Amy Millan Talks Stars’ Excellent New Album, The North
Stars have been making excellent music for so long (well over a decade) that it would almost be easy to take them for granted. The Canadian band’s particular strain of grandly melodic indie-pop has only gotten better and generally less fussy with age, and with the release of The North this month, Stars have never sounded more at ease. Having built a career that appeared at various points to be fueled by tension, The North finds the band sounding emphatically optimistic. I called up Amy Millan to chat about the new record and find out how, even after a decade together, Stars continues to gain steam rather than lose it.
Stereogum: It seems like you guys didn’t tour much after releasing your last album, The Five Ghosts, in 2010. Did the band take a break after that?
Millan: Well, I got pregnant. We could only tour with The Five Ghosts up to a certain point because I wasn’t allowed to move, but I still wasn’t doing anything, and that’s like the most boring part of a pregnancy when it’s like eight months and you’re not allowed to go anywhere. So that’s when we started writing the record, because there was nothing else for us to do, and we love to work together. The first thing we did was relocate to a place an hour north of Montreal — a friend of the family has this beautiful 150-year-old cabin with a six-foot-by-six-foot fireplace — and that’s where we settled in for a week. And we brought all of our gear [but] when we got there, we realized that every outlet was two-prong. There was only one three-prong plug and our entire studio was running from it, and we were positive that we were gonna electrocute this place and it was all going to sizzle into nothing. But somehow we managed to make all the electricity happen. We brought our studio so we could record any ideas we came up with, any gems, because when you’re writing, sometimes you lose something magical in the moment. When that happens and you go back in to record it again, usually it’s never the same. It can be great but it can sometimes lose that natural first spark. So, we tried to record everything, and we did get a lot of work done, actually. For example — we used to call the song “Dance Music” but the name got changed to “The Loose Ends Will Make Knots” — that song came from recording the initial spark of us just playing. It started with no vocals over the top, just the band playing music, and that recording is straight from the cabin. We did the vocals later. But that’s kind of the beautiful thing about that song, is that the memory and the sound of that is from the cabin and from the exact moment it was created. “The 400″ was also written up there, as were the beginnings of some other songs that eventually made it onto the record.
Stereogum: How long were you there in the cabin?
Millan: We were only there for a week, and then we came back to our studio in Montreal, which is called Zoomer; we share with Winter Sleep and the no-longer Handsome Furs. This studio is just classic Montreal. It’s very difficult to find any utopian place that’s warm. When we wrote this record it was so crazy how Zoomer would be way colder inside than outside, even though the heat was blasting. It was so freezing cold that we were always in our parkas. But there’s something kind of amazing about that, because I think about Tennessee Williams, how Cat On A Hot Tin Roof or A Streetcar Named Desire — I’m not sure which, but the one of that launched him into complete fame — anyway, he had writer’s block and couldn’t write anything so he went to Mexico and lived in a shithole and was able to write the next masterpiece. For me this experience reminded me of writing Heart back in 2003. Something great coming out of not-so-great conditions. Back then we’d be in the “song sausage” — that’s what I call my vocal booth — which was actually like a massive duvet that I had to stand inside of in the middle of the summer. And in the summertime it’s way hotter inside than it is outside. So this time when Torquil wrote the song “The North” and was singing the lyrics, I could literally see his breath in the air. He wrote the line: “It’s so cold in this country / you can never get warm.” I was like, “I wonder where that inspiration came from!” He was like, “What do you mean? It’s a story about a guy who went up to the Arctic!” I was like, “Do you not understand that we’re in the Arctic right now?” That’s what recording this record was like: the Arctic.
Stereogum: How long was the process? How long did you record?
Millan: It took a year and a half to write all the songs. We took time in between. We knew we had time because we still wanted to tour a little for The Five Ghosts. We went back on the road for a little while. During that time I also had a kid, so it took me some time to adapt to being a mother and all that. Evan had to adapt to that as well, because he’s the father of the baby and he also plays bass in the band. I think fatherhood also inspired Evan to work even more. He was excited to get to work because of some very primal feeling of doing it for the family. So we continued working, and occasionally we’d do things like leave the city again, because a part of what Stars does is getting out of town to do work. A lot of people will show up at Zoomer all the time and you can’t really focus on what you’re doing. We also went to Torquil’s family cabin, which is in the eastern township. It’s also a summer home, which is why we couldn’t go there in the winter, but we’ve spent a lot of time in that house. There is a photograph that you might have seen of us all on that porch. That’s basically the history of Stars — so many songs have been written on that porch, in that cabin. So we did the same thing, we just brought up all the gear into this ancient place and tried to set up all the the recording equipment, and we’d go into RCA Victor studios in Montreal. You should put a link in the story so people can see what it looks like. It’s just an incredibly beautiful, well thought-out studio, and they aren’t really built like that anymore. That gave it the extra warmth that we wanted. You walk in there and you’re so inspired to sing your best because you feel like Ella Fitzgerald is standing behind you. It’s just an amazing place.
Stereogum: At what point in the process did the record eventually reveal itself to you?
