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First Play: Emily Haines, Choir of the Mind

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Melody Lau

As the Metric frontwoman sets up for the release of her upcoming solo album, Choir of the Mind, her first since 2006’s Knives Don’t Have Your Back (both under the moniker Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton), Emily Haines is acutely aware of the familiar circumstances she finds herself in. 2017, for Haines and her community of friends in the Toronto music scene, looks a lot like it did a decade ago. Feist, Broken Social Scene, Do Make Say Think and Stars have all released new music this year and Haines even found herself back on tour with Broken Social Scene for some dates in Europe this summer.

“It’s weird, you just find yourself orbiting planets or something,” she says, smiling at the coincidental nature of it all. “It wasn’t by design, I don’t think it could be, but I like the idea that things can work like that and you just kind of go forward and find yourself, sometimes, back at an important part of your past.”

Haines took a similar route on Choir of the Mind. Revisiting her past to mine perspective on her present self, the album is a deep dive into the mind of a woman who has experienced a lot but has come out of it with her head still squarely on her shoulders, and with a clear urge to pass on some wisdom. And these wise words, while they are for others to hear and gain from, are also mantras that Haines has spun for herself.

On the Metric-turned-sprawling solo track, “Fatal Gift” (a demo was originally posted online in 2014), Haines turns repetition into enlightenment as she reminds us, “All the things you own, they own you.” It’s a track that starts with just Haines and her piano, but builds momentum like a speeding force that ropes in drums, guitars and bass, with its main refrain (and Haines’ voice) unmistakably in the driver’s seat the entire time. It’s the closest the album comes to sounding like Metric, a possible callback to tracks like “Handshakes” in its cyclical lyrics or “Rock me Now” in its late-night glam vibes, but that’s more or less where comparisons to the band end.

Elsewhere, on the solemn “Wounded,” Haines has a conversation with her younger self, pleading as she coos: “Girl, you got a wounded look, give it a rest.” There’s a breathiness to tracks like this, as well as the somber “Nihilist Abyss” and thudding “Minefield of Memory,” and it’s no mistake. “I ended up doing all these rhythm tracks of me breathing,” she reveals. (Haines produced the album with Jimmy Shaw, which was a first for her.) “I don’t know how much of that comes across in the recordings but that ended up being a very fundamental dimension to how I put the rhythm element in.

“Normally, I would ascribe those rhythms to conventional drum kits or an orchestra or other musicians,” she continues, expanding upon a phrase in a press release that described the songs on the album as “a panic attack on the bottom with a lullaby on top.” “But I just kept it all in house — literally — so I felt that erratic breathing and that feeling of panic, which I then calmed myself with using the words, like a lullabye.”

The results are what Haines calls a “sonic portrait of who I am,” a spirit that is equal parts conviction and vulnerability.

When asked what she was like as a teenager, Haines admits that she used to dread seeing the same street corners she frequented when she was 15 years old. “I was like, ‘Oh God, am I always going to be standing at the corner of Ossington and Dundas?’,” she recalls, of a Toronto intersection she still frequently crosses. But, through writing this new album, she has come to realize the “richness” of returning, coming full circle.

“To be able to come back around,” she adds. “It’s a kind of objective way to see how much you’ve changed when you come back to the exact same spot. When I was 15, I was basically the same — just chained to the piano, believing that that was going to solve all my problems.”

Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton's Choir of the Mind comes out on Sept. 15. You can pre-order it now on iTunes.