Emily Haines
It’s time:
Emily Haines is back with Choir of the Mind, the Metric singer’s first release as her Soft Skeleton solo project in a decade.

That interval has particular resonance for Haines: Choir of the Mind, released Sept. 15, 2017 on Last Gang Records, comes 10 years after her Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton EP What Is Free to a Good Home?, which in turn stemmed from her 2006 LP Knives Don’t Have Your Back. Ten years before that, she released Cut in Half and Also Double under her own name.

“It’s funny, I believe in a way that my life has functioned in decades,” Haines says. “A lot of things aligned to make this seem like the time.” Her solo projects represent transitions in her life: her 1996 album came as she passed over the threshold of adulthood, while Knives Don’t Have Your Back emerged after the death of her father, the acclaimed poet Paul Haines. "On Knives, there were strings and horns, the mood was funereal, there were all these other players. On Choir of the Mind, there is still a fair bit of instrumentation, but I found myself filled with a desire to achieve as much as possible using little more than the contents of my mind and my voice, anchored by my hands on the piano, propelled by these rhythms I was making with my breathing, like a panic attack on the bottom with a lullaby on top."

Haines’ vocals are definitely the focal point of Choir of the Mind. She used her voice to create spellbinding orchestrations for an effect that is subtle and ghostly on “Wounded,” lush on “Fatal Gift” and deeply powerful on “Legend of the Wild Horse,” which she calls her "soft anthem.” Haines’ voice is the only audible instrument on “Strangle All Romance,” and she creates mesmerizing layers that drift and swirl through the title track, which includes a spoken-word part adapted from a poem by the Indian mystic Sri Aurobindo.

Haines recorded Choir of the Mind over several weeks in September and October of 2016, more or less alone in Metric’s Toronto studio with a borrowed 9-foot grand piano built in 1850. Her longtime musical partner/Metric bandmate, James Shaw, helped flesh out the sonics with various instruments and rhythmic elements. (Shaw also mixed the album). Sparklehorse drummer Scott Minor, a member of the Soft Skeleton's first incarnation, returned to perform on "Legend of the Wild Horse." Haines says, “The writing and recording process was heightened and intensive, the two became one thing."

In between solo releases, of course, Haines keeps plenty busy with Metric. Formed in 1998, the band has released six full-length albums and three EPs on its way to commanding arena-sized stages, and contributing to soundtracks for The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Cosmopolis.

What were you thinking about while you were making Choir of the Mind?
Well, Metric has worked very hard and we've seen a lot of success. Building my life around it has been a somewhat reckless and disorienting adventure with everything at stake, which is all I ever wanted, but I sacrificed a lot in my commitment to that experience. I'm constantly trying to make sense of the choices I’ve made, to understand where I'm at and where I’m headed, and telling myself, you've got to have the courage to let real things happen in your real life, with real consequences, you've got to be able to exist and function outside the realm of writing and performing. Because nothing is scarier to me than my actual life, that thing lurking outside the music I'm immersed in, waiting for me to reckon with it.

How did Choir of the Mind start taking shape?
After a two-year run with Metric in support of our most recent album, Pagans in Vegas, I came back to our studio in Toronto, and I had ideas, I had songs, I had fragments of things, but a huge amount of what ended up making it on the album, it happened on the spot, in that room, over a few weeks in September and October. It was a magical time. I started assembling the usual elements, lyrics, melodies, chord progressions, and then I started hearing these orchestrations, parts that I would normally hand off to a string section or something, but I just started singing them instead, and I found that for the first time ever, maybe, I was able to express this other dimension of what the song was trying to say. I had these counter-melodies that would appear, and these elaborations in the form of repetition, variations in vocal tone and texture and delivery. It was kind of a breakthrough because for me, even though I've been singing all my life, it's always struck me as such a strange, all consuming outlet, and underneath what's been driving it, the whole focus for me has been the songwriting, and so to have the two mesh together in this new way was surprising and exciting.

