Amy Millan doesn’t want to disappoint you — she said so herself. The singer, best known for her work with Canadian indie powerhouses Stars and Broken Social Scene, wrapped up her fall tour right here in the District when she took her ethereal country-folk act to DC 9 this past Sunday, Nov. 8.
Touring to promote her latest release, “Masters Of The Burial,” Millan hopes that fans expecting more of the same dreamy indie pop will be receptive to her solo sound. Although long-time listeners of Stars and Broken Social Scene may be inclined to believe that Millan is taking her work in a new and unexpected direction, the songstress is unsurprised by her path.
“I didn’t grow up in the world of pop music,” Millan explained in an interview with The Eagle. “I grew up playing guitar in a room full of guys with guitars and banjos. It’s not hard, it’s just how I write music by myself.”
Crediting ‘90s alterna-folk sensation Beck with inspiring her to bring country to the mainstream, Millan succeeded in pleasing her fans.
Playing to a packed bar, she quietly serenaded the crowd with an arsenal of love songs. Before kicking off her 15-song set, she admitted to the audience, “I’m a lucky girl, I don’t know why I sing such sad songs.”
It’s that sadness that separates Millan from other acts. Talented as she and her band may be — and that is, indeed, absurdly talented — one can only get so far with complicated fingerpicking and mournful slide guitars. For this act, it’s about the depth of feeling behind her lyrics. Millan’s signature soft vocals have a lovely, dream-like quality to them — sweet without being saccharine.
The intent behind her words is clear: it’s a true belief in love. When asked for her answer to those critics who claim the love song is dead, Millan responded, “Go to Ireland.”
“They don’t care if it’s something they’ve seen before, as long as it’s genuine and from the heart. It only creates love, and love is going to save everyone,” she said.
And when she said love, she of course meant the country-folk kind of love — the kind that’s about whiskey, home and heartbreak. Wrapping her words in two-part harmonies, Millan and her band, consisting variably of acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, stand-up bass and trombone, stayed true to their roots with “Ruby Ii,” a song whose lyrics include “Got lips like an ocean and skin like the rain/Whole lot of whiskey and wine and propane.” Millan’s lyrics are consistently heavy with metaphors and are rescued from kitschiness by the genuineness of her demeanor.
Millan engaged in charming rambling and interaction with the audience between each song. From enlightening the audience to her life’s philosophy (“The only reason it’s okay to die is because today, we’re alive”) to expressing her desire to give every member of the audience a kiss to granting forgiveness and understanding to Monica Lewinsky, Millan formed a tight bond with her audience, even admitting that they all seemed like family.
Other highlights from the set included “Skinny Boy” and “Run for Me.” The former was a stirring change of pace from the lolling country Millan and her band produced for most of the night. With an almost-blaring bass line and rousing acoustic strumming, “Skinny Boy” showed off Millan’s bolder side, allowing her to explore the stronger places within her voice. “Run for Me” featured a cleanly distorted electric guitar whose heaviness contrasted amiably with the fragility of Millan’s voice.
“I started playing cover songs because I wanted to sing them every night,” Millan said in regards to her choice to cover Jenny Whiteley’s “Baby” and the Death Cab for Cutie classic “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” She continued, “I wanted to lose myself in their melodies.”
Although she also joked about passing other artists’ songs off as her own, Millan infused her style so strongly upon the songs that even the Death Cab tune seemed her own under the twangy, upbeat manner with which she played it.
“Be nice to yourselves, be soft on yourselves,” Millan counseled the audience before launching into the last song of her encore, “Bury This.”
Sorry to leave such an affectionately attentive audience but grateful to be temporarily rid of the woes of touring, Millan proved herself an artist with true heart.
“I’m just trying to make people feel things and feel not alone,” she said.