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Metric's Emily Haines Talks Translating the Sounds Into Her Head Into Solo Album 'Choir of the Mind'

Emily Haines
Justin Broadbent

Emily Haines

Emily Haines is sitting in Giant Studios where she’s recorded many a Metric song in Toronto’s West End. She has just released her first solo album in 11 years, Choir of the Mind, once again under the moniker Emily Haines & Soft Skeleton, the name she used for the 2006 album Knives Don’t Have Your Back.

It’s a gorgeous album: gentle, thoughtful, thought-provoking, transporting, sparse, enveloping and both jagged and lulling, depending on how closely one listens. It is mainly just her, as pure as can be, with some contributions from Metric collaborator James Shaw, who co-produced the album with her, and the one-song appearance of Sparklehorse drummer Scott Minor — who was on Knives…— on “Legend of the Wild Horse.” In 1996, she put out her first solo recording, Cut in Half and Also Double, two years before starting Metric with James Shaw, Joshua Winsted and Joules Scott-Key.

Metric’s sixth studio album, Pagans in Vegas, was released in 2015 and Haines is also a member of the indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene, whose latest album, Hug of Thunder, dropped this summer. She is a busy woman, who just weeks before promo for Choir of the Mind, was involved with another campaign for social action platform Global Citizen. Those who signed the She Decides Manifesto received a download of her new song “Statuette.”

With director Justin Broadbent, Haines made a video for “Legend of the Wild Horse,” that's tied in with the other videos for “Statuette,” “Planets” and the first single, “Fatal Gift.” And as an unexpected bonus, she also just released a non-album single, a cover of LCD Soundsystem’s “American Dream, ” which she recorded at George Stroumboulopoulos’ house concert for his Apple Music show, House Of Strombo, now available.

In a month, she heads out on a tour that includes a cemetery in Los Angeles and the iconic 123-year-old Massey Hall in Toronto.

“I can’t believe I’m doing Massey. That’s a life goal,” she tells Billboard. “All the venues were hand-picked and we’re ending at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. We purposely tried to take people to places that they wouldn’t see Metric or conventionally go. In Brooklyn, some place called the Murmrr Theatre in Prospect Park, and then in Vancouver Chan Centre is this gorgeous spot; Massey Hall obviously, which is a more conventional room in that regard. The show is more than you would expect. We’re bringing some unexpected elements.”

Billboard spoke with Haines about her new album, the “odd pursuit” of writing, the piano as therapy and how it all applies to personal relationships and the listener.

“Choir of the mind” — what does that phrase means to you?

It’s a big question to answer succinctly, like 'what is the whole thing?' but the title came to me fairly early in the making of the record, and partly driven by what was happening sonically and the idea that I had attributed melodies and arrangements to my voice, as opposed to farming them out to other instruments or other players.

So I started to really experience the making of this record as a solitary experience where everything was coming from me directly, then, as an extension of that, the idea that everything that we experience -- the Buddhist principle being that all you know is your own mind, as much as we resist that idea because we make a cognitive leap to think that means you’re self-centered or self-absorbed and it has nothing to do than that. You have no other way of existing other than through the construct of your mind.

I started to follow that thread and pay more attention to, in terms of the writing process, when a song is being constructed there’s a leading voice in deciding what’s being said and how its being said and what gets to stay and what gets to go. And then simultaneously, there’s constantly just a racket of distraction, self-doubt, criticism, memory, and all these layers that are unfolding at the same time.

I think the writing process is just a heightened version of what we experience from the moment we open our eyes every day anyway. You wake up. There’s a story you’ve told yourself of what your life is, and you either continue it or decide to blow it up or take whatever steps you’re going to take, and with writing it’s just more focused. It’s like turning a microphone on in the room and that room is your mind.

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You’ve been using your voice to write, as opposed to at the piano?

Both are always happening at the same time. It’s not like I sit there and write every melody with the piano. The piano supports. Sometimes the melodies trade. They move around, but so much of whatever I write is in the air, I write things walking down the street, or napkin. I don’t need to be sitting at a piano to write a melody or to sing. A Brian Wilson biopic sonically shows all these sounds coming to him and at him, how he’s able to hear every single element and layer.

Did you ever read [Wilson’s autobiography] Wouldn’t It Be Nice? It’s so heartbreaking because he’s so brilliant, but there’s a portion in the Making of Pet Sounds, where he was trying to get that feeling back, so he insisted on having sand brought in at his feet. When I read that, it just hurt me so much because I completely know the war that he’s a soldier in, and the commitment to the feeling.

It’s really such an abstract construct to even begin with, and a fascinating side-note to me that music has the function for human beings that it does. From a technical standpoint, it’s just vibrations. I mean, I’m vibrating my vocal chords and your ears, the little hairs in them are responding, and the vibrations within instruments and then all of these analogue synthesizers that are tones, pure tones, manipulated and somehow, connected to the most primal emotional places in our bodies.

So to dedicate your life to mining that is a really odd pursuit because you can’t really chase it. It’s more you have to put yourself in a state where it will come to you, which is in fact a very disciplined state, and, in his case, when you’ve crossed the line into trying to move the world to make the sand -- so that you can just be there -- so to your question, I think it is sometimes chaotic, when the whole purpose is to listen to yourself and your mind, not just in terms of lyrics, but in terms of melodic ideas, and rhythmic ideas. It can be chaotic, and it’s a real balance of, god forbid, you don’t want to turn that off. I’ve never had the experience of not writing, but it sounds like hell, but then by contrast will you ever just be a normal person who isn’t chasing these voices in your head?

