Feist: The Anti-Pioneer

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For most of the past two years, Leslie Feist has been an “Anti-Pioneer,” as she puts it in one of her new song titles. If a pioneer is someone who is traveling, always traveling, in search of new territory, Feist became an anti-pioneer, someone who stays put for a while, catches her breath and regroups. It was time. “When the month changes numbers,” she sings on that song, “it’s time to go home.”

She had done enough pioneering on the rock ’n’ roll road—as the teenage singer of Calgary’s punk-metal band Placebo, as the back-up singer and puppeteer behind the rock-rapper Peaches, as the obscure 23-year-old behind the awkward debut album Monarch, as the sometime member of the Toronto indie-rock collective the Broken Social Scene, as the suddenly famous 29-year-old behind the 2005 breakthrough album, Let It Die, and as the even more famous 31-year-old behind the Top 10 pop single, “1234,” in 2007. It was enough. She had to stop for a bit.

“I took some time off,” she says. “I wanted to just be still for a while without wheels going underneath me. I’d been doing it steadily for eight years and off and on for even longer. Anyone who has done that much traveling for that long would do the same.

“I turned this derelict shed behind my house in Toronto into a room. Somehow having a free-standing building separate from my house satisfied all my superstitions; it was a refuge from the rest of my life, even though it was in my backyard. It had a desk, a floor tom, a piano, my guitar rig and a set of speakers. I spent a lot of time out there trying to draw lines between all these various experiences and obsessions I’d accumulated over those years.”

The album that came out of that tiny shed, Metals, is filled with rhetorical questions: “How come I’m so alone there?” “Is it wrong to want more?” “What does sadness see?” “Where will we go to keep ourselves afloat?” “Is this the right mountain to climb?” She doesn’t answer these questions in her songs—who could?—but she implies that merely asking the big questions is essential if we are to keep an open mind.

“These rhetorical questions are kind of hinges,” she agrees over the phone from London, “trap doors that you might fall through and find a kind of truth. I was looking at these questions from the point of view of not only going through these things myself but also knowing people who were going through the same things. When I’m writing a song, I’m always asking myself if I’m ‘I’ or if I’m ‘her.’ In the song ‘Anti-Pioneer,’ for example, I sing, ‘For a year she was anti-pioneer, singing sappy songs about what went wrong two years before. And even now is it false or true that I call me you?’

“I ask that question because even though I said, ‘She was anti-pioneer,’ it was actually me. Even if I create a narrator to tell the story, there’s still a bit of myself in the characters; there’s always a bit of autobiography in the story. Sometimes a story is best told from the center, but sometimes a story is about two different currents clashing, and if you can rise 500 feet above the fray you can get a better perspective.”

There’s always this dichotomy in our best pop artists. They create their songs in solitude as they wrestle with the big questions echoing inside their skulls. Then they find a way to recreate those songs as attention-seeking spectacles—recordings and/or concerts—that draw hundreds of thousands of other people into the songs. Those who can do both well—the private soul-searching as well as the public circus—are the artists who have the greatest impact, whether they be Chrissie Hynde or Bruce Springsteen, Kanye West or Bon Iver. With her fourth album, Feist is staking out a place in that company.

In the privacy of her shed, she pondered one of the biggest questions: How is it that a basically decent woman and a basically decent man can bring out the worst in each other and destroy what should have been a successful relationship? You never have to look far to find examples—often no farther than a mirror—and yet the mind rebels against the seeming illogic of this phenomenon. We want to cast one party as the villain and the other party as the victim, so the situation will make sense. But what if, Feist suggests, there are no villains?

The opening song on Metals is “The Bad in Each Other,” whose chorus declares, “When a good man and a good woman can’t find the good in each other, [they] will bring out the worst in the other.” Though she uses the third person in the chorus, she uses the first person in the verses, acknowledging her own participation in this dynamic. She stubbornly refuses to label either person as “bad,” but she makes clear the negative results. How does she explain this logic-defying juxtaposition of the good and the awful? By pointing out, “We had the same feelings at opposite times.”

“We stumble around and make mistakes and hurt each other,” she says, “but usually without meaning to. Our lives are so entangled and most of us are not in tune with our motivations or what we want or what moves us. That means there can be a lot of blind accidents that no one intended. Think of the classic high-school love triangle where someone’s in love with someone who’s in love with someone else who’s in love with the first person. This song isn’t an exoneration from trying to do good; it’s merely a recognition that good is hard to do.”

