Emily Haines is not known for keeping her thoughts to herself.
As part of Toronto’s Metric, the notoriously outspoken singer-keyboardist incorporates her political beliefs into wildly infectious synth-rock songs. On 2003’s Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (Everloving) and last fall’s Live It Out (Last Gang), Haines tackled such unlikely pop-song subject matters as war, Big Brother, and the emptiness of consumer culture with thrilling, often thought-provoking results. “Buy this car to drive to work/ Drive to work to pay for this car” — from “Handshakes” — is a typical sentiment. She’s even more articulate in Metric interviews, discussing everything from voter disenfranchisement to the futility of trying to create real change through music.
It’s strange, then, that Haines is tight-lipped when it comes to her solo debut, Knives Don’t Have Your Back, out Sept. 26 on Last Gang. During a phone conversation from England, where Metric performed at Reading Festival two days prior, she sounds annoyed by the mere idea of talking about her album’s lyrics. “Do you think you can put it in words?” she icily counters when asked to elaborate on the central theme. “If I have to name the narrative, then there’s no point in having had one there at all.” Clearly, she prefers to keep her own songs open to interpretation.
Thing is, Knives is such a huge artistic departure both musically and lyrically for Haines that some insight might prove helpful. Rather than rely on the propulsive energy and shout-it-out choruses that define Metric’s sound, Haines (who also moonlights in Broken Social Scene) has recorded an album of soft, piano-based hymns more intent on capturing a mood — and a seriously somber one at that — than whipping audiences into raucous, dance-floor frenzies. Recorded with help from members of Sparklehorse, Stars, and Broken Social Scene, the album is hardly recognizable as the work of the same feisty woman who fronts Metric.
Haines, however, insists she didn’t approach Knives’s songs any differently than those of her band. “I spend all my time at the piano,” she explains. “For Metric, we’ve always just adapted my piano songs into a rock ’n’ roll format. So it was interesting [for Knives] to keep some of them for myself and leave them as is. Because I’ve always written more music than anyone could be asked to digest, I just chose the songs that I realized it’d be kind of sad if I never, ever put them out. It’s taken me a while to get up the nerve to release them though.”
The product of a rather lengthy incubation period, Knives was written over four years and recorded in as many cities — namely, Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles, and New York. So it’s a bit surprising that the album comes off as such a cohesive collection of, as Haines puts it, photographs from her past. “It ended up feeling like snapshots over that period of time,” she says. “When I look back and listen to these songs, I feel like the last four years have been some of the most intense.”
As song titles such as “Our Hell” and “Nothing and Nowhere” suggest, the result is almost abysmally bleak. Turning her focus from political anger to personal turmoil, Haines ruminates extensively on pain, loss, loneliness, and despair. “Are we breathing? Are we wasting our breath?” she sings in “Crowd Surf off a Cliff.” Even more unnerving, “The Last Page” finds her cryptically singing, “Death is absolutely safe.” But while the entire album could pass as a heartrending document of one woman’s extremely troubled times, all Haines will say (and only after much prodding) is that Knives is “essentially about being grateful for what you have, even when your life is shit.”
When she comes to San Francisco this week — a sequel to her July 2004 Cafe du Nord appearance, where she offered a rare sneak preview of an in-progress Knives — Haines will be accompanied by bassist Paul Dillon and Sparklehorse drummer Scott Minor, whom she’s enlisted to help her “nail that Plastic Ono Band vibe.” She’ll then head back to England for another Metric tour and to start recording the band’s third album. Later, if time allows, she hopes to play more solo gigs and eventually perform again with Broken Social Scene.
In other words, while fans may find it odd that Haines is suddenly mum about her solo music, they can take comfort that she’s fast becoming one of the busiest artists in indie rock.
“It’s weird,” she says. “When people say to me how busy my life is, I suppose that I really am ridiculously busy. But to me, it just feels like being a musician. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I’m doing. I’m making music. It’s not a job. It’s my life. It’s my friends and my family. So the more the better.” SFBG
EMILY HAINES AND THE SOFT SKELETON
Fri/22, 9 p.m.
Cafe du Nord
2170 Market, SF