For eight years, Leslie Feist, alongside cheeky multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Chilli Gonzalez, maverick producer Mocky and the singing, sexual-role-defying conceptualist electro star Peaches, made up a group of expat Canadian artists living in Paris and Berlin called – no more than semi-seriously – the Canadian Crew. Feist made her own records, too, but mostly she earned her living by miming the mad but musicianly sidekick in Peaches and Gonzalez’s live shows, where she could be seen doing strange things with sock puppets and melons, or tap-dancing in a fluorescent bathing suit.
Then came The Reminder. Recorded with Gonzalez and Mocky, it was her fourth album. It contained a superior brand of electronica- tinged, folky, singer-songwriter fare, made different and special by Feist’s unusual voice, which can switch between Lolita-like insouciance and steely determination in the course of a single word. At first, the album garnered excellent reviews but modest sales. Things changed, however, when the childlike ‘1234’ was licensed for an iPod Nano advert, and other songs from the album began to accompany a multitude of spots selling anything from perfume to mattresses.
Luckily, Feist’s songs were too strong to be flattened by such media overkill. The Reminder ended up selling more than a million copies and landing her five Juno Awards (the Canadian version of the Brits) as well as the Short-List award (the US version of the Mercury Prize). Now, 35-year-old Feist is back with her fifth album, Metals. If anything, it is a stronger album, with more emotional depth and demonstrating a keen desire for musical innovation, heard mostly in several fascinating string and choir arrangements.
SUBLIME: METALS. WHY IS THE ALBUM CALLED METALS?
LESLIE FEIST: I needed a title that could change, that could be interpreted in every possible way. One that was a bit of a hinge, or pivot. Something with some weight to it, something heavy where, if you said ‘metals’ to a hundred people, they would all have a different, you know, word association. I’m gonna do it to you: ‘metals’. What’s the first word that pops into your mind?
S: QUICKSILVER, STRANGELY.
LF: Quicksilver! You see, amazing. I should actually do that, ask everyone for their word association. Until now, I’ve never done that, I’ve just been saying, if you picked a hundred people, they’d all say something different. Probably ten of them would say gold or silver, something like that, but others would say watches or scaffolding, or a shovel or an axe. Or it could be raw, like ore, something that’s found deep in a mountain, that you have to dig through rock and earth to find, and which then gets changed by fire. It so depends on who touches it as to what will be done with it. You can see I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it! It’s hard to find an album title. But I feel pretty good about this one.
S: THE ALBUM GOES OFF IN MANY DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS SONICALLY, MUCH MORE SO THAN THE LAST ONE. FAIR COMMENT?
LF: It’s interesting – I was so inside making it, and it’s only less than a month ago that I finished the mixes. I was mastering it here in London, I guess only a few weeks ago, and since then I’ve been in rehearsals. So I’m still in it. This is the first time I’ve really talked about it, and I’m getting a lot of different observations.Earlier today someone said it seemed much more cohesive. For me, it’s all an education because I only feel it and know it from the inside. It’s more of an album for me, in the sense that I’ve never written all the songs for one record at one time, which I did in this case. It’s the first time I’ve ever done that.
S: WAS IT A CONSCIOUS DECISION TO WRITE ALL THE SONGS IN ONE BRUNCH, OR WERE THERE CERTAIN CIRCUMSTANCES THAT LED TO IT?
LF: It was the result of not writing on the road. All the other records I’ve made I wrote while on tour, for the most part. For this one, I took a year off. I had space for it; I lost all my habits, I lost the ‘muscle memory’ of all my songs. I had been playing them for so many years. I have a friend who’s an author. When I was coming towards the finish of the endless Reminder tour, he said: ‘You need to pull up the drawbridge and let the castle go quiet, find a new vocabulary.’ I really related to that.
S: IS THAT WHAT SUCCESS BROUGHT YOU? A YEAR TO CONSIDER, REORIENTATE YOURSELF?
LF: I’d say that’s the most tangible thing. Previously I’d never been able to stop, and if I had, I’d have gone to get a job in a restaurant or something. So yes, it bought me time more than anything else. I guess that was the flipside of how fast, and how busy, and what a rocket-fuelled, strange new ride that was, for the final couple of years after Reminder came out. But it did result in my really being able to invest in some stillness. Mentally, physically just not moving, and trying to get my mind to slow down along with my body.
S: WHEN ONE REACHES THE END OF AN INTENSE PERIOD OF WORK, OR WHATEVER IT MAY BE, AND ALL OF A SUDDEN THE TENSION AND THE PRESSURE ARE GONE? THERE IS A DANGER THE RESULTING VACUUM BRINGS ON DEPRESSION OR EVEN PHYSICAL ILLNESS. DID THAT HAPPEN TO YOU?
LF: It must have. I remember landing in Toronto and being plunged back into a relatively normal life. I had been on the road for eight years! There wasn’t any remnant of a regular life there for me to come home to. Even the idea of home had changed. It wasn’t even a reaction to Reminder, my need to stop. The Reminder tour was an amped-up, gladiator version of what I’d already been doing for a long time. I hadn’t put roots down in an age. I knew I would kind of land, in Toronto, after touring because I wanted to remind my family who I was and see them, and old friends, and stir up the ghosts of that former life.
