Straight, No Chaser

Country chanteuse Amy Millan breaks out of the indie-rock world

For the past seven years, Amy Millan has applied her sweet vocals to Stars, the synth-heavy indie-pop band from Montreal. Considering her past, it's rather a surprise to discover that her debut solo disc, Honey From the Tombs, is (mostly) a country record.

"People think that [the album] is a departure, but this person is who I am," Millan says via phone from Montreal, where Stars is tracking demos for its next record. "When Stars [first] asked me to be in a pop band, I thought it was hilarious."

The tunes on Honeywere actually written before she joined Stars in 2000. Back then, Millan hung out at a Lithuanian legion hall, getting drunk and playing Johnny Cash and George Jones songs, along with her own booze-driven originals. "I was very different than lots of kids who spent all their time in their rooms playing guitar with their headphones," she explains.

The Blood Brothers display their double-visioned onslaught.
Nathan Martin
The Blood Brothers display their double-visioned onslaught.

Like most great country artists, Millan's career has been heavily influenced by alcohol. She might not even have picked up a guitar — or, rather, had her mother give her one — if she hadn't been stuck in a hospital bed with a broken leg after a night of heavy drinking. To this day, it still hurts when it rains. "That's my next country song," Millan laughs.

It's no wonder Millan is in such good spirits. Honey From the Tombs(which is named after a Tom Waits quote about how old songs are like the sweet honey dug up with the Pharaohs) is one of the most incandescent records to come out in 2006. Recorded over the last three years with friends from indie orchestra Broken Social Scene and bluegrass outfit Crazy Strings, the LP is similar to Jenny Lewis' break-out disc, as both uncover hidden strengths in their songwriters by stripping away the indie-rock gloss and cloaking them in more traditional sounds. In Lewis' case it was the gospel-pop of Laura Nyro & Labelle; for Millan, it's the hard-luck country of Cash and plucky bluegrass of Bill Monroe (shot through with Liz Phair's indie-grrl ardor).

With Stars, Millan's singing was always pretty, but here her dulcet tones are heartbreakingly gorgeous. Even callous criminals would be hard-pressed to keep a dry eye when hearing her not-so-high lonesome tone on "Come Home Loaded Roadie" and "Baby I." And it's not just the way her fluid voice wraps around the strummed guitars and picked mandolins; on "Wayward and Parliament," she proves herself to be a trip-hop diva, slicing her way through murky synthesizers and programmed beats.

Of course, most country records live and die by their lyrics, and Millan knows a lot about death. "I experienced loss at an early age," she says. "When you experience death so early in life, you can be aware of loss throughout life. Like the song ÔLosing You.' It's about losing someone forever, rather than losing just a dirty crush. ... I'm obsessed with death; I'm aware of how the present is fleeting and tender."

Millan's tunes bare out her awareness. They're highly romantic, awash in wistful longing ("You've got lips I'd like to spend a day with"), poetic observation ("You're walking around like you live in a graveyard"), and drunken ache ("It all don't seem so bad/ When ice is ringing in your whiskey glass"). It's hard to believe that these soulful weepers were written by a gal holed up in her room in her early 20s, but then again many great songs came from such circumstances. You can't go wrong writing bittersweet love songs, and Honey From the Tombsjust happens to be as bittersweet as a love letter from an ex-girlfriend.

"It's like Billie Holliday sang," says Millan. "'Love is like a faucet/ It turns off and on.'"

 
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