Music

Emily Haines On How Metric’s Latest Record, ‘Art Of Doubt,’ Brought The Band Full Circle

Metric

Last year as the early singles for a new Metric album began rolling out, one thing became clear: Art Of Doubt was packed with the same dark, shimmering rock that made their 2009 record, Fantasies, a surging breakout album for the Canadian rockers. Emily Haines, the formidable and seemingly fearless leader of the band, was a woman ahead of her time ten years ago, seamlessly weaving tongue-in-cheek references to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones into a searing brand of rock that felt brand new, while always unabashedly leaning into her own femininity, and writing songs that crackled with the undeniable tensions of lived female experiences.

Taking periodic breaks from the no-holds-barred rock of Metric to release quieter, softer solo projects as Soft Skeleton, her commitment to the group stayed strong, even as her solo projects met with increasing critical acclaim. So, it’s hard to call Art Of Doubt a return to form, considering Metric released two well-received full-length albums since then — 2012’s Synthetica and 2015’s Pagans In Vegas — but it does seem to have recaptured some of the fiery, cutting edge style that catapulted them to the forefront of the rock conversation a decade ago.

Ten years later, after the conversation about rock has waxed, waned, and begun to shift into a new, post-hip-hop era, Metric are leading the charge once again. Art Of Doubt was one of the best albums released in 2018, touching on all the issues leading up to and surrounding the #MeToo movement, and even if it didn’t gain the kind of attention that releases of its caliber in rap and pop easily earned, that only speaks to the way that zeitgeist and commercial forces have shifted. But if rock is now to be seen as more of a subgenre, then perhaps that allows fans to let their attention laser in on the acts who still unequivocally deserve it.

For a band to have the kind of longevity that Metric does, and to be able to recapture the magic of an early, breakout record several albums down the line, says a lot about their internal chemistry. And despite the power of the unit, it’s still Haines who stands at the center of that hurricane, passionately delivering lyrics from the eye of the storm, then stepping out into the swirling madness herself when necessary. Right before releasing their brand new album, Metric went on tour opening for Smashing Pumpkins, a formidable task that they tackled with grace. Since this latest album came out in late September of 2018, they’ve embarked on their own headlining tour, which stops in Los Angeles tonight at the Palladium.

Ahead of tonight’s show, I spoke with Haines about how Art Of Doubt brought the band full circle, her own experiences with Soft Skeleton, and writing songs that feel like they become prophecies.

I’m a huge Metric fan, and have been for a while, but it really started for me in 2009 when Fantasies came out. Art Of Doubt is your first album since then to remind me of how I felt listening to those old songs and pull me back to those roots. On your side, is that something that you were feeling in this music and band chemistry, too? Was there something special about this release that felt like a return to form in some way?

Yes, it’s exactly what your impression was — and thank you. I’m so happy to hear that it translated because that was exactly what we set out to do, regroup around that preliminary bond and the chemistry between the four of us. We’re super experimental people, which is why all the albums have been sonically adventurous, and it was almost as though we had now achieved a level of exploration that there was something to come back to and somewhere to come back from. Our goal was to just go back to the essence of that. Onstage it feels very much like our earliest days as well, and to really develop over all these years and all these albums and then still find that going back somehow still felt new is amazing. I’m still just completely enamored and fascinated by the musical process. It’s still quite magical and mysterious to me.

I totally agree. I was reading that bringing in an outside producer in Justin Meldal-Johnsen really helped you and James Shaw [guitarist] double back into the fabric of songwriting. Can you touch on that and tell me a little bit about the songwriting process, particularly for this album?

James and I embarked on this in like 1998, so it’s a lifelong commitment at this point. From the outside, one of the things he always wanted to develop, along with his musicianship, was producing. For me, it’s always been about developing the writing and obviously my voice, but more so the writing. So over the years, we really honed in this process where I bring in songs that sound quite a lot like the Soft Skeleton stuff. I write from a very raw place, and it’s very fundamentalist. Then he sort of helps me refine what I’m trying to say and also makes room within that composition for him and the rest of the band.

Over the years, it’s really evolved. We laugh about it now. Like, my writing can be pretty out there. I used to bring in these pretty abstract surges and he’s like… ‘okay?’ Metric is this high-energy f*cking production, like loud! But that also doesn’t mean we can’t play a total downer in the middle of that. So over the years, I’ve developed some of my own production skill and I actually had a big hand in producing my last solo album as Soft Skeleton. So, I now present the band with a little bit more fleshed out ideas — but the essential writing process is the same as it was in the beginning. It’s me praying at the altar of my piano and then bringing it into the studio and us bouncing things back and forth.

