Emily Haines Will Never Be Done

“Romeo speaks Spanish.” Emily Haines is grinning, gesturing at the caramel-brown ball of fluff tucked beside her. Romeo, her new puppy, is fast asleep, napping as the Metric frontwoman runs her fingers gently through his fur. Her knuckles practically stretch the entire length of his miniature body. “He knows ‘manos,’ like he’ll put out his paw,” she assures me.

Haines and Romeo are nestled on a couch in the cavernous main room of the west end Toronto studio she operates with the other members of Metric. Behind her towers a massive console that looks like a 1940s telephone switchboard; she explains that the complex-looking device is where her bandmate Jimmy Shaw makes the synth magic happen. Metric is, after all, a high-octane affair—a sleek, well-oiled machine, hammering out gritty dance-rock anthems in strobe-lit arenas. The studio is adorned with the technological trappings of this glimmering operation. Amidst all of it sits Haines, a half-empty cup of coffee on the table in front of her. It’s almost reverently quiet, save for her voice breaking the silence.

This is the essence of her new solo record, Choir of the Mind. It’s a profound, quiet, contemplative affair, rarely consisting of more than Haines’ voice and her piano. It’s a welcome, necessary reprieve from the inescapable clatter around us. The album feels like you’re seated on the floor of her bedroom, listening to her play new material; it sounds unpolished and pure, like the most essential version of her yet. When she was writing Choir of the Mind, she started delegating instrumentation to herself, singing what would normally be played by a synth or drum kit.

“I just was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m just gonna breathe, and I’m just gonna sing, and I’m just gonna express as much as I can with my body,’” she explains. “Planets” opens the record in warm, broad harmony, Haines’ voice like the sunrise. “It’s like blowing open the darkness, and you just get this whole spectrum of color. You get that huge, light feeling,” she says excitedly. “If I could make my voice be that, for that moment, I get to be the whole spectrum.”

While it’s certainly empowering in its singularity and independence, the record’s material didn’t come easily; Haines’ work never does. The title Choir of the Mind is a reference to a debilitating inner commentary, a voice in the back of her head that, at times, almost seems to have gone rogue. The record sees Haines revealing that voice, picking at it, striving to be free from it. “I became interested in addressing that instead of having my life be driven by trying to mute that, or have all kinds of behaviors that are driven by that making me feel terrible,” she explains. “Could I actually solve this possibly? Could I have the second half of my life be without that?”

The record is an attempt to answer that question. I ask her if she thinks it’ll work. “Well, hopefully,” she shrugs. “We’ll see if by building it in, I’ve actually canceled it out. Or maybe it’ll just be worse. We’re gonna find out.”

via Justin Broadbent
via Justin Broadbent

This record, and the intimate performances that will follow, are as vulnerable and unguarded as Haines has ever been. No throbbing synths and dancing masses and dazzling lights. Just Haines and her piano. “The most terrifying thing for me in the world is to sit by myself at a piano in front of people and have to carry it.”

It’s a surprising admission, given Haines’ extensive career as a performer and frontwoman. But she explains: “The relationship I’ve had with the piano is pretty much my primal relationship.” In the other room of the studio sits a piano on which she wrote much of her new album. And working solo is familiar territory for Haines. She began her career under her own name before forming groups like Metric and beloved Toronto collective Broken Social Scene. Even after those bands were gaining traction, she broke off to release a solo EP, and a full-length titled Knives Don’t Have Your Back. The record dealt with the death of her father, poet Paul Haines. She didn’t think the songs would fit with Metric, but she knew they had to be released—so she did it herself. Choir of the Mind is similarly urgent, and it’s threaded with the same intangible desperation that’s stretched over two decades of work: a desire to share, and, maybe, to save.

It’s by now become readily apparent that sharing humanity, and staring down fear, is what drives Haines. She’s direct and blunt in chastising popular facades of confidence and bravado, indicting the “boredom of interacting with people who aren’t revealing anything about themselves.” Haines has devoted herself to the opposite. “I feel like I’ve dedicated my life to not living that way,” she says firmly. “Exciting confidence is when you’re like, ‘That person deconstructed and reconstructed, and the fact that they’re standing there is really an accomplishment.’ That’s when it’s interesting.”

It’s a throughline that Haines has worked tirelessly towards, spooling it out across decades in Metric, Broken Social Scene, and on her own. In a recent interview, she recommitted to not closing herself off to the world, despite the bitterness and pain she’s subjected to. Music is her way of ushering in light to combat the darkness, which explains her prolific, endless output. “It is really a resistance against the boredom of being jaded,” she remarks. Her eyes are wide, and her voice intense, almost pleading. “We all can make that list of reasons why it’s completely justified for us to set ourselves back and remove ourselves. That is not the point of being alive. The point of being alive is to constantly and painfully feel. Why would we have this capacity for pain and joy if it wasn’t to feel it?”

