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Sisters of Music

Metric’s Emily Haines’ lifelong friendship with Stars’ Amy Millan
Sisters of Music: Metric’s Emily Haines’ lifelong friendship with Stars’ Amy Millan has influenced both of their musical tastes.

Metric’s Emily Haines’ lifelong friendship with Stars’ Amy Millan

As an epic storm closes in on a skeptical city, causing lights to wink out one by one, most New Yorkers wonder whether or not their home will be swept away, but Emily Haines picks that moment to worry about those who are already homeless.

“Everyone at this hotel is getting wasted,” she says over the phone on Oct. 29, just as hurricane Sandy descended on America’s east coast. The Canadian songstress was in town recording random material for an unknown upcoming project that she ‘isn’t ready to yet clarify.’ Then her schedule was upended by the emergency and she was left to socialize with her fellow hotel guests, who settled their nerves by turning to their minibars and mingling in the candlelit halls.

“I think New York was a little unimpressed at first because the last hurricane, Irene, was so small. But now all the power’s being shut down. It made me start to worry about homeless people or the mentally ill out on the street, but I just did some Googling and saw there are a lot of outreach programs to help them right now.”

Oddly enough, that fixation on the destitute and desperate has cropped up throughout her songwriting career. And the front lady of alt-rock troupe Metric is not alone — one of Haines’ dearest, closest Canadian indie cohorts taps into the same vein, unprompted:

“If you’re looking at someone who’s asleep on the street, you can’t help but ask yourself why they’re there, if there aren’t enough programs to help them,” says Amy Millan, singer for Montreal-rooted troupe Stars, who spent most of her teenage years rocking out with Haines, then most of her adult life distancing herself, despite the fact that they obsess over the same themes.

Millan, reached on the phone the next day in Western Canada, several time zones away from Haines’ storm-sieged locale, began musing about poverty because of Montreal’s formerly ambitious construction. Her band’s latest album, The North, is adorned with a photograph of the Habitat 67 complex.

“What I love about that image is that it looks futuristic, it doesn’t look like something that actually exists. But not only does it exist, it was created in the 1960s, built for the World Fair’s athletes to stay in, now converted into condos,” she says, adding that the complex’s architects likely thought homelessness would be a thing of the past long before 2012. “I think in the late ’60s and early ’70s in Canada, there was this utopian idea of what the country could be. We grew up in that Canada, and its being destroyed by our current government, which cuts funding to social programs and to the arts, silences scientists. So that album cover, and these new songs, are a way for us to try and ignite the memory of the kind of Canada we want.”

Idyllic memories

Both Haines and Millan share those idyllic memories, and will likely have a chance to reminisce for the first time in ages over the next few months as they kick off a joint cross-country tour with the first gig in Victoria on Fri., Nov. 9 at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre.

Both indie-divas are 38 now, and they both attended The Etobicoke School of the Arts as teens.

“We grew up together, were best friends in high school, and part of what drove us was wanting to change the way things were,” Millan says. “Emily was the first real inspiration for me, she’d been writing songs since she was a kid, she was the first one to pull me into one of the music practice rooms in high school to sit me down and play me an original song. I’d never heard anyone do that, so I started singing with Emily. And she played piano, so I figured I’d learn to play guitar.”

Haines is sure to mention a few other, more embarrassing details.

“We had a botched evening once in Grade 11. It was so bad that Amy fell and broke her leg,” Haines says with a laugh that offers zero sympathy for her friend’s injury. “I remember she had a cast and couldn’t walk, so she picked up the guitar, and now we have the great guitarist Amy Millan. So I’m going to take a bit of credit for getting her drunk in Grade 11.”

Things got a little more serious as they grew older. They went off to separate universities. While at Concordia, Haines recorded her own, now obscure, solo demo Cut In Half And Also Double. One of its highlights is “Pink,” a song that, once again, incorporates the harsh themes of homelessness — this time, with an actual recording of a deranged woman’s ramblings in the closing seconds.

“I don’t know if she was homeless or not,” Haines clarifies about the infamous recording. “I was studying electro acoustics at school at the time, just walking around Parkdale with a microphone and picking up ambient sounds, and this woman stopped me. She was messed up, but saying really heavy, meaningful things, so I put it into the song.”

The demo was far from a break-out success, but it was enough to compel Haines to move to New York with then boyfriend, and current Metric guitarist, James Shaw. They began recording there, and before long crossed paths with Millan again, just as she was joining Stars. They partied and played together during those days, even jumbling with other Canadian alt-rockers in the revolving door supergroup that is Broken Social Scene. But before long, Haines felt it was time to depart for Toronto, while Millan and Stars headed for Montreal — even if that meant leaving their musical homes and risking a lifetime of busking on the streets.

“We didn’t want to be fighting for the same thing,” Haines says. “Metric has always been on a different path; we’re much more aggressive, more rock, more dancey. I’m glad we didn’t get absorbed into Broken Social Scene, and I’m glad I still have all my best friends intact, because the business side of things can be a drag.”

And while Stars’ sound is quite distinctive — especially on early, swollen note hits like “Your Ex-Lover is Dead” — Millan’s description of the band’s latest work doesn’t stray too far from Haines’ criteria for what sets Metric apart.

“I don’t know if The North is more optimistic, I just think there’s more room for dancing on it, as a counterpoint to the last records,” she says.

And as Haines describes some of the themes on Metric’s latest album, Synthetica, a few more parallels pop up. Both have a retro-futuristic motif, with Stars using the Habitat 67 complex and Metric featuring a Lou Reed cameo along with a female android muse.

“I had this idea for a lady robot character, and I was basing it off some of the people I see every day,” Haines says of her inspiration, before elaborating, “You know, those kind of people you look at and say ‘What is that? Is that a person, or an amalgamation of plastic surgery and online marketing?’”

And while she concedes to a few overlaps, Haines still stresses the differences between Metric and Stars.

“We made a pact back in New York not to do the business side of things together, to become ourselves in our own way. This tour is really a celebration of that, and I’m very excited to see Stars play every night.”

Millan agrees, adding that aside from a recent Broken Social Scene onstage reunion, where she sang with Haines and Feist, she’s more than content to keep things separate for the sake of friendship.

In fact, that spirit of innocence and evolution is one thing that sets The North apart from Synthetica.

“When I first started working on the lyrics I was about to have a baby, and then later on she was there for the entire recording of the album,” Millan says of her biggest muse, who accompanied Stars on tour as well. “If you listen closely to The North, you can hear the coos of a little girl on a blanket on the floor. That’s one thing I want her to learn someday from seeing me with Stars or with Emily — cherish these kinds of friends forever.” M