Toronto synth-pop dramatists Stars will release their fifth album, The Five Ghosts, later this month on their newly created record label Soft Revolution. For singer-guitarist Amy Millan, the album marks her third release in a matter of months, following her sophomore solo record (Masters of the Burial) and Broken Social Scene's Forgiveness Rock Record. At 36, Millan admits to still getting new-album jitters, but at her current pace, it's become a lot easier to put things in perspective.
"It's sort of like the first day of school when you're a kid," she says. "You feel like a whole new life is going to begin on that day. And then there's kind of this letdown of it being, Oh, now I'm just back at school. When a new record comes out, there's so much buildup and work that gets done, and then it's like, Wow, it's over! Now I have to start working on another record. But that's the best way to channel anxiety — throw yourself back into the work."
In the case of The Five Ghosts, "the work" meant not only writing and recording a new album, but also paying for nearly every aspect of it. It was all part of Stars' new self-run enterprise Soft Revolution Records, which they hope one day will own the rights to Stars' entire catalog, enabling fans greater access to the band's output.
Stars understand the industry, but they're not letting it compromise their art. Millan says the success of 2004's Set Yourself on Fire led to high expectations for 2007's follow-up, In Our Bedroom After the War. "That was something we'd never experienced before when making a record," she says. "When Bedroom came out, some people liked it and some people didn't, and it was like the pressure then was off. We realized, OK, we can have that pressure album and survive it. The Five Ghosts kind of felt like going back to the beginning, where we have nothing to lose. We've got our fans and this quiet part of the world, so let's just go in there and not make music for any other reason than for each other."
The result is an album that's more pointed, immediate, and fulfilling than In Our Bedroom without really migrating too far from Stars' trademark sound: epic, synth-fueled orchestral pop buoyed by heart-wrenching vocal interplay between Millan and Torquil Campbell.
Much in the way that her voice splits the difference between Feist's silky fragility and Emily Haines' streetwise intensity in Broken Social Scene, Millan is the master of versatility in Stars — her sweet soprano sounds equally at home in a wistful ballad ("Changes") as it does in a spunky dance-floor duet with Campbell ("We Don't Want Your Body").
"I think it's my love of the theater — trying to channel different moods and voices of different characters," she says. "A lot of the times when I'm singing, I think I sound like Tom Waits, and then I hear myself back and I realize I don't sound like Tom Waits at all. I sound like a 13-year-old girl. But I'm definitely striving to have a range of emotions that you can draw from."
As evidenced by her solo work, Millan's musical roots lie in country, folk, and jazz. "I didn't really listen to pop music before I joined Stars," she admits. But that isn't an obstacle — in fact, it's one of Stars' secret weapons: It's not what they all have in common that makes them a great band; it's what they don't have in common.
"We all come from very different influences," she says, bringing up keyboardist Chris Seligman and bassist Evan Cranley's classical backgrounds, drummer Patty McGee's love of hardcore, and Campbell's "obsession with '80s pop music." "And I could just lie in a bath and listen to Billie Holiday all day. You bring all of us together in a room, and what happens is Stars. Instead of having something that's pastiche, you get something that's unique on its own."
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Stars, with Dead Child Star and Thusly
8 p.m. Tuesday, June 8
15711 Waterloo Rd.
Tickets: $15 advance, $17 day of show