Haines’ new record is far removed from the arena thump and anthemic glory of Metric’s output, but the same heart and utility resound in both: she wants to make music people can use. “With Metric, we’ve always had a really strong contingent of athletes who are big fans, and to me that makes complete sense. That’s exactly [Metric’s] function, is to take sensitive, emotional stuff, really energize it, make it loud, and make it shake you and wake you up. This, I think, is the same intensity, but a completely different direction of just removing yourself from all the chatter.” On lead single “Fatal Gift,” she repeats, like an inescapable mantra, “All the things you own, they own you.” It’s cliché, but Haines’ earnestness gives the simple sentiment life. She is nothing if not earnest.

And she confronts the voice in her head, the one that inspired the album’s title. “For my entire life, I feel like I’ve been held hostage by this really cruel, drunken, jailer-bully voice in my head,” she says. “Maybe some people would be reticent to talk about voices in their head, but I’m not. Sadly, it is particularly women that seem to know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s kind of like they have this impediment that you would never know is there, which is like the narration that is the worst assessment anybody could make of you at all times, playing as sort of like a comment section.”

She tells me she’s working on a spoken-word component to her upcoming live performances, a manifestation of that voice: As one song ends, a track will play of Haines bringing that chorus of voices to life. She gets up off the couch, and shuffles through some papers on a desk. She flips through pages and finds one that will play after “Legend Of The Wild Horse,” a song she attributes entirely to a piano she bought in Berlin. “There’s something that happens with a new instrument where it’s like, if you approach it with the right sensitivity, it’s preloaded with one free song. That was the song that felt like it was preloaded into this piano.” She reads the spoken-word piece to me, slow and animated:

“Stupid dramatization of a privileged life. Don’t you have anything better to do than lock yourself in a room with a piano? The only reason you even write is because you lack the basic social skills of a functioning person. You’re inadequate and incomplete and you will always be pathetic. You fool people into believing you’re strong, but you’re nothing without the men you cling to. You’re shallow, you’re vain, you’re worthless.”

Haines beams and punctuates with a shout. “Pow!” she laughs, tossing the paper down and sinking back onto the couch. Even as she eviscerates herself, she grins.

She hopes the soliloquies will bring peace to others, and inspire them to bring their voices to light, too. “That’s exactly the kind of thing that I’m constantly telling myself. People who do know what I’m talking about are going to be so validated by it,” she says proudly. “I’m really excited that the record will serve people in a concrete way.” She pauses for a moment before adding, “I’m in service, is how I’ve always felt about being a musician. That is what I have to offer, and that is where my value lies: in making it sexy to be broken.”

via Justin Broadbent
via Justin Broadbent

The contemporary uptick in apathy has Haines frustrated. One track on Choir is titled “Nihilist Abyss,” which feels synonymous with Twitter nowadays. Nihilism does indeed function as a sort of self-defense; you can’t, after all, feel pain if you feel nothing at all. But Haines mourns the compulsive self-defeat that modernity has nurtured and made fashionable. “There’s a kind of laziness and self-indulgence to a certain kind of sadness, which is a tricky place that I’m always navigating,” she says. She’s not a technological pessimist, but she’s skeptical of the benefits of unadulterated gratification. “In conventional literature and other forms of culture pre-internet, there are stopping cues. You’ll be reading a book and [reach] the end of the chapter. Every time you hit a stopping cue, a part of you evaluates whether you’d like to continue. With our online lives, there are no stopping cues anywhere.”

Haines looks incredulous discussing this stuff, but never judgmental. She breezily chalks her impatience up to the fact that she’s a “‘70s child,” with a duty to push back against our self-destructive tendencies. Her jaw drops discussing modern dating. “There’s nothing worse than a romantic connection being diverted into the phone,” she groans through chuckles. She shrugs, conceding, “I know that it works for a lot of people, but I own the time that I’m from. I feel like I have an obligation to be like, ‘Guys, you’re missing out. You should try actually touching. It’ll blow your mind.’”

The roots of all of this, the crux of Haines’ work, are care and compassion, an unbridled lust for life. “Love is my labor of life is my labor of love,” she nearly whispers on “Strangle All Romance,” a track where Haines’ voice, fragile and breathy, is almost the only audible instrument. “Not a lot of protection there,” she laughs of her vulnerability. The last track on Choir is called simply, “RIP.” But rather than a resignation to our mortality, it’s a desperation to squeeze the most out of life. “I’m so not dead,” she intimates on the track, seeming at times to reminisce on her success: “It’s horribly kind how you’ve taken me in, so I’ll do what I can.”

As the final wisps of melody fade at the end of the record, the last thing we hear is the thud of the piano pedal. It creates a quiet symmetry, as “Planets” opens with that same thud. That sound marks the album’s life cycle. “It’s death, right?” Haines explains, eyes aglow. “It’s happening, it’s coming, but not yet.” She bursts into a chorus of “Die, All Right!” by The Hives, pumping her first as she yells, “I’m gonna diiiiiie, but not right now!”

Share This Story

Get our newsletter