You brought up Soft Skeleton, which is one of the things I wanted to discuss. I saw you last year on that tour in LA, and it was a very moving show. That last Soft Skeleton album, Choir Of The Mind, felt like one of the strongest entries into that canon, and then this felt to me like one of the strongest entries into the Metric canon. So I’m wondering, are you feeling at the top of your game as a songwriter lately? It seems like the longer that you’re doing this, you’re feeling like a veteran instead of burnt out.

This is a topic in the band and sort of an interesting thing to think about: Where is that line and what is the distinction between endurance and resilience and life force, or the alternative, which is dragging yourself through something that’s long dead? And it really does feel to me that I’m just getting there, I’m still totally evolving and improving and yeah, more dedicated than ever to the work and more immersed in it than ever. And luckily, I protect myself from some possible harsh realities but I’d like to think that I don’t feel like I’m experiencing really sexism or ageism around my work. I I feel respected and I feel like I’ve earned that. And if I’m wrong, don’t f*cking tell me. But, also, it’s not just musicians, it’s like how are you gonna handle your life? We’ve all been twenty… and then you’re not twenty. You see it in people in all walks of life, and I really respect that idea of endurance and resilience.

Yeah and just the idea that life doesn’t end after middle age, which is maybe something that our parent’s generation internalized? So as far as Soft Skeleton, how does it differ as far as your experience from Metric? What do you get there that’s different from the band and what does Metric offer that the side project just doesn’t?

I guess the main distinction is really the people I’m playing with. Metric is definitely the heart and soul of my musical life or has been until now, we’ll see how things evolve. But when I’m working on stuff for Metric, I always these three very specific people that are my esteemed colleagues and deep family in mind when I’m writing and everything I bring to it — and also, things related to imagery and videos/visuals. I have no desire to fill a stadium with Skeleton. Whereas with Metric, we do.

I just feel it’s on principle less developed. So I feel like I’m allowed to be a little weirder, a lot more personal and nuanced and sonically explore other things so it’s actually a really nice compliment, the two things. I feel like there’s no lethargy at all in Skeleton. It’s slow and it’s heavy but I’m putting the same level of energy and intensity into sitting at a piano as I would with Metric. And I think if I didn’t have that hardcore life, I wouldn’t have learned how to harness that kind of energy. So I feel really lucky that I get to do both.

Getting much more into the songs on Art Of Doubt, for the album you rolled out early on with “Dressed To Suppress” as one of the first songs in the cycle, which feels like a pretty direct comment on the patriarchy and misogynistic culture. Can you talk a little bit about your feelings on those subjects and how the song addresses some of that?

It’s pretty straight forward what thematically but it’s almost like I’ve actually never thought of this when I’m talking about. It almost makes me think it’s like this companion to “Hustle Rose,” I don’t know if you remember that song [from Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, Metric’s debut studio album released in 2003], where it’s again a character description. I feel like I’m describing an experience that we all share of that cyclical nature of things. But then I have such a sense of this character who is… every girl knows that feeling of putting on makeup and f*cking high heels and making this visual version of yourself that is oftentimes coming from… at least for me, from a dark place.

And the whole idea of navigating your appearance and who are you? Are you your appearance? It’s such a huge part of what makes you who you are and I just loved that phrase when it came to me. I was just like, ‘That’s exactly how I f*cking feel.’ And I know that all these women and girls and probably lots of guys are gonna know exactly what I’m talking about.

Sort of in that same vein, there’s a line on “Underline The Black” that sticks with me every time I listen to the record: ‘I’m not sorry I don’t think of you that often.’ Sometimes to me, that feels like the whole thesis of this album. You’re in this industry so long and people want to be involved in your narrative and they’re just not, or they don’t get to leave the impression on you, good or bad, that they think they have ownership over. I just wanted to get your thoughts on that song?

That’s definitely the zero f*cks given anthem on the album, which is something I actually found on the Skelton tour in Portland. I found these little ribbons like you would get in school when you did a race or something, like a little award that says, “Participation award, zero f*cks given,” that I gave to my parents. But, yeah, I wish that I could do in life the things that I say in songs because even right now, I actually have a really hard time saying that. And I love people too much and I actually find that. there’s a manifest destiny element of songwriting, where there’s the sense it’s almost like a mantra: If I write it and say it enough times with enough conviction and enough people listening, it will actually come true. We haven’t been playing that song live yet so hopefully by the end of the tour, I’ll be able to say that about some people right now I am thinking of often and I am sorry.

