How Emily Haines' Diary of Grief, Loss and Loneliness Became My Own
Emily Haines, a multitalented chameleon, has often been hailed for her versatility. But in over a decade since her dazzling presence has entered my life, I have had to re-assess that impression: she is more like a matryoshka doll, a powerful artist whose layers are hidden underneath thousands of mirrored layers.
As a member of Broken Social Scene, she is often gentle, coy; as the frontwoman of Metric, she is brazen, hypnotic. But it is her solo work, performed under the moniker Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton that is most intriguing, most piercing — and most criminally underrated.
Emily Haines wrote Knives Don’t Have Your Back (2006) and What Is Free To A Good Home? (2007) in the context of her father’s passing, and kindled by the general listlessness that comes with years of touring and being away from home. Both albums, released about a year apart, are so similar they could be considered one extended project.
The songs are poetry put to music, mournful jazz interblended with slightly harsher indie rock tendencies. They are, at times, staccato bursts of lightness, which are quickly dimmed by long and mournful stretches of sadness. Unlike the shrill guitars and heavy drums that characterize Metric’s music, here, Haines opts for the stripped down piano, soft horns, and lofty percussions, the sort of sounds you would listen to early in the morning, when everyone else is asleep, or else very late at night, when your muted anguish has kept you up.
What emerges from both albums is truly arresting, and they remain, to me, the rawest testament to enduring grief. Where her other work is universal, because it touts feelings many could relate to, these songs read like a diary: they are the clearing of the table with a long, passionate sweep of the arm, the pleading for overdue silence so that one can process complicated emotions, and pursue them to their end: not in order to find hope, not in order to bring comfort, not even in order to decipher them. Simply, to wax philosophical on the nature of it all.
Knives Don’t Have Your Back and What Is Free To A Good Home? are an exploration, a statement on a state of being, not an attempt to find an answer to it: because truly, there isn’t really an answer to death that will satisfy. The melancholy at the core of Haines’ double albums is perhaps off-putting for those who don’t wish to wallow in such concentrated despair.
When I lost my grandmother, however, it was exactly the sort of thing I needed to hear.
Grief is paradoxical. Unlike sexual assault or mental illness, that some people may be fortunate not to experience, death does not differentiate. As long as it is there, grief will follow. It is one of the most universal, and simultaneously, one of the most intimate events. There is a common formula, a widespread notion of what grief is supposed to look like, and how people are supposed to act, which disregards the fact that everyone is unique, and mourns uniquely. Personal tragedies are seemingly communicable to others, but at the end of the day, you are very much alone.
I had lost people before, uncles, grandparents, friends, and so forth. But it was not until my grandmother that I truly understood what it meant to have my life upended. Her passing left me reeling. I saw my own mother crumble under the weight of it, saw it splinter her siblings in traumatizing ways. My innocence had been chipped off dash by dash in childhood and in teenagehood: the loss of that last pillar of strength was the final stroke on the collapsing structure.
And while the support was there, in the form of family members, and in the comfort of knowing that my grandmother had left an amazing legacy behind in peoples’ memories, (she was, after all, a formidable woman), it did not make it hurt any less, nor did it make my journey any less solitary.
I soon noticed that I kept coming back to Emily Haines, like a bewildered faithful to the altar: beyond its obvious beauty, I realized that it was because she was saying everything I could not, at that precise point in my life. She was going where I was afraid to — thinking it was going to be the end of me, without knowing that where you end up when things are difficult is the very place you will find your release. The start of it, at least.
In Knives Don’t Have Your Back and What Is Free To A Good Home?, Haines, who is usually alight with frenzied energy, or with sardonic indignation about social injustices, comes across as subdued. One is not completely alienated from the Metric frontwoman: you can still recognize her tart-yet-sweet voice and the gorgeous melodies she crafts behind the piano, but the direction in which she takes them are very different. It feels almost voyeuristic, hearing her navigate from anger, to stark desolation, from candid vulnerability to sweet remembrances, the way you would had you fallen upon the open pages of someone’s diary: but then again, it is in this very fact that the authenticity is rooted.
Haines has often talked about the weariness that inevitably comes with a life on the road, and the many ways in which it can take a toll on a person. It brings out the underlying distress that is so easy to outrun when you don’t feel like you have a home to return to, a distress that is easy to ignore because you never settle.
Additionally, she touches upon a general fatigue with the state of social causes like feminism (“It's the lottery, baby, everybody roll the dice/Will we always be like little kids/Running group to group, asking/“Who loves me? Don't know who loves me.”/It's pathetic, it's impossible/… Like girls in stilettos trying to run”). She also touches upon a smaller, more incisive one (“All this weight is honest worse/We're moderate; we modernize 'til our hell is a good life”), so much so that much of her double albums read, at first glance, like a vignette of her idealism dying under the strain of disappointment.
The feeling of being around people, but never really being around them is one I have known too well, having spent the better part of my childhood moving to different countries because of my father’s job.
When she sings, in “Crowd Surf Off A Cliff” that she “[c]an't wind down, the ending outlasting the mood/I wake up lonely”, I too could understand that invading solitude that outlives any kind of wonder traveling could give me. This is also echoed in “Reading in Bed”, where the rhetorical question “With all the luck you've had, why are your songs so sad?” emphasizes the notion that prosperity, alienation and withdrawal are not mutually exclusive.
The evocation of such feelings would normally be chased with self-conscious attenuations, because no one is comfortable admitting that success and well-being are not necessarily linked. And therein lies the strength of Emily Haines’ ever-striking prose: she is always lingering a little longer where other songwriters would hasten, expecting that we can make our own connections.
There are no traces of such assumptions especially when it concerns darker matters like mental illness and addiction. I recognized myself in the circular thinking displayed in “Mostly Waving”, where she elaborates on her fevered thoughts.