S: YOU HAVEN'T JUST BEEN TOURING FOR EIGHT YEARS; YOU'VE BEEN LIVING IN DIFFERENT PLACES AS WELL. I LIVE IN LONDON, GERMAN IS MY NATIVE TONGUE, AND I ALWAYS FEEL I'M A DIFFERENT PERSON IN ENGLISH THAN IN GERMAN BECAUSE I'M JUST NOT COMPLETELY AT HOME IN THE LANGUAGE, I'M EVERY SO SLIGHTLY TOO SLOW FOR SPONTANEOUS JOKES AND THE LIKE. DID YOU EXPERIENCE SOMETHING SIMILAR?
LF: Absolutely! My mind was so tensed up by the exertion needed to speak French. I was in Paris for five years. But I was constantly away for months at a time: I’d come home for one week, be away for five months, come home for two weeks. So my French never really improved. Every time I came back, I had to start learning the language all over again. I was always a sort of French three-year-old, a Zen three-year-old, living only in the present because I couldn’t speak in the past or future tenses. At some point it changed the way I spoke English, because my mind was always thinking in this three- year-old mode. It was just nothing compared to what you need in order to communicate your actual self! Getting home, my mind could at last unravel from the steel ball it had become. It had been a long time since I hadn’t felt I was in a bubble, on the outside of what was going on. You can’t really talk about where you are, because you don’t know. You are on the outside of where you are, even while you are there. Going home was a relief. I talked for a long time, because I could.
S: WOULD YOU SAY THE LYRICS OF THE ALBUM MIGHT BE BUNDLED, THEMATICALLY, AROUND THE IDEA OF COMING HOME?
LF: Maybe not so much. More recently my life had been split between Toronto and Berlin, and I’d kind of already dipped my toe in the idea of going back. Home wasn’t such a big theme for me, compared to a much more microscopic range of things: the movements of all that motivates you; watching people clumsily fall and trip over each other; just the tangled mess of our intertwined lives, and how we affect each other.
S: WHO ARE THE MALE VOICES THAT OCCASIONALLY APPEAR ON THE NEW SONGS, LIKE SOME GREEK CHORUS?
LF: That’s just the band – you mean in ‘A Commotion’? There’s quite some masculine power there! I’ve never had guys using all of their testosterone in one single moment. The female choir, that’s myself as well as the four women who came to play all the string parts on the album. What I liked about that was that they don’t consider themselves singers, necessarily. They do sing while they play – that’s actually the concept behind their quartet. They’re called The Real Vocal String Quartet, and they sing and play at the same time, which creates this really beautiful eight-part counterpoint. But they don’t use their voices in an opera diva sort of style.
S: 'A COMMOTION' - IS THAT ONE OF THE SONGS IN WHICH WE CAN HEAR MOST OF YOUR NEWLY DISCOVERED VOCABULARY?
LF: Yes, and in ‘The Bad in Each Other’, ‘Undiscovered First’ and ‘Comfort Me’. They were all written around the same time and they all inform each other, they all point to each other. Maybe three- quarters of a song would be found on the Tuesday, and on the Wednesday night at 2am I’d be out there again trying to find a piece, and I’d think it was the final piece of the song but then it became the root of a whole new song. They were really interconnected.
S: WHAT EXTRA THINGS HAVE CHILLI GONZALES AND MOCKY BROUGHT TO YOUR OWN PERSPECTIVE?
LF: It just keeps getting deeper. Our history at this point is so vast, we’ve done so many things with each other, we’ve had so many names, so any identity crisis and ego-related persona stuff is completely gone. Not that there was ever a crisis! Gonzalez’s first production apart from his own stuff was my album Let It Die. He was trying his best to make his persona disappear in the music because the two had always been so interlaced. He’s got a giant personality, and the way he plays music for himself is all part of the same picture. His attempt to be the Burt Bacharach to my Dusty Springfield, circa 2003, was an attempt to discover a musical identity instead of a persona. I can barely remember that time. Now we really come in as musical minds, and we take the role of producer and share it among ourselves.
S: WHEN IT CAME TO RECORDING METALS, DID YOU EVER HAVE A FEAR THAT '1234' MIGHT BECOME AN ALBATROSS AROUND YOUR NECK? THAT PEOPLE WOULD WANT YOU TO DO THE SAME THING AGAIN AND AGAIN?
LF: It could be that that’s gonna happen. I can’t really predict reactions. I certainly couldn’t have predicted what has already ended up happening.
That was like something out of a novel. The reaction part has always been a mystery to me, and you know, in general a positive mystery, because if eighty people come to my show or 800, my side of the equation remains pretty much the same. One thing you never learn is a secret password, like why did so many people all react at the same time and create the circumstances around ‘1234’? You could never recreate that.
Even if I’d wanted to stop it, I couldn’t have. You can’t start it and you can’t stop it, you
just have to accept it. Right now the only thing I can do is make a record. Much like I felt for The Reminder, I just made the record I needed to make. There’s no other reason for making a record than to be selfish and to please yourself.
Feist, Metals (Universal)