Emily Haines is unhappy. The lead singer of Metric is doing the telephone equivalent of a press junket and I've been allotted 15 minutes. Ten minutes in, I ask about some controversial shirts Metric had created in efforts to raise money for Haiti. Part of the text on the shirts read "Help! I'm Alive"---a reference to a Metric single from their most recent album, Fantasies. A handful of media outlets seethed; the band issued an apology and recalled the shirts. I ask Haines what her band's perspective is on the situation.
"Oh, come on," she says. "Are you really asking me about this? Can't we talk about our tour, or the Junos? I'm really bummed out that you brought that up, actually."
I apologize and explain the intent a little further---I was wondering how Metric deals with these kinds of situations, and if they learn things from them---about the media, about their fans, about themselves.
"Well, I guess we can talk about it, since you brought it up," Haines says. She explains it was a mistake; the result of a few people making an issue of something relatively small. "I can get my manager to send you a bunch of information about it," she says. I decline. We have three minutes and 47 seconds left, but it seems the conversation has reached its conclusion. We say bye and hang up.
Afterward, I feel bad, and then frustrated. I am also confused. Haines is a formidable woman. She is essential to Metric: a trained musician, the daughter of a poet, she writes the band's lyrics and her childlike alto holds the music together. She has charisma in loads; a born frontwoman with lissome good looks. She also has a reputation as sometimes being "difficult"---she'll coolly level writers when she thinks they're being stupid and has been known to tear cellphones from the hands of overzealous audience members and lob them across the stage. In short, she's a lot of things: a goddess; a bitch; a siren; maybe a visionary. Mainly, I was thrown by the fact that on the phone, she sounded so goddamn sad. Canada's erstwhile queen of cool is as susceptible to pain and disappointment as anyone else.
The past year has marked a big turning point for the band. When they re-emerged with a glossy self-released new album, Fantasies, after a four-year hiatus, critics liked it. It was shortlisted for the 2009 Polaris Prize, and in March the band received the most Juno nominations of its career---Alternative Album of the Year, Songwriter of the Year and Group of the Year. More noticeably, the band has been playing larger shows. Metric has always toured incessantly, but last year their travels took them to Australia, all over Europe and Tokyo. When they returned to SXSW this year, they skirted the showcases and instead opened for Muse at the cavernous Stubbs Bar-B-Q. They are reaching a new fanbase that is heavily comprised of young women, if the ilovemetric.com messageboard is any indication; a big, important group for the conquering. And they have done it all without a major label. The album has since gone gold in Canada and has sold more copies than any of their previous releases in a climate where the music industry has more or less gone to shit. For a band that has been poised on the verge of breakout since 2003, when Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? first ensnared the hearts of Canadian indie kids, this has been a long time coming. "As long as I can remember, we've had people tell us we should be huge," Haines told the National Post last April.
The album came after Haines spent a well-publicized stint in Buenos Aires early last year, looking for anonymity and clarity. A mini-documentary posted on ilovemetric.com follows Haines on a train and then walking through the city's streets as a stripped-down piano version of the song "Help I'm Alive" plays over the images.
At one point, Haines confides to the faceless interviewer, "My life sucked." Later, she says, "I was really scared. I didn't know where my life was going. It was creating a paralysis in me...nothing I wrote was cool enough, it wasn't referential enough." Through soft focus, the camera watches her as she plunks out the chords and quietly sings that her heart is beating like a hammer. The video is solipsistic and kind of cheesy but Haines' unhappiness feels genuine.
The songs for Fantasies emerged from this period, and although they feature the same New Wave sparkle that is quintessentially Metric, the lyrics are stripped of the wordplay and cheekiness that distinguished Metric's earlier singles like "Succsexy" or the more nuanced "Police and the Private." They are simple and heartfelt. They are also less complicated and easier to unpack. If Haines was fighting the war against cooler-than-thou hipster sentiment and the weight of expectation, she has won by staying away from these things altogether.
Of course, that doesn't mean there hasn't been a gaffe or two. It seems that the ever-fickle Toronto indie community is over Metric, and there is a particular sort of derision directed toward Haines. Friends have commented that they often see her walking through the city sporting a hood and sunglasses---a very rock-star attempt at anonymity that's ripe for mockery.
And as the band gets more famous, they become easier to scrutinize, sometimes unfairly. Last year, the head of Toronto-based Unfamiliar Records, Greg Ipp, slammed Metric's Polaris Prize nomination, saying it was an example of "well-funded mediocrity" edging out more deserving acts, such as those on his own roster. Later, when fellow Torontonians Fucked Up claimed the prize, a Metric member famously groused on Twitter: "Wow, Pop-Core takes the Polaris Prize! Surprise!" And then there was the Haiti t-shirt thing.
"It makes you think twice when people are waiting to twist everything you do into something else," Haines says.
And it's true---it's more rock 'n' roll when musicians aren't accountable to anyone. As Metric continue to achieve their personal brand of success, they'll continue to manage their personas, both publicly and privately. And maybe their success signifies a new kind of rock star---the kind that wears her heart on her sleeve.