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theartsdesk Q&A: Singer-Songwriter Feist | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Singer-Songwriter Feist

theartsdesk Q&A: Singer-Songwriter Feist

The Canadian star talks modernity, the music industry and making 'Metals'

Leslie Feist: the consummate modern traditionalist

Nova Scotia-born Leslie Feist is the very model of a 21st-century artist: independent in spirit yet able to work the mainstream industry to her advantage, technologically savvy and au fait with all the means to build and sustain a profile and sales while still maintaining some sense of artistry and dignity.

Yet she is also resolutely traditionalist in many ways, with the rich traditions of Laurel Canyon rock, Brill Building songwriting and older, rootsier sounds audible in her songs, and a sense of rather old-school Bohemianism to her dedication to music as a lifestyle and the collective of big characters she has worked with for many years.

Feist has collaborated closely with quirky renaissance men Jason “Chilly Gonzalez” Beck and Dominic “Mocky” Salole, confrontational electro-rocker Merril “Peaches” Nisker, and the sprawling Broken Social Scene collective – all fellow Canadians – as well as English techno maverick and retro soul man Jamie Lidell; Gonzalez and Mocky in particular have worked on and co-written many of her records. Her new album, Metals, however, was also overseen by Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson, an ambient musician in his own right, part of the Bedroom Community collective with Nico Muhly, Ben Frost and Sam Amidon, and favoured producer of one-offs like Björk and Will Oldham. Meeting her in a west-London hotel as she began the promotional tour for Metals, I asked her about her collaborative nature and how it was changing.

Feist in 2011An edited version of this interview appeared in the November 2011 issue of The Word Magazine.

JOE MUGGS: You have this thing of working with the same close group of collaborators in different configurations, but this time you've brought in a “name” producer in Valgeir Sigurðsson – how has that been different?

FEIST: Well, Valgeir arrived pretty late in the process actually – he was there from halfway through recording. But his influence was how he changed the way Gonzo, Mocky and I perceived our watertight collective, our old family. We knew we wanted to not have to be at the adults' table – you know like at a family gathering – we wanted to be at the kids' table and go “WAAHHH!” [mimes going stir crazy] and have someone else sit at the adults' table and be responsible. And Valgeir played that role so perfectly. He could see he was coming in and everything was arranged, the studio, the engineer, the songs, the performances, everything was pretty much clear. So he came to Toronto for an afternoon and heard everything, so he could sit with it for a bit – then a couple of weeks later we all went to Big Sur [to complete recording], and he very carefully chose his moments to redirect our currents. It worked really well, it made us not fall into our set patterns, it made it feel like more of a performance despite the privacy of the studio, having someone there who we don't know but who we respected. Even aside from his history, you just feel it when he walks in: he's such a lovable, affable but really quiet guy, so when he chooses to say something you listen. He chooses his words carefully and his impact is gentle, it wasn't an ego arriving and blasting everything to smithereens; he could understand how much of both the album and us as a family were pre-formed before he arrived.

Sounds like a Zen thing, this semi-silent figure directing you without directing you...

Or like an external eye just changing things by the act of observing. When you have a tight-knit group of friends and there's a new person at the table people will act differently or choose their words a bit more carefully – so on a musical level that becomes a little less presumptuousness and ploughing ahead with what you would most naturally do. It's subtle though, really subtle. His producer role was pretty much in how he influenced our producer roles.

Well, all of us leave our ego identity at the door. Even if it's my record, my own ego is not going to serve the music

And how is the group dynamic different on your albums? From the beginning you've sounded mature, while the others you work with – Peaches, Gonzalez, Mocky – all have a tendency to musically either goof off, or be confrontational, or play to the gallery. Are you the grown-up one of the gang?

