Metric's Emily Haines Frees Her Ghosts
Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton returns 11 years after her debut with 'Choir of the Mind,' reconciling with her own memories and stories.
Photo by Justin Broadbent
Emily Haines almost sounds exasperated when she tells me that she has found herself yet a-fucking-gain at the corner of Dundas Ave. and Ossington Ave. in downtown Toronto—a hotbed of heart and hurt and hope in such a tiny slice of the city. There are places and actual things in your life that feel can like an anchor—perhaps supportive, familiar, or maybe frustrating and hindering. They are memory keepers for you; becoming something to appreciate or miss or loathe, like the doorway of a bar where you chain smoked menthol cigarettes with your best friend while you watched a crush blatantly go on a date with someone else in front of you; the restaurant you kissed your first love in and then, sometime later, the place where they'd break your heart; or the street corner where you once saw friends but soon after found enemies.
"You see a place as it is right now but it's also the place it has been throughout your life and all these different times that you've passed that corner or that spot," she says. But the Metric frontwoman—who is arguably part of one of the city's most influential and successful bands—adds, pleading with the universe, "There have been so many times in my life where I've been like, 'Get me away from here! How am I still standing at this corner?!'" Proximity to your memories though, when confronted from with them tangibly, is important—if you choose to acknowledge them.
Memory and one's harmony (or struggle) with it make up a significant thematic part of Haines' latest album, Choir of the Mind, out later this week. After an 11 year break from her solo project, Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton, Haines returns with an elegant, at times harrowing, record that tackles the internal work one faces as they grow-up. The part about "adulting" that people never focus on when they use that godawful word is existential excavation is truly at the heart of it all, not just self-congratulations because you finally learned how to iron a shirt. For Haines, her continued growth, especially when working on this album, was coming to terms with remembrance and her own stories. "On this record, I had this completely different sense of how I felt about [memory]. Instead of feeling trapped by it, I felt like this was where all the good stuff is," she says, as we sit in the cozy Giant studio, operated by her Metric bandmate Jimmy Shaw, where she wrote and recorded Choir of the Mind. "I have access to those memories and places and I'm still here in the present but I have all of those layers."
One of the pieces Haines went back to again and again for guidance and influence was a Ted Talk from 2010 by Nobel laureate and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. The 20 minute lecture titled "The Riddle of Experience Vs. Memory" discusses the two different selves within us—the experiencing self and the remembering self—and how they negotiate or complicate happiness. The throughline of Kahneman's lecture is the question of: why do we put such weight on memory relative to the weight we put on experience? "When you make a decision to do something, is it in service of your experiencing self or your remembering self. And that they don't really have anything to do with each other," says Haines. It's an interesting thing to consider: your remembering self, according to Kahneman, dictates what your experiencing self does. The latter has no choice; no agency, really, because it is literally living in moments that expire after they happen.
The most directly obvious track dedicated to remembrance is "Minefield of Memory." Over what sounds like a looping, frenetic piano, Haines sings, "I stay with my memories," gesturing that they are either in her to be relived or are simply around her. (She even sings, a bit matter-of-factly, "buried a body in the garden/it's still there.") She whispers on the track, as the keys take the sonic foreground, "I know this place." It's, as she calls it, a ballroom-like song; slow dancing with one's stories, perhaps. Even on "Wounded," a standout track on the record, Haines sings over her echoing breathing, "every time I wear this dress/ I'm back to the way I was when we met," carving a story out of just picking up something so ordinary (a dress.) It is even, as she sings further on, "a little grotesque."
These songs aren't as simple as nostalgia—that is more sentimental. Nostalgia serves a remembering self but with rosy-hued narratives that make you feel good. This kind of remembering has a painful or important end and that's why it is remembered. On the record, "Nihilist Abyss" traces that but reveals that that pain serves a purpose. ""Nihilist Abyss" is a really raw and open piece but it's— if I've done it right—the idea is that you can meet me there," she says. "The fact that I built something there is ultimately illuminating it, and validates whatever you're feeling and lift you out of it. It's not like come down into this murky dungeon of disrepair and misery."
Haines' solo work is characterized usually as sad—and to be fair her debut Knives Don't Have Your Back essentially was but that grimness was intrinsically linked to grief and still pushed for an internal dialogue we were able to participate in. Haines' work with The Soft Skeleton is completely opposite of the indie dance punk of Metric (and even a further stretch away from the hope and community with Broken Social Scene.) It "falls out of the regular consumptive mode," she says. She continues: "if… I go as far beyond what's comfortable in terms of being honest with myself and into digging around the foundation of actually what I'm experiencing or perception I have or what's up. I've always felt it's like adjoining tunnels with other people." Choir of the Mind is significantly more complex and considerably more measured than a casual listen provides. That is the beautiful part of these solo records: they serve as something more than just a piece of music put on shuffle—digested by a listener or not and forgotten about. They take real effort. But Haines makes it okay, safe even, to go through the catalogue in your brain—whatever is burning in your mind and gut—and try to harness it into something productive or let it go.
Sarah MacDonald is an Assistant Editor at Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.
- Emily Haines
- Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton