Metric's Emily Haines on Gender, Instincts and Pagans in Vegas

Music Features Emily Haines
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Emily Haines is the sort of indie pop star who readily embraces her reluctance to be labeled as such. As one of the constantly rotating lineup of members for critical darlings Broken Social Scene, Haines could’ve easily embraced that band’s success. Thankfully that hasn’t been the case as the vocalist/multi-instrumentalist has taken full advantage of her versatility as a singer and musician. This month’s release of Pagans in Vegas is just one in what’s become a long line of synth-pop experimentation and deviations from the temptation of norm or formula. As the band’s sixth full-length, Pagans may very well be their most comfortable, fitting somewhere between the upbeat, percussively-inclined Synthetica and the contemplative new wave of the band’s groundbreaking Fantasies. That quality of introspection via the almost deceptive conduit of catchy pop remains Metric’s most distinctive characteristic, and it’s one that Haines was eager to discuss in our interview, along with what’s changed and what sadly hasn’t for women in the music industry.

Paste : Pagans in Vegas seems a bit more relaxed than previous Metric records. Was there a deliberately pointed change in the band’s direction for this album?
Haines: It’s funny. To me, every record has been equally distinctive from the previous one, and I had similar conversations for every record from Old World Underground, which is really new-wavy, and people loved that—the dry vocals and the new wave sort of references. Then when we put out Live It Out, which was really aggressive rock, people said, “You have such a completely different sound!” But over the years, somehow the essence of who the band is, there’s some sort of thread that seems to go through all the records, and we never really know what that’s going to be. With Pagans it was no different just in the fact that we just followed what felt right. This is all just to say we have no idea what we’re doing, basically. [Laughs.] We’re following a really abstract feeling of trying to be brave and not repeat ourselves and to see where that leads us. In this case, we were supposed to take 2014 off completely because Synthetica was a real doozy of touring and working. I went traveling with my guitar and found myself doing all this writing, even though I didn’t have to, and Jimmy did the same thing, but in his studio with his rather excessive collection of incredible modular synthesizers. So when I came back, he had written what ended up being most of Pagans in Vegas. We were both kind of apologetic about it where it was like, “Agh, I wrote a record, sorry!” [Laughs.] Normally what we would have done is taken what he wrote and then brought it into the center, layered it with guitars, slowed things down or sped things up, and added in all the elements that would make it “rock.” For this it was just like—why? What I love is when you have the lead guitar player, who has always been very involved in the production of the albums, has co-produced all our albums, but that it’s the lead guitar player saying, “I don’t want to do any guitar.” [Laughs.] And there is guitar in the record, but it’s more based on stuff that I wrote on acoustics, and it’s a different approach. So yeah, it was a really interesting and scary feeling—but a great feeling—to just say, “Let’s make this be the record that it is without having to layer it with what would make it fit into the category of rock.”

Paste : Is that openness to instinct something that’s always been there for you guys, or has it been more along the lines of a learning process to get there?
Haines: Well, I haven’t ever been good at doing something that I don’t want to do. There’s not necessarily a set list of rules, or a technique rather, in the band. If I can’t sing the vocals for example, it means that it’s something that I don’t feel. It has nothing to do with the notes. So it’s nice to have this built-in sort of threshold. It’s an odd thing to navigate. You push yourself to do something that hasn’t been done, which I definitely did on this record, feeling more as though it was about what does the song want than what’s the predetermined identity of who I’m supposed to be in this project. But, I don’t know, like I said, I don’t really know what I’m doing, except that I know when it feels right, and when I’m excited about it. It’s the same for Jimmy and the guys, and it’s a pretty abstract measure, but it’s the only way that we’ve ever done anything and it hasn’t ever failed us—yet.