Certainly not – I'm the little sister of the gang. Each of those guys found a character that maybe originally amplified what they already had going on on a natural level, but 10 years deep it's just what they are and who they are. Gonzalez does what he does on stage, and he's still Gonzo in life, it's different maybe but it's two sides of the same coin. As well as I know Gonzo, there've been times on stage where he's scared the shit out of me, like, “How can he go as far as he's going, he's going so far, he's going so deep, he's so going beyond where I've known him to go!” There is definitely this other thing that happens on stage, whether it's demented and intense or his more vaudevillian persona, but at the same time it's all rooted in something I know so well.

So how do you maintain your own musical identity with these powerful personas surrounding you?

Well, all of us leave our ego identity at the door. Even if it's my record, my own ego is not going to serve the music, and those guys do the same, they leave their accumulated public accomplishments under their own names at the door, and what they bring in with them is that well-earned musical heaviness. Who they are is still expressed, but it's on a purely musical basis. They're not bringing their rapper or classical pianist personas into the studio, they're bringing intuition, open ears and open hearts and tons of mutual respect that gets bandied back and forth in the room. Because we've all known each other for as long as we have, they know that I love what they do, that just as they're stepping into my musical world I would step into theirs in a second – so there's a real equality. And because we're leaving our egos at the door, it's the ideas we bring that fight it out between them, not us; we're not doing the fighting, our ideas get thrown in the centre and we let the best idea win. That's Darwinistic cooperation!

Has this “family” provided support against the vagaries of the industry as each of you have made your way from the left field into the mainstream?

Well, it's relatively limited the amount of time we actually spend together working. On a human level they're like brothers, I talk to them constantly, but on a musical level this record was made in two and a half weeks. Or we spent a month before that arranging, pretty steadfast, focused arrangements – as opposed to what we did with The Reminder where there wasn't any time because it was just touringtouringtouringtouring then spat out into the studio and I brought the songs with me but we really built the record in the studio. But this time in total, it was a month and a half tops we spent actually working together on the record. It was wonderful, a state I'd have preferred to have stayed in much longer, but if you give yourself much longer to make a record – for me, anyway – then you give yourself a hundred million escape hatches, you never really commit. You end up listening and questioning instead of just doing what you should be doing into the microphones and forgetting about the flipside of things. So yeah, it's pretty brief the times we spend working together compared to the rest of time.

Feist in 2011But just having that support network, is that advantageous – or even necessary – in the fast-shifting industry today? You've also been involved with Broken Social Scene in Canada, who are a very loose musical collective but tight-knit personally...

Well, what happened was that every single person in that equation, all of us who are now ex-pats, and all those Broken guys, we'd all been making records for years before we had any contact with the mothership in terms of record deals. So many records were made in tons of different forms before any real record labels were involved. I know from my perspective, and maybe Mocky is similar to me, that it wasn't until he moved to Europe that anyone agreed to release a record that he'd made, but he'd made so many records before that. And what that does for you is that when you do finally have that contact with the labels, you see the individual people in the equation. Since you've worn most hats by then, or at most had one or two people working on your behalf, when it comes to going into a company office, you're under no illusions about it being anything other than a bunch of individual people doing very specific jobs. And I think you approach it with a different type of truck, because in a way you're delegating mentally, you're not swept up, because there's no one thing that any of those people are doing that you haven't already tried. Obviously it's another world when you're talking about radio and interviews worldwide – but I still know what publicity is because I can remember having to pull over by the side of the highway to find a payphone to call the local paper of the town I was arriving in, looking at the clock, going, “Oh wait, there's a time difference isn't there,” finding the payphone that works and all of that...

So there was never any sense to you that “the record deal” was some kind of Willy Wonka golden ticket?

