Emily Haines is not known for keeping her thoughts to herself.
As part of Toronto's Metric, the notoriously outspoken singer-keyboardist incorporates her political beliefs into wildly infectious synth-rock songs. On 2003's Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? (Everloving) and last fall's Live It Out (Last Gang), Haines tackled such unlikely pop-song subject matters as war, Big Brother, and the emptiness of consumer culture with thrilling, often thought-provoking results. "Buy this car to drive to work/ Drive to work to pay for this car" — from "Handshakes" — is a typical sentiment. She's even more articulate in Metric interviews, discussing everything from voter disenfranchisement to the futility of trying to create real change through music.
It's strange, then, that Haines is tight-lipped when it comes to her solo debut, Knives Don't Have Your Back, out Sept. 26 on Last Gang. During a phone conversation from England, where Metric performed at Reading Festival two days prior, she sounds annoyed by the mere idea of talking about her album's lyrics. "Do you think you can put it in words?" she icily counters when asked to elaborate on the central theme. "If I have to name the narrative, then there's no point in having had one there at all." Clearly, she prefers to keep her own songs open to interpretation.
Thing is, Knives is such a huge artistic departure both musically and lyrically for Haines that some insight might prove helpful. Rather than rely on the propulsive energy and shout-it-out choruses that define Metric's sound, Haines (who also moonlights in Broken Social Scene) has recorded an album of soft, piano-based hymns more intent on capturing a mood — and a seriously somber one at that — than whipping audiences into raucous, dance-floor frenzies. Recorded with help from members of Sparklehorse, Stars, and Broken Social Scene, the album is hardly recognizable as the work of the same feisty woman who fronts Metric.
Haines, however, insists she didn't approach Knives’s songs any differently than those of her band. "I spend all my time at the piano," she explains. "For Metric, we've always just adapted my piano songs into a rock ’n' roll format. So it was interesting [for Knives] to keep some of them for myself and leave them as is. Because I've always written more music than anyone could be asked to digest, I just chose the songs that I realized it'd be kind of sad if I never, ever put them out. It's taken me a while to get up the nerve to release them though."
The product of a rather lengthy incubation period, Knives was written over four years and recorded in as many cities — namely, Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles, and New York. So it's a bit surprising that the album comes off as such a cohesive collection of, as Haines puts it, photographs from her past. "It ended up feeling like snapshots over that period of time," she says. "When I look back and listen to these songs, I feel like the last four years have been some of the most intense."
As song titles such as "Our Hell" and "Nothing and Nowhere" suggest, the result is almost abysmally bleak. Turning her focus from political anger to personal turmoil, Haines ruminates extensively on pain, loss, loneliness, and despair. "Are we breathing?