It takes half an hour to get Emily Haines, lead singer of Toronto-based synth-rock outfit Metric on the phone after our scheduled interview kick-off time. Briefly, during the hold music, fears of Haines having adopted an uber-dramatIc, Courtney Love-esque personality emerge. Yet when the affable 38-year-old comes on the line, her polite demeanor quells any fears. Haines, of course, gives good reason for the delay.
“I’m on a bit of a radio road trip,” she says with a chuckle. “We’re getting a great reaction to our first single, Youth Without Youth in the States and Canada. We’ve jumped right in. Yesterday I was in three cities in one day, which was interesting to say the least. Denver, Salt Lake City and Kansas. And now I’m in Minneapolis before heading to New York City for a few days off.
“We’re really excited to talk about the record,” she adds.
And throughout our conversation, it becomes abundantly clear she means it.
With the release of Synthetica, Metric has returned with a stirring collection of tracks that reveal a deeply emotive side of the band. While their previous full-length, the Polaris-shortlisted Fantasies, was a punchy, straightforward effort, Synthetica showcases the band spreading their wings both lyrically and musically. It’s a textured approach to their dance hall approved rock that questions how the pervasive role of constant technology impacts the fragile human condition.
Synthetica was largely recorded at the band’s own Giant Studios in Toronto. When it’s put to Haines that her enthusiasm towards dissecting the record at the behest of journalists owes to having recorded Synthetica in the comfort of familiarity, she agrees. But she soon provides insight into how the band arrived at their fifth full-length.
“So much of your life, if you’re really committed to your work as a musician and an artist, is spent grappling with the business side of things. And trying to get yourself sorted so that you can actually create the kind of music you want to. For us, that’s always been about complete independence and getting into the right partnerships.
“We want to have a real organisation backing us, but not under the guise of a standard recording agreement. That’s been one huge accomplishment for us. And the other was building our own studio. With Fantasies, we were sort of getting it up and running. I mean, we were working out of it, but we were still just trying to get the cables to work,” she laughs.
Complete independence from the music industry may have been Metric’s goal all along, though it hasn’t been without concessions. They strived to form their own recording company (Metric Music Incorporated) but still flirted with the industry they once seemed intent on rallying against.
In the past three years the band has won industry-dictated Juno Awards, played private concerts for Queen Elizabeth II and provided a track forTwilight: Eclipse, one of the highest-grossing films in recent memory. So have Haines and Metric turned a corner on Synthetica, ready to at last embrace the music industry?
They’re not diving in headfirst, insists Haines. As a band, controlling their destiny remains a priority. Although she speaks softly, as our conversation continues, Haines’ resolve and determination to remain true to their identity becomes palpable.
“It’s like looking out into a crowd of people. It’s just a wash of people until you take the time to see the individual,” she muses. “For us, the thing we’ve always had trouble with is that we’re a collaborative,” she continues.
“We’ve always had a vision. While we love working with different people, when you get into conversations with labels that take on a condescending tone because they’re offering a certain sum of money, you just close your eyes and pretend you don’t understand. For better or worse, we understood very early on that that was a raw deal. Success for us means being treated as the main entity instead of some subservient party. Maybe it’ll set some legal precedent for other bands, who knows,” she laughs.
There’s an underlying truth to her comment, one that dictates how Metric has approached their career. As Haines speaks, she prefaces answers with thoughtful reflection. She continues with a composure that not only exalts her earnest Canadian upbringing, but also a newfound confidence in her work. It’s the sound of a pensive lead singer/keyboardist being proud of her accomplishments, but hesitant to explicitly show it.
Because as Haines contests, the kind of soul-searching required to bring the unwavering themes of Synthetica to the forefront didn’t come easy. The day after Metric finished their last tour in support of Fantasies, Haines and the band began work on Synthetica. Long the type of writer to retreat in order to attain clarity, this time around, Haines was forced to take a long, hard look in the mirror. What she discovered will likely impact every Metric record from here on in.
“As the person who writes the lyrics and drives the narratives within the band, I tried something different this time around. I really had to look at myself in the mirror, because usually when writing, I’ll take off to some foreign country and lock myself in a room with a piano.
“This time, it was massively challenging for me to write at our studio in Toronto and stay in the place that I was when I was 15-years-old. I couldn’t believe it’d been as long as it has been since we first started as a band. There was a lot of reflection. But as much as I was looking at my own life, I was looking at my friends and my family and what’s happened to the world in the last ten years. When you think about that, it’s quite staggering. So there was some introspection and the goal, lyrically, was not to rely on clever use of language to express how I felt.”
Instead, she employed a concise language, which provides a striking dichotomy to the layered feel of Synthetica, most notably on Dreams So Real.
“Have I really ever helped/Anybody but myself?” she asks throughout the brooding track. It’s a startling question from someone who, as anyone who has attended a Metric show can attest, is constantly looked upon by fans for an emotional push on the swing.
“That was one of the most intense writing experiences, creating that song,” she admits. “The whole thing happened within an eight hour period. That one was unusually intense and clear. “
So does Haines believe that, with the exposure that came with Fantasises, there’s constantly more that can be done on her behalf to improve the frailty of the world around her?
“It’s more a sense of, ‘Have I been romanticising the idea that artists and musicians actually play an important role in world events? Are we positively impacting the time we’re around? Am I making a contribution? Or am I just becoming more famous? And is that really helping anyone? Would our time be better served helping teenage runaways prostitutes?’ I’ve been wondering if our idealism is outdated.”
Haines momentarily sounds at a loss, before she quickly puts things into perspective. “I cannot overstate how important other people’s compositions have been in my life as a music fan. They’ve saved me. That’s how I want Metric to function.”
Haines and Metric were graced with the opportunity to bring in one of the great composers of the 20th century, Lou Reed, to assist in the recording of Wanderlust, the closing track on Synthetica.
When the two met at a Neil Young tribute show during the Vancouver Olympics, Reed surprisingly recited a line from Gimme Sympathy, one of Metric’s standout tracks. They continued collaborating, including a performance at Vivid LIVE in Sydney in 2010. When it came time to put the finishing touches on Synthetica, Haines didn’t hesitate to get in touch with the inimitable Reed.
“When we were finishing the record in New York, we needed a world-weary voice. And who’s more world-weary than Lou? He insisted we recorded at the same time in the same room. He’s all over the track. He brings the track back down to Earth. It was a great experience.”
Though the career paths of Reed and Metric may not appear similar in scope, the band understands what Reed has always portrayed, rather unpredictably, through his records: to leave a mark on the world, the borders must be pushed, often with brute force. And Synthetica may very well be that force.
“The four of us had a pretty philosophical conversation yesterday,” says Haines. “We realised that in order to stand still, you have to move forward. If you try to stay the same, you’re still moving backwards. So progress and evolution is necessary. It’s essential. And that’s something the four of us have been dedicated to since we met. We’re becoming who we are and yet we’re continuing to evolve.”
Introspection may not have come easy for Haines and Metric. It’s not only given them the chance to stand on their own feet, but also look forward to bigger, and, as Haines hopes, more meaningful things.
“Our feeling is, after ten years, let’s take this chance with these big songs and these bigger crowds, and we’ll navigate from there. And even though we have control on the business side of things, there are failures to make. The way people hear music, the whole industry, it’s constantly changing. And we didn’t ever want to be tied down to anything. We want to be able to take the lead. And we feel like its finally happened on this record.”
BY JOSHUA KLOKE