No, no, the illusion has been cracked long before that point. If anything, having all this experience would make you wary about allowing a deal to sweep you to places that you didn't have any knowledge of. You know, an astronaut is going to know on some very instinctual level that they shouldn't take their helmet off when they're out working in the vacuum of space. And so with major record deals, this training that all of us have had before going there, this gives us this instinct, certain things you know you have to do to not allow your atmosphere to be shifted too much. I think there's an advantage to literally having silk-screened my own T-shirts and photocopied my own album covers, and all of those totally disillusioning years when you don't feel righteous, you just feel exhausted. You're selling one album at a time off the edge of the stage and that's filling your gas tank: there's some really, really basic algebra that goes into understanding things on a day-to-day level, that changes the way you see the big machine, because you see that machine as the sum of its parts, not as some big, scary Wizard of Oz-type industry.

And did you have any kind of fierce punk or indie DIY ideology in those early days, or was it just doing what had to be done?

Noooo, it wasn't an ideal, it really was the only way things would happen. They say philosophy is the luxury of the well fed – it certainly wasn't philosophical... although I guess there was some sense of pride in earning your own stripes. As a 17-year-old I remember really liking that I had muscles, just like having callouses on your hands is a badge of being a working person, it was a mark of how much I'd been hoisting my gear and shoving it and moving it and bench-pressing it because you're living with your gear every day. For a girl especially there was pride in that: “Can you carry my what? No! Get off!” - although now of course I'd be more, “Oh, yes please, that's so kind of you to carry my amp!” So there are some pretty basic ways your identity is formed that come from doing it yourself, but any ideas of a “movement” are pretty different to what my reality was.

Could any of this have prepared you for the world of adverts and sync deals, though?

Well no, maybe not, that was pretty much new turf. So there was a lot of using old instincts and old information to try and figure out this new problem – but that was the case at every term because pretty much everything about being on a major is new. It's a different cultural and intellectual economy. Because your day's not spent so much hoisting things around, there's a whole other thing that becomes revealed to you and has to be adapted to.

Those are very different circumstances in life and records just come from that. It would be totally bizarre to try and recreate an old scene, to be an old version of myself

On top of which, the industry itself was in uncharted territory with sync deals and how they could advance a musician's career. With all these unknowns, how did you cope with the possibility that you could become known simply as “the iPod woman”?

I probably was known as that. [Laughs] I probably still am! Maybe to some people that's what I'll always be, and that's fair game – you never know how people will come into contact with you. I know, as someone who lives inside culture as well as someone who puts it out there, how much stuff is swinging past your peripheral vision and how much is out there, it's exhausting trying to keep up – so I don't try. But I do see things that flicker across my field of vision, and that may be the only time I'm aware of whatever that thing is and it'll forever be associated with the context of how it came to me. Or you don't even remember how it came to you – basically there's just this vague soundtrack to life, constantly flickering like scrolling through radio stations, this endless amount of stuff, and you just go with whatever you hook onto, whatever makes sense to you.

So as an artist, it doesn't do much good to try and second guess the variety of ways people perceive you?

Yeah, probably, for sanity's sake. It's funny, it's only really in interviews you think about this stuff, in day-to-day life it's not even an issue. Something did dawn on me the other day though: people say, “Woah, how do you respond to the pressure of perceptions?” and I was trying to think how to explain why it is that I don't actually feel this “pressure”. And I hit upon something that actually is true, which is pretty funny, because most often you'll just try and come up with the armour answer, the easy, glib interview answer to get them off the scent. The truth is that there's two sides to the equation, to the fraction of how much you put out versus how much you take in – and there's effectively an infinity of lives out there, and just one person on my side. If I was to try and put myself out there, I wouldn't be where I'm supposed to be any more, I would be dissolved and there'd be nothing of me left to put out and it would all become a bit hollow. It's pointless trying to think on the other side of the line because that is just my domain and I'd become lost if I tried to be there. Of course as I say, this is all instinctual, it's only in interviews after the fact that I'd actually think of it in these terms.

There've been some reviews of the new album that suggest that you're pleasing yourself now that you've had mainstream success – but it strikes me, and what you just said confirms this, that you always have pretty much done what you wanted...

