Q&A: Metric’s Emily Haines Talks Redefining Rock ‘N’ Roll, Overcoming Insecurity, And Her New Solo Album
Emily Haines has been releasing music for 21 years, stretching her ineffably gorgeous songwriting across a variety of genres from synth-pop to raw acoustic instrumentation. Under the name Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton — a fitting moniker that evokes mortality as well as comfort — she continues her talent for soundtracking intimate emotional burdens with her newest album Choir Of The Mind.
Haines’ first solo release was 1996’s Cut In Half And Also Double, but it’s been 11 years since she released her first album Knives Don’t Have Your Back as Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton. Since then, she’s been working on music alongside longtime collaborator James Shaw in Metric, the Canadian rock outfit that released their sixth album Pagans In Vegas two years ago. She’s also been involved with the indie mega-group Broken Social Scene, who just released Hug Of Thunder this past July.
Choir Of The Mind feels less grim and intense than Haines’ previous Soft Skeleton work, which was greatly impacted by the passing of her father, poet Paul Haines, in 2003. Still minimal and epically pensive, Choir expounds on Haines’ struggle with self-assurance in a way that feels universal and accessible. Its sentiment could be described as “fuck the haters,” especially when the main hater is your own inner monologue.
“If I could go back, if I could reach that feeling again. I would not have shit talkers stop me. Failures whisper ‘Sad, how hard she tries,’” Haines sings on the title track, which is a seven-minute ode to killing the voice that invalidates every attempt you make at living. At 43, Haines feels like one of those immortal creative sages — one that, no matter at what age, exposes another layer of vulnerability through her music, proving that wisdom doesn’t equate to human perfection. Choir Of The Mind reveals that you can still feel insignificant to yourself, even after you’ve created a body of work that makes listeners feel at peace with their insecurities and the faults of the world around them.
Taking a break from rehearsing her live show to chat, Haines sounded energized and optimistic when I called her, almost as if I could hear her smiling through the phone while we talked about her new music and the symbolism of the album’s accompanying visuals. Read our Q&A below.
STEREOGUM: What are you working on right now?
EMILY HAINES: Well, I am getting my live solo show up and running. The tour is not till the end of the year. I’m really excited about the venues. We got really unusual, cool, strange theaters. I’m gonna do some solo sort of low key stuff, just me and the piano in the coming weeks. It’s just a meditative other world that I got to live in, just focusing blocking everything out and going in.
STEREOGUM: Are you excited to perform the new solo stuff?
HAINES: I am! It’s such a different state of mind. It’s kind of like the last step of whatever therapeutic benefits there are to doing that kind of writing. It’s then basically playing destroyed ego, going in to crack yourself open, see what you find, construct it, record it, and then have the presence of mind and focus to be able to execute it, which is terrifying to do that. The focus that’s required to hold it down on the piano is just the best thing I can do with my brain. I’m looking forward to it the same way you look forward to some very disciplined thing that is the right thing to do. It’s that feeling.
STEREOGUM: Is getting to that deeper, cracked-open space something that is necessary for every live show? How do you live in that constant state of mind?
HAINES: That’s kind of the trick, right? I think about this a lot. A lot of the artists that I really respect, and the nature of the craft itself, is that you have to be able to open everything up, but you also have to be able to contain it. That’s what’s so strange about singing, as opposed to — obviously I am playing the piano, and I have instruments to anchor me, but the whole thing of just vibrating your own body to express other dimensions of words. It’s kind of an esoteric pursuit when you break it down. Friends I have who are singers had trouble with their voices on the road or on tour. So often it’s just you’re body is expressing emotion and when your throat closes there is nothing you can do. There’s no, like, key for a broken heart. That’s a lot of it. I guess it’s just kind of like that’s the gig: Go as far in as you can and somehow keep it together to prevent it.
I was thinking actually what is the difference between the idea of “What is rock ‘n’ roll?” Does anybody even care? But I feel like I came to my thing of what that is. It’s this distinction between, it’s not a sonic thing, it’s not an attitude, it’s where you actually experience things in your life, you push yourself to experience things, you write about them, you record them, and then you own them onstage. You stand in front of people, and you own what you did in your life by making a song about it. Just trying to get my bearings with this sort of current musical climate. It’s cool to have 10 writers do your shit. There’s some great songs that get written by these teams of people, really catchy and really good. I guess I came to my conclusion of what this is what makes it my life, and this is what I think is now the last remnant of “what rock ‘n’ roll is” is that you do it for real.