You’re also manifesting that destiny for those of us listening to it. I’m like, ‘okay, I gotta do this if she is.’

Well, I don’t want to blow my cover, but that is an interesting part of the songwriting, and also how a lot of songs end up seeming like notes to self from the past. With Art Of Doubt, we finished the record and it was like, ‘wow, so that’s about all the sh*t that’s been going on and I’ve been working through.’ And some songs are many, many years in the making… and then all the stuff went down since the record has come out, and now all the songs have this whole other layer of meaning. I’m like, ‘No, no, no. This is supposed to be about the past. What the f*ck is going on?’

It feels very connected to the #MeToo era, so I wondering if there was a political angle to it or something. But if it was written before, now it’s become sort of prophetic.

Exactly. And there’s something so — again, I sort of spoke to at the beginning of our conversation about how enthralled I am with the magic and mystery of writing. And just what happens with the whole concept of repetition and the time capsule that is a song and how it can just be … it’s like, ‘oh, now it’s your time for this to make sense.’ And it’s not always when it’s written, it’s funny.

There is another element though, about timing. “Now Or Never Now” is another song I really wanted to discuss because I felt like it highlights another theme of the record of sort of just do it already. Another one that touches on that as well is “Risk.” What was the influencing you to feel such a sense of urgency on this album or just communicating that in some of these songs?

It’s still a throughline of what we’ve already been talking about: If I say it, can I make it come true? I feel like the best thing that Metric does live is trying to bring people into the moment and that was the case long before. We’ve always had this pretty aggressive approach to being in the now.
But even before Friendster, or before everyone was looking at their phones, there was still that thing of people are standing in a room and no one’s actually there and the whole question of participation. You’re the one who’s gonna make the show, you know? If you don’t do anything, this is gonna suck. So I could really feel that song.

This record I’m actually looking forward to playing live, because something happens where, at least for me and hopefully the audience is feeling it too, is that wall kind of goes down and it’s like, we’re talking about right now. This isn’t a conceptual thing. It kind of gets meta. So there’s definitely a very conscious sense of this song, we need to be saying this to ourselves and people need to hear this right now because there is a sense of just whatever the political leanings, I think people are just feeling really overwhelmed or completely tuned out. I feel like it’s such a polarizing and extreme time. And I feel that way too, kind of confined between I can’t think about any of this stuff and then getting back into it feeling so powerless and defeated that you just end up going back to not being able to function. So hopefully that song energized people on the more challenging days.

“No Lights On The Horizon” stands out at the end as a great closer for the album. And again, there was a line that I just couldn’t get out of my head, “If it wasn’t for your kindness lately, I think I might be dead.” It makes me very emotional actually. Just thinking of the way that one person can change your life or even a small act of kindness can change your life or just keep you going for that day, I’m wondering if you can talk about how this song fit as an epilogue for the record?

Lyrically, I don’t know that I’ve ever — in Skeleton or anywhere else — been quite so straightforward as like, ‘it’s true, I’m flawed, it’s all my fault.’ I remember when I was like, ‘what’s the reality of this moment?’ And it was like, ‘f*ck, that is it.’ And I guess there’s a throughline of friendship on the album and the feeling of solidarity between the four of us and as you say. I have such an awareness and gratitude for the people who listen to our music but also just I have really great friends, and I’d like to think that’s because I am a good friend. But there are other times where it’s like, ‘hey, you just kind of saved my life.’ It’s us trying to be as authentic, honest and unvarnished as possible.

And I’m really happy that we got that sprit on the record because this time that we’re in, it feels like everyone’s honoring really f*cking sketchy morals. I feel like we honor and aggrandize and reward the most vain, most self-absorbed, narcissistic people. We’re just like, ‘oh, that’s good. We like that.’ And musically and otherwise, whoever can be the biggest, most arrogant wins. And it’s so the opposite of the principle of being in a band. Everything I’m writing about and doing and getting up there, the whole point is that it’s the four of us together. It’s not the story of me and I’m really noticing that just even that idea for the few bands that remain, that even that ethos is not necessarily part of it and it’s so fundamental to who we are as people and when we were kids being like, ‘we’re gonna do this.’

That was why. It’s an ethical decision and a lifestyle choice to be like, ‘I live in this family with these people and it’s a democracy.’ Your views are challenged and you have to consider other people and also try to manifest yourself, everything, all of your potential but in the confines of a friendship, which is called also your life.

Art Of Doubt is out now via MMI/Crystal Math Music. Get it here and check out Metric’s tour dates here.

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