The album ends with “Get It Wrong Get It Right,” a song that can be heard as an antidote to the opening number. Assembled from short, haiku-like, three-syllable or four-syllable lines, the song provides a vision of a happy relationship—a couple holding hands in a golden wheat field or sitting by a fire while the cold wind blows outside—and suggests ways to achieve it: “Leave the past; Ö climb up to the lookout.” But mostly, she advises, you have to “get it wrong” before you can “get it right.”

“Ultimately, you hope to learn from your mistakes,” Feist continues, “or else you’re on a merry-go-round forever. You have to brandish hope like a torch. There are lots of times when hope feels like something you’ll never have again. Or that it’s pointless, that hope is just a figment of your imagination. And yet we all wake up each morning with some kind of fuel in us to keep going. That’s what we have to nurture. But it’s not like I know anything. I just know what I’ve observed and what I’ve done wrong 800 times before. Maybe I’m leaving bread crumbs for myself to find my way out of the woods.”

It’s one thing to construct these little fables of love gone wrong and love gone right with their seductive melodies in a one-woman shed. It’s quite another to develop them into pop-rock songs large enough to invite the whole world inside. To do that, Feist rejoined two of her three co-producers from the 2007 album The Reminder, Jason “Chilly Gonzales” Charles Beck and Dominic “Mocky” Salole, and added a fourth producer, Bjork engineer Valgeir Sigurðsson. They worked up the arrangements in a Toronto rehearsal space and then actually recorded the tracks over four weeks in February and March at a rented house overlooking the ocean in Big Sur, Calif.

To bring “The Bad in Each Other” to life, for example, Feist plays a captivating electric-guitar figure that seems to represent the couple’s good intentions, but the thudding tom-tom drums and growling bass saxophone suggest the relationship’s impending doom—an example of what she means by “two different currents clashing.” When the chorus arrives, however, that doom is assuaged—though not prevented—by the balm of a swooning, hymn-like melody swaddled in trumpet, string quartet and harmony vocals. Then it’s back to the taut tension of the verse.

Feist’s greatest asset is her remarkable soprano, a remarkable instrument that manages to sound both piercingly beautiful and yet huskily personal at the same time. In the past, she has set that voice off against the prickly, percussive sounds of guitars, keys and drums, but on Metals, more than ever before, she reinforces her voice with strings, harmony vocals and horns.

“As I was writing, these songs were suggesting lower pitches,” she recalls, “and I opened my ears to that. These songs are bit like proclamations, like the bugler at the top of the wall, saying, ‘I see something coming this way.’ They’re announcements that need a bit of medieval girth to them and the horns add that girth. It’s like why I use certain guitar amps; I’m always searching for the right tone.

“I’d had experience with higher-register horns such as trumpets and trombones, but not with lower-register horns like bass clarinet, bass saxophone or euphonium. I was doing a show with the Broken Social Scene and when I looked over at the horn section, I saw Evan Cranley playing an unusual horn and I went after and asked him what it was. When he said, ‘A euphonium,’ I said, ‘Bring that over to my house tomorrow; I want to see if it fits these songs.’ He did and it did. I asked Colin Stetson, one of Canada’s best saxophonists, if he had a bass saxophone and a bass clarinet. He did, and I told him to bring them all to the sessions.”

Cranley and Stetson, often overdubbed to form muscular, bottom-heavy horn choirs, reinforce the sense of doom in “The Bad in Each Other,” the nocturnal dread in “Graveyard,” the relationship grudges and arguments in “A Commotion,” and the lack of ready answers to the questions posed on “Undiscovered First.”

Feist sings the verses of these songs herself, as if speaking as an individual about a particular experience. But when she gets to the choruses, she’s usually joined by backing vocals, as if speaking as part of a community of romantic survivors. When the group vocals are in unison or parallel, they seem to be agreeing on the response; when the voices are counterpointed, they seem to be debating the response, but either way they have shared the same experiences of loss and recovery. In this way, she solves the dilemma of whether she’s singing just for herself or for a wider web of people.

“In ‘Undiscovered First,’” Feist points out, “three voices share the harmony equally on the chorus. Howie Beck was mixing it as a lead vocal and two backups, and I said, ‘No, it was intentional that they are all at the same level.’ It should be like a Greek chorus, because I wasn’t the only one going through the experiences in these songs.

