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DYING TO BE REBORN: Leslie Feist finally grabs the spotlight and stages her own artistic 'renewal'

Conducted on June 6, 2005 at 6:00 p.m.
by Marc Hirsh

Feist pic #1 As a member of Broken Social Scene and in her guise as Peaches foil Bitch Lap-Lap, Leslie Feist has spent the last half decade helping others achieve their artistic visions. With Let It Die, she drops her first name, as well as anything else that might get in the way of her translucent songs. With a voice that burrows down into the core of the melody and then wears it like a blanket, Feist gives us what really amounts to two EPs: a collection of covers of songs from performers as diverse as Ron Sexsmith, the Bee Gees and Blossom Dearie (twice!) which follows a set of originals that include a chillout anthem that damn well should be a hit ("One Evening"), a sweet jaunt about the simple pleasures of domesticity ("Mushaboom") and, in the simple and direct title track, one of the saddest songs I've ever heard in my entire life. I recently spoke to her about the logistics of a staggered release schedule, industry recognition and inventing your own lexicon when the existing one simply doesn't do the job.

SCR: I'll start out with a hypothetical question. If an incredibly lazy interviewer were to ask you how to describe your music, what would you say?
Leslie Feist: I'd say, "You're incredibly lazy." (laughs)

You're the first person who's ever actually said that.

So kudos to you for spotting the trick of that question.
Ohhhh. (laughs) I call it as I see it. And as they see it. Because is that what you're about to do?

Well, I'm just curious to know how you would describe yourself.
I often say the definition is audible in the form of the songs on the album. How's that?

That works. For me, one of the key features of your music is your singing, which seems to be out front the most. Is that intentional?
I think it was. The situation that we made the record in was, it was just Gonzales... Do you know who Gonzales is?

He's connected to Peaches, is that right?
Well, he produced the record. I mean, we've all worked with Peaches in various forms, and they had bands together for years. And yeah, definitely from the same gang of friends. I was touring with him a lot in Europe under his name, doing the Gonzales music and show. We were a duo on stage, and we kind of had developed this subconscious ability to communicate without words after hundreds of shows together. So he started to play some of my melodies that I had made on these demos. He started to play them in the show, just to throw me a loop, just to weave a melody in somewhere where it wasn't supposed to be. And I would be the only one that knew where that melody was coming from, and it would just make me go, "What the fuck?" But just hearing those melodies on piano, it just kind of... He's a really sensitive, amazing piano player. He's got this ability to always take a wide berth around any cheesiness or any piano jazz or any leanings of boxy piano playing, where it's just kind of slamming down the piano. He's always finding interesting ways to get around the melody.

-- Feist record cover
Feist, Let It Die



Interscope Records

It's something that's kind of hard to explain, but anyway, you can hear it. But he did that with my songs, and it just took them out of any time or place. It was the first time I'd ever heard them in that context. Like, not on my low-fi 4-track with the buses driving by and me hacking along on the bass and drums or with friends and just jam-sounding demoes. It was taking those same songs and just sort of lifting them out of that environment and putting them in a piano, which doesn't really say anything about any particular era. And a lot of music that has the same quality is maybe from the '40s or '50s, where piano is the main instrument, along with voice. Brill Building era, you know? Like wartime-era songs. And in those cases, it really was about the voice, too. When you're listening to Patsy Cline or Peggy Lee or someone, you're listening to their voice and it's telling a story. Nowadays, no one would really think this way, but in those days, if the drummer was louder than the singer, then what's the point of the song even being played? I'm talking about in those days. And so the piano let me imagine that for the first time, because I was in a band where the drummer would complain if her drums were quieter in the mix than the voice. (laughs) It's like, well, I just have these two little pink elastic bands in my throat to amplify myself, and you've got huge drums, so it makes sense that the voice would have to be mixed a bit louder in the mix. But you play things on the piano and you don't run into those problems. (pause) Is that the longest answer you've ever had?