Chilly Gonzales in vaudevillian modeWow, it seems totally absurd that anyone would equate success in monetary terms with where one should choose to put one's attention. Yeah, you're right though, I've always selfishly pleased myself, sometimes to complete nobody-giving-a-shit effect, and sometimes with people paying more attention. But yes, I've always done what makes sense to do, what moves me, what feels reasonably worthwhile by my own ignorant compass. All the records sound different because I was in completely different states of mind, so maybe I'm really just still trying to figure out what kind of music I want to make. Maybe I'll never figure it out, so each record will be mini-lives, all in a row, each set up, lived and then allowed to die, just my life and my world then and what I was curious about – and I'll listen back now and go, “Who IS that?” The Reminder was totally the result of touring Let It Die and being on the road so much, owning what I became away from that record and away from Gonzo (aka Chilly Gonzalez, pictured above left) and his influence on that record. He'd played almost every instrument, then I had to go tour it alone with various bands, and The Reminder was a result of that. Then everything on Metals was being on tour for seven, eight years and then I took a year off, and this album is a result of that. Those are very different circumstances in life and records just come from that. It would be totally bizarre to try and recreate an old scene, to be an old version of myself.

But don't you have to recreate or resurrect those old selves when you play old songs live?

No! What's great is that as I make an album, I create a sonic palette, a frequency range and all that, then as you pull old songs into that in the live show, they become new again. You don't pull every song from the past forward, some of them don't hold their shape, they don't have that core that'll work wrapped in a different arrangement – but you learn quickly which bits of the past can and can't be brought forward.

I'm a product of my times; the believing that you're just interested in stuff that comes into your immediate proximity when you're young, friends doing tapes for you and stuff, and I avoided Dylan – and Neil Young, too

Talking of bringing the past forward, are you conscious of your own listening emerging into your own work? You seem to use sounds and songwriting techniques from right across the decades.

I'm a product of my time and what I grew up not liking and liking, of course. I'm living out the same untangling of the passion play as everyone has been throughout history with a different aesthetic backdrop, and everyone uses that unique aesthetic backdrop to get their reference points. Some of the cultural stuff around me I soak in, some of it I'm alienated by – and of course the major thing now is how much extra we have access to. Think how easy it is now to go back into the archives and just watch The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, or Jodorowsky films, or Audrey Hepburn in Technicolor, pretty much on demand. What was science fiction has become normal, and it's pretty weird. In the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies everyone was obsessed with the future, kitchen adverts were full of things that moved and came out of the counter, stainless steel and smooth and sleek and strange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and we all wanted to be in the future. But people now have gotten more wanting to look back, because now there's not much to see if you squint into the future, the possibility of getting better isn't so exciting because things seem to get worse and worse and our quality of life is diluted by how much we let these technological things rule our minds – it feels like we're in a time of nostalgia and of people wanting to look back through the archives of culture, getting obsessed with old records, everyone's discovering Sam Cooke for the first time and wow, there's 12 records, and oh my God, Sam Cooke! What could be better than that in a world where we're looking forward two weeks to the next single that'll be flitting across our awareness for five minutes and then it's gone again because the industry is based on that?

This is maybe a great thing – people who wouldn't have had the opportunity to absorb the whole Sam Cooke catalogue, or everything by Bowie, now can, so people can get inspired in unlikely and unprecedented ways...

Yeah, for sure, in terms of what might come – but it's still hard to get past that idea that there's so much more behind us than there is to come.

Can you give me a specific example of something you've discovered and then had to explore the whole catalogue?

