On the morning of my interview with Emily Haines, I found myself in the throes of a panic attack. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Struggling with anxiety and panic disorder can result in some extremely turbulent, uncomfortable and, to put it bluntly, really fucking hard moments. The days leading up to that morning had been rough and everything seemed to boil over as I readied myself. Shakily finding a seat at the very back of the bus I was taking to Toronto, I felt overwhelmed by the intrusive thoughts of self-doubt and shame that go hand in hand with my attacks. The only sound that could drown them out was that of Haines’ voice, intertwining between spoken-word and song on the title track of her first solo full-length in eleven years.
“It was a weird sense of an orbit,” Haines says as we face one another on the couch in Metric’s Giant Studios. A curly haired, brown puppy named Romeo, who Haines brought home one week prior to our chat, nuzzles affectionately into her arms. “This is what we’ve come around to. It’s ten, eleven years later and apparently, it’s time for me to do this again.”
We last heard from Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton, the Metric singer’s solo endeavor, in 2007, with the release of What Is Free to a Good Home? Named after a piece by her father, the late poet Paul Haines, the EP was an extension of the previous year’s album, Knives Don’t Have Your Back; a raw collection of grief-fueled tracks which resonated deeply with listeners.
To say Haines has kept busy over the decade that has passed since Knives would be an understatement. Metric, the rock act she’s fronted since 1998, dropped four records—the most recent being 2015’s Pagans in Vegas—and toured the world extensively. Broken Social Scene released 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record and this year’s Hug of Thunder, both of which Haines played an integral part in. But the orbit she speaks of seemed to be curving back towards The Soft Skeleton.
Choir of the Mind, Haines’ latest solo offering, is out September 15th through Last Gang Records. “I had the perspective of the listener in my mind the whole time–of all these people I know who have been with us since the beginning. It’s not like I’m off on some tangent,” she tells me. “The more that we come back, it brings all these people back together. For them to realize that Knives was ten, eleven years ago is making everybody trip balls. The look on people’s faces when they start thinking about where they were when Knives came out; they just suddenly have this marker. I like that this is sort of my role—a bit of a barometer for everyone of where we’re all at now.”
Choir of the Mind is best described by Haines herself—“a panic attack on the bottom with a lullaby on top.” Maybe that’s why I found such solace in listening to her words on my way into the city. While the gentle instrumentation of The Soft Skeleton’s debut is still present on Choir, it’s the delicately forceful vocals of Haines that are at the forefront; strong enough to stand alone as the only audible sound at times. “In terms of things that I end up releasing, they have to meet that criteria that I feel like they’ll be of value to someone and have a function,” she says.
But how can Haines achieve that clarity without crumbling under the weight of the emotions that incite her artistry? “Sometimes I hear stuff that is so emotional, it’s actually not serving me. I can’t afford to be that sad. People I know who are productive and working, it’s a luxury we can’t really afford—to be sad,” she states. “It’s always this fine line of expressing and revealing the depth of that feeling but somehow energizing it and making it useful and a catalyst for people, as opposed to depressing. It’s not an option to be depressed.”
“The physiology of singing is crazy, and the real challenge is to access those feelings without being overwhelmed by them which, in itself, is the therapeutic element of music, I think. You find it and then you have to find a way to focus and express it. But if your body feels sadness choking you, then you choke.”
I feel like you’d be surprised by how many seemingly powerful women are dealing with pretty insane realities on the personal front.
Haines works to exercise the same method of resilience and control in acknowledging the emotions she experiences without letting them overpower her throughout all aspects of her life. She believes in the importance of staying soft; not untouched by life’s bitter burdens, just far enough out of their reach. “Frankly, there’s a certain amount of willful ignorance. I have moments where I get jolted, but I’m just pretty much denying the level of sexism and bullshit that I’ve faced throughout my career and continue to face because I have no use for a victim narrative for myself. I’m just trying to will another reality into existence, you know what I mean?”
I do. And sitting in front of Haines, hearing firsthand the conviction with which she speaks, I believe that she is capable of conjuring this vision. But as quickly as Haines whisks me away to her ideal, she brings me back to the real world.
“I feel like you’d be surprised by how many seemingly powerful women are dealing with pretty insane realities on the personal front where their power… it’s hard to balance the sort of fantasy power that you can create within art and how close to perfection you can get it in terms of your vision as opposed to a functioning life.”
While the ultimate woman is an idyllic notion, it comes close to fruition in Indian guru Sri Aurobindo’s poem Savitri—the same poem whose lines Haines recites on Choir’s title track, and where her middle name derives from. During the record’s writing process, Haines found herself searching for influence in her home library. She happened to open Savitri to the section of passages that resonated deepest for her. “I think, in the context of the work, it’s more imagining a female deity and a feminine energy,” Haines explains before moving off the couch and over to another corner of the room. She produces a notebook, covered in sprawling script and flips through the pages until she stops to recite one of Savitri’s verses.
“For all is wrought beneath a baffling mask, a semblance other than its hidden truth. The unfinished creation of a changing soul in a body changing with the inhabitant.”
Haines and I share an incredulous look. How did she manage to stumble upon this piece at the exact moment she needed it most? Could it be a part of the orbit that brought her back to this in the first place? “I’ve lived so many different places in my life and found so many different realities,” she says. “I know that I’ll have another whole wave of that coming up when we put out the next Metric record, wherever it will take me. But it really feels like right now—some things are undeniably strong.”