"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?