T he Five Ghosts, the latest album from the melodic Montreal-based Stars, marks a change in the indie band's outlook. Though the music is still articulate and gorgeous, there's less in the way of their trademark love-struckness and youthful, polemical lyrics, and more in the way of personal experiences. In advance of Sunday's appearance at Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ont., and next weekend's Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Montreal, singer-lyricists Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell talk about duets, drama and the spirits of Stars.
The material of The Five Ghosts was heavily affected by life-changing events involving band members, particularly Campbell. Not only did his father pass away during the album's writing and recording; Torquil himself became a dad. "We all grew up in the last year," says the animated 38-year-old. "You have these moments - you get past 35 and you know you're in a [tough situation] so you better deal with it."
Where 2007's In Our Bedroom After the War exhorted its listeners - "The night starts here/forget your name, forget your fear" - The Five Ghosts was written from a place of anxious uncertainty. "There's a feeling of sad hope," explains Campbell, "but not a lot surety."
Lyrical themes, besides the omnipresent ghosts, deal with the transition from night to day. On the itchy synthetic pop of Wasted Daylight, the breathy, saccharine-sweet Millan puts off leaving her bed, instead appreciating the "wasted, shady daylight" that window blinds afford. Says Campbell, "I think people from the north probably think about light more than most do. In the middle of the Canadian winter, it's hard to feel like Jimmy Buffett."
Adds Millan, "I moved to Los Angeles, and tried to have a nervous breakdown there. But it just didn't work out. It's the worst place to go for depression - I should have gone to Birmingham, England instead."
The Two Singers
Classic duets are a rarity in today's pop world. When done well, however, the effect can be sublime. "Our voices are both quite soft; we sing in basically the same register," says Campbell, referring to his and Millan's light croons. "It's almost as if we're the male and female of the same person."
The new album features only one true duet: Dead Hearts, about heartbroken souls, not necessarily deceased ones, who walk among us. What attracts Campbell to duets is the formality involved, and the rigid song structure. "I like having obstructions, having constrictions," says Campbell. "The things that constrain me are the things that help get me through."
There's also the element of chemistry. "We're lucky to have that, but it doesn't always mean the chemistry is good," says Millan, who has released a pair of solo albums in addition to her occasional duties with Broken Social Scene. "But no matter what, it's charged. Without that, people wouldn't believe us. I rely on Torquil every night to meet me in a place that is truthful."
The Fallibility of Torquil Campbell
Campbell, the Toronto-raised son of two Shakespearean actors, has a theatrical presentation to his act. "I get out there, and I'm doing it for the kids. As tacky and as cheesy as some people see that, that's what I am."
He's not altogether comfortable with it, however. He'd rather perform more unconsciously, in the moment and for himself - "just to see what it feels like to do it," he explains, adding that he sees his inability to tear himself away from his audience as a failing. "I don't know what would happen if I did, but I can't seem to get it right. I'm trying to change, though. And I promise I will."
Stars play Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ont. July 25. Other acts include Sarah Harmer, Gord Downie, Shad, Basia Bulat, and many others. Running all weekend ( hillsidefestival.ca).