We’ve Got A File On You: Emily Haines
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
When people talk about Metric, the long-running synth-rock powered by vocalist Emily Haines and guitarist Jimmy Shaw, they tend to gloss over the band’s early days in New York — if New York is mentioned at all. The “official” Metric history is primarily tied to Toronto and the rise of Broken Social Scene, the baroque-pop collective that featured now-famous appearances from Leslie Feist, Haines (her crystalline vocals lead “Anthems For A Seventeen-Old Girl,” and both she and Shaw co-wrote on You Forgot It In People), members of Stars, Do Make Say Think, and many others.
If you flashed back in time and spoke to a music journalist in the early 2000s, they might portray Metric as a Broken Social Scene side project, but that would be a misrepresentation. After forming Metric in 1998, Haines and Shaw left Toronto for New York, where they rented a loft in Williamsburg. In addition to Metric, that Metropolitan Ave. space would also eventually house members of TV On The Radio, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Stars, and Liars. Not only did Haines and Shaw witness NYC’s rock rebirth (now known as the Meet Me In The Bathroom era), they were actually part of it.
“I do consider us a Toronto band because of growing up here and because of the support and the friends, and the fact that we would always come back to the anchor,” Emily Haines tells me over a Zoom call from Muskoka, a leafy and pastoral retreat casually referred to as the “Hamptons Of Canada.” “But the band is from New York and from that moment.”
Today, Metric are widely known and beloved for their foundational indie-pop/rock records like 2003’s studio debut Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, which turned 20 this year; Grow Up And Blow Away, which Metric technically recorded in 2001 but wasn’t given a formal release until 2007; and 2005’s synth-punk roof blaster Live It Out, just to list a few.
On Friday, Metric will release their ninth album, Formentera II, which closely follows last year’s Formentera. One of its singles, the synthy and strummy “Who Would You Be For Me,” serves as a friendly reminder that this Toronto band is also a New York band. At the time of release, Haines called it “a throwback lullaby set in NYC in 2002. All the action takes place in Tompkins Square Park, in a subway car, and at the café on St. Marks Place where I worked as a waitress when we were getting our start.”
Below, Haines looks back at a robust and brilliant career — with Metric, Broken Social Scene, solo, and beyond.
Metric’s New Album Formentera II (2023)
I’ve noticed in the last few years, when I’ve spoken to musicians who recorded between 2020 and 2021, they wound up with a surplus of material mainly because they had more time off the road and/or in COVID lockdown. It feels like we’re in a moment where there’s been a lot of second chapter-type albums, or sister albums, coming out of this abundance of recording. To what extent was that the case with Formentera II?
EMILY HAINES: I love that saying “2020 and 2021” is now shorthand, so we don’t have to say “pandemic” anymore. It’s funny because, as usual, I feel like if there’s something happening that would be normal, that we would be normally part of — I don’t feel like we are. For me, the abundance of material is kind of standard Metric reality. The difference is that we had time to finish everything. And at the same time, we left so much on the cutting room floor because we’re harsh parents. I don’t understand the logic of, well, “I made it so I’m going to put it out.” That’s not something that I relate to. In this case, it was the usual strange process. Because it’s not like our destination is this clear bullseye of a genre or a commercial objective.
It is a unique feeling to be in this band because we know when it’s something that we think is worthy of sharing with people. Other than that, that’s the only criteria for what we release. The cohesion of these two albums [were about] having time, building our own studio, and going stir crazy in the woods. [That] meant we had time to complete everything. But like I said, I would never just release stuff. It isn’t B-sides, I guess is what I’m saying. “Just The Once” and a lot of the things that are in the second chapter are the very first things that we wrote. But from your perspective, it’s interesting. If you’re seeing that as a pattern, it’s cool.
Then again, it’s also case-by-case within the pattern. Some bands opt for the B-side approach. Others might love certain songs but feel like they don’t match the overall theme for a first project and so save it for the next project. The only commonality is releasing back-to-back projects from a period spent off the road.
