A larger-than-life talent with a down-to-earth personality, Canadian singer/songwriter Leslie Feist breezes through the folk, pop, electronic and rock worlds with the greatest of ease. By Rich Juzwiak
“You want a quote? Here, I’ll give you a quote: always a crowd!”
Broken Social Scene singer/guitarist Kevin Drew, Coors Light in hand, is talking loudly to compete with the din at Central Park’s Summer Stage. He’s backstage, which is really just some grassy space to the left of the performance area with a boardwalk-type landing and a few trailers. A few minutes ago, Drew was serving as a surprise guest for the encore of Leslie Feist’s headlining set at the venue’s Canada Day show, with rapper Buck 65 and fellow Scene-ster Jason Collett rounding out the bill. Drew, Feist and her band played a pumped-up version of Broken Social Scene’s “Major Label Debut” to a rapturous response.
Drew isn’t kidding about the crowd. Feist goes from being surrounded onstage by her four-man backing band to being engulfed offstage, in the middle of about 50 hangers-on milling around post-show. Feist flutters through the throng, signing autographs, accepting compliments and hugging young fans behind the barrier that separates audience grass from backstage grass. She’s on the verge of being swallowed by adoration.
One fan approaches her practically foaming at the mouth. “I’ve been listening to your album every day nonstop since February,” he says.
“I think it’s time to buy a new album,” replies Feist, a grin on her face.
“If you went up to her right now, she’d talk to you,” says Drew as he watches the praise fly. “Her music doesn’t say, ‘Fuck off,’ and neither does she.”
Drew isn’t kidding about that, either. Few albums in recent memory have been as warm in execution and cool in effect as Feist’s intimate and hip breakthrough, Let It Die. It was released internationally in 2004 and a year later in the U.S.; critics raved, awards followed (she’s won three Junos, Canada’s answer to the Grammys), and units were moved (about 400,000 copies have sold worldwide; Let It Die is certified gold in France, where Feist currently has an apartment, and Canada, where she grew up). The album’s charm is hard to refute, but it’s also hard to nail down. It could be the songwriting, which is so invested in melody that she and co-writer/producer Chilly Gonzales have referred to the process as “brilling” (i.e., channeling New York’s Brill Building hitmakers). It could be Feist’s voice, a weird, soulful combination of smoky and brassy that gently overpowers anything it’s up against. And it could very well be “jhai” (pronounced “jay”), the term Feist and Gonzales use to describe their no-bullshit method of making music.
“It kind of means ‘don’t show off,’” Feist will explain later. “There are a lot of ways to say noodle, show-off, wank, go, but there’s no way to say anti-noodling. So we invented one.”
Whatever the reason, Feist seems to engage all who encounter her. Consider the toddlers who stomped along in puddles to today’s rendition of Let It Die standout “Mushaboom.” Nearby, women old enough to be their grandmothers clapped along. The scene captures Feist’s potential for mass appeal. Her recent remix album, Open Season (Cherrytree/ Interscope)—which finds her voice at home in the context of house and hip-hop-inspired beats provided by Gonzales, the Postal Service and others—casts the net even wider.
It turns out that Drew is only half right about Feist; you don’t even need to go up to her to get her to talk to you. She’s the embodiment of jhai, which is evident during a post-show dinner at a Thai restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The entourage has been whittled down to 20 handlers, musicians and friends. The decidedly petite Feist, wearing black, hip-hugging jeans and a sheer tank top (“It’s almost see-through, but fuck it,” she says), eats communal appetizer after appetizer. Drew is on her right, caressing her arm affectionately from time to time. Mary, a fashion photographer and Feist’s Parisian roommate, is on her left.
Though familiar faces are close by, Feist talks to anyone in earshot, including people she’s never met. She slightly resembles Sheryl Crow, prominent teeth and all, and she talks with the laid-back, drawn-out ease of a regularly stoked surfer chick. She is, by turns, enthusiastic (she gushes about a book she’s reading, Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, and “fascinatingly bad” cinema like Starship Troopers and Gia), almost unnecessarily polite (she apologizes for a lull in conversation) and mischievous (she hijacks my digital recorder when I step away, giggling with Mary into the mic: “Hey Rich, you just left the table. We’re gonna give you all sorts of dirt now. Mud, sand, uh … soot. Dust. Windshield grime. Dustballs. Dog poo and garbage that’s oozed onto the sidewalk and that’s baked by the hot sun and smells bad.”).
