EMILY HAINES at the Gladstone (1214 Queen West), Tuesday (September 12), 6:30, 9 and 11 pm. $20. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
For most musicians, the gruel- ling slog of uncomfortably intimate shows in spaces so small that audience members can make out the flecks of spit flying from their mouths is often just a dues-paying step en route to the elusive carrot that is quit-your-day-job, mega-venue-rocking international stardom.
So there's something jarring about hearing that Emily Haines - icicle-cool frontwoman for in-demand Canuck indie export Metric - is following up playing for tens of thousands at Reading and Leeds by launching her soloish Knives Don't Have Your Back (Last Gang) disc with pared-down performances in claustrophobic clubs (think 250 people max).
"I'm always looking for ways to make myself uncomfortable," Haines says only half-jokingly over the phone from Montreal, where Metric are preparing to play yet another super-fest (this time the fantastic Osheaga Music & Arts Fest, alongside Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.).
"I'm a musician, so it's my job to be playing whatever comes up," she continues, slightly irritated by the suggestion that this series of smaller-scale shows requires a different part of her brain than the stylishly angular synth-rock she busts out with Metric.
"And it's not all eyes on me - all eyes are on the song. Or rather, it's actually eyes closed, ears open. I'm hard-pressed to find a bad angle to it."
It'd definitely feel weird to hear the sombre, meticulously textured downtempo piano ballads on Knives blasting through some arena's quadrillion-dollar sound system. A celebration of the mute pedal, the disc lends itself to melancholy weather, warm drinks and hibernation.
It's not depressing so much as it is quiet, cathartic and introspective, unspooling through slow, spiderwebbed melodies, breathy vocals, judicious additions of French horn and trombone and cryptically grim lyrics that allude to the liminal effects of fame on a public figure's private life.
This isn't a whiny on-the-road album. In the same way that Anthems For A 17-Year-Old Girl, Haines's standout moment on Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It In People, captured angst-charged teen dreams without spelling it out, the tunes on Knives evoke Haines's own uneasy relationship with her chosen career and the emotional aftermath in a nicely non-literal way.
Nothing And Nowhere nails placelessness, gorgeously circular Our Hell swirls around performance anxiety, post-show comedowns and doubt with subtle self-deprecation, and The Lottery hints at discomfort with being a sex symbol.
At least that's what it sounds like. Just don't ask Haines to confirm or deny her subject matter.
"Um, it's hard cuz I try not to look too closely at the writing process for fear of puncturing the beautiful bubble I like to disappear in."
Part of Haines's resistance to deconstructing her songs may stem from her background. Growing up the daughter of revered "jazz poet" Paul Haines, whose lyrical collaborations with Carla Bley spoke to his own penchant for surrealism and abstraction, the girl must have avoiding the obvious in the blood.
"The other day I was thinking about all the things I learned from him," she explains. "He taught me to take things seriously. He took being a dad really, really seriously. He always made sure I had access to music and art that'd inspire me. It's funny how much I wasn't aware of it growing up.
"The first time I really realized he was famous for more than just being my dad was when John Lennon died. I remember thinking my dad'd be really sad cuz John was his friend. He wasn't really, but at that point I thought everyone whose music my dad played was a friend of his."
That'd make for some pretty rad dinner parties. Haines says her father introduced her to everything from obscure jazz to the Dayglo Abortions and Butthole Surfers, "to the point where it was irritating coming home from school and having to hear some screech and scream as soon as I walked into the house."
Part of Knives was penned in the period surrounding Paul Haines's death in January 2003 (listen closely to the affecting backward-glancing Reading In Bed), and you get the sense that the album's long-awaited release is a bittersweet accomplishment for his daughter.
"I think eulogy's a good word for it," she says. "That's the strangest thing about losing someone - it changed the planet, cuz I'd never been on earth without my dad here, too. He passed away the day we finished Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, and he wasn't here for Live It Out at all.
"But my family's in a really good place in terms of celebrating the great things about him, and we're working on having a book of his poetry published in the next few months.
"It's up to us in the land of the living to focus on positive things."