HAINES: Another factor in my opinion is the fact that [the pandemic] radically changed the way people enjoy music and the way that we release it. Even the idea of an album cycle is different than it was in your lifetime.
I’m excited that we got on the right side of the curve, because of the extra time we had. This is the first time [after releasing an album] where we don’t have to go away and regroup. Going away and regrouping was built into the period leading up to it. We extensively toured the first Formentera, but I also like this feeling of being someone who’s resistant to the idea of people saying it’s the end of albums.
How about this: How about I methodically and passionately sequence this album and create a totally cohesive piece of art that can be useful and enjoyed in the world. If you only want to listen to it on shuffle, be my guest, or if you want to listen to one song, be my guest. The idea of just eliminating this whole layer of meaning from the craft, it’s just such a bummer to me. I’m not doing that.
I think that’s another interesting point: Maybe people are also feeling like the concepts of singles and pacing has changed. I suppose partly because of the pandemic, but also maybe that’s in a different reality of how music is in the world. I’m just trying to have the vibe of embracing and adapting.
The emotional through line — and this has been the case forever — is this sense of rebellion, justice, identity, and authenticity. But it’s so abstract for us. It’s not like we ever ticked all the boxes of punk. It’s just when we feel like we’re not being full of shit and feeling like other things are [full of shit]. Navigating that as you hit a 20-year mark of your career, it’s just so weird. I don’t know what’s worse. We talk about this stuff all the time. Guys being that rock dude that just won’t take off his leather jacket — is this one bad outcome? On the other side, there’s the cringe of, I don’t know, Mick Jagger in a sequin bathing suit or something.
You feel the spectrum of participation. Turns out, this is who we are. It started from an angle, but we really want to participate. We love being part of the main event, but it’s constantly recalibrating yourself. That’s channeled directly through our music. The whole thing of adapting — [say] it’s Spotify. Okay, let’s do that. We added a million and something crazy numbers of listeners on Spotify in the last year, because we’re like, “This is the world now.” Was it better? I don’t even know. Let’s just participate in it.
Yeah, I’ve had to stay nimble in my career as well. For better or worse, I remind myself every day that change is inevitable.
HAINES: Yeah. I feel like in every aspect of life, that’s the primary question. Is adulthood just slowly eroding what was real and what was pure? Or is it [about] being open and not being so rigid? Loosen the stovepipe on your skinny jeans at the bottom. I am fascinated by that conundrum. There’s so many things — we’re putting the setlist together for these special shows that we’re doing. Making those posters, I have this artist I work with all the time. I love him. We’re so mind-meld. We were [designing] this merger of visuals from Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? and Formenterra II. Then I’m having the same experience as we’re doing the set lists, where we’re integrating the songs from 20 years ago with songs from right now. It is one of the most stunning experiences. It’s heartening because I am the same fucking person.
Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? Turns 20 (2023)
Now that Metric’s debut album is turning 20, have you found that your first wave of fans now have kids who are getting to know Old World Underground for the first time? Perhaps there are multiple generations attending Metric shows?
HAINES: For sure, thankfully. I mean, that really is the idea. And it’s funny when I think of someone like Olivia Rodrigo, right? It’s like, she was born the year that the record came out. There’s an odd sense that for some reason my generation seems to be tripping out harder about this. But when I was a kid, I listened to adults, I listened to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and all that stuff, and those records came out in the ’70s. They came out when I was born. And you’re a kid and you find your way through the pop stuff that’s on the radio. When I was a kid, it was like Madonna and Cindi Lauper and I was like, “Cindi Lauper, that’s my direction.”
To me, it’s exactly the same process. But there’s this sense that kids are only supposed to music by children or something. It’s just odd. It’s like, yeah, I see the front row and it’s young people, they’re going out to party, they’ve heard about Metric, there’s lore. And then there’s older people who’ve been around from the beginning. Then there’s a new wave of [fans] who got it from their parents, or they find it themselves or they’re musicians or whatever.