STEREOGUM: I read that it was two weeks to record or put this album together, but I’m sure you have been amassing material for years.
HAINES: No, it was definitely more than two weeks. A lot happened outside of the studio in terms of the writing, and I think that was referring to the last step. I went into our studio in Toronto. It was just me, a piano, and an engineer. We just plowed through and recorded everything in this very intensive period of time. It was the first time producing as well, myself, which was kind of great. It was one less step of translation and combined with the fact that I found myself opting to, instead of orchestrating all the melodic and compositional stuff that I would normally send off to like strings or other musicians that I just was like fuck it. I am just gonna sing it and including all the rhythmic stuff with the breathing, all that process was really an interesting place where I got to where I was not thinking, I was just doing, which is the dream. Then Jimmy (James Shaw) came back and helped me to do the last steps, all the bass and drums, and then he mixed the record. I definitely had some help at the end.
STEREOGUM: How did you tap into that dynamic thinking of how your voice works? Did it just happen naturally to use less?
HAINES: I think it was sort of production fatigue as well. We had just come off an arena tour. Before that, it was the tour with Imagine Dragons. It was big production, big trucks, parking lots, heavy equipment. I think I was just, lots of people, I think what I felt I had to offer with this music was kind of a respite from everything and defense. The reason it’s called Choir Of The Mind is just that feeling of not only inner voices. My personal inner voice is like a super mean drunk jailer who just tells me I suck. Other people may have very kind inner voices, but that combined with the din of chatter of everyone’s opinions and everyone talking, I really felt that this record, if it worked, it would be a quiet respite. It’s not another thing to digest. It’s just kind of ideally a little bit more dreamy and outside of all that. I felt by keeping it in the voice, it made it less, and also kept it stylistically ambiguous, which I liked about Knives as well. A song is just a song, what are you gonna call it? It’s just a piano and voice.
STEREOGUM: Has that inner voice been pretty consistent throughout your life, since the last album?
HAINES: Yeah! It’s my whole life. In making this record, I started having this conversation with — unfortunately, I do feel that it is predominantly women, but there are also men who know what I am talking about. But it’s really an interesting topic, obviously outside of me, that we all have to some extent what’s like a kind of mundane narrator. Like, “I’m waking up and I am going to brush my teeth and here’s what I’m doing,” and a list of things. Then the, you know, commentary class that lives for me on my shoulder and has been one of the most challenging things for me as a human being has been to still do the things that I want to do despite the fact that I have a voice in my head telling me all the time not to do anything ever and that I am the worst. I’m kind of curious. I’m not mentally ill. I feel as though bringing this out and bringing it into the light, judging from the responses of certain people, they’re finding it super validating.
The interview I did this morning, this really lovely young woman, she just said that she has panic attacks and that the music helped her. I was like fucking A! I do feel that, what’s the value of music? It needs to have a purpose, and this record is definitely for that. I am really curious to see if through the process doing this and then performing it, imagine if it just was gone finally and I’d be like, “Yes! I win!” I’m really curious to see if I can live the second half of my life without that. I could just turn to all the nasty things people outside my head say. [Laughs]…nice.
STEREOGUM: I’m curious what sparked that optimism to say “fuck it” to that voice. Was there ever a piece of advice that you received that shifted your perspective?
HAINES: No. I don’t know. No. I think the optimism and the positivity is just, there’s no option, which is a tricky thing with the fact that all my writing begins in this really raw place. I have no need for and I can’t afford just sadness you know? People who can, I’m just like, “Who’s paying your rent?” [Laughs] I don’t know how this is working. I feel as though anything that I actually release that has a darkness to it, ideally, is like acknowledging it and energizes it and doing something with it. I guess it’s for me, as well as anybody who is listening that is getting something from it. Especially now, what’s the option, like in the current state of tallying up what’s fucked. It’s the only way forward, almost like a willful belief in humanity. I still have it.
STEREOGUM: The optimism and melancholic undertones make your music accessible. It’s easy to lose yourself. It’s a reflection of the inner reality of being human.
HAINES: Oh that’s wonderful, oh good! Phew!
STEREOGUM: When did you happen across Savitri: A Legend And A Symbol, the epic poem by Sri Aurobindo, during the timeline of making this album?