Were these voices, these sounds, always in your head or is it an ability that developed as you developed as a musician?

I don’t know. I have been thinking, as an adult, am I just so committed the past 20 years that I’m way past the threshold of trying to keep for myself any sort of normalcy that I might have had if I hadn’t pursued this? All I can say is that throughout my life the piano has served me therapeutically, but so much of that work, I would say the majority of what I write is never released and I never play for anyone. I really don’t believe that that’s the value that I have to bring to people. It’s like that’s my process, but if I’m going to release it it’s because it’s of use in my estimation and my hope, and it will serve someone and get them through what they’re going through. I’m not trying to bring anybody down; I want to bring them up.

In the bio you said something about the band takes you away from real life.  

It does and it doesn’t. I definitely experience life [laughs], but a little more than I’d like, and this is true for anyone who’s committed to their work. We all know this. There are certain parts of your life that you can actually do something right. And I think with music and my relationships and the business that we run together I’ve dedicated my life to it and I can do it. We’ve shown each other and shown the world that we will do, we will get there. But in my own life, the same thing just isn’t true. With a song you can just stick at it until you get there, or decide that it’s not happening and cut it and move on and write another song, and trying to apply those skills to your personal life is a disaster. So I think that’s what I was referring to.

The opening line in “Strangle All Romance” is great: "Don’t hang on so tightly/ You’ll strangle all the romance."

It’s everything when you think about it. Yes, quite literally the word ‘romance’ is in the title, but generally for a lyric to make the cut it usually works on a few levels. To me, that’s true of just anything you’ve ever wanted, or anything. That balance of you have to be ready and at your best, but you can’t force anything. Nothing’s really in your power other than your own capability to react and be present.

You have a song on here, “Love is My Labor of Life.”

And life is my labor of love I reverse because it’s all one thing at this point.

In “Minefield of Memory,” you sing, “how does the song in your heart find a tune?”  That’s what you’re doing. That’s your life, your struggle.

Yeah the purpose of my life. It’s not really a struggle. It’s like a challenge.

And in “Siren,” you sing, “I only want what I can’t reach.” That’s not a bad thing.

I guess it’s a life philosophy question. You stay hungry, I guess. The dark side of that though would never being able to appreciate what you have. I do really appreciate what I have, but there’s always that sense of what’s next.

Some of the press material has said Choir of the Mind is about women’s place in the world.

I’m going to resist the word 'about' because its not like a record about women’s place in the world at all. There’s a through line of really exploring -- and this stuff is in the bio -- but I’m really interested in the idea of femininity as a free-standing life force, and not always constructed in relation to what it isn’t, or in opposition to masculinity, or some sort of implied animosity between the sexes or something.

To me, it’s more that I feel like were living in a time that’s so interesting. I feel so grateful that this is when I get to be alive, that I feel like I’m getting glimpses as to what femininity might be as its own force. Gender is such a huge issue right now anyway too, There’s so far you can go, of not even gender-based femininity, but is there such a thing as a feminine energy or feminine deity, that Sri Aurobindo [in the spoken passage on the title track adapted from “Savitri”] kind of summons with those descriptions, the million impulsed force. We get archetypes of goddesses and archetypes of crones and whores and virginal perfection and sanctified mothers, but aside from even the human incarnations, I guess, my Brian Wilson sand at the piano was I started to really start chasing as a sound what I could make and, if it was layered enough, I started to get the sense of this very strong soft light.

You’re obviously articulate, intelligent, interested in an array of subjects. What do you do with all this stuff between Metric and Broken Social Scene and a solo album every decade?

I make dinner for people. I travel.

It seems like there’s so many songs in everything you’re saying, and you’ve distilled it to just a dozen or so.

That’s not untrue. Of all the things that I feel good about my life, it’s those friendships. There’s no ‘I can’t believe it.’ The depth and the experience of my life is shared with all of these people that are close to me, and then the fact that it’s also with the listener, like the whole relationship I have of seeing people who, when I put out a record after 11 years I can feel all these people evaluating their life? They’re like, ‘Man, when did Knives… come out? What’s happened to me?’ I just feel this amazing solidarity of I’m not just going through my life on my own, but, yeah, I’m mostly in here [Giant Studios] or at my piano."

But not everything becomes a song.

No it doesn’t. That’s the problem, and the rest of it I’m just stuck with it, like mental furniture cluttering up the room.

Emily Haines's tour dates:

11/28 - Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
11/29 - Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
11/30 -Brooklyn, NY @ Murmrr *SOLD OUT
12/2 - Washington, DC @ Sixth & I
12/3 - Boston, MA @ ICA
12/4 - Montreal, QC @ Église Sainte-Thérèse-d’Avila
12/5 - Toronto, ON @ Massey Hall
12/7 - Vancouver, BC @ Chan Centre
12/8 - Seattle, WA @ Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall
12/9 - Portland, OR @ Revolution Hall
12/11 - San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall *SOLD OUT
12/12 - Los Angeles, CA @ Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery *SOLD OUT


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