"I've come back home, and it's been a beautiful homecoming," says rock front woman Emily Haines. She recently moved back to Toronto, where she and her bandmates formed the new-wave indie-rock outfit Metric in 1998, and where she came together to create a new standard for indie pop as a member of the musical collective Broken Social Scene. Although she had a "long-standing love affair" with New York City, she describes Toronto as sunny and utopian and tells me how her return to the city coincides with another homecoming of sorts: The new Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton album, Choir of the Mind, is her first solo project since 2006's Knives Don't Have Your Back.
Choir of the Mind's lead single is "Fatal Gift," a Metric B side from 2015. "The things you own, they own you," Haines sings on the hook, in her tradition of making work that critiques the material world. Haines was raised by artist parents, and she credits them for her "appreciation of the fact that most people who accomplish impactful creative statements, the mainstream appeal is less than zero and the financial reward is [even] less."
The new album recalls her upbringing — Haines at the piano; lyrical interrogations of capitalistic greed; a spoken-word interlude adapted from a poem by Sri Aurobindo (an Indian mystic whose poem "Savitri" inspired Haines's middle name) on the album's title track. The songs are nostalgic, and when speaking about the elegiac moments she's worked into her latest output, she's generous in sharing stories about childhood and family. Her love affair with New York extends back to her father, poet and jazz lyricist Paul Haines, and mother's life in Soho in the '60s and '70s. One of her early childhood idols was the jazz composer Carla Bley, for whom her father wrote lyrics. Haines says, "That's the music I grew up listening to. I loved her as a female role model, because she refused to be a female role model. You know, she was not interested in the pink get-up."
Haines also seems more concerned with presenting a real image than focusing her attentions on example-setting ("I withhold my consent to be praised," she sings on the album's final track, "RIP"); rather, she lets her music be her legacy. On Choir of the Mind, Haines shows us where she's been — how lullabying modern anxieties with early memories can lead to a beautifully layered work of art.
TS: The new album, Choir of the Mind, like a lot of your music, is laced with anti-capitalist critique. Do you wish it were more possible to have conversations about creating art outside of promoting it?
EH: I certainly do. With this project — and it was the same with Knives — it's just a completely non-commercial medium, the way that I do these solo records. It's just pure art for me, especially on this album. I'm working very closely with the visual artist Justin Broadbent. He has been working with me on every single image, every video, every piece of artwork, album art. Everything is all connected. When a song comes through for you, that really is the truly priceless thing — when your life is saved by a song. I guess I'll join those ranks and accept that music, even if it's free, isn't worthless.
TS: Are there ways that you see the lyrics "Love is my labor of life," from the song "Strangle All Romance," as a reflection of your career thus far?
EH: Yeah, my professional successes are driven by an almost embarrassingly genuine love for my band, for the people who show up at our shows, and for the craft. I sometimes have to put on a bit of a tougher demeanor to protect myself a little bit, because I do feel that I have an extraordinary life.
When a song comes through for you, that really is the truly priceless thing — when your life is saved by a song.
TS: Speaking of protection, you sing on "Wounded" the lyrics "Lay your weapon down beside my bed," yet the album cover is you holding a baseball bat. Do you wish people were more understanding about how complicated we can be as people?
EH: I do, and I think it's a real challenge. It's about every person navigating their life, and what they're presenting to the world; how they express their identity; how they impact the world around them. We do, ideally, have all of these conflicting sides and contrasting sides.
With the use of that baseball bat on the cover, I'm holding it very lightly, very delicately. The idea was that that is a weapon that doesn't belong in the hands of a woman. The orange gloves are the domestic reference of dishwashing and housework. Just because I've got that power doesn't mean that I'm going to wield it. Are we allowed to be all of these different things? Because I am. I don't believe we're that one-dimensional.
TS: What are some ways the title Choir of the Mind is reflective of the types of arrangements you're creating on this album?
EH: The title Choir of the Mind came quite early. It was my first time producing. It was just me and the engineer and this really intimidating, beautiful piano from 1850. At some point, I was recording the vocals. I started to hear, as I always do, these other arrangement ideas. I would normally farm those out to a string section or a horn section, or somebody to play on another instrument. For whatever reason, instead of doing that, I said, "Give me a whole bunch more tracks," and I started to just sing those parts. A lot of things that sound like a snare are actually my hand on my knee. The drum programming I did was really rudimentary, completely based on the feel of the breathing.
TS: What are some ideas you associate with the act of playing piano?
EH: I've been playing it since I can remember. I really was a little kid, and the way that I went to that instrument was as an altar and as an escape. I feel like I figured out early on that if I was at the piano, I could get away with not doing things that normal kids had to do, like talk to people or empty the dishwasher. I still take that same approach.
TS: You've had a busy year, returning with your first solo project in a decade. How often does it feel staggered and how often does it feel like it happens all at once?
EH: For the last few years, [Metric has] hit a stride that is the result of a lot of really hard work. I realize that people don't understand the 24-7, twenty-year necessity that was required of us to build what we've built. For everything that we've done externally that's visible as a marker of success — writing with Lou Reed, the Radio City shows, playing our arena shows in Canada, playing Coachella — we've always been paying it back into our little neighborhood and into our studio.
After [Metric's 2009 record] Fantasies, something solidified. We just started having the attitude of: We just show up for work. We're on the road, and then we come back. There's holidays and things, but then we're back at the studio. We don't always know what we're going to do, but we're going to do something. We've made such an effort to build a life that works that sometimes it's actually working. It's taken a long time. I'm a geezer now, but at least I got there.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Thora Siemsen is a New York–based writer. She has written for Lit Hub, Office Magazine, OUT, Rolling Stone, Rookie, the Rumpus, and the Creative Independent. Find more work here.