When I went to see and hear Emily Haines & the Soft Skeleton perform at the Murmrr Theatre in Brooklyn at the end of last month, it had been over a decade since I had experienced her (playing her solo material) in concert. In the cold of January 2007, my best friend from college and another friend from school packed into a pew at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia to soak up Haines and her band performing Knives Don’t Have Your Back, her beautiful and heartfelt mix of piano, vocals, bass, and percussion. That night—and that winter—would get burned into my memory. I was 19 and about to get my heart broken for the first time by the first girl I had kissed, someone I had met in line for the Philly Sleater-Kinney show the summer before. And so, I was in an apt place to soak up what some critics at the time of its release described as a “musical therapy session” (I can’t find the link atm). Knives Don’t Have Your Back was an important album for those of us who were both enthusiasts of the early 2000s Montreal-Toronto indie rock scene and were coming into ourselves as young adults living away from home for the first time. Contrary to her usual “combative cleverness” in her role as the frontwoman of Metric, Haines’s vulnerabilities and anxieties were on full display on Knives. Long before anyone else in my life would do so, Haines’s solo work would tell me that it was okay to wake up sad.
For many of us who got into indie rock in the early 2000s, music was like a religion. In his moving biography of Prince, I Would Die 4 U, music journalist Touré writes, “We [gen X] express our religious interests, dreams, fears, hopes, and desire through popular culture” (112). Although I was born four years too late to be included in generation X, I’ve always felt an affinity for this turning to music for (spiritual) nourishment. This is especially relevant since after a youth group trip to Tijuana, Mexico in the summer of 2005 that left me feeling the most religious I had felt in my entire life, I quickly shed any last connections to Christianity upon beginning college/the academic year at a secular school for the first time ever. Away from my hometown, friends and family, and cultural Catholicism, I needed new sources of inspiration; more than that, I needed people to help guide me through this new—and scary—experience. Pulling over Corin Tucker (of Sleater-Kinney) from the end of high school, I soon added Elizabeth Powell (of Land of Talk), Holly Miranda (of The Jealous Girlfriends), and Emily Haines (of Metric) to the mix. At 5-15 years older than me, these (white) women had been on earth longer enough than me to have long been through the things with which I was only beginning to struggle yet close enough to my age to still seem relatable. Listening to them in my room or headphones (and, eventually, on stage), Tucker, Powell, Miranda, and Haines gave me models of directions in which I could take my life—along with the space to sort through what I did (and didn’t) want to take from what they were offering me.
All of this is at the front of my mind when I take my seat for Haines’s show at the Murmrr Theater at the northern tip of Prospect Park in South Brooklyn. At the beginning of the show, Haines walks out onto the stage as a pre-recorded monologue plays through the theatre’s speakers. The recording is meant to be our earpiece into the thoughts inside her head, reflections on success, love, and growing up. Not knowing that there was going to be a performance art element to this show, I curiously watch on from my position at the middle and center of the theatre. Haines goes through two of the songs from her most recent release, Choir of the Mind, before she gets to the familiar opening chords of “Crowd Surf Off A Cliff.” As she lays out the mid-tempo rhythm on the keys, I feel myself plodding back to where I was ten years ago. A baby queer moving towards a minor in gender and sexuality studies, my life was about to change dramatically when I went home for the summer and began to Craiglist date (via the w4w section) as a means of seeking to connect with queerness and queer community in New York City. But before this queerness, I would have heartbreak; perhaps it was even that this heartbreak would inform my queerness. I imagine that everyone in the audience, to whom Haines refers as “Diehards and Fellow Skeletons” in her emails to her listserv, is also thinking about where they were and how they were doing ten years ago, if nothing else because of the power of nostalgia. But then like Lana Del Rey performing “West Coast” at the Woodlands in May 2015, Haines breaks out of the depressive ebb and flow of the song. By the time she sings, “We’re out here screaming/ ‘The life you thought through was gone’/ Can’t wind down/ The ending outlasting the mood,” she sounds as assertive, confident, and… okay… as ever.
In her book Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism, Robin James is highly critical of what she calls narratives of resilience, or when (usually female) pop performers recycle damage into the cultural (and often also monetary) capital of overcoming hurt or trauma. As I go into more detail about in my dissertation, I think that James misses something important about the power of repetition to break free from stasis, particularly within the tradition of African American music(s). Additionally, I think it’s more complicated than this when explorations of mental health are also at play in an artist’s music. In both Metric and her solo work, Haines has long sonically and affectively articulated the mental health struggles that fall somewhere in between having a bad day and being deeply depressed. Nowhere is this more clear than on Metric’s “Satellite Mind,” where she belts out, “I’m not suicidal/ I just can’t get out of bed” at the beginning of the song’s second verse. When I recall Haines and bandmate Jimmy Shaw performing this song at a Metric acoustic performance at World Café Live in Philly in February 2009, I can still remember how the sheer power of this moment felt on my body. For a Millennial generation for whom labels are increasingly less of a means of connecting and more of a burden, Haines’s talent for continuously writing or co-writing songs that exist in this not-so-easily-named space has made her a hero among many people around my age (including myself). And that’s huge.
Back in the space of the show, I continue to sit through Haines’s mixing of the old and the new. Over the course of a two-hour-long set, she and her band will play both of her LP’s in their entirety. The more deeply she goes into her catalog, the more I cannot help tapping my foot on the floor and moving my body up and down in my chair. Ten songs in, Haines and the band get to one of the highlights of her new album, “Minefield of Memory.” In the chorus, Haines powerfully sings, “I stay with my memories/ And it’s a minefield of memory.” [On the recorded version, Haines adds the backing vocals of “It’s a minefield, it’s a mindfuck.”] Memory is indeed a minefield—and a mindfuck. In a time where we record (and perform) so much of ourselves on social media, it can sometimes be hard to let anything fall into the minefield of memory. But as a I leave the show, there are certain things about my most recent romantic relationship—and, hell, about the past ten years of my dating life—that I have to just let go of already. After the show lets out, I (eventually) take the R back to my old neighborhood in South Slope. Just instead of going back to my old house on 17th Street, I instead travel to my friend’s place two blocks away on 16th street, a friend that I first met during that aforementioned summer of 2007. After I wash my face and brush my teeth, I head back out to one of my favorite bars in the neighborhood for the second night in a row, to reconvene with someone with whom I initially reconnected at a conference a few weeks ago. And although the minefield of memories comes with me, I am fully present at the bar.