She shares an apartment in Paris and has half a house waiting for her in Toronto, but if her plans go accordingly, Canadian solo artist Leslie Feist won’t be spending much time at either abode.
She figures she spent 33 months on the road promoting her last album, the Juno award-winning Let It Die
. At this point, she should consider putting the “Feist” brand on a line of luggage. “It’s my bed and my closet,” she says, a slight laugh offsetting the simple reality. “There’s been a lot of zigzagging across the oceans. It is what it is, and I’m doing it, and it’s part of the equation.”
The “it” Feist keeps referring to is, of course, her musical career, an accident that’s taken its share of hard work. The Reminder, her latest compendium of folk rock, electronica, Memphis soul and re?ective ballads will put her back on the road until at least Christmas. It’s the first album she’s conceived knowing an audience will be waiting. “With Let it Die, I made the record in the studio,” she explains. “The songs I wrote for it came later. We started with covers, because the experiment was about us working together in a different way.”
The “us” Feist refers to is her production team, Jason Charles Beck (a.k.a. Chilly Gonzales) and Renaud Letang, two recording artists who agreed they’d work together when the right project came along. “The whole point was to start fresh,” explains Feist. “I put my guitar down. Gonzales put his samplers and sequencers and drum machines down. Renaud usually just sings by himself. It was about starting from scratch.”
Gonzales concurs. “She was leaving behind her indie-rock world, and I was leaving behind my electro world and trying to find a compromise between those worlds. Part of the reason I suggested we work some tracks together is because I discovered some of Dusty Springfield’s records and I saw something in Feist that was like Dusty, the versatility of the voice and the lightness of the personality.” A collection of five covers and six originals, Let It Die was Gonzales’ first outside production, playing Burt Bacharach to Feist’s Springfield. Says the singer, “It was a page being torn from some completely different book than I’d ever read before.”
Feist had never heard Dusty Springfield before Gonzales took her aside and played her Dusty’s records. She grew up in Calgary, singing in choir and attending an arts school before joining a punk-rock band at 15 and by 20, moving to Toronto to make her first impressions playing guitar for By Divine Right, who opened for The Tragically Hip in North America. “I just followed the road that uncurled in front of me,” she says. “I didn’t have any kind of master plan. I just liked singing and went from there.”
Feist spent years working in various capacities for friends, performing as Bitch Lap Lap behind electronica shock rapper Peaches, touring Europe as a vocalist with Gonzales and his less-confrontational material, recording tentative first solo album Monarch (Lay Down Your Jeweled Head) and eventually joining her old By Divine Right bandmate Brendan Canning in loose Toronto collective Broken Social Scene, after guesting on the band’s first album, 1999’s Feel Good Lost. “There are five guys in Broken who hold it together and keep it alive while the rest of us come and go like the swinging doors of an old Western saloon,” says Feist. “I still manage to play on the road with them when we can make our tours converge.”
But now it may be a matter of who opens for whom. Let It Die outdid all expectations, going gold in France, platinum in Canada and selling over 400,000 copies worldwide. The track “Mushaboom” went top 10 at commercial Adult Alternative radio in the U.S., even attracting the attention of Outkast’s Andre 3000, who placed the song at #1 on his People magazine and Rolling Stone playlists. “It took on a life of its own that I never could’ve predicted,” admits Feist. “I suppose I was a little bewildered, but I adapted pretty quickly. Your life is what’s in front of you and what you wake up to everyday.”
Her two 2005 Juno Awards—“Best Alternative Album” and “Best New Artist”—proved to her family that, though she hadn’t yet scaled to the heights of Celine Dion, her music career was a real, ongoing, functional concern. “These Juno Awards [are as] ‘topside’ as you can get in Canada. It’s kinda like the Grammys of Canada, but, of course, it’s Canada so it’s not like the Grammys at all,” she says with a laugh. “As everyone I know who’s won or been nominated or performed, we all say the Junos are for the parents. When I won, I just gave them my mom’s address and I didn’t even see them until I went to visit my mom a year later and saw them on the mantel. She has the mantelpiece; I’ve got the suitcase.”
When it finally came time to record the follow-up, Feist had clear ideas not of what she wanted but how she wanted it. “I couldn’t close my eyes and hear the record or imagine what I wanted it to sound like,” she says. “I just knew how I wanted to make it and the resultant sound would be no bells or whistles and nothing—just having the song be the point. I knew I wanted us to be in a living space where we didn’t have to travel to the studio every morning.”
