Amy Millan: songs of love and loss

Courtesy of Exclaim.ca

Courtesy of Exclaim.ca

By Amanda Ash

It’s been three years since Amy Millan released her debut solo album Honey From The Tombs, stepping outside the glittery pop stardom of Stars and Broken Social Scene to give breath to her own saccharine sweet melodies and whiskey-soaked tales about love, death, loss and gaping distances. Today, that same confident, philosophical voice can be heard on her sophomore solo effort Masters Of The Burial, although Millan has become much more aware that you can’t always find the lyrics you’re looking for.

“It’s all about trying to communicate — that’s why I write,” Millan says over the phone, bubbling with colourful metaphors as she describes her latest collection of what she calls “toxic roots” songs. The songs on Honey From The Tombs were written pre-2000, before Millan joined Torquil Campbell and Chris Seligman to form Stars, reflecting an early era of her life where unchained symphonies about destruction (self-inflicted and love-induced) and hopeless romance — themes that required constant care and attention — pranced around in her head.

Millan has spent most of the last decade embedded in Canada’s most famous music community, but even though she was breathing and absorbing the songwriting prowess of her Stars and BSS band-mates, when it came to penning Masters Of The Burial, Millan couldn’t always find the right words to speak her heart. She didn’t have that same inspiring freedom she had when she wrote Honey From The Tombs. So she incorporated the struggle and exploration of writing into the writing process itself.

“Meditating on Masters Of The Burial, I really think [my writing has been influenced] by my parents, who were social workers,” she says. “Being a social worker, your whole impetus is to have one another communicate better. It’s all about being able to get out what you might be trying to say and actually say what you mean. You may think you’re having a particular emotion because of something, but then when you realize the ego that is involved, and so you really get down to why you’re feeling what you’re feeling. Writing is about making that into a kind of metaphor.”

The bulk of Masters was actually written in the summer of 2004; after relentless touring and a soul-warping break-up with Stars band-mate Chris Seligman, Millan was left in crisis mode and in need a room of her own. An old friend offered her a place in Montreal. For two months, she had a back porch and a collection of copper pots all to herself. It was the first time she’d been alone in three years, and it inspired the songwriting process.

Millan didn’t have a roadmap for where her songwriting would lead. “I just took a bunch of seeds and threw them in the ground and figured whatever kind of seeds come up, they’re all going to look pretty,” she says. And for the most part, Millan was successful when it came to unconsciously packaging her emotions. She focused upon Honey themes like home, and loss. “I don’t know when I’ll lose my obsession with loss, and having to cope with loss. I think that’s the biggest underlying current in everything that I write.”

Over the years, amidst her busy schedule, Millan slowly added to the collection that would become Masters Of The Burial, eventually turning her sights outward to communication struggles of those around her.

“It’s interesting because some of the songs written on this record are about me watching other peoples’ relationships breaking up. It’s not really about my own personal experience. It’s about watching people around me. My favourite line on the record is ‘The twist on your lips says it all / You’re not mine to give it away.’ That’s what I mean about communication. I’ve seen close friends of mine suffer through a break up and I can tell what they’re trying to communicate on their face, just through a certain tick. It’s heartbreaking, really.”

Although seclusion was needed to write her own songs, a community was needed to give them life. Her touring band (Dan Whitely, Christine Bougie, Darcy Yates and Doug Tielli) were joined by drummer Dean Stone (Apostle of Hustle), Jesse Zubot sent violin tracks over the net, Stars’ Evan Cranley and Chris Seligman with the Stills’ Liam O’Neil spread on French horns and Leslie Feist, Ariel Engle and Jenny Whiteley sang back-up vocals. “I’m incredibly lucky to have the group of musicians and friends around me and that I can draw from their talent. Like [producer] Martin Kinack. Working with him was like one of the most delicious cocktails you could ever drink. It was juicy, fruity, with a little kick — and it makes you feel a little dizzy when you’re done.”

After nearly five years of scribbling notes and plucking at her guitar, Millan hadn’t churned out enough songs to make an album, so she began covering some of her favourite tunes. Masters Of The Burial features a handful, including Sarah Harmer’s “Old Perfume,” Richard Hawley’s “Run For Me” and Death Cab For Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.” “I could do covers for every record I ever put out. I would be happy to do that,” Millan says. “I could do that forever. I have a whole list that didn’t go on the record. I love listening to musicians interpret other people’s songs. I think it gives them a freedom, because they’re not emotionally attached to them than if you create something yourself. You’re singing it because you love it, not because you wrote it.”

She’s accepted the fact that covers, drenched in her own rootsy flair, might unearth and articulate those buried sentiments much better than her own tunes. With the exception of Metric’s “Poster Of A Girl,” however, Millan won’t divulge the exact songs she plans on adapting for our listening pleasure. After all, some secrets need to remain buried. We don’t want other artists discovering just how she manages to charm the pants off her fans, do we now?

“I feel like if I name the songs I want to cover, God knows Joel Plaskett’s going to come out and do all the covers I’ve ever mentioned,” Millan deadpans. “Not that he’s trying to steal them from me, but by osmosis he’ll be like, ‘Wow I don’t know why but I thought I should do this cover.’ It’s like recipes, you know. [My covers] are a secret chocolate cake recipe.”

Story written for Exclaim! Magazine, September 2009.

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  1. […] Back in September, I got a chance to talk to her about Masters Of The Burial, her writing process and her continued obsession with death and love. You can read it HERE. […]



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