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Feist: In High Spirits

Feist on
Feist on "The Reminder" has "caught the sense of the way I want to tell stories, and why I even want to." (By Mary Rozzi)

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By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

Think of Leslie Feist -- just Feist when she's working solo -- as the Parker Posey or Sarah Polley of indie rock, with Jenny Lewis/Conor Oberst pinup appeal thrown in for good measure.

Just don't forget that this darling of the Pitchfork Media/Stereogum set (as well as the New Yorker and the New York Times) has been working for more than a decade to establish herself on her own terms and in her own voice.

Now think of Feist as a postmodern torch singer moving through various spaces before settling into a room with a view of her own, first evident on 2004's "Let It Die."

That solo debut was forged by the 31-year-old Canadian's experiences as lead vocalist for Calgary punk band Placebo, guitarist for Toronto alt-rockers By Divine Right, keyboardist-puppeteer with rowdy electro-punker Peaches and vital cog in the Canadian indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene.

"I wasn't thinking in the moment that playing any of those projects was for some purpose later down the road," Feist says. "If I was spending my time working on them, for the most part it was because they felt they were mine to some degree, even if it wasn't my own songs. There never was a switch in my own mind: 'Now I'm going to be the center of my own universe.' Simultaneous to all those other projects, I have always been pursuing my own, quietly, behind closed doors. It just never really saw the light of day before."

Much as people admired Feist's contributions to others' projects, it was "Let It Die" that established her as a superb singer, blessed with a light, aching voice that evoked comparisons with Beth Orton or Norah Jones with a dash of Cat Power or, for the older set, Astrud Gilberto and Joni Mitchell. With its mesmerizing meld of pop, folk and lounge, "Let It Die" sold nearly a half-million copies worldwide but was only a tentative coming out, mixing six Feist originals with a similar number of covers.

Feist's recent follow-up, "The Reminder," is even better, and, with 12 originals, it's more intimate and immediate. The lone cover, "Sealion," is of a folk song associated with Nina Simone, starkly and compellingly reimagined. Feist's new songs are mostly about relationships, both blessed and cursed, beautifully observed and wrapped in sparse arrangements that allow her voice to zap straight into the listener's own unsettled heart and soul.

Album opener "So Sorry" finds Feist conceding that "we're slaves to our impulses" and musing, " 'I'm sorry' / Two words I always think / After you're gone / When I realize I was acting all wrong." In "Intuition," she ruminates of lost connections, realizing that "it's impossible to tell / How important someone was / And what you might have missed out on / And how he might have changed it all / And how you might have changed it all for him. . . . Did I miss out on you?"

It's the sound of someone's musicality and sensibility emerging fully formed by experience.

"I feel like I'm stumbling just as much as I ever have," Feist says. "But I suppose I am probably not repeating patterns as much as I would have years ago. What may be more the case is just from my own perspective, seeing it from the inside, it feels like I've caught the sense of the way I want to tell stories and why I even want to. What of the stories do I want to tell and what would I prefer to leave in shadows, the spotlight being less interesting than the little glittering eyes in the back of the cave that could be jewels or something dangerous, leaving a bit of shadows for curiosity.

"I just caught the whiff of it on 'Let It Die.' And I feel, on this record, I'm just starting to understand what the source of that is, being a little more cognizant of why I'm doing this."

It helped that "Let It Die" featured "Mushaboom," a charmingly catchy cult hit covered by Bright Eyes and remixed by Postal Service (added indie cred) and used in commercials for a Lacoste fragrance for men and Silent Night mattresses (so much for that indie cred). In the song's delightful video, Feist floats through the streets of Paris, singing about wanting a house in the woods even though she's aware it "may be years until the day my dreams will match up with my pay." That line has been flung back at Feist by critics suggesting that she's eager to abandon the indie scene for the pop mainstream.

Which makes Feist laugh out loud.

"I don't think I ever imagined it was music that was going to match my dreams to my pay! I would have had no indication from the 10 years of working previous to this that I was ever going to make a cent playing music -- I was only going to spend money and lose money doing it!

