AMY MILLAN as part of the NOW showcase at NXNE with ELIZABETH SHEPHERD , MELISSA McCLELLAND , JASON FALKNER , FEMME GENERATION and the DO RIGHT! hiphop crew at the Reverb (504 Queen West), June 9. $10 or NXNE wristband. www.nxne.com. Also playing at the Mod Club (722 College), June 10. $12/free to first 50 NXNE wristband holders. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Amy Millan's got whiskey running through her veins.
You wouldn't know it from watching her sip red wine tonight, dolled up in a scarlet dress and vampy press-on nails in a College Street bar.
But catch her croaking out high lonesome country weepers in a Halifax hotel room when the sun's coming up, still strumming after the rest of the burnt-out Juno revellers have packed it in, and you can tell she's made for harder stuff.
Hell, just scratch the surface of Honey From The Tombs (Arts & Crafts), her long-awaited solo debut: straight whiskey stains every other track.
"Those were my whiskey years," groans Millan of her penchant for booze-soaked blues. "I moved from bourbon to Bordeaux cuz my liver got burned and flipped over. It's not rare any more; it's overdone.
"Hey, I have no judgment against booze. What's that quote? It's the cause of and the answer to all life's problems."
Whiskey, weather and wildflowers: that's the triumvirate Millan claims guided her through Honey From The Tombs and helped ground her songs, some of which date back a decade, in mascara-smudging, gut-churning emotions that never resort to emo-style diary-entry sentiments.
"I hate diary music. I find it so repulsive!" she snorts. A girl on the other side of the bar loudly agrees, and Millan nudges me. "That's why she'll get my record."
It's not that the stories Millan tells on Honey From The Tombs aren't cribbed from real-life experiences - listen closely and you can almost make out which of her indie-rock-royalty friends were the scrawny boy crushes and calculating queen bees who inspired the songs, though she coyly declines to elaborate.
But the reason these crafty tunes ring like timeless classics - and did even the first time I heard them nearly half a decade ago, tossed off as part of an art opening in a cramped Spadina gallery - is that Millan grounds her writing in clean, simple imagery. They're impressionistic without being precious, closer to the plaintive twang of I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry than to the arch pop romanticism of Millan's other band, Stars. It's straight bourbon to Sars' heady red wine.
It's taken some time for Millan to create Honey From The Tombs. The night we meet up, she looks rough and exhausted after squeezing in advance press while prepping to take off on her band's next European tour, hitting the Junos and finalizing album details. Her car's been towed. Her wallet's missing. She needs a fucking break.
Asked to explain the delay, she quips, "Fear, bus wheels, fear, organization and fear."
Most of the tunes were written long before Millan became one of the girls to break into the Broken Social boys' club, even before she joined Stars.
After a high school stint playing alongside her BFFs, Metric siren Emily Haines and Skinny author Ibi Kaslik, in their trio Edith's Mission, Millan escaped to Montreal for three years and started the process that led to this solo project.
"It was the first time I'd lived by myself and had my own apartment," she explains. "It kept the ghosts at bay to have a guitar and play calm little songs and make up little jubilees. I played a few coffee house shows, but the stuff that happened alone in my bedroom with my acoustic guitar was way more important."
When Millan came back to Toronto, she ended up rooming with an old family friend who happened to play hockey with a crew of music industry hookups. He goaded her into breaking out the acoustic during a drunken party where the Skydiggers and Eggplant Entertainment's Patrick Sambrook (Sarah Harmer's manager) were hanging out, and kicked off the bizarre karmic trajectory that seems to have defined her career.
"The next day Patrick called me and said he wanted to represent me, which was crazy!" recalls Millan. "It was so soon - too soon."
That connection led to a prime spot opening for Jason Collett the week he was featured on the cover of NOW - "It was at Holy Joe's, and totally sold out. I was so comatose with fear that all I remember is leaving and sitting at the corner of Queen and Bathurst in a puddle of tears, waiting for the streetcar" -
then the formation of Millan's short-lived roots-rock outfit 16 Tons.