The idea that every 12-year-old is supposed to be listening to a 12-year -old — I feel like the adults are so insecure. You’re not out of touch if you’re not into listening to pop music from a younger person. It’s very odd. It’s so insecure. Own your references, own your time.
I agree, Olivia Rodrigo seems to spark a lot of anxiety around age — as if her age is saying something about an older fan’s age. Whatever the case, people seem to take her age as a personal slight.
HAINES: I suppose on the upside, it’s nice to see younger women in the pop genre have so much more agency and identity, probably because of social media. She’s a great example of a cool, exciting artist that doesn’t have to be dismissed because of her gender. But cynically, I feel like all these people have figured out there’s money in that demographic, so suddenly they care about the opinions of teenage girls.
There’s a darkness and a clarity and a wisdom to teenage girlhood that I try to stay right tapped into while owning the fact that I’m not a kid anymore. I noticed it in journalism, and it probably drives you crazy too. Again, it just seems insecure. You’re just going to pretend you didn’t know rock bands [when you were younger]? You just never heard of a guitar before? Come on. You might like those songs from your past, and you can, it’s cool. You can still listen to the Doves record.
Metric’s Early Days & New York Beginnings (1998)
I feel like I should have realized this much earlier, but I didn’t realize that you spent a few years early on in the late ’90s in New York and that you were roommates with some of the members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV On The Radio. When people talk about Metric, especially the beginning of your band journey, they only talk about Toronto and the whole array of bands from that scene and era. But Metric is technically also part of the Meet Me In The Bathroom scene. What stands out to you about your time in New York?
HAINES: Yeah, it’s funny, our origin story really has never been told, or told properly. At some point I was just like, you know what? I’m going to stop caring what says on Wikipedia because it’s just wrong. But then it’s actually terrifying — because everyone looks at Wikipedia. Anyway, yeah, the inception of the band and very much the heart of the band is from that time. Jimmy [Shaw] and I left Toronto in ’98 because we formed Metric. Me and him were like, “We’re going to go do this thing and we need to find our people and find like-minded artists and go to New York. So, Jimmy found this loft in Williamsburg that was a completely different place than it is now — it was above this trucking company on 249 Metropolitan between Bedford and Driggs. [He] befriended the landlord guy Stanley and drove his dad to dentist appointments, I kid you not, to get in with this guy, who then rented Jimmy this entire L-shaped place.
Then we were like, okay, “Now we got to get people to move in.” One of the first people was Nick Zimmer. Our friends in Stars had a room. Karen [O] lived there for a while, Angus [Andrew] from Liars lived there, Jaleel [Bunton] from TV On The Radio, and everyone was there. Because we had all these demos, Jimmy and I got a call from a manager in London. [It was] that total cliché: “You’re going to be a star, go to London, have this comical adventure and end up having to come back to New York with a real distaste for the major-label system.” We’d been in Demo Land where they’re like, don’t even play a show. You don’t need to be a live band. This is Craig David, boy bands.
I’m speeding through the details to get to the point of your question. But we came back, and we were fired up. We were like, “That is not the life for me.” You spend your whole life doing demos, you could just be making music. You do these demo deals. They won’t pay for equipment, but they’ll pay for studios, and a huge part of Jimmy’s aspirations were his production dreams.
So, we’re like, this model fucking sucks. Then they own everything forever. We were in London for 2000 and 2001. We came back right as all of this was happening, [we] went and bought the Strokes record at the Virgin Records. Nick and Karen are doing Unitard. We’re all hanging out at Black Betty and TV On The Radio are doing their thing. We’re all just like, “This is the best thing ever, to be coming back to this moment, because fuck that recording artist life. We need to find our band.” And we did. And we found Josh [Winstead] and Joules [Scott-Key] in New York at that time. I can credit that moment in history with the heart and anchor of who we became.
