Red Wine and a Frozen Hand

An Interview with Emily Haines

by Ryan S. Henriquez

6 December 2006

Emily Haines goes solo, but she doesn't leave her friends behind. It seems like she likes people.
Emily Haines [Photo: Candace Meyer] 

Whether whispering “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” in Toronto’s indie pop collective Broken Social Scene, or fronting the dance-punk quartet Metric, Emily Haines commands the presence of a true rock chanteuse, successor to the likes of Debbie Harry or Chrissie Hynde. And while her varying styles and band involvements constantly keep her fans guessing, the chameleon-like Haines has served up what may be the biggest surprise of all with the recent release of her first official solo record, Knives Don’t Have Your Back (Last Gang, 2006).

PopMatters caught up with Emily Haines via cell phone at the checkout counter of a Toronto drug store, on her way to a friend’s house for dinner. On a short break after completing a short solo tour supporting Knives, she will leave in two days to rejoin her band Metric in New York City en route to more music festivals in Iceland, Istanbul, and beyond. Following this latest Metric leg (the band approaching the impressive benchmark of 500 shows since 2002), the band will return to their current home in Toronto to begin work on their fourth studio album, before Haines bolts once again on another solo tour of North American theaters in early 2007.

cover art

Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton

Knives Don't Have Your Back

(Last Gang)
US: 26 Sep 2006
UK: Available as import

Are you still at the drug store?
No, but this is great, I feel like having you here with me on my evening errands is making it more like an in-person interview.

Happy to be along for the ride.
And next we go the liquor store! Then on to a friend’s house for a bowl of homemade butternut squash soup. Mmm-mmmm…

Are you fighting a cold right now?
No way! Just keepin’ it sultry.

I wasn’t sure, what with the trip to the drug store.
No, it’s my inability to resist expensive cosmetics.

That’s your vice?
Right before I travel—we’re about to get back on the road for about a month—I have a panicky sense of needing every possibly toiletry known to man. It’s not rational.

Have you run into any problems with airport security with all those products?
A little bit. For me, since I travel a lot, it’s a matter of drinking three huge bottles of water and lathering on the moisturizer before I board. [Laughter]

Have you had some downtime since the conclusion of this last mini-tour supporting Knives Don’t Have Your Back?
Yeah it’s been nice. When I finished this last tour, I’d been out on the road for so long, that I thought about going someplace exotic. And then I realized that for me, home [Toronto] had become the exotic place. Ah, here we are [at the liquor store]. Now let’s go get a bottle of Italian red.

Sounds good.
Are you fan of Italian reds? Like Ripasso? It’s the only wine I ever wanna drink. When you’re like me and you feel bad about buying a $35 bottle of wine, the Ripasso is definitely adequate. That’s what I’m rockin’ right now.

I’m sure your hosts will be impressed when you arrive on their doorstep with a fine imported bottle of Italian red.
Most of my friends and family—we’re anarchists—so I need to be very careful. I’ll buy a bottle of wine that I think is great, but it will turn out to be from some region that was destroyed by the establishment. I’ll become very unpopular.

Political wine shopping…
We’ll get a couple of these. These look good. So you’re holed up at your office talking to me. I want to start doing things like that.

Like what?
Like talking to people. I just met Terry Gilliam. There was a screening of the Director’s Cut of Brazil here in Toronto, and we spoke afterwards. He’s very self-deprecating. He looks like an old hippie. He said he cannot even remember the person he was when he made Brazil. He said he couldn’t make a movie like that now because he knows too much about the business. But when you see the torture scenes in Brazil, it’s just all-too-familiar. Hell, it’s mirroring what’s on the cover of the New York Times. I’d like to send him a copy of latest record. He asked PJ Harvey to write a song for [Gilliam’s new film] Tideland, and in the end it didn’t make it, but that would be pretty phenomenal to have a song in a Terry Gilliam film. Wow.

Actually, I think your music, and especially this latest record, has a very filmic quality about it. “Dr. Blind” [off Knives] for instance. Every time I hear that song, I think of the film Rosemary’s Baby.
Wow. That’s so funny.

Have you seem that movie before?
Of course! That’s exactly ... I mean there is a section of that song [she harmonizes, singing in a spooky Gothic tone, evoking Rosemary’s Baby] which is exactly modeled on that film. Wow. I’m so happy to hear that that came across! Since I work so much with language as a lyricist, I’m excited about the prospect of being able to create a narrative without words; and that section of that song in particular I feel is my first foray into doing that.