Possibly, but that's less work for me.
Okay, cool. (laughs)

One of the things that a lot of people generally tend to do because it's easier is compare female singers to female singers and male singers to male singers. And I think there's a real temptation to compare you to Cat Power, just because of your voice, but it seems to me that a lot of your vocals seem to have some more male precedents, like Nick Drake's tone or Jeff Buckley's delivery. Is any of that sort of conscious or intentional? Do you listen to them?
Well, I have to say that of all the influences that I've heard thrown at it, I like those three artists a lot, so, thanks. (laughs) Sometimes people refer me to things that I've never heard, so I don't know. Or that I just think, what? Where are you getting that from? But then, at the same time, I can't really take it too much as a compliment. There's a great expression, "We see things the way we are, not as they are." Or, "the way you look at something is how it appears." So they're some expressions I've always loved because they're just true a thousand times over, and they're always replenishing their trueness. (laughs) And yeah, when someone's listening to a record, of course if they like it enough to even think about it, if they want to describe it to someone else or something, of course they're gonna just take from their store of what they've heard. And everyone's listened to different stuff, so if someone has never heard anything like the record in question, maybe they're gonna just compare it to the closest thing in their memory bank. And it maybe has nothing to do with that thing at all, but it's the closest thing to that person. So like I said, it says more about that person and what they listen to than the actual record. It's so arbitrary. There's just so much music out there, everyone's gonna have different things they're gonna compare it to. And so I'm always interested to hear those comparisons, but I don't take them too much to heart. Although the three that you just mentioned I think, wow, if that, if that were true, not just your opinion, I'd be happy about that. (laughs)

Dare I ask what some of the comparisons that you've received that you don't see where they're coming from are?
Well, I guess I hear the Astrud Gilberto one a lot. And I just think, well, she's got a fantastic voice, and I've always thought she sounds like her eyes are barely open, and you can hear the breeze behind, and it's really evocative of a different culture. But I'm not from that culture, and her voice is so much about her culture that it's hard for me to separate it. But maybe people are talking about aspects of her voice that I'm not hearing. So that was one. And Dido, I guess, is another one where I don't know her music at all except what I've heard on the radio, and I just don't get it. I just honestly don't get it. And the only thing I think is that maybe those people saying that, they only listen to the radio, so they're not going out and buying albums or listening to stuff from the olden times. So when they wanna come up with a comparison for me, they just pick what they've heard, and they've listened to the radio, so they think of her. So again, I don't get bummed out or anything. (laughs)

You mentioned the 1940s, '50s Brill Building-type era earlier. Do you try to emulate that era in your playing or writing? Do you try to emulate anybody or any era, at all, really?
We didn't try to emulate anything. I've always had a common thread in any projects I've been in and the way I approach anything I've done, even if it's this heavy, fist-pumping-in-the-air rock band or when I was doing the Peaches stuff or when I was a part of the Gonzales show or my first album in '98 or my demoes since then. It's always been, I approach things like the simplest thing possible I can do to add to what it already is. And backing up so many people for so many years -- I backed up a lot of people -- I learned about not getting in the way. Like, you're there to help and not to hinder, so I kinda learned how to leave a lot of space so the thing that's being focused can just continue to be focused on, not waving your arms around going, "I'm over here, I'm over here!" (laughs) So for these songs, definitely, my aesthetic remains that way, and I just wanted there to be as few elements as possible. And luckily Gonzales, it was his first time ever producing someone other than himself, and he really wanted to make sure to be the producer who lets the thing that's being recorded be focused on, rather than the producer's bells and whistles and tricks and stuff. So both of us had that idea of just less. We were always going into songs and flushing things away and taking things out. One of us would play something that just wasn't necessary. Usually what we'd do in the mix is leave the voice up and then just pull instruments up around it one at a time or two at a time and fade them back down again and just see which of all these tracks that we recorded actually helped carry the melody and which just get in the way. But as far trying to emulate anything, we maybe had an aesthetic similar to some other stuff that's been done, which is bound to happen.

