Emily Haines' Choir of the Mind is unapologetically self-indulgent
Metric lead singer Emily Haines makes no bones about slowing down and shrugging off rules with her newest solo album Choir of the Mind.
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It’s gently extended in context as a compliment to a friendly acquaintance of 20 years, but one still frets that Emily Haines might take the observation that her new solo album, Choir of the Mind, is more than a little “self-indulgent” the wrong way.
The promise of untrammelled self-indulgence is, of course, entirely the reason why musicians such as Haines take leave from time to time of their better-known day jobs — in her case, fronting the highly successful indie-rock quartet Metric — to make records on their own. That is, however, also entirely the reason why so many of those records wind up being not very good.
Haines, however, had no problem meeting any of the elevated expectations brought on by the early Metric catalogue in 2006 when she struck out on her own under the rather nebulous banner of Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton to create the sombre, stately and subtly riveting solo sojourn Knives Don’t Have Your Back, nor the compactly compelling expansion upon that album’s patient, piano-guided chamber-pop palette that was its 2007 followup EP, What Is Free to a Good Home?
She indulged herself well beyond the parameters of Metric’s tart indie-pop punch then to little complaint, and she does it again with even less attention to verse/chorus/verse convention on the free-floating Choir of the Mind. Aside from an exhilarating liftoff into a motorik ether peopled by overlaid Emilys chattering “The things they own, they own you” on lead single Fatal Gift, and a coyly feminist swish into bossa nova on Statuette, the album mostly unspools over languid piano arrangements and bubbling-under heartbeat percussion both organic and electronic at a pace even more unhurried than that of its predecessors.
By the time Haines — who was given the middle name Savitri by her parents, mother Jo and her late poet father Paul, upon birth in New Delhi in 1974 — starts reciting lines from Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol during Choir of the Mind’s seven-minute title track, you’re either in or you’re out. It is unapologetically self-indulgent. And she doesn’t mind if you say so.
“I felt those moments, too — mostly in, like, the lengths of the songs,” she says, nevertheless insisting that appointing herself Choir’s producer didn’t necessarily mean it was always “see Emily play” in the studio. “That’s the thing: I’m a really harsh editor. But in this case I indulged the lengths of the songs, I think, almost comically ...
“The idea is, if the record is working for someone, that it’s a respite. It’s this idea that we wake up in the morning and we have so much that we have to consume — and it’s a very abstract thing to try to describe or to aim for — so I wanted this to be kind of like a vapour and a reprieve from that.
“It’s not like I’m challenging you, it’s like: ‘If this is the way you want to feel, the voice will just lead you in and then it’s just on and it’ll stay with you.’ I’m not trying to dangle bells and whistles at you. It’s just ‘If this is where you want to be, stay.’ It’s not trying to impress you and stimulate you the whole time. It’s kind of just keeping you company.”
The making of the record, most of which involved nothing more than Haines sitting at a borrowed 1800s grand piano with an engineer nearby at Metric’s west-end Giant Studio for a month or two before her longtime Metric creative partner Jimmy Shaw came in “at the last 30 per cent” to do a bit of playing and sound-sculpting and mixing, was a bona fide holiday from her arena-rockin’ “real” life. And, like all good holidays, hers was an indulgence in the things that give her pleasure; in this case, being “freed of so many of the things that interfere with my desire to develop the craft of musicianship” and thus pursuing the development of that craft accordingly.
“You know this about me,” she says. “I’ve always been nose-to-the-grindstone. That’s just where I’m comfortable. That’s where I’m most comfortable, just in the work ... My days for this were back to the way that I started, which is five hours at the piano. Two hours, take a break, back at the piano, get it under your fingers, practice, practice, practice, writing, practice, developing the live show.”
There will be a tour of mostly out-of-the-way venues in support of Choir of the Mind with a new Soft Skeleton band composed of Shaw and Broken Social Scene fixtures Justin Peroff and Sam Goldberg, but Haines isn’t hell-bent on preaching to anyone but the converted. There are already “15 or 20” songs written for the followup to Metric’s 2015 album Pagans in Vegas, and recording will begin this month. In the meantime, she will continue to quietly do her own thing, for whoever is interested.
“It’s so demanding being in Metric that I don’t really need a lot of attention on this,” she says. “I just want people to be aware that it’s there, and if they want to follow this sort of art project that (multimedia artist) Justin (Broadbent) and I are doing, I think it’s really satisfying if you like that kind of thing. It’s totally in pace with the record — it’s slow and patient — so I think, for people who care, I just want them to know it’s happening so they don’t miss it and they don’t miss the shows.”
No, Choir of the Mind is not a pop record. It is, in Haines’s own words, “a complete art record” — one whose musical compositions will each have a visual counterpart dreamed up by multimedia artist Justin Broadbent, the man also responsible for the portrait of a badass, baseball-bat-totin’ Emily Haines adorning Choir of the Mind’s cover — and she’s not terribly bothered about pushing it on anybody.