Singer-songwriter Emily Haines—who fronts the Juno Award-winning band Metric—on the value of collaboration and the art of telling good ideas from bad ones.
You’ve written music as a solo artist, with your partner James Shaw for Metric and with the Broken Social Scene collective. Which approach works best for you?
They’re all interconnected. There’s a part of me that is deeply reclusive and wants to be alone with a piano, which is great, but for me it’s a bit of a danger to spend too long in deep introspection. It’s important to come up for air and to bring the songs to my band. I love how a song will start with [me writing about] a pretty serious and deeply personal problem, and then I bring it to Jimmy, and it becomes something euphoric that hundreds of people fist-pump to.
How much do you consider commercial appeal when working on new projects?
It is definitely something that creeps in, but the funny thing is you can’t really tell what’s going to connect. [The single] “Help I’m Alive” barely made it onto [Metric’s 2009 album] Fantasies. It was a piano ballad that was way too slow. And I think it’s our most successful radio song.
So is it a flawed assumption to even think you can tell what will have mass appeal?
Exactly. It’s a risky thing to chase; I wouldn’t recommend it. It should be surprising.
Before recording your most recent album Pagans in Vegas, you spent time in Spain and Nicaragua. Is travel a key element of your creative process?
I’m not the kind of person who says, “lock me in a windowless room. I’m going to create something beautiful.” What I tend to do is go as far away from the people I know, from regular life and just from myself, really, just to invert the reality that I’m accustomed to. It’s an odd process. It used to be a little more fun before iPhones. Now we have so many ways to search and to find things that you don’t necessarily get that experience of discovering something on your own. My rule is to go somewhere I’ve never been. One time, I just Googled “piano” and “apartment.” There were a few different places, and the one in Buenos Aires looked the best.
Do your travels tend to show up in your work in an explicit way, or is it more subtle?
It’s indirect. I remember when I feel in love with Argentina there was some concern among my bandmates that everything was going to have a tango flavour. It’s more about the excellent exercise. You pull yourself out of the world you’re accustomed to and you get this immersive experience and immediately wake up.
How do you tell whether a potentially great project—in your case, a song—is a dud or just needs more work?
It can be so painful. Occasionally there is a song that’s a challenge, but there’s something so interesting and compelling there that it’s worth the time and the work. And, sure enough, it ends up being really valuable. And then there are other cases where songs are black holes, and you just keep wasting time trying to turn them into something they will never be. The trouble is it’s really, really hard to tell. In those cases, I will share the song with Jimmy, and maybe he will hear it and champion it to the end; other times I’ll feel like I’ve really got something, and it will get completely kiboshed.
But it helps to have someone to say, “Emily, it’s time to break up with this song.”
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