The song’s quite mesmerizing, actually. Especially since the weather’s been sort of crappy in New York lately, it’s a good one to walk around ... it sort of creates this comfortably numb haze which is perfect for a rainy day. In fact, I can see Knives becoming a “blanket” of sorts for the upcoming winter, much in the way of a Sundays or Nick Drake record.
Oh perfect. That’s exactly what I’d hoped. I’d also suggest listening to that song “Dr. Blind” on sleeping pills while on an airplane drinking red wine. [laughter]

Do have any records or artists that create that type of “blanket” for you on a cold rainy day?
Definitely Robert Wyatt records. He’s a psychedelic rock guy from the late ‘60s early ‘70s. He was in a group called the Soft Machine, and had a tragic accident and then went on to make this beautiful music.

What kind of an accident was he involved in?
I can’t actually ... I can give you the “official” story ... the fact is he is an old friend of my father’s and…

Gotcha ... say no more…
The point is he’s paralyzed now. It’s actually quite a story. Maybe someday if we become good friends we’ll have a late night drink and I’ll tell you, but out of respect for his privacy, I’d prefer not to discuss it.

Another artist who comes to mind from listening to your record is Elliott Smith.
Hah. That was the first artist I was going to say [when you asked me the “blanket” question].

As an artist, how do you feel about the age-old ironic paradox that pain brings about some of the best or most powerful art?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I mean, is it going to be unnecessary for me to be unhappy my whole life? [She giggles.] That might be fine, but for me there is always this sense of melancholy and a fear of anything resembling the complacent. I hung out with a fellow recently who had a chance to see my mind working over the course of a few days, and his reaction was to say, ‘Wow, you could be a prolific songwriter forever because you just won’t let anything ... rest.’ It makes me sometimes feel like ‘Damn! Maybe I don’t want to write my whole life,’ because there has to be some point in your life where you can find some peace without, ya know, disappearing.

In the Elliott Smith biography (Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing), the writer paints this picture of Elliott simply falling apart at the seams during the recording of his last album. He was having a complete nervous breakdown. He was sick. And yet from out of that dark time came this sublime, beautiful music.
He is someone who I just think was meant to live in another time, when being a musician didn’t mean having to be seen. There is a reason that people—and I include myself in this—there’s a reason people are drawn to sound, because there’s something you can’t quite take about the straight, visceral world.

[to cabbie]: Here it is. McLaren. Make a left. Yeah.

[to PM]: Sorry about that.

No problem. And if you need to get going at any time…
This is ... no I’m happy ... I’m totally integrated into this conversation. No, Elliott Smith just didn’t want to be looked at. But that’s part of being a musician at this point. I think with most artists of our generation you embrace it, and you make it part of what you’re doing, and I’ve tried to do that as much as possible. But I still think about this all the time. And for these songs [on Knives], the reasons I would lock myself in a dark room and play the piano was not because I wanted everyone to look at me. Quite the contrary. And that’s what I hear in [Smith’s] music. He created this different place that is using different senses. And he did it, but he didn’t want to be here for it. I just feel really fucked up about [his death].

Me too. I get hung up on this stuff a lot. My friends often joke with me that I’m obsessed with dead-too-soon rock stars. I’ve been thinking about the band Morphine a lot ... are you familiar?
Oh yeah.

The lead singer Mark Sandman was performing live on stage outside of Rome and he just collapsed. No drugs in his system; just this massive heart attack.
There’s something about dying that way, too. My father died ... I don’t know if you know his work at all ... nobody does ... I don’t mind if you don’t but…

I know he was a poet…
He was a writer, a poet, and I consider him the original DJ because he used to always make these mix-tapes. I mean, for the last 40 years, he made these incredibly eclectic mix-tapes and he would never tell anyone who was on it. When he died, he had just been downstairs with my mom, planning this trip to Istanbul to write about a jazz festival, and he went upstairs, and died at his desk with his tape player on pause. That was basically the equivalent of him dying on stage. Just out.

To some degree, I imagine it must be somewhat reassuring that this person was doing exactly what they loved all the way up until the end.
When you get past the selfish part, yeah it’s kind of amazing. It makes death seem like a more beautiful force of nature than when you see someone slowly decay.