Paste : You grew up in a home where the arts were celebrated. Was that kind of support something that still compels and inspires you now?
Haines: Sure, I mean, I see this with my female friends and with the young kids that are in our lives, and there’s something about just the power of having strong men in your life, like having your dad and your brother really have your back as a young woman is a sadly somewhat unusual thing. And the fact that that was rooted in encouraging me to become a writer really set me into a world that I only later discovered was highly unusual. But I grew up feeling like that’s what a female musician is—just this completely mind-blowing composer and pianist and singer and incredible person that I’ve never even, in my estimation, approached her accomplishments remotely. But it was a hell of a lot better than whatever they were trying to sell us in the ‘80s like Tiffany or whatever. [Laughs.] Some things never change. They’ve been doing that for a while, sort of underestimating the dark heart of teenage girls. [Laughs.]

Paste : It’s interesting because that “niche” perception of female artists is still endemic to all the genres, and I think sometimes the indie scene gets this pass because of the way the music’s been sold, if that makes sense. Is that something you’ve seen as well over the last few years?
Haines: I think a lot of things have changed. I think there was a golden age of indie rock that we didn’t really know we were in until it was over. Now I’m so grateful, but it’s because of hard work as well that Metric is still viable and relevant and going strong, but we’ve seen so many people drop off, and it feels like we just barely clung to the outside of the arc or something. It feels like a lot of the possibilities for that kind of music have kind of dried up, ironically, with all the promise of the Internet. I’ve seen a lot of people just disappear in the climate of music where if it’s the same writers, just in terms of radio or exposure, that generally it’s the same people writing all the music. So if you’re a writer, that’s going to kind of pose a problem for you. I mean, the gender thing is weird. I feel like I come from a background, or a generation of looking at who came before and that idea of passing of the torch, like meeting Kim Gordon and having her encourage me to continue early in my career, and caring about who came before and who the other people are out there. But sadly I think it continues to be the case with women where as an artist you’re only going to be compared with other women, and then there’s always this implication that someone’s going to get the crown, whereas it seems with my male contemporaries it’s like “hey, we’re all in this together, bro, you’re on the team and the sport is happening,” but as women we’re all fucking figure skaters or something. For most of my career, I completely avoided the gender question, but recently I’m actually finding the need to speak out about it a little more just to dispel any ambiguity on my part of where I stand as a feminist and as a woman because I feel like my actions and my music have spoken for themselves over the years. But then we make a lot of new fans, and we’ve had a broader audience and more success, and it’s partly why we started the album with “Lie Lie Lie” and “Fortunes.” If you’re gonna have trouble with that, you should probably just see yourself out. I just want to make sure that there’s no misunderstanding of where I’m at.

Paste : Have you seen those misogynistic tendencies in the music-marketing world become less entrenched?
Haines: No. There’s such condescension towards the female consumer in general. Especially if you’re a teenage girl, it’s like, “Oh, you can be like these girls!” They’re being manipulated, and when I look out at our crowd, it’s diverse. It’s not just guys. It’s not just girls, and I think that’s 100 percent the point. The band that I’m in, it’s not like these guys have different views than I do on issues that are important. We’re all in the same reality. It’s just the endless insistence on making a gender divide. It’s just so tedious. It’s a bit of a riddle, and it’s why I haven’t been more outspoken about gender as a topic in the past because I always was like, “I want to play on the regulation court. I don’t want to be in the pink corner.”[Laughs.] I want to be in the main room. I don’t want to be in a separate category, because then it’s just too many qualifiers before your name. It’s like, “female-fronted Canadian and indie” is all a bit much. How about fronting Metric? [Laughs.]

Paste : I wanted to talk about your vocal stylization for a moment. Is that something you’re continually developing? Have you seen yourself evolve musically in that regard?
Haines: Well, it’s the most important thing to me. That’s always been the main thing that I’m doing, and I feel like I learned to sing so that I could sing what I wrote and to play what I was thinking. [Laughs.] As opposed to coming out as a virtuoso musician. It’s an odd thing, though, because the quest for the perfect three-minute song is not for the faint of heart, and I feel like it’s led me in some ways to less illustrative writing, less nuanced writing, because of the idea of being able to say something so clearly and cleanly has been a pursuit lately. So I don’t know if I’m getting any better. I better be getting better because I’ve cannibalized my entire life for my writing, so I hope it’s worth it. [Laughs.]

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