How did decide to do your live performances solo the way you do, rather than bring other musicians along?
Have you seen a show yet?

Yes, I have.
What city?

In Boston, actually.
Ohhhhh, okay. No, actually, I don't always play that way. I was opening for British Sea Power, and it's a lot to bring my whole band along. You know, they're all living in France. So every now and then when I've got the chance to go open for someone, I'll just go by myself to sort of plant the seeds. Interestingly enough, the point was go and play alone and then go back and bring the band the second time around, so that it's not just three people in every city. And we had a show booked for the first week in July at Middle East with my whole band. But we've had to cancel it today because something else came up that we had to do. So the plan was going to work, but now it's not working for Boston, anyway. (laughs)

Yeah, you were solo at the show that I saw, and I also saw on your website some performances where it was just you and a guitar. So I had assumed from the two things that I had seen that that was you.
That's interesting. Yeah, there's nothing on the website, I guess, with the band. But, no, I've had the same band for a couple of years, and it's an organ trio, kind of, 'cause there's a Hammond organ that's doing all the bass and a lot of the melody, an amazing drummer and percussion guy and then another multi-instrumentalist that sort of weaves his way around all the other stuff that needs to be done to make it sound like the record. And then there's me doing basically what you saw, just with three guys behind me. So usually it's like that. In Europe, I've never really played solo, I always have the band with me in Europe. But the record's been out there for a year, so it makes more sense in a way. I mean, over here, I'm just planting some seeds, seeing what happens. Just starting out.

Did I see correctly that you were doing on-the-fly sampling in your performance?
Oh, yeah, I do, I do.

How did you decide that you were going to do that?
Oh, I've done that for years in different forms. I just discovered this pedal where I can actually record stuff. Like, there's other things like the Boomerang or the Line 6 where you can stack things, but they don't save, and there's not multiple lines in. This one has a mic line in and a guitar line in, and it's different, you can fade them. I mean, on all my demos and stuff, I've always had a lot of backup singing, but live, it's kind of the last thing that comes. Like, if you find players that can really play their instruments, they're not necessarily gonna be singers. So I just sort of developed this way to create the backup vocals myself live, but for me especially solo, it makes me feel like I'm collaborating, even though it's just with myself. (laughs)

Does it create a different feel, solo performances versus with the band?
Yeah, well, the band is more true to the record. It's all those arrangements on the record that involve more than just me and a guitar. 'Cause in fact on the record, there's not that much guitar. It was just a decision we made to focus on the organ and piano, 'cause it carries less era with it. There's less connotation connected to organ and piano. It's more timeless. But as soon as there's a guitar, especially if it's an amplified one, it's gonna have all sorts of inner meaning. People subconsciously instantly decide what era it's from, like when you listen to those '80s records or early '90s records and you immediately know if it's '80s or early '90s because of the guitars. So anyway, the band plays the record a little more true to form with me.

How did you end up on tour with British Sea Power? They seem like a very different band from you.
Yeah, well, I didn't know British Sea Power before, but I've been living in Europe for a few years, so I'm a bit out of touch of what's going on. So when people suggest stuff to me, and I say, "Well, what's the vibe? What are they like?," and someone that I like what they like says, "No, you'll be great," I was like, "Okay, you know more than I do about this." I'd never seen them live and I'd heard some of the recordings and thought they were great. But at the same time, if I was actually there, I think I'd like it if there was two things that were really different from each other. And actually this happened just recently in Europe, where I had a four-week tour and I brought this amazing New York singer/songwriter named Jesse Harris. He opened the tour, and he was just alone with a guitar, and I thought, that's great, 'cause when people come to see a show, maybe if you have a full band on right before you, and they've just heard that, when you come on, their ears get almost tired. So I like the kind of variety show gigs, rather than, like, band, band, band, band, band, you know? Or solo person, solo person, solo person. Either way, I just like the old-fashioned Lawrence Welk Show variety show kinda of idea.

