Montreal-based Stars have sired an album that takes inspiration from parenthood.
The arrival of children on the scene might foretell a sea change for Stars.
Singer and guitarist Amy Millan and bassist and guitarist Evan Cranley are already gearing up to take their daughter, 17-month-old Delphine, on the road with the band. Ellington, vocalist Torquil Campbell’s threeyear-old daughter, will be Delphine’s playmate.
Talk turned to promoting the new Stars album, The North, during a recent interview with Millan and Cranley at their Plateau MontRoyal home, and the couple spoke of their dream of doing a family-on-the bus tour, in the style of some mythologized Grateful Dead or Wings outings.
“We’d want to do that and have the hippie sensibility — but smell better and dress better,” Millan said. “We’re all ready — all of us in the band — to have something new. We’ve been a band for 14 years. We’ve looked at each other’s crusty mugs for long enough. It’s time to bring in something cute and funny and fun to look at that always puts everybody in a way better mood.”
Parenthood has also manifested itself in songs on The North. Backlines, for example, addresses postpartum anxiety and a new-found sense of urgency that comes with motherhood, while Lights Changing Colour reflects the wish to hold on to every second, Millan explained.
Unlike the group’s previous disc, The Five Ghosts — described by Cranley as “sadness in hi-fi, a very consciously cold record” — The North, Millan said, was meant to be “playful, joyful and hopeful.”
“We really wanted to dance, so there are quite a few beautiful dance-party tracks on this album,” she said.
Synth-pop effervescence is the primary vehicle for The North’s generally upbeat sound and groove. The synthesizers transcend what some might call the genre’s inherent soullessness because, according to Cranley, the players use them as warmly as possible.
“It actually takes a human touch to make a synthesizer really come alive,” he said. “And you really have to understand the pathways and the way the instrument works. You just have to unlock its behaviour.”
“And we have a lot of soul,” Millan said. “Torquil and I love listening to soul music. That’s part of why we’re attracted to boy-girl vocals. It’s such a part of that period of soul music: a woman and man singing together, representing each sex, and sex in general. We’ve always been soul music.”
The 1980s, which spawned synth-pop, provided a soundtrack for the formative years of the band members, Cranley said. And far from seeing that decade as a dated era, he said he considers it a golden age of pop music.
“Pop music, for a lot of people, is a dirty word,” he said. And while both he and Millan expressed love for orthodox favourites like Joy Division and the Smiths, Cranley said he even has feelings for some Spandau Ballet. Picking up the cue, Millan began to sing True. “C’mon! The melody!” she said approvingly.
Stars arrived more than a decade after that Spandau hit, forming as the last millennium came to a close. It was lucky timing, Millan said — before there was too much music for the average listener to absorb and just about when bloggers began to spread the word about artists they loved, especially the ones who didn’t get signed to major labels or get played on radio.
“We were one of the darlings,” Millan said. “And even now, you just have to do what you’ve always had to do: We just play and write and play and write, and if the song is strong enough, word of mouth will spread about it.” When they put the new track Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It on SoundCloud, she said, they had 50,000 hits in five days.
“It’s a song that excites people, and every single person who got excited by it spread the word. Those are the people you’re depending on — the people in your social network who love you,” Millan said.
But in spite of the up-tothe-minute ways of getting Stars’ music out there, the two musicians agreed that The North was conceived as an album, a story with a beginning and an end. Accordingly, the sequencing of the songs and the album art were laboured over.
The cover, which depicts Habitat 67, speaks to the often-overlooked fact that Stars — formed mostly by Torontonians who converged in New York City — has been a Montreal band for years, Millan said. But it also illustrates the disc’s theme of hopefulness, Cranley said.
“The album art comes from a time when Canada was so young and futuristic and had all these amazing ideas that just aren’t around anymore. That time could manifest itself in the architecture,” Cranley said. “Canada was on a really interesting creative pulse. It had a really interesting look.”
The Stars lineup, which also includes keyboardist Chris Seligman and drummer Pat McGee, has remained stable while many of the group’s contemporaries have increasingly lengthy alumni lists. Millan insisted that without any of its five members, there is no Stars.
Unlike groups that pay lip service to being a democracy, she said, this group truly is one. Everybody gets an opinion, a vote and a share of the songwriting and publishing, she added. “It is the only way we have survived. If one person decides to quit, this band is over,” she said.
Presuming the bond holds, the future will be driven, in part, by attempts to keep the songwriting quality alive. Millan argued that popular music has tried to defend itself against easy commercialization by striving to become complicated. She suggested that the approach might provide interesting results that don’t have a long shelf life.
Millan said Stars’ music is meant to avoid the fate of forgettability.
“People have our lyrics inked onto their skin,” she said. “We have fans who have been with us since they were 14, when they first heard Set Yourself on Fire, and are now in their early 20s. And then we have the fans who found The Five Ghosts when they were 14.
“We have this incredible group of artist lovers who also love melody. They know we’re not just trying to trick them, but we are trying to hook them.”
The North is released on Tuesday. Stars perform a free show Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. at La Tulipe, 4530 Papineau Ave., as part of the Pop Montreal festival. For more details, visit popmontreal.com.