Seeing Stars

If you think Amy Millan has just now 'gone country,' you haven't been listening.

Best known as a member of Canadian indie-pop darlings Stars—and for being a member of the also-Canadian collective Broken Social Scene—Amy Millan has stepped out on her own this year with Honey From the Tombs, a collection of songs mostly written before the 32-year-old singer-guitarist joined Stars six years ago. Significantly earthier than the material she's penned with her bands, Tombs is rooted in country and bluegrass textures, and Millan's voice maintains a slightly coarser quality as she delivers whiskey-drenched odes to heartbreak and regret. We caught up with Millan via phone from her Toronto apartment during a brief tour break.

How have people been reacting to hearing a different side of you?

It's been great but kind of funny because people think that I've been a pop singer my whole life and now I'm trying to "dabble in country music," which is hilarious because all I've done my whole life is sing those kind of songs. Stars found me in a Lithuanian legion bingo hall playing folk music and said, "You have a really nice voice, why don't you come sing pop with us?" I was like, "Where's the mandolin? Don't you guys have mandolin?" They were like, "Noooo, there's no mandolin in this outfit."

You wrote these songs a while ago—do they still have the same meaning to you as when you wrote them?

Well, it's hard to articulate, but I guess what I'm thinking about when I'm singing some song isn't the boy I met in 1996 anymore. Like, I've moved on from him! He doesn't deserve that song anymore, so now I'm aiming it toward people who are more well deserving of it.

But they still take you to the same emotional place when you perform them?

Oh definitely, I think you have to live in the song every time you do it, and you have to live in the way you felt when you wrote it. I think that's part of the drive for me of doing it—the connection between the listener and the writing and my story and their own stories. That's why people love songs. They're not thinking about what I was going through, they're thinking about their own experience, and that's the goal of writing a song well, to have people connect it to their own lives.

So when you're up there singing a certain song, do you see it as "getting in character" in some way?

Not really. I think it's just being able to be raw and available and I don't think, in terms of being a "character," that sort of means you're putting on something and the thing about presenting music honestly is getting rid of all of that. Everybody spends so much of their time protecting themselves that in art, one of the goals is to get people to see that we're all in it together.

Is the process of writing songs an enjoyable or frustrating thing, or both, for you?

I call it "the trenches." I go to the trenches and I get very frustrated and become super acutely aware of every single song, like, if I go into a store and there's a song playing on the radio and I can tell that they didn't work very hard on it, I get angry! It's kind of torture, really. I'm in it right now cause I'm writing with Stars and thinking about my next solo album and every single song, like, I'm trying to watch a movie and some song comes in and I'm totally not paying attention to what's going on in the film anymore because I'm listening to how they orchestrated this three-minute song lyrically and sonically, so it becomes a kind of psychotic period in my life when I make a record. I totally understand the Brian-Wilson-in-bed thing.

Between the bands and your solo stuff, it seems like you've been going nonstop the past few years—you're always on the road. Are you worried about burning out?

Well, boredom and not being able to do anything is my biggest fear, so it drives me to be a workaholic. I remember four years ago, Broken Social Scene and Stars and Metric, we were all kind of hanging out in these parks all depressed because no one wanted to put out our records, and nobody knew who we were, and nobody cared, and we had absolutely no money. So now I do as much as I can with the opportunities that have been given to me.

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