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Interview: Emily Haines of Metric

"We don’t want to be from the Jackson 5 school of positive music."


Singer Emily Haines of Metric
George Pimentel/Contributor/WireImage/Getty Images

Metric are a Toronto-based rock-band built around the creative collaboration of songwriter/vocalist Emily Haines, and arranger/guitarist Jimmy Shaw. Though beginning in 1998, Metric took a while to get rolling. Their first album, Grow Up and Blow Away, was recorded in 2001, but buried by their then-label, and not released until 2007, after Metric had found fame. That came with their 'debut' LP, 2003's Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, which gathered a steady cult following in Canada, eventually going Gold. They followed it up with 2005's spiky Live it Out, which cemented their status in their homeland. Four years later, the super-shiny Fantasies looks set to be the LP that breaks them to a worldwide audience. In between albums, Haines branched out, solo, in inspiring ways. In 2006, she released the sad, stirring solo album, Knives Don't Have Your Back, under the name Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton, then delivered a just-as-beautiful companion EP, What is Free to a Good Home?, in 2007. The recordings were inspired by the death of her father, poet Paul Haines.

Interview: 6 April 2009

Where did that pair of amazing solo records, Knives Don’t Have Your Back and What is Free to a Good Home, come from? Was it just a set of songs that didn’t fit with Metric? Was it the product of a particular emotional period you were going through? Was it just a form of time-off from the rock-band?
“I found myself with a body of work that was dealing with a whole whack of themes that really weren’t suited to Metric. It would’ve been very strange to bring those songs to a band. The way Metric songs usually develop is that I write something on the piano that sounds a lot like those songs. I bring it to Jimmy, he speeds it up about 15 BPM and adds instrumentation and gives it energy. I love that contrast we have, so often, between the melancholy lyrics and this upbeat, melodic arrangements. It gives you the sense of having your friends try and cheer you up. Metric is, in many ways, my friends ‘cheering up’ my songs. To me, that makes them interesting; takes them away from this clichéd self-reflective-girl-with-a-piano genre, which is something I’ve resisted my whole life. Because it seemed, to me, that was what a girl was supposed to do in music: sit quietly with a piano and be sad.”

But this time you didn’t want cheering up?
“Well, people tried. But it was hopeless. So, Knives was born [laughs]. But, in all seriousness, sometimes you just need to be sad. And it’s kind of gross to mask those feelings, to put on a brave face. Some things just have to be as they are.”

It’s like that bad new-age self-delusion, where everything has to be part of a ‘journey,’ every negative has to bring with it a positive.
“Exactly. There isn’t always a positive. That’s something we talk about in the band a lot. Metric is, for lack of a better word, ‘upbeat.’ It’s youthful, full of energy. It’s dance music! But it’s never doing that with the spirit of trying to hide what’s f**ked up. It’s in spite of what’s f**ked up, it’s acknowledging what’s f**ked up. We don’t want to be from the Jackson 5 school of positive music, where it sounds like people faking happiness under most dire circumstances. That’s, musically, the last thing I want to do with my time on Earth.”

You’ve said you’ve always written songs the exact same way, since when you were a kid. Are you, in some ways, almost the same person now as you were then?
“Almost terrifyingly so. My brother recently presented me with a video-tape of me doing a puppet-show performance for my family when I was six years old, and I am almost exactly the same now as I was then, both as a person and as a performer. I think it speaks either of my lack of maturity, or my genius [laughs].”

But children seem to come into the word with wholly formed personalities. I think society doesn’t make you who you are, but can change who you are.
“My mother always said she knew who all three of us were before we were born. It’s a fascinating idea, incredible to contemplate how the origins of identity come to be. But perhaps you and I are not the ones to figure it out, right here and now [laughs]. I do feel so grateful that I grew up untainted by adults f**king me up, that I had parents who were respectful of childhood, who allowed me to be the person they claimed they always knew I was. I wasn’t spoiled: my parents were just a couple of teachers living in a sh**ty town in Canada. It wasn’t posh. But it was filled with music.”

So, you always wanted to be a musician?
“I started out playing the piano to get out of doing the dishes, and I just never stopped. That’s really the focus of music in my life.”

Did you ever have to wash dishes to support making music as an adult?
“Thankfully not. When I moved to New York in 1997, I worked for a couple of years at a great place called Café Orlin on St. Mark’s Place, where rumour has it Jack White also worked. But then, in 1999, we got a very sketchy yet lucrative offer from a mysterious manager, who offered to take us to England and make us superstars. An offer we took up, foolishly, with very little research as to what we were getting into.”

And what were you getting yourselves into?
“In retrospect, it was very clear, and very clever on their part. If you charm some young group who has a bunch of songs, whisk them away and sign them to a publishing deal, if you play your cards right you can trick them into giving you 20% of everything they ever earn for the rest of their lives. Mercifully, we had good lawyers, and although I did sign a publishing deal about a week after arriving in England —one that I am still bound to, and probably will be for the rest of my life— it ended up being a pretty standard deal. The guy who brought us over there, though, had set up a total f**king scam. I’m pretty sure he’s a used furniture salesman these days. That was my introduction to the music industry.”

Next: "I think I’ve always frightened record execs..."

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