All of a sudden an artist who'd barely played for audiences was warming up for Blue Rodeo and recording demos with the Hip. Millan did what any 23-year-old girl in over her head would do: she panicked, packed her goldfish in a Mason jar and followed a boy she liked to Los Angeles.
Karma came with her. Millan's got a perverse knack for picking up musicians and quirky connections the way burrs cling to wool sweaters. During the five months she spent in L.A., she landed a tiny part (and a song) in the forgotten Bette Midler vehicle Drowning Mona, bonded with "the only real poet in Los Angeles" and met a dude in a park who turned out to be the mastering guru at Capitol Records. He helped her lay down a demo in the building where Sinatra smoked spliffs on the roof.
Her time there led to the cynical kiss-off track Headsfull on Honey From The Tombs.
"It was a hard place to be depressed, because it was sunny every day. I should've gone to, like, Leeds," she says. "The last night I was there I got a tattoo and did an entire eightball. I was like, 'I've done L.A. Now I can leave.'"
The call to join Stars came pretty much immediately after a rock-bottom Millan returned home. She headed to NYC, where the expat Torontonians were then living, put her solo stuff on hold and didn't look back. "They saved my life," she insists.
Nearly six years and god knows how many international tours later, it's easy to understand why it's taken the singer/songwriter so long to let go of Honey. Millan credits producer Ian Blurton and long-time collaborator (and former roommate) Dan Whiteley with kicking her ass to finish the album.
"They're the two who are really responsible for helping me get to a place where I was finally putting out a product."
Beyond being motivational forces, the rock god/Crazy Strings mandolin ace duo helped Millan establish the moonshine-country-meets-shimmering-pop aesthetic that makes Honey From The Tombs such a stunner of a disc. Though she originally envisioned a split disc - half indie rock backed by her Broken bandmates, half front-porch bluegrass bolstered by Whiteley and his pals - Millan scrapped the initial concept and squeezed in sessions with Blurton whenever she had a spare minute. We're talking graveyard recording shifts and working overtime on holidays.
Rumour has it Blurton claims Millan held her liquor - while staying pitch-perfect - better than any rocker he's ever worked with.
"He's tryin' to make me look like a drunk!" she laughs. "Oh, well, that guy didn't hold his liquor very well. I made him work on New Year's Day. He came in, obviously drunk. I'm thinking, 'I don't know if I have to pay him for today. '" She smiles.
"He's sitting beside me and I can hear him snoring. The engineer cues up a track and I ask Ian's opinion, figuring he's way gone. He still manages to mutter, 'It's too low in the bass.' I'm like, 'You bastard! I can't believe you were paying attention!' There would not be a record without Ian Blurton, that's for sure."
The collaborative process is clearly something Millan holds dear. Even with this solo effort, she's eager to share the credit with the musical family who stepped up to support her. "It takes a village to make a record," she grins.
It's a revealing moment. For all her ballsy whiskey-swilling sass onstage and off, she's got a kind of let-it-all-hang-out vulnerability that fully embraces the cheese factor. It may take an indie rock village to make a record, but it's Millan's unreserved openness that makes a village want to help in the first place.
AMY MILLAN Honey From The Tombs (Arts & Crafts) Rating: NNNN
Canuck indie rock poster girl Amy Millan's years-in-the-making solo debut is a testament to the invaluable relationship between artist and producer. Granted, the Stars singer/guitarist has tons of talent on her own - the songs on Honey From The Tombs have supermodel-calibre bone structures based on clean, immediate writing ("eyes like burned-out headlights") that give them classic resonance even as simple acoustic numbers. But the credit for making this record a cut above goes to Ian Blurton, who shows keen sensitivity in tailoring arrangements to individual compositions, colliding polar elements - jazzy melodies and Eno-esque hallucinatory effects, fingerpicked bluegrassy guitar and subtle glockenspiel - to stunning effect. He instinctively knows when to pull back, stripping things down to a simple autoharp on Come Home Loaded Roadie, and when to shove the banjo-plucking right up in your face. As for Millan, she shows off a raspy, nuanced vocal fearlessness that makes her aloof Stars singing pale in comparison. Simply beautiful.