Whether you know Amy Millan from her work as lead singer of Stars or as one-sixteenth of Broken Social Scene, you probably envision her as a soft-spoken, mild-mannered woman. But Millan, whose debut solo album, Honey From the Tombs, was released on Arts & Crafts in July, loves to drop F-bombs, drink beers and gossip over girl-talk just as much as the next person. In fact, she may be one of the most light-hearted rock vocalists I’ll ever meet, a person who loves to laugh at casual observations and even at herself. She talked to us from her hometown, Montreal, about the folk/country feel of her album, her love of the Irish, and getting served underage.
Where are you right now, Amy?
Montreal. I just got back yesterday from Hillside, which is this amazing indie festival in Ontario, outside Toronto.
How was that experience?
It was fantastic. It started very grassroots a few years ago and it just got bigger and bigger. They were one of the first festivals to have Arcade Fire. It’s the only festival I’ve been to where there’s no garbage at the end of it. They’re really on top of their “hippieness.” Sometimes when you play those festivals, after everyone disperses everything’s totally destroyed and there’s garbage everywhere, and sometimes you feel like it’s not the best thing by putting us together [laughs]. But this was a very clean, beautiful little weekend.
Who were some of the bands and musicians you were looking forward to seeing there?
The Constantines played and Holy Fuck was really amazing. Final Fantasy — it was the first time I’ve seen him and it was luscious. Feist and Sarah Harmer played, and Cuff the Duke was one of the highlights. Sometimes in festivals, in Canada anyway, they do a lot of workshops during the day and one of the best ones was when the Sadies and the Constantines met up on stage and performed for an hour. It was fantastic.
Did you and Feist have any plans of meeting up? Like when you see other members of the band, whether it’s planned or not, what are the discussions like?
Feist is like my girlfriend, so if you can imagine just two girls that haven’t seen each other in a couple weeks, what goes down [laughs]. We’re not talking business, that’s for sure. She’s a really great friend of mine, so we kind of like pass each other sometimes, but I saw her in the hotel lobby when I got home at one in the morning and she had just flown in so we had a few minutes. Then the next morning I went to go see her, but she was onstage doing this workshop with Sarah Harmer, so we basically just ended up just texting each other the whole time. We’re so goofy; we couldn’t just arrange it to have a beer backstage.
With the album being released in the U.S., are there any different feelings opposed to when it came out in Canada?
I think it will be interesting to see the differences in the territories and how people are reacting to the fact that I like country music. I’m definitely getting a different ripple of reaction all around the world. It’s come out in England already and they understand part of it, but there’s also the people who know me from Stars and are still icky and uncomfortable with the fact that I have a couple of songs about whiskey. I don’t know; I guess the first time it comes out it’s kinda like having children. The first one’s very exciting and there’s tons of anticipation, and from then on you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m pregnant, whatever,’ [laughs]. I know that people who are really big fans have gotten the record already through the computer, so the anticipation is a little bit lost, but I’m still looking forward to it.
Even before the album came out, were you worried about people’s perception of the sound of the album, knowing how different it was from your work with Stars and Broken Social Scene?
Maybe in retrospect I should’ve a little bit more [laughs], but I didn’t really realize how cemented people’s image of me was in their minds from being fans of both of those bands. With the last Broken record and the last Stars record, especially Set Yourself on Fire, that was the most records we’ve ever sold, so I thought you couldn’t really tell [the anticipation] until I put my record out — the reaction I would get, the press it was gonna get, how much attention was going to be paid to it. Really, that should’ve been happening for the next Stars record. So I was totally surprised at the attention it got and how confused people were. To me, these are the songs that I wrote before I was in Stars and this is the person I relate to most in terms of my life, and I was very surprised by the whole thing.
Just by touring with Stars and Broken Social Scene, have you found many differences to when you play in the United States with them as opposed to in Canada?
There’s subtle differences, but there’s an overall familiarity — which are kids with hearts on their sleeves — and that is pretty much universal. But America’s been going through kind of a rough time globally with their position in world politics right now, and I feel there’s a different responsibility when we go play in the States. Maybe not so much now — I guess there’s a little bit of dulling about it right now — but when Bush was voted back in there were more questions about the politics going on.