Feist doesn’t exactly control the dinner conversation, but she also doesn’t rebuff its consistent gravitation toward her. Jhai in check, she talks about attending this year’s Cannes Film Festival. She was invited after contributing the closing song (“La Meme Histoire”) to multi-director vignettes showcase Paris, je t’aime.
“You’re floating in a sea of red,” she says of walking the festival’s carpet. “People were screaming, but not at me, of course. The way people congregate never ceases to amaze me.”
“I kind of thought, ‘Well, I’ll stop touring this year,’” says Feist the next day at a Mexican restaurant on the Upper West Side. “But the calendar’s not cooperating.”
Until yesterday, Feist was in Toronto opening for “Broken Mascis Scene” (J Mascis and Broken Social Scene doing Dinosaur Jr material). Tomorrow, she’ll be in Paris, where she’ll begin mixing her as-yet-untitled third album. After that, she’s in for more globetrotting, doing what she’s been doing regularly for the past three years: playing songs for an audience. If you count the time she’s spent in various bands, you can bump that tally up to 15 years. For about half of her life, the 30-year-old Feist has either been on the road, preparing to be on the road or recently off the road.
Moving around has been nothing new to Feist. She was born in Nova Scotia, and when her parents split nine months later (“I was the straw that broke the camel’s back, I guess,” she says with a laugh), her mother moved Feist and her older brother to Saskatchewan to live with Feist’s grandparents. At age seven, Feist’s family moved to Calgary.
“Music was always just there, sort of imprinted on every memory,” says Feist. “I think that you see what you’re interested in, so when I look back to my childhood, I was always singing in the choir, bugging my mom and bugging my brother.”
At 14, while in high school in Calgary, Feist joined her first band, a female-heavy noise act called Placebo (not to be confused with the British glam band). “The memories are better than the actual music,” says Feist, although the memories aren’t all joyous, either: Screaming in the band caused Feist’s vocal cords to become so sore, she could barely sing. She moved to Toronto and, to give her voice a rest, learned how to play the guitar, which she received as a gift from her artist father, who bartered paintings for the instrument. Some solo shows led her to a spot in indie-rock outfit By Divine Right, playing alongside future Broken Social Scene bandmate Brendan Canning.
In 1999, months before splitting with By Divine Right, Feist released Monarch (Lay Your Jewelled Head Down), a nice-enough if slight solo debut. Then she reunited with Canning for Broken Social Scene (he’d started the eventual collective with Drew, who says he pushed for Feist to join the band after By Divine Right’s fall-out). She toured a bit with the porno-centric, electro-trashy Peaches, playing with sock puppets onstage and rapping under the moniker Bitch Lap Lap. (Feist appears wearing a skimpy silver lamé bikini in the booklet for Peaches’ latest album, Impeach My Bush.) In 2002 and 2003, Feist toured with Chilly Gonzales, a Canadian-born, European-based MC and producer who’s become her musical soulmate. Not long after those gigs, Feist released Let It Die, which she says isn’t a solo album, but a collaborative piece with Gonzales.
It’s hard to tell if Feist’s busy schedule is a result or a cause of being in demand, as she built the bulk of her cult popularity over the course of the past three years on the road. When you consider all the time spent touring before that, it would seem that Feist is something of a workaholic.
“I don’t really know what that means,” she counters. “I always associate it with executives.”
Maybe, but Feist knows what it is to work a double shift; when she opened for Broken Social Scene last year, she also played with the band during its headlining set. Even when she’s doing just one set, she’s working harder than you’d expect from listening to the restrained sounds of Let It Die. Playing guitar throughout, she nods with every strum, yelps and moves with the herky-jerky mannerisms of a puppet.
