To her fans, who include singers as different as Skye Sweetnam and Nelly Furtado, Emily Haines is the peppery, Moog synthesizer-wielding frontwoman for new wave-y dance-rockers Metric.
However, her wickedly titled, buzz-creating second solo disc, “Knives Don’t Have Your Back” - a collection of moody yet enticing piano-driven songs - cuts a new swath for the 32-year-old Toronto singer-songwriter.
During a rehearsal break on the night before she is to open her tour in Montreal, Haines is asked how Metric admirers are responding to her dramatic mood swing.
“It seems they understand it’s the same person, just at a different time of day,” she replies. “Everyone I know goes to rock `n’ roll shows, drinks a lot and gets (messed) up, but in the morning they wake up and take baths and need a different kind of music. `Knives’ is that music.”
Any reaction from her band mates since the disc was released in late September?
“I think it’s always been clear that I have a lot of other material besides what I write for Metric,” she answers. And, she notes, other band members have outside projects (bassist Josh Winstead and drummer Joules Scott-Key have a band called Bang Lime, for example).
“I really need to inhabit this mood for a while,” she says. “I always wanted to make a winter record, but winter never came.”
To recreate “Knives’” atmosphere, on a handful of dates Haines will be backed by strings and horns, just as she is on the record. (In Montreal, she is slated to work with the string section of indie-rockers The Arcade Fire and the horn players on “Knives.”)
Sparklehorse drummer Scott Minor, who played on “Knives,” and ex-Mercury Rev and current Silver Rockets bassist Paul Dillon will be part of her backing band, The Soft Skeleton.
Another, more unusual accompanist will be classically trained pianist Todor Kobakov, whom Haines calls “Canada’s most talented Bulgarian.” Kobakov, who did the string arrangements on “Knives,” will run a projector showing films he created for each song out of images from the work of director Guy Maddin.
“Around the time I was conceiving this record, I saw (Maddin’s 2003 film) `The Saddest Music in the World’ and was turned on,” says Haines. “I contacted him, we became friends and he gave permission to use any images I wanted from his films.”
Did Kobakov only use Maddin’s work?
“I don’t know,” Haines says. “There’s probably some extra footage of his that he’s snuck in there.”
Earlier in her career, Haines performed blindfolded on occasion. Is that an option on this tour?
“I never know what I’m gonna do next,” she replies. “It depends how intense the tour is. I try to keep myself entertained, and try not to anticipate myself.”
Haines is the daughter of the late Montreal poet Paul Haines, who collaborated with jazz musician Carla Bley on 1968’s “Escalator Over the Hill” and 1973’s “Tropic Appetites” albums. She freely admits her father’s influence in her writing. “He was the most oblique ever,” she told Newsday this week. “He was disdainful of anything obvious.”
Haines, who graduated from art school in Canada in the late 1990s, says her music “is structured, but it’s not. ... My favorite thing about composition is when things seem to be writing themselves. ... It’s always easiest when things want to be born.”
After she puckishly observes that “Knives” “sounds really good in airports,” Haines is asked about one of its keenest tracks, “Crowd Surf Off a Cliff,” which unfolds like a dream.
“I am most concerned about what can happen when you are adventurous with your life and career,” she says. “You keep sending yourself out there and sometimes you can’t make it back.”
And “Nothing & Nowhere,” a meditation on impermanence where she observes, “Some say life is insane, but it isn’t insane on paper”?
“Generally I find it odd to go back and ascribe meaning to something, but it’s about anyone who doesn’t have complete control of their life, who has to grapple with the external world and what the world expects of you.”
Then she laughs. “Oh, the road is so hard! That’s what it’s about. Metric did 260 dates in 2006. But I don’t want it to be referential to that, because as musicians, our worst problems are still luxury problems. But when you’re going to do a tour, you’re handed a piece of paper with your life written out on it for months. Someone can write it on a piece of paper, but then a person has to physically do it.”
What about the hazy, melancholy “Doctor’s Blind,” which proposes pharmacological answers to emotional upsets?
“The whole mood was inspired by `Rosemary’s Baby.’” she says. (Krzysztof Komeda’s) soundtrack was a big influence.”
As the conversation comes to a close, Haines is asked if she thinks of herself as a role model for young women in the way Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon is for her.
“I try not to focus on gender,” she says, “but everybody needs people to inspire them. The most valuable make you want to be more yourself, not more like them.”