HAINES: It was pretty much done. I had “Choir Of The Mind,” which is the song it ended up being. I had the first part and that whole of kind of like weird doo-wop section with the back-up singers, which I would just love to at some point to just actually have a choir of girls sing that. I think that would be really cool. So that was there, and it was just this spot that was waiting for something spoken. I knew that I wanted to have that element represented, but I had no idea. It was just one of those amazing things that happened in a state of grace thing that I fall into very occasionally and basically live for in the writing process, where you just feel like you’re not trying and you’re not reaching, you’re just finding things and passing them along. It’s not laborious. It’s not so cerebral, so that was what that was like.
I took a break. We were in the studio, me and the engineer. I came home and was like I wonder what this is going to be. What is going to inspire me, and I opened it to that page. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, and that I hadn’t read it before. So then, I adapted it and moved some things around and went straight back to the studio and was like ‘ok man you’re going to think I am nuts, but I need to do this and put it down.’ We used the first take, and then we did all these layers of adding my sort of like, hype team that repeats certain words. It was really a highlight of making the record because it just felt like I was in it and I was being led. I guess not unlike the way my mum felt when she found herself being led, magnetically drawn to that ashram in India like a million years ago in the ’70s.
STEREOGUM: Your middle name, Savitri, translates to truth, is that correct?
STEREOGUM: Since the song “Choir Of The Mind” is inspired by the female deity of the same name, I was wondering if there was a greater truth that you found after the record was finished or how the definition of truth has changed for you?
HAINES: Yeah, it’s funny. That’s such a loaded word right now in a way, right? I kind of hate that word. Maybe because it’s right now, but the idea of saying “personal truth” right now just sounds like really a bad idea. I feel like I want be in a shared reality that is objectively measurable with other human beings, where we can all agree that we see blue stripes or brown stripes or whatever we’re seeing. I think the reason that the author Sri Aurobindo — I mean he was like a mystical spiritual leader, right? So this poem is like ayahuasca, exponential ayahuasca. The thing is just incredibly fluid, and then the passage that I happened to turn to, which was weird because I’ve had this book lying around as a kid. This is the story I have been told of myself, like, “Your mom went here and you were born in India, this is your middle name.” But I never really connected with it, and then to turn to that passage and have everything be in the female pronoun like he was, the sense that I get from it was he was describing this female deity as he would see it, but the idea of like a feminine force.
I feel like the words and the ideas expressed in that, just by saying it and repeating it and having to learn it viscerally so I can perform it, is doing something really good to my consciousness. The line, “The unfinished creation of a changing soul in a body changing with the inhabitant,” you know, and the last line, “Her million impulsed force,” there’s just something powerful in the language. It is something more than just somebody wrote a poem. I think his impetus for creating this, and the reason that he is this totally admired and worshipped presence, is because he was trying to evoke something and bring something to life. Maybe by repeating this incantation, maybe something is happening. But truth? I have no idea. All I know is that I am not lying.
STEREOGUM: In the video that you just released, and some of the photos I’ve seen, you’re holding a bat.
HAINES: Yeah [laughs].
STEREOGUM: In my mind, it made sense with the whole idea of a strong feminine and the softness and strength and all that, but I was wondering where that came from.
HAINES: I’m working really closely on everything Choir Of The Mind with this artist named Justin Broadbent, who we did some stuff with him with Metric before. He did the artwork for Synthetica and some videos and stuff. He’s just creative directing this whole thing, and we’re having this incredible exchange, where ideas just come into frame, and then we just keep carrying them through as threads. One of them is the dichotomy of, I don’t know if you saw the press shot where it’s like the somewhat refined, acting-her-age lady in the blue dress holding the picture of the juvie version of me? So when that happened, and he had taken these pictures and just put that together, and I was just like, “Yup, that’s exactly how I feel. That’s what I am grappling with.”
Then, similar things happened with certain objects we were playing around with that we felt had certain weight or significance that we didn’t try to articulate. The orange gloves is kind of domesticity and the utilitarianism of the orange, the housework or something and also there is this blue knife that keeps appearing. It shows up in some of the artwork and some video things that are coming up. Then the bat was the same thing, were he just had this vision of a portrait and then just asked me to hold it and I felt so, it’s exactly what he captured on the album cover, I felt so like I have this power, but I am not going to wield it, like I held it so lightly. It was one of the weirdest, coolest creative photoshoot idea things that I had ever been a part of. It’s not super easy to articulate, meaning that I feel like the symbolism and power, power lightly held is definitely coming across.