Emily Haines is a bit of a queen bee of the indie music scene. She’s the front woman of the electro-pop band Metric and moonlights as a singer in Broken Social Scene, both groups nearly 20 years into their respective runs, but her heart, soul, and taste take enter stage in her solo effort Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton. It’s been an eagerly awaited decade since her previous album Knives Don’t Have Your Back (2006) and her EP What is Free to a Good Home? (2007) and Haines delivers plenty of her signature feels and melancholy introspection on her latest release Choir of the Mind. Unlike her extensive musical output with Metric, which errs on the side of sexy and upbeat, her solo efforts, especially on Choir, veer toward grappling with depression and BIG ideas. It’s very piano focused, with an intense and compelling interest in memorable (not necessarily sing-a-long) lyrics such as, “the things you own they own you” (on the track “Fatal Gift”) and “people drift away” (“Planets”). These songs and others from her previous album were on display this past Saturday night in the pitch perfect venue for Haines’ almost spiritually introspective songs, the Sixth and I Synagogue.
The crowd was fairly diverse in age, with some devotees in their seventies and some elementary school age girls attending their first concert with their parents. The bulk of her fandom seem to be men and women in their thirties, with a swath of passionate female fans giddy to bow at the altar of Haines. And this night is all about Emily Haines. She has no opener, which allows her to set and control the mood of the night, and she does just that in spades.
In front of the stage is a big white old-school alarm clock (stuck at midnight or noon) and a chest covered with a pillow and blanket. If it weren’t for the drum kit and her tech guy on stage you might assume she was putting on a play of sorts rather than a concert. Especially when instead of opening music, there’s a track of birds chirping and the lighting resembles daybreak.
Emily Haines has stated in interviews her friendship with and affinity for Lou Reed and his wife, the musical performance artist, Laurie Anderson and seems eager to take up a similar performative mantel. Haines enters the stage on her own and instead of singing, she acts out a big heavy-handed “return from tour” act: carrying in a suitcase, changing out of her sexy rock star leather into a silk robe, and exhaustively falling onto her “bed” and wakes by the blaring of the alarm clock. She pulls a black and gold microphone and begins to sing the first strains of “Planets” while laying down. Haines stops singing and goes back to her performance of riffling through the suitcase and brushing her teeth while an audio track of her voice plays atop action. The track is a judgmental monologue–perhaps the titled choir of her mind–with lines such as “What are you doing? What are you searching for? Do you want to go back?” Haines slaps a baseball cap over her signature blond hair and retreats to her piano, playing “Wounded.” She seems to strip off the artifice of her theatrics in favor of sharing her vulnerable music. She doesn’t truly engage with the audience though as she plays more solo songs on the piano. All she gives a terse “thank you” after some applause. There’s a weird remove between her intimate music and her emotional distance from the audience. The internal monologue plays in between each song, expressing sentiments of regret and depression. Her thoughts and lyrics are shared with her open and eager audience but her cracking voice during some notes feels calculated.
The audio comes on again demanding that Emily get dressed because she’s on tour and it tells her to “give yourself a face” and Emily does just that, putting on a tough gal face center stage as her set and props are dragged away and her band joins her on stage. Her band consists of the bassist and drummer from Broken Social Scene and her guitarist is her bandmate from Metric and BSS Jimmy Shaw. Even though Emily retreats back behind her piano, there’s definitely a sea change when the band enters. The sound begins to rock the venue and they play some of the more musically charged songs from “Knives.” The audience finally feels free to applaud and groove out. Especially when Shaw gets to do a long, bluesy guitar solo. Haines gains her public confidence with her band behind her and gets downright festive of “Minefield of Memory” as her piano playing gets jazzy. What seemed calculated in her voice previously (the cracks and strains) become really controlled choices in her singing. She even allows herself have a bit of fun-ish banter about her weird feelings being in Washington, D.C. in the Trump era. She knows her liberal audience and most nod with complete understanding as she talks about standing in front of The White House feeling depressed.
Haines admits her music is not exactly upbeat and doesn’t intend to bring down her audience but hopes she can meet everyone in the middle of all our sadness. It’s a weird admission and belief that her fandom is built on depression and her music is a good soundtrack for those emotions. This was another example of her spelling out her intentions too much. With the audio track and the performance art aspects she seemed to want to direct her audience into how we should consume her music. Whether that’s a controlling move or a self protective move is unclear.
During the last song of the concert “Fatal Gift”, the band lifts off and jams out and Emily comes from behind the piano to sing and dance around and it’s her most open, free, un-self conscious moment of the night. The audience feels free to consume her music exactly as they want to. One guy stands up to dance around, arms waving, fist pumping, club style while a girl in the front row sobs and wipes away her tears with a smile on her face. I wished the whole show had this similar vibe of freedom and I was sad this happened on the last song.
There was an encore but it was just Emily doing a sort of spoken word piece more than a song and it felt right back to the artifice of vulnerability as she wore her hoodie and clutched a journal. I wished my final taste of the show had been that exhilarating “Fatal Gift” moment rather than this highly performative take— but it tracked with the whole show. Emily was the puppet master of her own exhibition of emotion.