I think Americans, just from the feeling I get when I’m there, there’s an insecurity that they’re hated by people around the world, and that’s not the case, and I think that’s something with Stars and Broken that we’ve done when we’ve come in there, to try to make them understand that we know there’s so many people who are not on the same page with the George Bush administration. I feel like politically in America right now it’s very soft because other people are indignant about it around the world, and I think that they have presumptions about what America is and they haven’t toured it like I have. I love going there; it’s one of my favorite places in the world.
What are some of the favorite spots you’ve traveled to around the world?
The Irish are the least ironic. The Irish have no problems; they’re not trying to be cool. It’s one of the only places in the world where they’re not afraid of what the person next to them is gonna think, you know, if they start weeping at a show or something [laughs]. So they’re very earnest and lovely, and I always feel the most comfortable in Ireland. There’s nothing to prove, and they’re all there because they love you and they really have gigantic hearts and it’s a beautiful place to live. It’s always overcast and damp and there’s tons of beer and lovely smiling faces that want to become your friend, so I would say Ireland is on top of the list.
How long had you been working on solo material?
I was always working on songs, but I didn’t really understand the concept of the record I would make. I was just writing songs because that’s what I did when I was alone for years and years before I was part of this army of musicians that we are now. Then I started putting all of my energy into writing with Stars, but there were these little songs like “Ruby” and “Come Home Loaded Roadie” and “Wayward and Parliament,” these songs that I loved and felt didn’t have a home and were getting kinda lost and they were not getting the respect by me, I just deserted them in the wayside and joined this pop outfit.
Then I decided that I needed to bring them light, and it was a certain challenge for me to go in there myself and make a record and not rely on bandmates and other people. And when it came down to everything, it came down to me. I wanted to challenge myself in that way, and I continue to do so. I’m now starting to write even more because I put out this record and I’m looking forward to putting out the next record and not waiting eight years to do it.
What musical activities were you involved in growing up? When was the first time you picked up an instrument, things like that?
I was much more interested in the fact that there were these players that I knew, these banjo players and mandolin players and guitar players. I would go to this Lithuanian bingo hall and they had the legion in the basement and they would serve us underage, and we’d go there and they’d play songs. They were lots of old traditional songs, I heard them from my friends singing them, like “Nine-Pound Hammer” and “Circle of the Unbroken.” I had heard a lot of these songs from the mouths of my friends as opposed to records at home. That’s why I kinda wanted to make a record that had the feeling of dark basements at three in the morning. I joined Stars in 2000 and all these songs on the record were written before that.
You’re living in Montreal now. What’s a normal day like these days in that city?
There’s not really structure in Montreal, and I think that’s the biggest difference. But there is no distinct nightspot, and I don’t really know anyone who has a job here [laughs]. I mean, they do weird jobs. I know this woman who has a truck and also caters for bands when they come. She’s catering for Wilco and was like, ‘Who’s Wilco? Are they nice?’ I was like, If you don’t know Wilco and you’re gonna go cater for them . Meanwhile she just moved four people that day in her truck and charged like a hundred bucks. These are the kind of things people do to get by in Montreal. Because a lot of them are English, like a lot of Anglos live here that can’t speak French, so they don’t really work.
So I guess it starts out like this: Go down and have a coffee — there’s a place called Club Social, this Italian joint where a lot of people go and have coffee and you hang out for a couple of hours and then get on your bike and go for a ride and maybe do some shopping or do whatever weird thing you’re doing that day. Maybe you’ll have two hours to drive somebody around or you’re gonna go sell cigarettes at some afternoon event and make seventy-five bucks an hour, and that will basically cover your rent. Then about four o’clock, you’ll be on a patio and start drinking. Then usually there’s a couple of gigs, like a lot of friends are in different jazz bands. Like Patty McGee, the drummer in Stars, has a little kind of party band he plays in called Whip Cream, and his first record is called Cocoa Town, so they play around. And there’s a lot of rented places that have makeshift bars on the weekends, where you pay like four bucks to go in and there’s a couple of deejays, but it’s not a place like you go every weekend; it’s just made up for that weekend. Overall it’s more European. There’s lots of French people, too. Just a lot of people making out and touching their asses. It’s lovely here.
When you’re on tour, how do you fill the extra time?
There’s some great Korean spas across North America. They salt your whole body; they kind of bang you with salt. There’s a fantastic one in Seattle, and you gotta try to find those weird bathhouses that are only for women, so you get away from all the guys — there’s a lot of goatees in my life [laughs]. So you try to meander your way into a completely different realm and have some balance, because sometimes it can become one big black box.
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