Why was there a year-long delay in getting Let It Die released in the U.S.?
Well, because I only have one physical body -- (laughs) -- and Europe is already, like, eight countries, you know? So there was already eight releases that you're trying to go and play enough shows, all those places, and the whole Atlantic Ocean between there and America. So if I had been trying to do it all at once, I would've been playing one show in each country every three months or something, as opposed to being able to do real tours. So the original idea was to stagger it, and I'm really glad we did, 'cause even though it makes it even that much farther away from me since I released it and it has become that much older, this record hasn't aged, really. I don't have that kind of like looking at the ground and kicking pebbles and going, "Oh, yeah, don't listen to that, that's so old," you know, like I am about my first record. (laughs) It still feels relatively like a new record, because from the time we made it to the time it got released in France wasn't two years like it can be sometimes. It was pretty quick. Like, we made the record and it came out I think six months later. So it's not been that long since we made it, still.

So it's not odd to have to essentially restart the process of promoting the record again?
Well, it never stopped, to tell you the truth. It came out a year ago in France, and then about eight months ago in Germany. Like, every three months it was coming out again in a new country.

Like moving across time zones?
Exactly. And then in two more months from now, it comes out in Japan and Australia and Singapore, and then it comes out in Latin America. So it's basically getting a staggered release, and America's kind of in the middle of all the places where it's gonna come out. So yeah, it's a bit nuts, but it's better than zigzagging all over the place and trying to do it all at once.

How did you feel about the album winning two Juno Awards?
I felt pretty good about it.

(laughs) Good answer.
I mean, it's not like I'd ever really thought about the Junos before, so it wasn't like I had ten years of dreaming of that or something. They just weren't on my radar. I was working and playing on such a different layer of the sediment. It's like, if there's an anthill, definitely I was in the sub-sub-sub-subterranean tunnels way down there where the food stores are. Like, where they put their piles of seeds. That's where I was playing my gigs and jamming with people. It wasn't up in the sunshine with the Junos. So yeah, I was pretty surprised when I found out I got nominated, and I thought, wow, this is a nice way to go home. But it's not much more than that. It doesn't really mean that much more than that to me. It was a particularly good night, 'cause there were other people that I had played with and played beside for years, and that's who won. Ron Sexsmith won, and Sarah Harmer won, and k-os, another friend of mine, won. We were all people that have known each other for a long time and have played gigs in the same little coffeehouses. And so it was just kind of like standing in the green room together going, "We are in a green room, first of all, and second of all, we just won all the awards that they offer at this thing." So we were all looking at each other, and it felt like our people somehow had come up into the sun for a second.

Have the awards changed anything at all?
I got offered a luggage sponsorship.

(laughs) How did that work out?
I'm still waitin'. I'm all for it. I was holding out for Samsonite, but... (laughs)

Feist pic #2 Why luggage in particular?
Oh, well, I don't know. They offered. I mean, I would love guitars, if people could offer me that stuff, but it was luggage. I will definitely use it, that's for sure. But no, it hasn't really changed anything, not really. I haven't really been back to Canada since it all happened, so maybe when I go back there in June, I'll feel the impact.