What’s so strange about singing?
To embody words with your anatomy requires complete physical commitment on an emotional level. It’s not the same as picking up an instrument, where you have that differentiation between self and song. My body has to live it. So every time I write a song, I am that fucking song, in every way. And I have a lot of songs!

What accounts for the clarity of purpose you had for the role of your voice on this album?
I think it had to do a little bit with the idea of escaping from what sometimes feels like a very narrow definition of my identity. On "Perfect on the Surface" and "Minefield of Memory" in particular, I got closer to achieving a sonic portrait of who I am, instead of just a snapshot. It’s weird dedicating your life to being a sound. Metric lives in a particular world of epic rock music, dance music—we’re playing arenas, we’re playing big festivals, there’s a unified commitment to connecting with crowds of people and just throwing a really excellent party, a thinking man’s party. But in those settings some of the nuance automatically has to go, which is ok, because when the sound and the emotion are loud and strong and clear, it energizes people, and that's a big part of what Metric does and I love it. With Choir of the Mind, I felt like exploring other sonics, broadening the scope of who I am, without having to adapt the work to fit that massive scale. Not to prove anything to anybody else, but just to find out for myself.

How much do you think the other songs reflect that theme of identity?
Well, I don’t know. That’s what’s going to be really great about releasing this music for people to check out, seeing what they get from it. Because I don’t ever really know what I’ve done until I’ve done it. It’s a little bit of that feeling: you have to make it to discover what it is. Maybe other people, as artists, as humans just navigating their lives, maybe they approach things completely differently. Maybe people know what they're doing and exactly why they do it, but I have never been able to function that way. I have to make something to find out what it is, and once I go in there I can’t really hide from myself, and that's when I find out, for better or worse, once it's too late to change it. [Laughs.]
Metric seeks a universal connection with people. Do you feel that same impulse on your own, to be part of something bigger?
Always. But both with Metric and on my own, I'm coming at it from a point of view that opposes the norm. I think it's stupid the way we reward vanity and greed, the way we crown famous people, perpetuate the same old social hierarchies. I tried to convey this on "Statuette", how our arts and culture are really based around this idolatry of specialness. I have no desire to be special. It's isolating and lonely. I’m trying to be the opposite. I want it to be that even the most unique experience and personal high or low that I can get to unites me with everybody else, gets me closer to other people, not further away. Nobody truly ever knows what’s happening on the inside for anybody else, obviously, but when I reveal something that’s really hard for me to expose, I feel like it gives me solidarity with strangers going through their own version of hell, a sense of shared purpose.

So, were there things you wrote about on Choir of the Mind that were hard to reveal?
Yeah. Hard to reveal to myself. There’s a feeling I get from my lifelong relationship with the piano, that I’ve had since I was a 5-year-old kid, when I figured out that I could be in any room anywhere, and as long as there was a piano in the corner, everything was going to be fine. Now there are all these extra themes, attempting to behave like a grown up, the craft of songwriting, expectations, all that stuff that comes with it, but there’s still something that happens when I sit at the piano, and I feel it every time. It’s the same with writing for Metric: the reason there’s energy there is because in making this music together, a lie has been revealed and a true feeling has taken its place. To that extent, the whole process is hard, if you can say that about the unbelievable luck of being able to be an artist for a living. I have gratitude forever that this is the life that I have. But yeah, it can get murky. I'm a harsh editor, so if a song makes the cut, it’s because I’m revealing something that I think might be of some worth, some value to someone out there listening who needs it.

