to the table. There is no one song where someone’s come in and said “hey, I wrote this”, it’s always all of us. That’s what makes it a Stars song is that all of us are a part of its creation.

EG: I understand that you’ve had a solo career – was that mainly during your earlier days as a musician?
No. I mean, that’s really interesting because being a person who lives in the world of art and music you are yourself since the time that you’re born and sure, you find friends that you play music with, but there are still times when you’re alone. And because Stars is such a collaborative work, when I had a moment to myself I would still write music on my own that never had a place in Stars. So it was simultaneous, it wasn’t before or after; it was really during and still happens. There are moments when I’m on somebody’s porch, and everyone’s gone to bed, and I have a guitar and a bottle of wine and I’ll write some songs by myself. Those are the songs that end up on my solo records, and it’s only because we’re not the kind of band that can just bring songs that we’ve done ourselves; it’s not a Star song unless we’re together.

EG: That’s quite a different process then – how would you compare your experience of writing with the other members of Stars with writing on your own?
It’s sort of a bit more scary because it’s like being naked in front of people. It’s like having a music orgy where it’s like “whoo, I’m gonna take off all of my clothes” and be really vulnerable in front of you and let my guard down. I guess you just let it come from a place that’s purely creative and that can make you feel very self-conscious, having to be so bare, but there’s also something really exciting about that; about being with a group of people and trusting each other in that way. Really, you’re coming together because you know your chemistry is so good and you could produce something beautiful together, and you’re going to call each other out on your shit and you’re going to work towards producing the best piece of art that you can.

Whereas when I’m writing by myself it’s usually just when I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself and it’s really just to get something off my chest. It’s to articulate something I may be feeling that I can’t do unless I write it in a song.

EG: So writing on your own is more of a healing process for you, would you say?
I think so. I think that it helps me be alone sometimes. It helps articulate the time that is passing and it’s important to be alone sometimes I think and take that time to figure out where you are in your life. And being in a band, it’s so weird. I mean, you’re just constantly together. You’re either living together on a bus 24 hours a day or you’re writing a record together 24 hours a day, and so just being able to take that little step towards finding your own identity and to find the words without having to check with four other people if they’re OK. You can find it yourself. But when you do that, you miss having the collaborative because you feel kind of alone and all the stakes are on you.

EG: Who are your main musical influences?
I think that’s an interesting question because I think that what influences the music that we write isn’t always music. I think our primary influence is winter. Stars has always begun an album in the very deep, dark part of the cold of winter. We’ve rented a house and gone into the woods and been surrounded by the quiet of snow. I think that we’re very influenced by light. There’s always talk of shadows and what the car lights do across the walls, or what colour of the sun is coming through the window. I think that there’s such an influence other than what’s brought to us from the past and what we’ve listened to on our Walkmans or iPods and what have you, it’s really more about relationships, watching people on the street and supermarkets, and the time of day and how the light shifts or how the seasons change have the most influence on the way that we make music.

EG: What drives you?
What drives me? A good laugh. Really, we’re a band because we make each other laugh. What drives me and what keeps me going and getting together with these crazy people is actually not the music at all, it’s that everybody’s hilarious. If you really looked into the deep psyche of Stars, it’s like Seinfeld but Larry David is actually in Seinfeld instead of behind the scenes writing it. That’s my life. I swear to God we are a Seinfeld episode in normal life, like there’s the glamourous aspect of getting up on stage and writing amazing music but then there’s the daytime stuff that’s pure Seinfeld.

EG: Is there a particular theme that flows throughout your album The North?
I think ‘joy’ is the particular theme. When we wrote The North we were coming out of just having finished touring and writing The Five Ghosts,which is a very dark, intense album. The counterpart to that, we came off that tour loving that music but feeling like okay, what do we have to do now after living in the Dead Hearts. And really we just wanted to shake off our shoes and have a bit of a dance party. That’s when ‘The Theory Of Relativity’ came in, and ‘Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It’ and ‘Backlines’. We just kind of wanted to release all this tension that had built up with The Five Ghosts.

EG: Could you give us a run-down of the meaning behind a couple of your favourite songs off The North?
 Well, ‘Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It’ is I think just one of the best songs we’ve ever written. I think it’s so anthemic and the baseline is amazing. The idea behind that song is such a theme of why our band is still together, which is ultimately forgiveness. It was one of those songs where each of us collaborated such an incredible part of the song, so it’s a theme for me of our band and I feel like if there was a movie about us it would be kind of an intro and the exit. That song will forever be such a large part of my heart.

‘Lights Changing Colour’ was a song that I wrote about my daughter, which I think is kind of an odd thing because it’s sometimes hard to draw the line between it being overly personal and having it still be accessible to the listener. But I love that song because I’m hoping that I was able to do both things and that it’s not just about my own experience, but can translate to others’ experiences. Whoever it may be, whether it’s a relationship, or a relationship with their child or their parents. Whichever it is, it’s an important song for my history.

I also love the song ‘The Loose Ends Will Make Knots’ because it was one of the first songs we wrote and the music of it was written right off the floor in this cabin that we went to, and we all just kind of slowly picked up our instruments and pressed record and did this for like ten days. And it was really the one that we didn’t edit and we didn’t change. We kept it from the moment that we wrote it and then later on came the lyrics and the vocal line. But I think it’s a special little song. It describes marriage and trying to find your way through that maze of staying in love.

EG: Expanding on what you said before, being a songwriter you would have this amazing collection of bits and pieces of lyrics that you’re constantly working on. How do you even begin to go about drawing the line between songs that should be released and those that are just too personal?
That’s the worst part of the job. I think that the hardest part of the process at the end of the day is when you have a whole bunch of songs and people are very attached to them. And if somebody says “I don’t think that song should be on the record”, it can be devastating if you’re attached to it and it feels like one of your fingers is getting cut off. It’s a democracy and we kind of have to listen to each other a lot and it’s a little tedious. It’s reallydifficult but at the end of the day, in the industry right now, you know the songs will get out. You know that if they’re left on the cutting room floor that eventually they’ll be picked up like a little orphan dog and they’ll find a home. They’ll maybe find a little spot on a television show but they won’t be left completely. It’s a really hard part of the process and I don’t know how we actually decide. I guess it’s just one of those instinctive things like “why do you wear that coloured shirt with those plaid pants?” How do you know that works? Who knows! You’ve just got to cross your fingers and say “I’ve listened to it 475 times and I’m pretty sure this is the best version.”

EG: Moving on from the process of recording to the actual live performances of your songs, how does that compare?
It’s completely different. They’re two completely different ways of living your life. One is insular and only with the four other people that are in the band and the other is a celebration with thousands and thousands of amazing fans who share your life with you. You can share this moment with them. People have lost their virginity to our music, people have gone through chemotherapy to our music, people have lost their parents and gotten married to our music. I mean ,we’re the kind of people where it’s not about us, it’s about you and that’s the way our band has always been. So when people come to our concerts it’s a way to share that experience with one another. People are crying and making out and losing their minds and it’s my favourite part.

EG: Has music always been the career that you wanted to pursue or did you have other aspirations growing up?
I think that I just wanted to always make people and myself feel things, that was what was most important. It’s just something that’s been a part of me for my entire life.

EG: Cool, thank you so much for your time Amy. Enjoy the nice weather in Sydney!
Yeah, thank you so much. I definitely will.

Originally published at Everguide.


About Alana Mitchelson

Alana Mitchelson is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter at @AlanaMitchelson.

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