Millan: I actually think that happens when it’s over. You don’t know. It’s like opening your eyes underwater. You can sort of see but you can’t really make things out, and if you are making a record, there’s no way to buy a pair of goggles. Your goggles are your engineers that are helping guide you through the decision-making. I find it a very difficult process, writing a record. I always feel like I’m in the mud, in the trenches, pouring rain, and it’s freezing cold, and I’m never going to be warm again.
Stereogum: The process by which you guys make songs, has it changed radically over the years?
Millan: Well it’s primarily still the same because it starts with the guys getting together and coming up with different ideas and hooks and interludes with where things might go, and in the past it’s usually been that Torquil writes one song and I go write another. And I think the difference is that this record, the five of us are making music together and lyrically leaving room to participate with each other, because a lot of times that process has been separate. Because if you have an idea for a song and how the story will unfold, to have that happen with two people in a band is not easy, and it takes a lot of trust to leave space that the other person’s gonna fulfill what your vision is and help it and not take away from it. But it’s our sixth album, so after years and years of playing together and being together, we finally know that the alchemy is us, and that we just have to get into a room and do it together — and that’s when it’s going to be the best-sounding record.
Stereogum: Is it only now, six records in, that you have that feeling? I mean, you guys have been a band for over a decade; do you feel like it’s gotten easier?
Millan: I’m going to say something a little bit gruesome but it’s gonna be fine. When you have PMS for 20 years, sometimes you get in a really bad mood and you start crying, and it’s like, “Oh right, I have PMS!” And sometimes you’re like, “I feel so upset, I feel like crying,” and you know it’s PMS but it doesn’t mean you’re not still really upset. So when you’re inside the process of making a record, it’s very difficult. And you know that there’s going to be an ending. You know somewhere inside of you that at the end of this, it’s going to be done and there’s going to be a record, but to get to that place is so difficult, because you have to be constantly doubting yourself because you can’t settle for something that comes easily right away. Generally the first thing that comes isn’t going to be good enough. You have to be so open to criticism, and when you’re writing music or lyrics, it’s all so personal. So to be met immediately with the rest of your band looking at you and criticizing whatever you are doing, it can be very painful and upsetting. So yes, six records in, we know that everybody has the utmost respect and thinks everyone’s a genius, or else we wouldn’t still be here with each other. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not very difficult, getting to that finish line. I remember that Feist called me at one point — she had just finished her latest record, Metals — and we were going up to the cabin that week. I remember she was in such a good mood. I was so jealous of her, like, “You’re so lucky! You’re finished! You have a finished thing that you can hold in your hand!” As soon as it’s done I’m always so so happy, because I find writing the writing and recording to be so so hard.
Stereogum: Now that you can step back and look at The North as a finished thing, what’s your feeling about it?
Millan: I think we’ve made so many records that are quite intense, and I feel like there’s more breath in this album. I think it’s a record you can put on your headphones and lie in bed and listen to, and I also think it’s an album you can put on at a dinner party and enjoy yourself and not have to be at the edge of your seat listening to every word. I think there’s something that’s light and hopeful about it.
Stereogum: Where do you think that comes from this time? Is everyone just in a better mood?
Millan: Well I think that The Five Ghosts was a very intense record, and there were a lot of traumatic and beautiful things that happened while making that album. It took a lot out of us emotionally to make that record, and I think this was a counterpoint. It’s just a continuation from the work that we’ve always done. Our albums build together. We’re always moving forward, but with the past right behind us. You have to think about the last album that you wrote and what will happen next.
Stereogum: What will happen next? Will you spend the foreseeable future on the road?
Millan: Yeah, we’re going to be on the road for the next year and a half. But I have some hidden gems that we’ve put aside and we’re actually working on some new songs. It was such an interesting process on this record. Even when we finished the record, we kept writing. I felt like I’d had a shot of WD-40 put into my joints as I was writing. Like I was all ready to go, lubricated, and it felt easy after writing those 14 songs, because now that the pressure was off. So we’ve been having a lot of fun. We’re trying cover songs and just going in right now approaching it like there’s nothing to lose and we don’t have to keep anything that we do. So, more songs to come.
Stereogum: Touring with a child in tow can be quite an adventure. Have you figured out how you’re going to do it?
Millan: Well it’s funny that you should ask me that. I’m in the midst of a hurricane of complete panic about it. I think it’s going to be great. I have a mantra that I’m repeating over and over: Unconventional doesn’t mean dysfunctional. We’ve been touring and staring at each other’s tired old faces for years and years now, so God knows if we didn’t have children around, it would all get really crusty. So having something cute and fun around is just going to benefit the whole soul of the band. I imagine that everywhere you go there’s bound to be a bathtub and a park, so just bring the books along and everything will remain fine. That’s what I tell myself. Of course you worry, and that’s just part of being a parent. Being in constant motion with a child, I think she’s going to have the time of her life and not remember any of it. I think it takes a village and everyone’s just going to help everyone out. She’s very cheerful and adores all the guys in the band, so it’s going to be a pretty great year.
Stars’ The North is out now on Soft Revolution Records/ATO.