You might have thought you knew Amy Millan, but you were wrong. You had her pegged as the resplendent disco queen icily intoning atop Stars’ majestic and sweeping dance pop, but away from the bright lights she was a lonesome cow girl strumming songs of lost loves and hard drinking nights. This other side of Millan first surfaced on 2006’s Honey From The Tombs, and returns in a slightly more refined form on her just-released sophomore album, Masters Of The Burial. Unlike many musicians who attempt an extreme makeover in their solo careers to scratch a genre itch, Millan’s take on alt-country works, largely because it has the feel of lived-in authenticity. In advance of her two shows in New York—Nov. 5 at Mercury Lounge and Nov. 6 at the Bell House—The A.V. Club talked with Millan about lifelong musical friendships, the beauty of brevity, and defining success on her own terms.
The A.V. Club: Most of the songs on your first solo album were written during the ’90s before you joined Stars. Were you still drawing from that same well of material for this record? Is it hard getting back into the headspace of those older songs?
Amy Millan: No, not really. These were newer songs this time around, but it doesn’t matter—the space is always myself alone with a guitar, so it doesn’t take a lot to get myself back there. Stars is much more communal and collaborative. It’s important for me to find alone time to write these songs and articulate things creatively by myself. Luckily there’s always plenty of things to write about. I like the quiet aspect of my solo work. It’s nice having a life away from the Marshall stacks and getting to preserve my hearing a little bit. This is the kind of music I want to be playing into my 70s.
AVC: Have you had to adjust your stage presence performing this lower-key solo work in smaller venues, as opposed to the grander sound and bigger stages Stars play these days?
AM: Fortunately, I’ve got a great band. I’ve been playing with Dan [Whitely], who’s done a lot of the guitar and mandolin playing on my solo records, since I was 15. I always thought my future in music was going to be with him, and then Stars asked me to join them and that ended up taking me around the world. So I feel like I got sort of sidetracked. [Laughs.] I’m really comfortable presenting this music to people. This kind of music is really at the core of my being.
AVC: You didn’t find commercial success with music until your 30s. Do you think “making it” at a relatively older age has colored the way you approach your career now?
AM: Part of the music-making game is that there will always be times when you’re on top and times when you’re not. I remember seeing Johnny Cash in 1990 at the Canadian Exhibition in Toronto. It was a free concert in the middle of the day and there were just tons of kids around eating cotton candy who really couldn’t give a shit about him. He was such a legend to me, and I remember being shocked that 80 percent of the people weren’t paying attention. But he still gave his all, and I realized he was doing it because he had to—and he was never going to stop. That really made an impression on me. By the end, with his American Recordings albums, Johnny was back on top, but there was a long period of time where he was just forgotten. I look to him as inspiration to remember that sometimes you’re hip and sometimes you’re not, but in the end none of that matters.
AVC: Basing happiness in music on intrinsic rewards seems like a smarter bet over the long run.
AM: Definitely, you can have highs and lows in terms of "success" on the same tour, even. Indie-rock is in a place now where we’ll show up L.A. and play to 3,000 people and then can be in Ohio a few days later and be lucky to get half that number. Being a huge rock star has never been the impetus to make music for me. I don’t need to have a castle in Switzerland to be happy. I’m quite happy with my little home in Montreal and getting to make music with my friends.
AVC: In contrast to your records with Stars, both your solo albums have been marked by brevity. The songs get in, quickly make their point, and get out—typically in three minutes or less. Is there a reason behind that?
AM: It was a very conscious decision on my part. The brevity thing really sticks with me because I’m a vinyl lover. That’s all I buy and all I listen to. I started realizing that almost every new album—including Stars albums—was a double vinyl, which is kind of crazy. I wanted to do one proper old-school album that came in at a running time that had a side A and a side B and that’s it. Stars are recording our next record right now, and we’ve already agreed that we want to try and keep it shorter and not do some 14-song epic again.
AVC: Is it frustrating for you that pretty much all listeners initially approach your solo work through the lens of what Stars has done? The actual music of each project is worlds apart from each other.
AM: I can’t complain either way because the music’s getting attention and that’s all you can ask for. That being said I think there were certain expectations for my first record based on what Stars had done, and I felt bad disappointing people who were expecting a pop record and didn’t have those expectations met. Even now with this record it seems like a lot of the reaction is “she’s really trying to prove her point that she’s into country music.” [Laughs.] I totally get people loving what I do in Stars and hating my solo work, and vice versa. In the end I can’t worry about that. It’s all just smoke and I have to keep on doing what I do. I want to make the kind of music that seeps into your bloodstream and slowly grows on you, so I’m not as concerned with people’s immediate reactions anyway.
AVC: Masters Of The Burial features no shortage of guest appearances from noteworthy musical friends—Feist, Liam O’Neil of The Stills—and you remain an active collaborator on numerous other projects, most notably as part of Broken Social Scene. How important is that sense of community in your musical life?
AM: My whole reason for falling in love with music was the community aspect of it. From the beginning my social life and musical life have been completely intertwined. I can still remember back in my teenage years recording in Kevin [Drew of Broken Social Scene’s] apartment on his little four-track in the middle of the night surrounded by friends strumming guitars. I always joke that it takes a village to make a record and I’m fortunate that I have so many friends who are always willing to help out.