"When you're on the road all the time, you can really find that you end up repeating yourself," Amy Millan says.
"It's kind of like a somersault in swimming pool. You don't know up from down, there's no oxygen and you're not really going anywhere. That's why it's important to keep making music, and a big reason why we decided to make this EP."
If anyone knows what it's like to be a road warrior, it's Millan. In addition to serving as co-lead singer and sometimes songwriter for Montreal-based Stars — the dramatic, love-song-obsessed four-piece she fronts alongside longtime collaborator Torquil Campbell — she's one of the most active and prominent members of the prolific and vibrant Canadian collective Broken Social Scene. Add to that a solo career in which her indie rock takes a sweaty, red-faced backseat to bourbon-soaked country sex appeal, and the picture's complete: Millan is a one-woman musical whirlwind.
But you've got to muzzle the hyperbole a bit with Millan. Live and in the studio, she's a shining bright spot for both Stars and Broken Social Scene, and her debut solo album, Honey from the Tombs (named after a Tom Waits quote), is chock-full of sultry, swampy numbers designed specifically to get you into your honey's drawers. Millan spends time on the road with all three bands, but it's clear where her heart lies.
"You know, I like to think of Stars as my wife and the others as my girlfriend or goomah. You know, you love your girlfriend, your mistress, but when it comes down to it, you come back to your wife," Millan says.
Her latest project with Stars is the recently released six-song EP Sad Robots. The band produced and promoted the album on its own, after closing out its relationship with influential Canadian label Arts & Crafts. According to Millan, working outside the confines of the industry and on their own terms was a breath of fresh air.
"When we were recording this album, there was a lot of energy around it — it kind of felt like something we were doing just for fun," she says. "We decided not to do a full-length because that would really kill the momentum, and we really wanted to maintain our stride. We recorded it from 6 p.m. at night until 6 in the morning for about 10 days straight. It forced us to write very quickly and to get to the point."
Out from under its label agreement, the group was also able to take a quicker, more hands-on approach to releasing the EP online.
"You know, it was really extraordinary to be able to very quickly release this album so soon after we'd produced it, to just put up a splash page with the download and watch excitement spread through word-of-mouth through the blogosphere," Millan says. "It's selling well — people are paying the four dollars to download the album and not stealing it. We're free agents now, and we're looking at a bunch of different options for what to do next. One of the things we're considering is doing our own label. With the decline of CD sales, and where the dollar is at, it's certainly tempting."
In many ways, Sad Robots is superior to their latest, somewhat disappointing full-length, In Our Bedroom After the War. Sad Robots features one live version of a track from their debut, Nightsongs, and embraces a more electronic sound in the tradition of that album. Although that album had some high points ("Take me to the Riot," "Ghost of Genova Heights"), the labored narrative through-line of the album sucked some of the energy out of an act that, in previous albums (such as the phenomenal 2004 effort, Set Yourself on Fire), had exuded a palpable sense of hope and infectious energy.
Reviews for In Our Bedroom After the War have been mixed, but the album was also nominated for this year's Polaris Prize, which is awarded to Canada's top album by a long list of Canadian music writers.
"I'm really really proud of In Our Bedroom, and the only thing we could have done better is maybe have trimmed it," Millan says. "My new favorite word is edit. Something I want to strive for is not to become so emotionally attached to individual songs that you can't see how they are part of a bigger picture with the album."
Millan will miss the Broken Social Scene tour bus this time around, but she has plenty to do: Record a second solo album, potentially start up a new label and tour globally with Stars. She's got a full plate, but Millan seems up to the challenge.
"You know, people always tell me that I work hard, but it doesn't really feel like it. I go on stage and put on a show, and people applaud what I do. Most people have three kids and a mortgage and they work 9 to 5. My job is to make them feel less tired, to make them feel something special, to feel something great beyond their ordinary existence. If I can do that, I'm happy."
Stars, with Bell X1. Friday, September 26, at The Granada.
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