What do you miss most about living in New York?
Walking. And I like feeling small. And you can also romanticize your life there like nobody’s business. It’s actually a little addictive. ‘I’m not just gettin’ a coffee. I’m gettin’ a coffee ... in New York City!’ [laughter] That kept me going for many, many years.

When you played Joe’s Pub recently, you commented that when you were a waitress in New York, you would walk by and say, ‘Ahh ... someday I’ll play there.’ Do you ever find it a bit backwards that you made your way to the Madison Square Garden stage [Metric opened for the Rolling Stones in early 2006] before Joe’s Pub?
That’s funny when you put it that way, but remember, I took the subway to Madison Square Garden!

Can you describe what it was like opening for the Stones?
It was like the greatest of great New York weekends. We didn’t take it or ourselves too seriously, which I think was our saving grace. We just tried to be a decent rock ‘n’ roll band, which is all we ever really wanted to be. The craziest part for me was just being there for soundcheck and hearing them play, and realizing that they are a really good band. Totally a little bar band. But a great little bar band. But it felt, honestly, it felt natural. And I think we tried to put it in all of our heads that this was believable and to just enjoy it.

Were you able to take in the grandeur of playing MSG?
We tried to imagine that [the crowd] were here for us, even though we know they they’re not. It’s almost better that we weren’t opening for one of our contemporaries, because we didn’t have any illusions that we were necessarily going to win people over, which actually took away a lot of pressure.

Did you play well?
Yeah, we played really well. And we won the respect of their roadies, which was what we needed. But it’s strange to think about it, to see that [like the Stones] you can create your whole life. Whether they’re debaucherous role models or not, it’s still a very powerful message of ‘Just Make Noise!’ It’s for a fucking sound!

And it’s great!
It IS great!

People live for it!
Let’s get to a rock show right now!! [laughter]

Are you at your friend’s place?
Not yet. I’m now doing the frozen-hand cell-phone walk. It snowed here today. But I’m just making my way to what I hope will be a glamorously fashionably late entrance, and not just a she’s-such-a-pain-in-the-ass late entrance.

Well, a few bottles of wine are the best fashion accessory you can bring.
That and a big smile will hopefully do the trick.

I know Amy Millan [lead singer of Stars, and fellow adjunct member of Broken Social Scene] played Joe’s Pub last week. Have you had a chance to speak to Emily about this common experience you share of breaking away from your respective bands for a spell to release solo albums?
We were really good friends when we were 15, and we always keep an eye on each other. I saw her at the Virgin Music Festival here a few weeks back, and I’m glad she finally [released a solo album]. It seems like everyone I know is so fucking talented! It’s amazing.

I’ve been fascinated with the Broken Social Scene collective for a while, and it’s hard not to marvel at the talent—not only in [BSS], but in all the various offshoots that have stemmed from that band.
That is actually a common misconception. It’s the other way around. All these bands donated themselves to Broken Social Scene. We were all in bands, but we just loved each other, so we said, ‘Hey let’s play music.’ We just wanna play all the time! But it’s actually the other way ‘round.  Stars, Metric, Feist, and all these other bands, were around for probably five years before Broken Social Scene. But nevertheless, I know what you mean. It’s cool to see everyone return now to their origins.

A lot of folks in all walks of life are leery of mixing friendships with their professional responsibilities, and yet your professional life revolves around working with your friends. Is that a hard balance to strike?
Metric made a decision not to sign with Arts & Crafts [Toronto label founded by Broken Social Scene founder Kevin Drew, also home to Stars, Hidden Cameras, the Dears and Phoenix] for that reason. So we don’t have our money tied up with our friends. But I think that was the ticket—never having to fight over the same income. But the definition of our friendships was that we always wanted to do more. ‘Yeah, we’ll drink, but then let’s get fucked up enough to write a song, and try to get someone like [Dave] Neufeld [BSS producer] to record it!’

Alright, to finish up, I have a few random questions. Which of the Go-Go’s do you most identify with. Belinda Carlisle or Jane Wiedlin?
The other one. [laughter]

You’re on a desert island. You can take the entire catalog of one recording artist or band with you. Who would it be?
Carla Bley. She’s a New York composer.

Same question, but instead of stereo, you’re on an island with a DVD player. What director’s movies do you bring?
David Lynch.

Emily, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me tonight.
My pleasure. It’s been great.

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