A lot of times when people win awards for things like Best New Artist after having released a number of albums, and sometimes when they get Best Alternative Album, there's some good-natured griping about the actual categories that they're in. Was there any of that on your side?
Well, of course, I got a kick out of it. (laughs) But I had won with Broken Social Scene, the other group that I'm with. We had won the Best Alternative Album two years ago, in the same category that this one was in. I kind of subconsciously identified that category with all the slogging-out D.I.Y. stuff that I had done for years. And so I did feel like I didn't deserve to be nominated in this category, 'cause I'd already won the lottery of getting a really great record label to release the record. I had never signed to a record label before that, even though I had put records out by myself, so I'd already felt like, Wow, okay, so I've gotten some help this year and there's other people nominated that didn't get that opportunity. I just felt like, "Aw, man, this is the indie category. This is the only category that indie music has in Canada." So I just felt a little sheepish somehow, but then I got over that pretty quickly. And actually, my friend k-os -- I don't know if you know who he is, but he's a great musician and rapper from Canada -- he was like, "Hey, come on, man, don't think of it as Best New Artist, think of it as Best Renewed Artist, and you have renewed yourself completely, like you're approaching things a whole new way. And don't think of it as Best Alternative Album, think of it as Best Alternative To What You've Ever Done Before In Your Life Album. Just put some parentheses in the titles of the awards." So I did it that way, and I thought, well, hell, yeah, then I do apply to both those categories.

What happened in the middle of your performance at the awards?
Ohhh. Oh, yeah.

You just sort of stopped.
Yeah, the grand joke is that on TV, it didn't show what had happened in the arena. The cruel irony is that it was an arena with 20,000 people in it, and they put me on a satellite stage right in the middle of the arena. Kind of right under the Jumbotron, almost. And anyway, during sound check, everything went fine, but then I was out there doing the song and this kind of crazy, like, [makes noise like a cross between static and an explosion] static interference started to blast through the entire place. And it got worse and worse and kind of mounted, and it would go away for a second and come back so loud that eventually I was drowned out, and then eventually my mic just stopped working completely. Like, in the P.A. and in my monitors, and that was the only way I could hear. I thought that that represented what was going on on TV, too, of course. And all the techs, there's dozens of them with their headsets on running right under my nose, and I'm pretending to not see them and -- (laughs) -- trying to ignore the chaos, trying to just keep pretending like everything's fine, until it just wasn't anymore. I just couldn't hear a thing. And they all made these motions like they were frustrated and I thought they had made this motion that they had cut, so I went, "Oh, okay, they cut, they went to a commercial or something." So I leaned down to this nice guy who was working who was holding some cables down, and I said, "Oh, so did you guys cut?" And he just looked up at me with these big calm eyes and said, "No, we're live." And I just went, "Ooo-kaaaay. B-, oookaaay." And the audience kinda caught what was going on and they started shrieking, and the whole place started screaming and I just was like, "Okaaay." So I just picked up again, and when I started again, the static had stopped and the P.A. worked fine and I just played the second half of the song. But it was sad, because on TV, nobody could hear what happened in the arena.

Well, having watched it, it seemed like it was something that was not a Leslie Feist problem. It seemed like there was something going on that you were responding to, not that you had given up or forgotten your place or even broken a string.
Oh, good, perfect. 'Cause that's exactly how it went down, so I'm glad it looked like that. (laughs)

It just looked like one of those things. Something clearly had happened, but there was no indication as to what it was. So yeah, I wasn't worried that it was you.
Well, good. That's very good. Well, the situation the next day was really funny, 'cause when I was checking in to fly, I think I was going to Vienna the next morning, and I was checking in at the airport, and I always have to pay overages for my guitar flight case. And so the women at Air Canada were like, "You handled that so well last night. You really set the tone for the night. Don't worry about the extra hundred dollar charge, it's on us." And I was like, "Wooow, this is great!" They didn't say, "Congratulations for winning." They gave out dozens of awards that night, but that's the thing that they remembered. And I was like, "Oh, this is great, okay," so there wasn't any backlash. It wasn't like, "You screwed up." (laughs)

How long have you been living in Paris?
About two years. But a year before that, I was kind of there all the time, but not really living there.

Why did you relocate from Toronto?
I was on tour with Gonzo, and I was in Europe more than I was in Canada for about a year. I was just touring with him, and he was based in Berlin. And Peaches and Mocky, a bunch of the Canadian crew, were all there, so everytime in between tours, I'd just hang and crash on couches and stuff. And then we made those recordings, which ended up being this record, in a studio in Paris, because this producer offered us his studio and wanted to work with us. It was just like the honor system, like, "Hey, let's see what happens. No money, don't worry about it." So that's when I started to go to Paris to record, and then once I'd made the record there and I decided to sign at a French label, it was obvious that I should pick a city to live in and that was the one.

