Perched atop the Thompson Hotel in Toronto, Stars are soundchecking for their late afternoon set on the hotel’s rooftop patio. It’s unseasonably warm for mid-September, and since everything is awash in sun, most of the sharply-dressed crowd on the 16th floor have opted for sunglasses. It’s a little isolating staring at a room of blotted-out shapes where eyes should be, but then Stars kicks into a new cut from their upcoming record, There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light. It’s a sombre waltz called “The Gift Of Love,” with front-duo Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan swapping notes on not shying away from emotion. It’s a perfectly unpretentious accompaniment for the suave chill of the Thompson rooftop: a space where you’d imagine you’re alone, with Stars to remind you that you never, ever are.
It’s almost strange to consider the dire role that relationships play in the music of Stars. Without them, Stars would not, could not exist. If there’s one thing the band explicitly rages against, it’s loneliness and insular, disconnected living (though Torquil also emphasizes, “Just assume my very being alive is an anti-capitalist statement.”) Millan even says she doesn’t connect fully with their recordings until they share them with an audience. “It’s hard for me to have a relationship with these songs until I’m in front of people, singing with them,” she says. “Then I feel like I understand what we’re doing a bit better.”
What Stars are doing is quite plain and unabashed, but in the same breath it’s unquantifiable and difficult to name. It’s something the band has spent 17 years wrestling with, reasoning with and negotiating. There’s a reason you can draw a throughline between Stars records; they all traffic in love, change, loss, doubt, hope, mortality. These are themes that the band has spooled out across eight records, and they’re still straining at the essence of them. Even the record’s title embodies that mythology. “I came up with an explanation for why I liked it, but really, I don’t know why I liked it,” Campbell shrugs. Stars will probably never reach the core of these issues, but all of their work has something in common: they’re trying to tell us that whatever we’re struggling with, they are, too.
Stars has never been concerned with being cool. After all, it’s not terribly cool to care, and Stars have made record after record declaring that they do care. Millan thinks their lack of subtlety is a turn-off for some. “There’s a lot of people who find we’re too much,” she sighs. “Stars has never been the fashionable band. We’ve never been aloof, we’ve never been able to do that.” Millan declares this emphatically, with a sort of pride. Indeed, regardless of trends, she’s proud that her band has always hung their career on caring. If Stars, showed restraint, they wouldn’t be Stars. “Even though it’s never been fashionable, it’s definitely kept us alive,” she adds.
“There’s a whole generation of people that think love songs are stupid so I feel like we’re doing the opposite thing…I feel like that’s our job: to remind you that there is idealism and love rather than realism.”
Fluorescent Light continues another tradition of speaking to both idealism and realism, but rather than deflating optimism with reality, they’re doing the opposite. Instead, they are complicating reality with impassioned, romantic idealism. The second track on the album,“Fluorescent Light” sees Stars at their best: a plea for love and a pointed jab against nihilism and isolation, with Millan and Campbell shouting on the chorus, “Come out with me tonight! No one falls in love under fluorescent light!”
“People don’t really believe in romance,” Millan remarks when asked about the phenomenon. “There’s a whole generation of people that think love songs are stupid, so I feel like we’re doing the opposite thing, which is trying to make you reconcile that there is love, even in your screen. I feel like that’s our job: to remind you that there is idealism and love rather than realism.”
Campbell doubles down on the liminal space the band occupies, between taking themselves seriously and an earnest kind of playfulness. He’s jokes that he’s not upstanding enough to be on the glamorous Thompson rooftop (an improvised apple bong sitting on the table in front of him). “We are very engaged in that moment after you leave work, when the sun is going down and the lights are coming on and the city becomes bigger than the sky,” he smiles.
Campbell is vehement in his belief that the driving forces in life don’t whither as we get older. “Whatever age you are, pop music is uniquely capable of capturing that feeling of possibility, and that feeling of struggle between who you want to be and who you actually are. I’ve been obsessed with it, and I’m in love with that feeling.”
Stars are indeed enamoured with that feeling. It abounds on There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light, a record where change and loneliness collide with one another. On some songs, characters beg for change never to come; on others, they assert with conviction that change is inevitable. On “Alone,” Campbell delivers an arresting, tortured vocal performance, navigating loneliness and dependence. It’s ambiguous and never quite static. “I love the loneliness of looking at people through windows at night,” he remarks. “They’re so alone, and I’m so alone. There’s something about that that fuelled a lot of this record.”
Loneliness seems to be a prerequisite for most artists, even if it’s a variety that looks different than the dictionary definition. If it’s not a catalyst to their art, it’s almost always a consequence; even as part of a band as assured and beloved as Stars, a band with a new record on the way, Campbell feels alienated. “I think we all really don’t know ourselves at all,” he says. “Maybe it’s just me, but the way I see myself is not the way other people see me. [It] constantly shocks me and surprises me that people feel that I’m so present and connected because inside, I think I feel quite alone, like everyone does.”
“Like everyone does.” Even in loneliness, there’s solidarity, and even in self-analysis, Campbell cannot help but call on community. As for change, Millan and Campbell have had each other and Stars to see them through almost two decades of changes. And they both openly admit to loathing change. “That’s something I think is so heartbreaking about life, is the constant change and how we have no control over it,” Millan says. “That idea that feelings that were there, the excitement, the charge, changes into something that isn’t as good.” She chuckles bitterly, “I don’t really think everything happens for a reason.”
“People say, ‘I’m not afraid of death, I would never wanna live forever.’ It sounds like craziness to me. I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t wanna live forever.”
Campbell is equally disinclined. “That’s a central fear and problem in my life, is my difficulty with change, my difficulty with saying goodbye to things, my longing for this to last forever,” he says quietly. “People say, ‘I’m not afraid of death, I would never wanna live forever.’ It sounds like craziness to me. I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t wanna live forever.”
Campbell and Millan aren’t immortal, but their work with Stars is necessarily draped in immortality, in crystallizing and prolonging the most joyous, wondrous moments of our lives, the moments when we truly feel alive. “That’s another great gift of not just records, but books and paintings and art in general, is it hangs on a bit for you,” Campbell smiles. “It lets you slow time down, and sometimes even rewind it. I’m proud of that aspect of my job that lets me help other people slow time down and hold onto the things that they love. I’m proud that the band has saved some time for people.”
Millan, like Campbell, is most animated and excited when considering the way their music might help others. “At some point, everyone is in the turmoil of their heart, and even if you’re embarrassed by it, there’s gonna be room for Stars,” she says. “You might not tell anybody, and you might be in your room by yourself, but I think that as long as you’re writing about the broken hearts of the world, you’re never gonna not have someone on your side.”