After several weeks in a ?at in Berlin working up the songs in one room while Gonzales worked on his own piano music in the other, the two convened with Letang and their other musical friends, Mocky, Jamie Lidell and Feist’s live band—Bryden and Jesse Baird, Julian Brown and Afie Jurvanen—at Le Frette Studios outside Paris, a facility Feist had used a year earlier to record a song for the upcoming Ethan Hawke film The Hottest State. “We recorded in the basement where there’s a proper studio. While we were there, we spent a lot of time upstairs in the living room space of the house and I said, ‘I want to make my record there.’”
The studio was wired to the living and parlor rooms, and Feist recorded for two-and-a-half weeks in this casual environment. “For me, it was really important to make a recording that had people in a room playing together, not separated by even headphones,” she explains. “In one corner, we put a guitar amp that I sang through, and my guitar amp that I played through in another corner, and then the piano and vibraphone and organ. And in the other room we put two drum kits, and in the hallway we put the standup bass because there was a natural resonance. All the windows were open, and all the microphones were bleeding into each other.”
Several of the songs, including “So Sorry” and “The Water,” were first takes with no overdubbing, a way for Feist to circumvent her overworked mind. “If you can have your fingers or your voice in?uence more than your brain, then basically whatever comes out is tapping from a different source than your mind, and then that’s something that’s easier to listen to than if I can hear myself calculating and calibrating. I’d rather just slalom down through my instincts and catch the momentum of the moment and listen to the players around me.”
“She definitely had an idea,” says Gonzales. “She really had strong ideas of what needs to be there to be able to deliver that emotional payoff. Going out on tour, she realized [that on] certain songs on Let It Die, she had trouble getting behind it every night. She became a real expert on why.”
“All the covers had fallen off the setlist without meaning to,” admits Feist. “For whatever reason, I couldn’t climb inside them anymore.”
Gonzales is more to the point. “When you look at the lyrics in print to that [Bee Gees] song ‘Inside and Out,’ you realize what a horrible lyricist Barry Gibb is.”
For The Reminder, Feist collaborated on several key tracks. The Gamble and Huff, Philly Soul of “Limit to Your Love” came to Feist and Gonzales on the fast track, much like Let It Die’s favored track, “Mushaboom.” “That was only one of a couple of times in my life when five minutes after you have the initial idea, it’s finished,” says Feist. “He played a chord, I sang a line, and we listened back.”
“Brandy Alexander,” with Ron Sexsmith, on the other hand, was an exercise in persistence. The two had been running into each other for years. “He thought I was this one woman who’s Neko Case’s manager, who I’ve never met,” says Feist. “Then I was the ‘French girl who recorded ‘Secret Heart.’’ No, I’m from Canada, but I lived in France.”
At a party in Ottawa, Feist asked Sexsmith what he was drinking. “So, I began to tell her about the legendary ‘Brandy Alexander,’” explains Sexsmith, “which was apparently the drink John Lennon and Harry Nilsson were enjoying the night they got kicked out of the Troubadour in L.A. back in the ’70s. The next day or so, she emailed me a lyric.” An hour later Sexsmith left his piano with the music. A year later they ran into one another in L.A. and Sexsmith sang the melody to her.
“I didn’t have a Dictaphone to record his melody,” says Feist. “But it’s a Ron Sexsmith melody, so my mind recorded it. It was six months [later] that I was standing next to Gonzales at the piano singing him Ron’s melody, and he asked me what the chords were underneath. ‘Was it this?’ ‘This?’ When Ron heard it, he [said] ‘Yeah, I guess that’s pretty much it.’”
With her strong work ethic and Zen-like mastery of fate’s unpredictable twists, Feist is content to let each step form its own impression and dictate its own pace. She’s letting the songs speak for themselves. “Any explanation is just shining ?uorescent lights on shadows that are otherwise interesting and curious,” she says.
Trusting the art and not the artist is how it should be. The tangled weave of love and life comes out differently than anyone can anticipate. And who wants to tempt fate by talking too loudly or bravely? But the sentiment of her most popular track to date, “Mushaboom,” still resonates within her when asked where she sees her life heading. She suddenly re?ects on that idyllic and elusive
bucolic retreat that retains its power as the never-reached destination.
“I’m looking for the trees,” she says. “I’m waiting to find my little forest somewhere, and I just haven’t figured out where it’s going to be yet.”