How did you decide to make the last five songs on the record all covers? It's generally fairly rare these days.
To have covers on records.

Well, to have that large a block, certainly.
Yeah, I know, and never, not even at kitchen parties, had I played covers. Again, like the Junos weren't on my radar, covers weren't really on my radar. Partially because they always require chords that I didn't know.

That is the advantage of writing your own songs.
Exactly. Exactly. So anyway, we began the recording together with some covers because Gonz and I were both unsure, how is this new going to the studio together going to work? So we began with some covers, just so I wasn't gonna be holding onto my songs with white knuckles and fear of change. Even though the point was just, "Let's see what happens. Let's rearrange some songs." So we started with covers, and we did the whole record in about 12 days, but spread out over about four or five months, 'cause it was like three days and then we'd go back on tour for a month, and then we'd do four days and we'd go back on tour for a month, and we did that a few times. And then by the end, we had a lot more originals and a lot more covers, too, just 'cause it was a song-by-song thing. We didn't even know we were making a record until basically the end of the 12 days. There were 20 songs, and then I just chose the ones that sounded like they came from the same spirit, the same intention and aesthetic. And there were so many songs, like, we would be gone for a month and come back and be like, "Let's make only water sounds with percussion," and then we'd get all these bowls of water and we'd do three songs using this idea. And so at the end, there were some songs that didn't sound like they came from the same place. Some of them were just fun laboratory experiments. And so I just chose the songs that sounded like they could be on a record together.

"Inside And Out" is probably the most well-known of the songs that you covered. What made you pick the Bee Gees? The feel of the song is not so different from the rest of the album that it doesn't fit in, but it is sort of more of a harder-hitting disco tune, in a way. Or do you disagree?
No, no, no, I just, um...

Or are you waiting for the actual question?
Well, that, too. (laughs) No, I mean, you said it's the most well-known, but it wasn't the most well-known to me. I knew "Secret Heart" and I didn't know the Bee Gees from a hole in the ground. And that's part of the reason. If I had been one of those people, if I had been born maybe five years earlier and the Bee Gees had been everywhere during my childhood or my teen years or something, maybe I would've been scared to try,'cause I would've known what icons they are. But I was sort of blissfully ignorant, and it was just a song, you know? And I thought, wow, I've never tried to sing like this, and since this whole thing is just to try stuff we've never tried, it was appealing. And that was near the end of the recording, and by then we thought, well, this could be a record, and I was feeling it was very ballad-heavy and I thought it could be fun to try something completely different. So that was how we went there. Later I realized, "The Bee Gees, oh, do you mean the guys who did the soundtrack to Grease?" That's the only way I know the Bee Gees, is 'cause they did the Grease soundtrack, which I watched eight million times as a child. The Grease movie theme song, and I was like, oh, it's the same people.

Have you by any chance happen to heard of a singer from New Zealand named Demarnia Lloyd?

In many ways, her singing approach sounds very similar to you. I've never heard this word that's in your press kit, this "jhai" voice.
I'll check it out.

I have no idea how available her stuff is, but it's something you might wish to look into. Not that the two of you are stepping on each other's toes.
Okay. No, that's great. No, that's good to hear that sort of stuff. But I honestly, the jhai thing, I mean, there's no story. It's just a inside joke, and it shouldn't be in the bio. That's all I can say about it. (laughs)

Is that a real word?
No, we made it up. It's our own word. (laughs)

Alright, well, that's interesting to know.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, Mocky and Gonzalez and Taylor Savvy made it up, and I took the meaning, which basically means don't show off, listen to the melody, listen to the song, and while you're singing it, while you're playing it, be listening at the same time and don't be showing off. That's about it. END


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