What I think is unique about us is that we have songs that have that scrappiness. The sound — that very particular garage-y sound — it’s represented in some songs, but we’ve always done a scope of sound. It doesn’t fit neatly.
After September 11, we went to Toronto, which is where we reconnected with those friends from Broken Social Scene, and that was drinking beer and writing songs. Then we went to LA, which is where we made our first record. Then we’re going back and forth between New York through that whole time around writing “The List” and all those songs. That’s when that was all lifting off in the early 2000s. But we weren’t in Toronto. It’s only really recently that we have been.
Do you think that the Toronto narrative took on a life of its own because Metric had a more experimental, art-rock philosophy that conveniently aligned with what members of Broken Social Scene, Do Make Say Think, and Stars were doing, as opposed to the more blatant, in-your-face aesthetic of New York acts like the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs? Not to mention the fact that you recorded some of Broken Social Scene’s most recognizable early songs?
HAINES: Yeah, I mean, that makes sense. I don’t carry a grudge exactly, but it is interesting looking back at how it was basically Pitchfork and Broken Social Scene. It was just like a big bro hug that just came up at the same time. And how instantly it was like we’re some sort of offshoot. It’s awkward for everyone because anyone knew we’re all friends, and everyone knows that Metric had predated that — that Jimmy and I had worked so hard and been in New York and London and done all this stuff, and then very much made our own path. Then we’re summarily dismissed by Pitchfork, which was also kind of like, okay, thanks. And then just the shock and awe of a thousand Dorm Room Boys who’ve heard [sings in a baby voice] “used to be one of the rotten ones,” and they’re picturing a fucking mermaid. And then unfortunately, it’s actually me who is singing — wet blanket.
So, the feminist part of me and of Metric, and it’s clashing with the fantasy dream girl who’s just sort of floating up on top of this thousand scruffy-beard guitars. Right? This is like an identity thing. There was a preference, shall we say, for the gauzy backup singer, as opposed to the challenging — I would imagine scary [singer] — jumping off speaker stacks.
Were audiences expecting you as an artist to be more of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl-type character because of your “Anthems” vocal?
HAINES: Yeah. Well, I mean that’s the thing. In the time, because we’re looking back at that window of New York and that Meet Me In The Bathroom era, and how we weren’t in Toronto, we were in New York, and how the story’s never really been told properly. I don’t think it’s some great injustice, but I don’t think it had to do with what was happening with people. I think it was just the press at the time.
I think the Pitchfork thing was so meaningful then; the two things like Social Scene and Pitchfork to me was one entity at that time. And to their credit, aesthetically, it is very much like the Chicago scene. Or the Dino Jr. vibes and those fuzzy guitar tones, I totally get it. The experimental ambient sounds, less conventional rock — a million things. I like that music, and it’s so cool that I got to be part of it, and my long-time friendship with Kevin [Drew] and with all those guys. In audiences, I don’t feel like there was a disconnect. I think [there was] in the way it got documented.
It was such a fun time, and there was so much great music, and I remember it being like Lollapalooza playing with Social Scene and singing “Anthems,” and it being so great. And then Metric, also doing our shows. People knew both. Then you’d go see Secret Machines, who we recently brought back to the world, which was so awesome. I feel like there was room for everything. In the time I didn’t feel misjudged at all, but I definitely think in the press it was messed up.
Appearing In The Oliver Assayas Film Clean & Writing With Howard Shore For The Twilight Saga: Eclipse And David Cronenberg’s Cosmpolis (2004, 2010, 2012)
How have you generally gone about writing for the screen in your career? Do you actively seek out film projects, or do you prefer to be approached?
HAINES: It’s weird because I was just thinking how all those things have just come to us, which is very rare as a band who, to me, “famously” has had no breaks. I’m using air quotes around “famously,” because “famously” means a conversation with me and my friends.
