Darby Mills was crowned the ‘Queen of Scream’ over three decades ago and while the Headpins would make her nationally famous, that band is only a part of what this singer and songwriter wanted to accomplish. After the loss of her mother and the near loss of her husband/manger, Mills had an epiphany and she had to quit the band she was fired from originally to forge a path of her own. This weekend, Darby Mills makes her Hamilton debut focusing on her new approach to music. Taking clear influence from Van Halen, the Headpins had a different take on the David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen combination with a decidedly ‘sexy biker chick’ offering a strong counterpoint to lead this hard rocking party rock music. Like their first hit, “Don’t It Make Ya Feel” suggested this was good time party music and the band achieved multiple hits over three albums. I saw the Headpins in their heyday performing at Maple Leaf Gardens when they opened for Kiss in 1982 and the band delivered sexy, hard rocking music to thrill teen boys and tapped that market with gusto. But Mills and founder/guitarist Brian “Too Loud” McLeod clashed and the singer was fired from the band in 1985, went solo and then helped resurrect the band and rejoined. After reliving the band’s glory days for nearly three decades, Mills decided to walk away and go solo. “The success of the Headpins was incredible and life changing for sure — we made it on tour to six or seven different countries while we were at our peak and meeting idols I’d never think I’d be in the same room with never mind the same stage — there are a lot of great memories for sure,” says Mills. “But radio took a turn and classic rock or hard rock in the early ’80s was no longer what radio was playing. By the second album, we were being told to lighten up. The record companies had so much control over everyone’s lives and pocketbooks, they were pushing what the band was about. We tried to make the record company happy to not lose the deal but we wrote the heaviest song we could. We fought back as much as we could but it didn’t help our livelihood. Our debut album was the number one record of the day but our second album sold less and our third even less. There have been compilations that keep appearing unbeknownst to us using the same songs over and over. “Most of the band got back together though and they asked me back so we’d been doing the Headpins for two decades more,” adds Mills. “But the thing is we began butting heads again and it became easier for them to find someone else to sing for the band. They’re doing fine without me with their third or fourth replacement of me, I guess. The reason why I left this last time was almost the same as the first time I left. We got to the point where I had no input. I had lost my mom and my husband almost died in our driveway — I just started thinking about how much time I had left and why am I settling for someone else’s dream? It was not fulfilling my to do list so I had to leave because there are things I still want to do. Three years ago, I decided to do what I had to do.” At the age of 56, Darby Mills made the difficult decision to start over. “I wanted to do more than the same 13 song set I’d been doing for the last twenty–six years,” says Mills noting the last original Headpins recording was from 1985. “They’ve continued on quite successfully without me and I can’t fight them for that, but they can’t fight me for deciding to do something different with my final years. If I have another ten years as the singer as I am today, I’m on the countdown to sixty and I don’t know how much longer my poor old throat is going to be able to handle what I put on it. “There are things I still wanted to do,” adds Mills. “I had to make changes in my life before I have regrets that I didn’t make changes. My husband agreed and decided to get in the business again. We started throwing around ideas and we pulled out my first solo album, Never Look Back, from 1990 and the songs and the lyrics were as relevant today. So many sacrifices were made to get that album done so we thought, ‘why not remaster it, add some bottom end, added an a cappella tune, we called it “Flying Solo” and it sold incredibly well.” Mills has an international audience, which she connects with personalized promotion via social media but going on tour (which arrives in Hamilton Thursday) remains a novelty. While Darby Mills is a veteran, she’s happy to be playing music like a kid again, fearless in forging a new path and doing things her own way. “I’ve been a singer for money since 1978 and a singer with the Headpins for 26 years. If you ask am I too old to rock and roll, I’ll say talk to Mick [Jagger] about it,” laughs Mills. “I’m 59 years old now and there’s no more time to think about it, there’s just time to do it and that’s what we’re doing. I’m not fooling myself on the realities of this business. I don’t think I’m going to get rich but if I can continue to pay my bills and buy food with my music, I’m okay with that. It’s been a fight every step of the way but with a positive mindset you have to have these days, there were struggles when we were doing well and I didn’t end up where i wanted to be. If there’s something in your life you want, you’ll have to go through struggles but at least at the end of it, you’ll be where you want to be and not where someone else thought you should be. “Touring is hard but I’m here to play,” adds Mills. “There is no way we’re going to be able to come out and blow away a band like the Killer Dwarfs. They’re still killer after all of these years but we’re not competing. We’re there to show you what we can do. These days we’re playing classic rock, with a little bit of blues and a little funky and a little sexy. I’m happy to be playing soft seater theatres now because old people like us can go in and relax. We do some songs that we cover that we call recovers but we’re doing this thing and having fun. I’m wearing skirts and fishnets on stage more these days — something I never would have done with the Headpins. I started realizing I had to act my age although I can’t seem to do that a lot. I’m not a kid anymore but I do work pretty hard to keep my body in shape. I say, flaunt it if you got it because who knows if five or ten years I might enjoy pizza more than singing. I’m giving the best show I can give and that’s what the band is there to do. No politics, no crap, we’re just there so you can have a good time and take your mind off this crazy world right now, that’s what our job is. It’s been forty years since the release of “Don’t It Make Ya Feel” and who would have thought? How many bands could say that and still try to head bang every night?”
The Darby Mills Project plays Thursday May 9 at FirstOntario Studio Theatre with the Killer Dwarfs.