I recognized myself in her lamentations about love and self-love in “Detective Daughter” (“Wish I were capable of lying sometimes/… Love is hell, hell is love/Hell is asking to be loved/Hide out and then run when no one's looking”). I recognized the brutal declarations of emotional unrest in “Doctor Blind” (“Hard to hold, cold to touch/Fall to pieces, treat the rush/… All your pain will end here/Let the doctor soothe your brain, dear”), recognized the vicious yearning for escapism she displayed in “The Bank” (“I’m looking to buy freedom from my sobriety/… I need a new drink/I need a new drug that does what it should”).
But it’s when it concerned her childlike, blue-tinged grief that Haines’ words hit hardest. Both albums are laden with the presence of her father, the late poet Paul Haines. The album cover for Knives Don’t Have Your Back is an almost identical replication of the cover for Escalator over the Hill (1971), an album Paul Haines co-wrote with musician Carla Bley; additionally, “Sprig”, a song from What is Free to a Good Home?, is none other than a poem Paul Haines wrote years ago.
Emily Haines honors his life in many more ways. It is particularly touching that instead of simply focusing on her feelings from his loss (although of course, a big part her songs do), she lingers on her relationship with him during his lifetime, lingers on how she loved him, and what he meant to her. When I lost my grandmother, it’s what I found I could no longer do.
I became fixated on the absence, on the lack of her presence, and on how my life was forever changed, so much so that trying to remember who she was as a mother, a sister and a woman was almost like emerging from very deep waters. I worked through Haines’ songs, as she patched together instances of her life with her father, and I also found myself, inexorably, doing the same. It was the most painful, and the most exquisite thing in the world, that push and pull between heartache and tenderness.
In “Nothing and Nowhere”, Haines muses on the fleetingness of life, and on the things that end up escaping our grasps, no matter how much they meant to us. In the context of loss, the words ring especially true: “I still don't know you aren't permanent, permanent/… Because nothing and nowhere is golden”. Later, she echoes: “all of our scars are permanent, permanent/There's no replacement for places/I'll always love you, you're mine/Numb is the new high, old memories die out, 'till/Nothing and nowhere is golden”. I had, of course, been thinking as much: that disorienting loss was with me every day, but until I heard those words, I couldn’t place a finger on them.
That sensation is echoed in “The Last Page”, perhaps the most haunting of Haines’ songs: unlike the others, which are imbued with her signature surreal writing, this one is blunt in its portrayal of depression following the death of close ones. From the onset, she casually declares “By the way, it's over without you”, slid in between descriptions of how she sleeps all day in order to see him in her dreams, and a suicidal declaration (“Death is absolutely safe”).
It mirrors with the nearly peaceful way I envisaged my own death. It seemed, at the time, a natural conclusion, a simple solution to the continual heartache, different from the suicidal ideation that stems from mental illness. It felt like a period, the full stop to an endless sentence only I could conclude. There was nothing foreign to me, in her words (“Dark and quiet, only the owls are watching/Only the sky is up and I'm leaving for a place/… From another time, just to be near you”): I had heard my mother howl similar ones to no one in particular, wailing about wanting to die, now that her own mother was gone. The song ends on a litany: “I’ve gotta' roll through the days without you here/I get a shock, shock hurts to heal”.
And as I was listening to it, early one dawn: just like that, the veil was lifted.
I spent years floundering in my sadness, but never actually articulating it, or where it came from. I remained stunned in dry-eyed silence, waiting for the metaphorical shoe to drop, for my tears to signal the start of my mourning period, for my head to rationalize loss, for my heart to accept it — when in truth, this, the shock, was a form of grieving. It took hearing it from someone else to understand it.
I felt guilty, seeing others go through their own motions and, in some cases, get back on their feet, while I was the horse who hadn’t even started the race yet. In the years following my grandmother’s death, I was about to entertain a new, different relationship with time than I had ever, and would ever know. I had thought myself patient: I was about to learn what true patience was.
Emily Haines’ ballads culminate into “Telethon” (arguably my favorite song). In it, the singer is either a little girl addressing her father, or else an older person reminiscing upon her childhood memories of a loved one. In many ways, I am still that child who looked up to the phenomenal woman my grandmother was, the same way Emily Haines’ father left an imprint on her.
There is an underlying sadness there, of course, but it is a bittersweet one, a rainbow-tinged, nostalgia-infused glance at a precious relationship. The aforementioned push and pull remains, but now, laced with a sense of serenity, if not actual acceptance.
“Telethon” is the morning after emerging from a long sickness, which is not unlike what grief feels like, when the initial trauma starts to abate. There is still the disorientation of loss, (“Can't walk past the driveway without asking for direction/So full of stupid questions”), there is still that terrible desperation (“When I'm on will you rescue me?”), but it is offset by something more gentle: “When she says nothing is enough/She doesn't mean, don't try to fix it/… Dream without concession/When the daylight's like fluorescent light/I’m gonna take my time, night by night”.
And as I spent night by night listening to those words, the long fingers of solace began to reach for me.
Over a decade later, its relevancy in my life has not lessened. I have lost other people since, gone back to that well of grief, and every time, Emily Haines has been there for me, her diary like a balm on my own sanity, her words my own when I lost the ability to say that I felt lost.
More importantly, after years of tormenting myself over the death of grandmother, of pitting it against my own deathwish; after years of looking for signs, of praying for her soul, of trying to help mend my mother, I have finally accepted that it is alright: not to accept it, not to get over it, not to understand any of it.
Love and loss walk hand in hand, and just like Emily Haines’ turned to her father’s poetry, her albums will be the things I turn to, whenever I feel my own gaping grief.