“When I get onstage, I’m used to playing guitar,” she says. “There’s no guitar on Let It Die, really. It was like, ‘What am I gonna do? I have to play guitar.’ So the songs had to change. I made a gentle album with Gonzo because it was such a novelty to be able to do that. There’s a timeless quality to his piano playing that made me feel old-fashioned, playing dress-up with melodies that otherwise would be four-tracked out and really Guided By Voices-style.”
Feist doesn’t complain about her job; she just manipulates it in the way that’s easiest to deal with at any given moment. She’s startlingly matter-of-fact when she talks about “cutting anchors” with Canada. It’s not that she no longer talks with her family and friends; it’s just that she knows she can’t possibly give them the attention she could when she lived in close proximity.
“Your anchor has to be where your feet are at any given moment,” she says. “Your anchor is your psychic link to people. People become your home instead of the closet and pillow.”
But for all her resolve, when she mentions her current place of residence, her tone changes to one of awe. “Instant life” is the term she uses to describe moving into a room in Mary’s Paris apartment, which came complete with a dog, regularly refreshed bouquets of flowers and a strong wi-fi signal.
“When I’m there, I’m just like, ‘This is the best hotel on earth! And all my stuff’s here!’” says Feist. “Except the joke is that I’ll maybe be there 10 days in the next four or five months. But I’ll know it’s there. I’ll just know it’s there.”
The results of Feist’s lifestyle may very well play out when her third album is released next spring. She wrote most of it while on tour last year; around Christmas, she rented a house in the Canary Islands to go through her notes and start piecing it together. Almost all of Feist’s work is conceived in private before it’s executed with the assistance of others. Gonzales helped flesh out the new songs in a rented Berlin apartment, and the pair then presented their work to IDM artist-turned-soulman Jamie Lidell, who had a hand in arranging the songs.
“The improvement of Leslie’s voice is the most notable change [on the new album],” says Gonzales. “Just on a purely scientific level beyond taste, the instrument is more versatile and more in shape. It’s emoting at a very extreme output. And then the rest, like Let It Die, is just about not screwing up that scientific truth.”
Gonzales prefers not to overthink Feist’s music, and he’s careful to point out that her voice alone is the reason for her broad appeal. “It’s a few years on, she’s done hundreds of shows and she knows what her fans look like,” he says. “She’s been staring them in the face for the past few years. [While recording Let It Die], there was some ephemeral idea of, ‘Who could this possibly be for?’ Now she knows exactly who it’s for. She’s seen them. The experiment is for Feist to get it all out. It’s more on her shoulders now.”
If the upcoming album reflects her recent time on the road, Let It Die inadvertently predicted it. Feist had no idea that her sophomore album would lead to three years of touring, but her approach to writing created songs that could withstand a lifetime of miles.
“In a way, I’m writing riddles about myself so that I can have something to puzzle out,” says Feist. “Sometimes, I’ll be singing a song like ‘Let It Die,’ three years after I wrote it, and in the middle of singing it, I’ll realize, ‘Oh! That lyric could mean that. I never thought about it that way.’ If you keep them obscure and vague enough and yet specific, anchored to quicksand instead of anchored to stone, then they stay alive longer. For me they do. If I’m gonna sing these songs, I want to be able to sort of puzzle them out instead of having it be plain as day. ‘I went here and I did this and I feel that.’ I’m not interested in that.”
Of course, the flip side of such oblique speak is that Feist has to verbalize all of it later, in interviews. You’d never know it from her conversation—which is pointed and detailed, full of reassurances that she’s flattered that anyone takes the time to ask her the questions they do—but it seems that talking, not singing, is the most draining aspect of her job. The idea of being put under a microscope is clearly one Feist still isn’t accustomed to. When asked about her canoodling with Drew after the Central Park performance, Feist plays innocent.
“What are you talking about?” she says with a nervous laugh. “I don’t know what you mean.”
I ask if she’s consciously private about her love life.
“I guess I’m beginning to be that way.”
As in starting now?
“Right at this moment,” she says sharply. “No … I guess, yeah. Everything’s changing!”
But of course it is. This is Leslie Feist we’re talking about.