All those film opportunities came to us, and we’ve done literally nothing to pursue those things. The first one was Oliver Assayas’s Clean. That movie is actually really good. That launched a whole thing for us in Paris. We didn’t have any clothes. I remember they did that thing where a designer will give to you something. But we’d never had that. We were in the movie, and they brought us to Paris and we got to play La Route du Rock with Sonic Youth.
[Designer] agnès b. invited us to come to her showroom and pick out something, and we all took, I don’t know, 15 things [because] we had no clothes. [Laughs.] I still have a little skirt that I wear all the time from [them].
In retrospect, it’s such a moment of understanding, thinking of yourself as your own little sister, understanding how we just didn’t know anything and we were so broke and we just were like, “Thank you so much.” It seemed like it was all good, but in retrospect, I would take tastefully an eyeglasses case or something. And then Howard Shore approached us about Twilight. That was crazy. We wrote with him in his hobbit wall, as he called it. He has a crazy cabin where the whole wall is an organ, where he did so much of his composing for Lord Of The Rings. That was really intense. He fully wrote the score for the Twilight film based on the melody that we wrote with him. So that was cool. And he brought us in for Cronenberg.
Scott Pilgrim Saves The World (2010)
It’s been a minute since I’ve seen Scott Pilgrim, but looking at Metric’s history, I get the sense that Brie Larson singing “Black Sheep” really put the band in the zeitgeist in this whole new way in 2010. And that has only amplified as Brie Larson became more famous, and fans gradually realize that she’s also a singer.
HAINES: Yeah. That was the craziest kismet. In the book, graphic novelist Bryan Lee O’Malley based the Clash At Demonhead band on Metric, which is not a compliment, but sort of hilarious. It’s funny, you can’t take yourself too seriously. When [director] Edgar [Wright] and Nigel Godrich came to Toronto and met with us, they said, “Hey, do you happen to have an unreleased song?” It’s so weird that we didn’t put “Black Sheep” on Fantasies.
We didn’t write that song for Scott Pilgrim. It was done, and it was a source of contention [because] it didn’t fit, it’s too weird. I remember playing it for Edgar, and he was just like, “This is eerie.” Even the “oh, yeah” voice thing at the beginning fit with something he had written in the scene. I live for this stuff where it’s like, who knows? It’s just playing out and it’s cool and it’s working, and you could never force that to happen.
I’m assuming you saw in 2020 when Brie Larson covered “Black Sheep” wearing an actual black sheep sweater?
HAINES: Yeah, it was 10 years later, in Deep Pandemic Vibes Times. [Edgar] was like, hey, check it out. We’re going to do a reissue, is it cool with you if we put out the Brie Larson vocal version? I was like, yeah, that’s hilarious and amazing. We have an Academy Award-winning actress who’s totally rad singing our song. It goes in my column of hilarious and strange things in my life.
Like that [time] we met Spinal Tap at Stonehenge when we played Glastonbury. We met them. They were playing that year, and we went to Stonehenge. It was Joules’ birthday. They’re there in their makeup and took a picture with us.
I’m a professional. We have our goals. We want to get where we’re going, and we have all these aspirations. But the things that have been weird and magical and serendipitous that you could never force, those are the ones that just make me feel more like I’m on the right track. To me, Brie Larson singing that song and meeting Spinal Tap are in my same column.
Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton (2006, 2017)
The two Soft Skeleton albums you’ve released — Knives Don’t Have Your Back in 2006 and Choir Of The Mind in 2017 — came out roughly 10 years apart. Could we expect another Soft Skeleton album in—
HAINES: You noticed.
Yes! So, another Soft Skeleton album in 2027?
HAINES: Yeah, this is the closest I’m going to be being Adele, doing a super-arty, strange-ass solo record every 10 years. Yes. So, mark your calendar for ’27.
Formentera II is out 10/13 via Metric Music International/Thirty Tigers.