What prompted the spoken-word part of the title track?
I was born in India, in New Delhi. My mom had started a school there, my dad was writing the lyrics to Carla Bley's album Escalator Over the Hill. One day, my mom embarked on a kind of spiritual journey to this utopian outpost, Auroville that was created by a spiritual leader called Sri Aurobindo. In our family mythology, there’s this famous story of my mom, quite irresponsibly and without a lot of foresight, getting on her bike when she was super pregnant with me and just riding to Auroville in search of some feeling or some idea. She discovered very quickly that she wasn’t prepared, and she says that she had this incredibly powerful experience of feeling that there was this magnet that pulled her into that place, even though she couldn’t pedal anymore. Aurobindo wrote an absolutely astounding long poem, called Savitri, which means “truth” in Hindi, and as a result of this experience, my parents made it my middle name. Cut to many years later, here I am making this record, and I had this idea that I wanted there to be something spoken. I wasn’t sure what form it was going to take. I had started on a song that became “Choir of the Mind,” and at my house I have this whole library of oddities and rare things lying around. You know how it is when you’re working on something and you’re not really sure what you’re seeking, but you’re kind of feeling it out. And I opened that book, and I couldn't believe what I was reading, how perfectly it fit, and so the words I'm saying in that section of “Choir of the Mind” are what was written on those particular pages.

What about that passage spoke to you?
It was the description of this feminine power, what I might be able to contribute to this world in the time that I’m here, what I've always grappled with in Metric and in my personal life. Real feminine power that isn’t miming male power, that isn’t in reaction to, or in opposition to masculinity, like, just pure feminine energy, who can describe that life force? The way Aurobindo expressed it blew my mind. I had to adapt the text slightly to fit in the song rhythmically, but really it was all there just waiting to be said and heard. It’s like he’s describing the highest version of myself as a woman I could ever wish to be, but also describing an idea of what any sort of female deity creative presence might be, and just to hear the female pronoun that many times in such an insightful way, in those few pages he captured something I’ve spent my whole life trying to articulate, something very abstract and elusive. I'm so grateful to have stumbled upon such brilliant work, and the circumstances that led to it even being in my possession, it's like that book connects me all the way back to when I was born.

This idea of the feminine life force, a kind of robust softness, seems like a recurring theme on the album.
Ideally, in music, you’re witnessing someone push themselves to the edge of where they’re comfortable and where something is really at stake for them. The idea appeals to me that my crowning victory when I’m a happy old crone would be that despite all the dingy basement band rooms and corporate parking lot Taco Bell Arena realities and highways, that I was able to stay soft. I never got jaded, I never got cold. If I start to feel that softness retreat, I force myself to go back in and open it back up. I guess you could say that this is the closest thing I have to some kind of philosophy. And I can tell you, in doing that, you do get really, really, very dangerously hurt, you get severely and profoundly heartbroken, like perilously injured. And that’s definitely there on "Wounded" and on "Nihilist Abyss" and on "Siren" and all over the whole damn record, I think. It’s up to people how they want to respond to softness and vulnerability. The onus is on the world. And this is really a major point for me when it comes to our definitions of weakness in women: the onus is not solely on women to become tough enough to handle abuse and bullshit from the way the world is structured. The onus is on also on the cruel not to step on someone's neck just because they can.

That idealism, the willingness to engage even in the face of pain, how do you make yourself do that?
I’ll always end up at the piano, no matter where I’ve been. And when I continually insist on going to the most inaccessible place for myself, wherever that might be when I’m at that instrument, I’m somehow able to construct something that stands, which is what I find so incredible about songs. They’re architectural marvels, and the whole world is tied together by music, by songs. So if you take that most damaged, most poisoned and raw part of yourself and build a song that can stand around it, and then bring that into existence—it’s a form of healing. These songs are mantras. It's about venturing into the darkest corners of your mind and illuminating them. Which is why I have trouble with music that is too sad, because I can’t stay down there too long, I’ll fucking die. It’s a luxury that I can’t afford. I have to go in there, and then whatever it is, no matter how bleak, I’ve got to bring it up into the light. My solo stuff, Choir of the Mind, this is me going to the same depths that I do with Metric, the only difference is that sonically the songs are more fragile. With Metric, we go all the way down and build it all the way up so that we can play it really loud to 10 000 people, but the principle in both cases is exactly the same. So these songs, even though they're soft, they are my armor, they protect me, they should do the same for the listener, too, and they will, I hope.