Northern Lights: Canadian Indie Supergroup Stars Align for Another Heartfelt Record
Clutching a Stars song close to your chest is appropriate and downright comforting. For more than a decade, the Canadian baroque pop outfit has dealt out emotional wares featuring fragile, thoughtful souls — exemplified by a song like "Personal" from 2007's In Our Bedroom After the War. In it, vocalists Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan sing the parts of two despondent singles playing out a blind-date scenario. Spoiler alert: Humanity is cruel and superficial. A career of similarly intricate songs dripping with the French horn and strings in addition to the typical tools of the rock trade has brought the band a large, soft revolution of earnest followers.
"I think that earnest is a good word," says quick-witted Millan while preparing coffee for herself at home in Montreal. "I think that our fans generally have their hearts on their sleeves and they're a tender bunch."
Fans also have Heart, the title of Stars' breakout 2003 album, on their shelves and iTunes playlists. Right around that time, things were blowing up for another Canadian supergroup, Broken Social Scene, that has a serious amount of personnel overlap with Stars. Notably, Stars multi-instrumentalist Evan Cranley was a founding member of BSS, and Millan contributed vocally to the band's self-titled release in 2005 and to last year's Forgiveness Rock Record. The friendship among members of both acts, who used to be labelmates on the Canadian super-indie Arts & Crafts, has nurtured a small novel's worth of creative output.
The son of two Shakespearean actors, Campbell's superb acting skills have an indelible mark on his leadership of Stars, but it's arguably his chemistry with Millan that has cemented the band among indie rock's elite. Although they are not a couple, the pair can build up a suffocating level of sexual tension in their frequent duets that never shy from the love, lust, and lingering heartbreak of their contemporaries.
From "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead" off 2004's Set Yourself on Fire: "Captured a taxi despite all the rain/We drove in silence across Pont Champlain/And all of the time you thought I was sad/I was trying to remember your name."
"I really like to bring in the stories of others," Millan says. "When we tour, my imagination is sparked when I'm out there meeting all sorts of different people. You come into contact with so many different kinds of people rather than being isolated in your own home, and that's always what I've been drawn to, and to write about, is really other people. I'm not a self-reflective diary writer."
Millan has also created two solo albums — most recently Masters of the Burial two years ago — that employ a rootsier, pedal-steel-heavier template than Stars' polished, orchestral arrangements. But don't expect another one anytime soon — she says she's waiting for more people to listen to the first two first.
"I like the Sade approach where she puts out a record once every nine years," Millan asserts. "My whole life is Stars. It's what I concentrate on. It's my everyday life. I mean, I just had a baby, so it was taking a little preparation to get back into the world of Stars after taking some time off. And then my first day back at work, there was 10,000 people there cheering me on, so I thought that was a pretty good way to get back ."
Millan's got a unique parental situation because her bandmate Cranley is the father of her child. Delphine Rita Jane Cranley was born in March, and it seems that the unconventional life on the road is working out for them thus far. "She's supermellow, and she loves action, so she doesn't mind all the moving around and adventure," Millan says. "We're in the band together, and that makes everything easier, and I was always pretty positive that [Evan and I] would win The Amazing Race. So it was just taking on that mentality of having your shit tight."
Before its current U.S. tour, Stars was in the midst of creating a new album in a studio set up in Montreal. A listen to this year's The Bedroom Demos, a collection of rawer versions of In Our Bedroom After the War songs and unreleased material, the process is a joyous one. This version of the fuzz-filled anthem of longing "Bitches in Tokyo" adds a "Fuck U I Love You" parenthetical to the title, and audible snickers abound. The act of the five of them coming together to write and record is what Millan calls "the trenches."
"It's the murky waters," she says of the band's seven-days-a-week sessions. "It's always an exciting place, because you're always a little bit afraid, and I hope that I never lose that tiny bit of fear when I'm jumping into a new album. And it's facing that fear that your best work comes up from."
Fears came from the supernatural on Stars' last proper LP, The Five Ghosts — look no further than "I Died So I Could Haunt You" to get the gist. But there has also always been a serious political undercurrent to the band's work, and hyperdramatic Campbell minces little on one of Stars' fiercest songs to date, "He Lied About Death" from Set Yourself on Fire, which could be about any corrupt leader until the "I hope your drunken daughters are gay" line.
"I think that you're going to attract a kind of cynicism [in fans]," Millan says in reference to the latter song. "It's interesting when it comes to politics and music, because a lot of times, you're preaching to the choir. It's still important to have a voice about it, but I think a lot of the times, the fans that are following us generally have the same set of values."
So what can this cynical, earnest choir of Stars fans expect to emerge from the murk of the band's latest studio work? They'll just have to wait. "It's a secret at this point," she says with a smile in her voice. "We can't just give away our secrets."
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