“I’ve had an incredible journey. I’m very grateful to have done everything that I’ve done. I’ve met some incredible people and learned some valuable lessons…and now I have this opportunity to try to redo it.”
The musical story of Canadian rocker Darby Mills began 40 years ago in the heart of British Columbia’s Okanagan area, where generations of her family have resided for many years. It’s the familiar tale of one who discovers with absolute certainty, they are destined to become a musician. From an early age, she knew she would be an entertainer of some kind, whether it would be a singer or an actor. As it turned out, her decision to become a singer would eventually lead into making her mark as one of the most iconic female rock vocalists of all-time.
It was then a young 14 year old Darby Mills who stepped onto her high school stage and sang Heart’s, “Crazy On You”. The adrenaline that pumped through her veins after that performance sealed her decision to become a singer like a light switch turning on. Even before she’d even heard of Janis Joplin, many were comparing Darby’s high-ranged raspy voice to that of the legendary singer, and she quickly became a sought-after lead vocalist in a variety of bands to follow. Darby talks about her early life on the road:
“I was a figure skater back then, and had the opportunity to become a figure skating teacher when I was 17, but I would have had to move away from home. But after that first experience of singing on stage in high school, I decided that was it…singing was what I was going to do. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d formed my own band and we started rehearsing in my parents’ basement. We broke up in time for graduation, so I loaded up my Gremlin and drove off for Calgary, then to Edmonton, Vancouver, then back to Calgary…I must have moved at least 10 times during that period. In Edmonton, I sang disco with a 7-piece African-American band from Harlem, New York called Business Before Pleasure. I auditioned for them along with about 50 others and got the job. Then I ran into a band called Steelback from Victoria. They were playing Rock ‘n Roll, and I really did want to be a Rock ‘n Roll singer…that’s where it was at for me. I got up and jammed with them during our break. By the end of that 2-week stint in Lethbridge, Alberta, I left that band to become the new front woman for Steelback. That lasted about a year, when I got a call from the Headpins asking me to front them.”
That was 1980, and for the next several years, her voice became the signature sound of the band, touring relentlessly with bands like Kiss, Eddie Money, ZZ Top, and Whitesnake. They celebrated multi-platinum success in the wake of their three albums during this time: “Turn It Loud” (1982), “Line Of Fire” (1983), and “Head Over Heels”, which produced hits, “Don’t It Make Ya Feel”, “Just One More Time”, and “Feel It (Feel My Body)” to name a few. But life with the Headpins wasn’t without its rough patches:
“I finally left because I’d just had enough. I had to stand up for myself because wasn’t understanding the decisions being made, and being told to basically “shut up, sit in the corner, and sing pretty”. Having lost my Mom 3 years ago, and 6 months later, my husband almost dying in our driveway of a heart attack, I’d just decided it was time to take the wheel and drive. It’s a huge responsibility to take all that on, after doing something one way for so long. It was like divorcing 5 men at once…men I’d spent so many years with. But it’s been great, because now I have my husband back as manager, who was my original manager in the ’80’s. He left his job because we were found out that we had become an item while in the Headpins, which was not allowed. He was told he’d either have to break if off with me or leave the band…so he left the band. Now we get to work together again as a team and I‘ve come to realize how important it is to have people who believe and want to go in the same direction with you. It‘s been interesting…it‘s been the fight of my life, but I‘ve just been so happy and proud of my husband and myself for showing our children that even though it might seem an insurmountable task, if you put your heart in it and believe, wonderful things can happen.”
Darby Mills’ final performance with the Headpins was in August 2016 when she made the decision to branch out solo. Her first solo attempt came back in 1991, during the Headpins’ hiatus, where she released an album, “Never Look Back”. She recently re-mastered the entire album to mark the occasion of her newfound solo venture, the Darby Mills Project. The album’s new title, “Flying Solo”, also features an added a cappella version of “House At Pooh Corner”. “Monkey” is the single from the new CD, which she also released on video this past March on Music Express. All the songs on the album sound fresh and modern, as if they were written and recorded yesterday. Each one offers up a different flavour from the next, and all are laden front and center in Darby’s signature powerhouse vocals.
“Those songs were always great songs to me. Many years later, when someone handed me that old CD and asked me to sign it, I realized I hadn’t listened to it in so long. When I threw it on and listened to it, I could hear how strong those songs really were. It only got one year of airplay and one year on the road. Here I’ve been for 36 years touring “Turn It Loud”, “Line Of Fire”, and “Head Over Heels”, so why can’t I give “Never Look Back” another year or two on the road? “Monkey” is one of the strongest songs on the album for its meaning. It’s an environmental tune and I think Mark Greenhalgh put together a wonderful video to establish not only the beauty of this planet, but the hardship that does exist, and how we’re focusing on progress and not humanity. I’m proud of that song and happy to be able to bring it to light again.”
The Darby Mills Project consists of Randy Gabel (guitar/vocals), Ricky Renouf (bass/vocals), Doug Rasmussen (keys/vocals), and Ed Cliffe (drums/vocals). As for Darby, she still knows how to rock the stage and her voice sounds unbelievably better than it ever has…there’s a thicker, richer sound to those unmistakeable Darby Mills pipes. The band has been busy all year touring across Canada, including her CD release that took place in Calgary, numerous music festivals, and already well over a handful of Ontario dates. As for the kind of shows she sees herself doing with her band in the next 10 years, she has taken a very sensible and business-like approach to it.
“I have a 10-year plan: To breach that 10 years with material and a show that will get better and better. I’m thinking that I’m going to be branching out and doing some bluesier stuff soon…just throw the poker in a few fires. I want to really impress and have the 40-60-year olds that don’t really want to go sit a club because it’s all kids anyways. They don’t want to party with the kids and the kids don’t want to party with Mom and Dad. So I’m thinking, what can I do to make my era of fans come and spend their hard-earned cash on seeing a show? I really see that particular group of people are leaning to more of a dinner club scene, that includes a great live performance. That’s where I see my future and my age group going, so that’s where I’m taking this project. You have to be a smart business person in this climate, so you think about what might be the next phase in this industry. Unfortunately, the industry has changed so much, there isn’t much of a club scene anymore…so thank goodness for places like the Brass Monkey! I hope there’s enough old fans out there, and I mean that in a truly wonderful sense. It will give me an opportunity to show what an old gal can still do.”
If you’re going to see the Darby Mills Project at Ottawa‘s Brass Monkey on Fri., Aug. 12, you can expect to hear a blend of newer and past material in the repertoire, which of course includes her solo work, some Headpins favourites, and even a few covers.
“It will be more than just a band playing music…this is my story. That’s what the night’s all about is telling the story of my 40 years in the industry. It’s new, it’s old, it’s hard rockin’, and it’s pretty all at the same time…and it’s who I’ve become.”
For more info on tickets to the Darby Mills Project show at the Brass Monkey, please visit https://www.ticketzone.com/darbymillsottawa. For more info on the Darby Mills Project, please visit http://www.darbymills.com.