“I think of myself singing alone as a diary entry left behind by one woman in a 19th century daguerreotype, the kind of picture you find in a tea shop full of bric a brac. I think of myself singing with other people as one of those aphorisms, those folk-wisdom sayings, that some old woman will embroider into a cloth, frame and hang on the wall. Those sayings seem to declare, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ and that’s what choruses are for. That’s where you pull back from the details and deliver the moral of the story.”

Feist is not a literary lyricist in the sense of a Lucinda Williams or a Steve Earle; her words do not provide meaning so much as they provide helpful clues or tantalizing hints to the meaning that resides in the music. Her short, fragmented phrases are not the trail that the listener follows; they are the painted blazes on the trees in snowy forest that allow the hiker to guess at the trail.

The power of a song like “Bittersweet Melodies,” on Metals, comes from its paradoxical mood of sadness and stoicism, as if something has been lost and there’s nothing more to be done about it. The eerie tremolo guitar and descending melody line on the verse evoke the loss, while the relaxed breathiness of the vocal and chiming bells suggest the acceptance. The lyrics aren’t strong enough to create that mood on their own, but they do let us know what the mood is about: a recently ended relationship. “I still remember us before we turned to dust,” Feist sings, but it’s the string and vocal harmonies on the bridge that make us feel the dizzying tug-of-war (“can’t go back, can’t go on”) between warm memories pulling one backward and bad memories pushing one forward.

Nonetheless, Feist has come a long way from the punk-rock girl in Placebo and the art-rocker in Broken Social Scene. With each of her three major-label solo albums, she has wriggled a little more loose of the conventions of indie-rock—which can be as constricting as those for commercial pop. She won’t give up her freedom to experiment, but neither will she give up her freedom to write unhip, ear-grabbing, heart-tugging hooks. She has broadened her palette of instruments to include strings and horns; she has expanded her musical vocabulary to include jazz flavors on “Anti-Pioneer” and lilting folkie guitar on “Cicadas and Gulls.” She’s not afraid of catchy chorus melodies; “1234” was a hit single, and “The Circle Married the Line” may soon be another.

Perhaps her transformation was best represented by her appearance at the celebration of British Columbia’s 150th anniversary as a Canadian province on Aug. 4, 2008. An estimated 100,000 people filled up every inch of space between Victoria Harbor and the province’s Parliament Building, a very British-looking stone edifice whose every corner, arch, eave and dome was strung with white Christmas lights. On the temporary stage before the lit-up castle, Feist looked more than a little like the 1970s Cher in her dark bangs, long straight hair, high cheekbones, fringed white dress and beaded Indian pouch hanging from her neck.

The show had begun with Canadian roots-rocker Colin James, The Guess Who’s Burton Cummings and Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan before climaxing with Feist. Though she was at least eight years younger than any of the others and had come out of an indie-rock world foreign to them, her presence wasn’t as incongruous as it might have been five years earlier. She’d displayed enough pop craftsmanship and pop success in the meantime to share common ground with the others, even if she had started in a far different place.

Eight songs into the show Feist dismissed her band and said, “Inspired by the great Sarah McLachlan, I’ve decided to do a few songs by myself.” At that McLachlan sprinted in from the wings, planted a big kiss on Feist’s mouth and sprinted off again. The two women sound very different—Feist’s music is darker, more rhythmic and more experimental than McLachlan’s—but they share a common project: updating the model of the Canadian female singer/songwriter/guitarist, a model created by Joni Mitchell.

Feist recovered from the kiss to stand alone with her electric guitar and sang “Intuition,” another song about good people failing at romance. When she plaintively asked, “Did I, did I miss out on you?” the ocean of people sang the line with her, dramatically transforming the individual into the universal. Two songs later, when Feist sang her big hit, “1234,” fireworks blossomed like electric palm trees above parliament building and her moment of triumph seemed complete.

“When I think of Sarah McLachlan, I’m still 16 and going to buy my first records at the HMV store,” Feist remembers. “I wasn’t a purist as a kid by any means. I was listening to Sarah and Phantom of the Opera along with my mother’s Dr. Hook records, my brother’s Kraftwerk records and my friends’ Jesus Lizard records. Back when I started, it wouldn’t have made sense to sound like this, just as it wouldn’t make sense now to sing Placebo songs.

“This journey has been one step at a time, one band at a time, one era at a time. My grandmother was born before her family had electricity, but when I knew her she lived right next to the airport where this modern technology was coming and going every few minutes. I asked her about it and she said, ‘I’ve had a while to get used to it; it’s been 75 years.’ I’ve had time to get used to my own changes.”