Certain songs and albums can come to define different periods in music listeners’ lives. But for Emily Haines, the frontwoman of the long-running Canadian rock band Metric, the songs she’s performed hundreds of times over the past 20 years have countless layers of personal meaning.
Each performance of a setlist staple like “Combat Baby,” a single from 2003, adds another layer impossible to separate from the song’s origin. It’s less like reading an old journal entry and more like continuously editing a living document.
“I do see the progression of time, but because we’ve kept playing these songs, they’re constantly being brought into the current moment,” she says. “When your setlist spans that much music, you see the connections in your life and it gives you perspective on the lowest lows and highest highs ... If the songs are just sitting collecting dust, it’s different than if you’re actively playing them.”
Metric is touring to support their seventh album, Art of Doubt. Speaking with Phoenix New Times ahead of the band’s show at The Van Buren on Monday, March 4, Haines credits producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen with capturing the live energy that has made Metric an enduring touring act with a broad and enthusiastic fan base despite never recording a major hit single.
“When we reached out to [Meldal-Johnsen], he was like, ‘But you guys always have a hand in your own production,’” she says. “But we knew we needed somebody from the outside to capture just the four of us in a room, like we did in the very beginning.”
The lack of a big hit may have been advantageous to Metric’s evolution. With no heyday to reference, Metric keeps pushing forward, never settling on a particular sound, and the band’s ongoing exploration of different styles of production and instrumentation has become part of its sonic signature.
“If every album was exactly the same from the beginning, it wouldn’t be us,” Haines says. “It’s such a special thing to capture that span of time and have so much diversity in the tones and themes and sonics of the music. I’m glad we’ve been experimental over the years, and on the next Metric record, I’m sure we’ll try something new.”
Creating a Metric album is “an incredibly elaborate process,” Haines says, as the band whittles down an album’s worth of material from roughly 30 song demos — most of which have multiple iterations. She usually gets the ball rolling by bringing more or less complete songs to the rest of the band, though sometimes guitarist James Shaw presents an instrumental for her to write lyrics over.
Haines’ and Shaw's respective contributions often result in a contrast between the lyrics and the emotional tone of the music. For example, on “Now or Never Now,” the third single off Art of Doubt, the lyrics seem to reference a painful breakup, though she says it might be about a musician who can’t turn on the radio without hearing the same damn hi-hat sound. Haines sings, “It hurts to turn the radio on / Stamina’s gone / My spirit is weak / Because every time I start to move on / Keep hearing that song.”
And yet the starry-eyed synthesizers and the hopeful inflection of Haines’ voice leave the listener with a sense of optimism. That’s very much intentional, she says: “If a song has a certain energy in terms of rhythm or sonics, we try to balance that with some sort of [lyrical] introspection.”
Haines is less familiar with retrospection, but does acknowledge that Art of Doubt is somewhere close to where Metric started; she sees similarities to their full-length 2003 debut, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? And for once, she stops moving long enough to appreciate how far the band has come: “You have to go away in order to come back, you know?”