"That has never been a part of my equation, ever," she adds more seriously. "Having grown up in Calgary, I was in a really amazing DIY scene, putting on our own shows. My first major investment as a 15-year-old was buying a staple gun because we went all over putting up our own posters. But there was nobody in our entire scene who was making a living doing it."

As for ambition, "it's such a loaded word," she says, "because it sounds like the entire scope of your interest in doing something is to reach one goal, the shining star at the top of the mountain, and you're just climbing toward that one goal. That was never really the case for me. Somehow I didn't ever see that that was a possibility, so it never crossed my mind, was never on my radar."

But, Feist says cheerfully, "I'm quickly adapting my thinking."

She also thinks back to the late '90s, when she was living in Toronto and sharing an apartment with Merrill Nisker, a.k.a. Peaches. They caught up recently, and, Feist says: "We were laughing about how everyone's incredulous, as in 'How could you guys live together?' I get asked it all the time, and she gets asked it all the time. I remember when I was a teenager hearing that Mark Sandman from Morphine lived with the singer from the Presidents of the United States and thinking, 'How could they live together?,' just judging them on their music.

"I guess people have the same reaction to Peaches and I, but it's funny because I started in hardcore bands and she had a folk duet called Mermaid Cafe, her and another girl singing Simon & Garfunkel-type songs in perfect harmony. We were both doing crazy diagonal crossovers to where we really wanted to be, where we didn't know yet we were en route to. For the most part, I had gotten quieter and quieter, and she'd gotten deeper and deeper into the rock-and-roll.

"But it was so extreme what we were both doing: I was in my bedroom, four-tracking the beginnings of what was going to be [her hard-to-find 1999 solo album] 'Monarch (Lay Your Jeweled Head Down),' the first 10 songs I ever wrote, and Peaches was in her bedroom making the beginnings of 'The Teaches of Peaches,' starting to play with beats and the rap-rock side. What we were doing in our bedrooms was really juxtaposed to what we were doing by day; she was a children's drama and music teacher! In a couple of years, we had both taken the bedrooms outside."

A sense of mischievousness is apparent in Feist's videos, from "Mushaboom" (it's Peaches who keeps on pulling Feist back to the ground each time she threatens to float away) to "My Moon My Man," in which she glides on those long people movers between airport terminals (it was shot during non-flying hours). However, Feist's greatest achievement is "1234," a deliriously spirited video in which a happy-go-lucky Feist leads several dozen brightly clad dancers through a warehouse in an increasingly complex Busby Berkeley/Esther Williams-style kaleidoscope of humanity. It's a technical marvel: an uninterrupted, unedited, one-camera take in which the dancers seem to emerge from nowhere behind Feist and then disappear again the same way. (A lively discussion can be found at http://ask.metafilter.com/61339/How-does-Feist-shake-em-in-n-out, and there's a "making of" feature at http://www.listentofeist.com.)

"That is absolutely one shot, no cheating or trickery," Feist says, sounding mighty pleased. "The people were in that room the whole time! It's just the genius of [choreographer] Noemi Lafrance and [director] Patrick Daughters that they managed to make people ask questions like that!" Any mirage was the result of hard work, of course. The dancers spent three days blocking their moves, and when Feist arrived, they filmed 17 takes in one day, "and only finished five of them," Feist says. "The [computer-controlled] camera was on an enormous robotic crane, twisting and turning in that enormous warehouse. And either the camera would go awry or we would go awry, too, so we'd have to stop.

"But at the end, we were all shaking our heads. I don't think I've had so much fun since elementary school."

Feist Appearing Wednesday at the 9:30 club Basement tapes?:"The Reminder" was recorded in a mansion outside Paris. Originally, the sessions were in a basement studio, but Feist and her collaborators moved into a well-lit, open room more amenable to communal music-making. The result is an album of delicate instrumental shading that leaves Feist's intoxicating vocals front and center -- even more so if you treat "The Reminder" as a classic "headphone" album, a notion the singer supports. "Having not ever owned a stereo, I've lived in headphones my whole life," she explains. "That's where I listen to music, so there's probably some truth that I made the record with a lot more subtlety than can be absorbed in a bar or under the Frappuccino machine."


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