Skip to content

How Stars Learned to Set Themselves on Fire Again

Stars / Photo by Norman Wong

New album be damned, Amy Millan wanted to enjoy her summer.

The Stars’ frontwoman, who provides the high, honeyed half of the group’s boy-girl vocals, managed to persuade her bandmates to push the release of their sixth LP The North from May to September 4 so she could spend time sunning herself poolside. “We’re a fall band,” she says from her Montreal home while her 17-month-old daughter cried in the background. “I really took advantage of it because for the next two years we’re going to be on the road.”

That laidback attitude permeated the making of the veteran indie-pop band’s latest release. After 10 years and half-a-dozen records, they have nothing left to prove. “We’ve been doing this so long we were like what’s the point? Why are we doing this?” Millan says. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Well, we make each other laugh. Let’s just go in and have the best time we possibly can because who cares.'”

To that end, the record is a return to Set Yourself On Fire, the band’s 2004 breakthrough that endeared them to a modest following with its mix of offbeat ballads and sharp, synth-riddled pop tracks. “What we really wanted to do was dance,” Millan adds.

She also shared some of the music, moods, and people that helped shape the album.

The band holed up in a Swiss-style 1950s chalet north of Montreal last winter to write their new record. For Millan, the bleak, snowy months are perfect for music making. “It settles me down into a place where I’m able to work,” she says. “Summer is too hot and sweltering. You just want to be outside and have a cocktail. The way snow dampens sound, it feels like it leaves more room for you to hear what the universe might be wanting you to create.”

Whether it’s the disintegrating environmental policies in her native Canada or widespread greed in the American banking system, Millan says her frustration with the current political climate always boils over into the group’s music. “I do consider us a political band. On every album that we’ve made there has been one or two tracks that represent how we’re feeling about the policies being run, whether it’s our country or the country to the south of us or fascists everywhere,” she says. “We have a majority government [in Canada] that’s absolutely destroying the environment with oil pipelines and stopping the fisheries act, blowing up mines. We can’t help having that come out in at least one song out of 12.”

Billie Holiday
The troubled jazz pioneer’s versatile croon changed the way Millan approached singing. “Every single time you hear her sing it’s different than the last time, the delivery and the feeling of it,” she says. “She can sing a song once and it sounds like she’s feeling hopeful or she can sing it another time and it sounds like she’s totally depressed. That’s always been something that I’ve wanted to bring to tracking or playing a live show.”

Tom Waits
It’s not his signature gravely growl or eccentric tracks that inspired Millan, but rather, his evasive interview-style, dodging questions and, instead, ranting on random topics. “I’ve always admired the fact that he can get the question, ‘How is this record different than the last?’ and he can end up talking about cockroaches,” she laughs. “It’s a talent to be able to do that and have a whole bunch of knowledge that doesn’t really matter. He must read encyclopedias about the nature of bugs.”

Her Daughter
Becoming a mom a year and a half ago taught Millan to turn off, tune out and focus on what’s in front of her. “We all think we can double task and triple task, but part of what I’m trying to do in these younger years with her is actually turn off the television, turn off the phone, turn off the computer and pay 100 per cent attention to the two of us.” More directly, she penned the soft, somber “Lights Changing Colour” off of The North as a “love song” to her girl. “I like to think about songs like [Bob] Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ and how you can have this chance when they’re super young to write them a little piece of a story before they can even talk.”