I just got Dylan! I read Chronicles when I was on tour and that was it. I'm a product of my times; the believing that you're just interested in stuff that comes into your immediate proximity when you're young, friends doing tapes for you and stuff, and I avoided Dylan – and Neil Young, too. It took me a long time to understand the characters and the depth in those voices, then reading Chronicles on the road I just thought, I should listen to this guy! Now, I'm just, “How did I live my whole life not listening to Bob Dylan?” Neil Young, I saw him play live and found myself literally brought to tears. I got the words in my mind that were so clear I can remember them now like it was seconds ago, “I've been in what was called music my whole life and I don't think I've seen it until tonight.” I was in a small theatre in Queens seeing Neil Young play in front of 1500 people – I've seen him a bunch of times since, always in front of 20,000 people and it's still as potent. And now I have my list of people I hope to see before they're gone, because I started to understand that the generation before or two generations before, when pretty unbelievable things were made - those are still available to us in a very direct way. I want to see Paul Simon, I want to see Sinead O'Connor sing, I want to see Annie Lennox sing...

I had just that realisation seeing Al Green for the first time last year, that this is an opportunity that we cannot take for granted.

James Gadson behind the kitI can't imagine going to see Al Green, it would be so good. That generation of soul artists, my God – I did a session on Jamie Lidell's record with James Gadson (pictured left), the drummer who played on Bill Withers' “Aint No Sunshine” [she beatboxes the lazy rhythm], he's on “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, this big, tall long-haired old guy in his seventies, one of the most recorded musicians of all time... Anyway, I'm in the control room as he's laying down this beat, and I said to the engineer, “That sounds so fucking good, what is going on?” - just the sounds themselves were incredible. And the engineer said, “That's nothing, no mixing, just all mics open, that's just him playing!” So I snuck into the isolation room where the drums are happening and there's just this grinning man sitting there, and it's truly just the way his wrists are responding to the sticks which are responding to the skins. It was just a Pearl drumkit, the kind people would snottily be going, “Ewww, a black Pearl” [scrunches up face], you're in Metallica territory, but this soul guy was just establishing a whole sound of his own by his playing, by the spring and weighting of his musculature and all. I just felt on a cellular level that this drumming was better and different than what is otherwise out there, and this guy was just from another time. I'm not saying that I think Gonzo and Mocky are gonna go down in history like that, but I do think that the collective years that they and we have been working together are beginning to add up to something. I've been doing this for 10 years, Mocky for 15, Gonzales for 10, so collectively that's 40 years of playing together – so we were joking and saying, “Let's pretend we've all actually been playing together for 40 years,” compound our experience and see what record we can make, what sounds we'd be making if we were all in our fifties... We can only hope.

Your emotional connection to Neil Young is interesting – do you feel a kinship as a Canadian musician? I've seen a few people, including Young, suggest that there is a Canadian aesthetic based on the huge sweep of unpopulated land there which you can hear in everyone from Leonard Cohen to God Speed You! Black Emperor, and I feel like I see it even in Canadian literature like Alice Munro or Douglas Coupland, a contrast between small human stories and the vast inhuman nature of reality.

Good call on Alice Munro! Michael Ondaatje has that as well. It's funny, all those people you mentioned are so unique from each other but the connection may be there. I've always experienced Canada as the space between cities which I guess comes from touring from the time I was about 16 – there's no rushing: you can't get from one city to another in less than between nine and 15 hours for each drive, and there's really not much there on that drive. That nine hours between Calgary and Regina is epic and endless, and you see nine weather systems in the course of an hour, rolling towards you across endless plains. Then you drive through Ontario and it's a weaving highway, weaving in and out of the Canadian shields which is laid out almost like armour, like an armadillo of rock, granite on top of the land and slipping down into the lakes, and those lakes are lapping up on pine trees, so you'll have these crazy jumbled-up dead forest bits and then sleek, clean rock for a bit, then every time you turn a corner there's another lake and another plate of rock – and that goes on for 12 hours or 15 hours... It's epic, truly it is, and I'm glad to have gotten that scope. Who knows how it plays into things, but it's a real religious type... I think what I feel about that scape and scope is what people otherwise feel about religion, sort of a feeling inside me that there's no explanation for.

The machine is the sum of its parts, not some big, scary Wizard of Oz-type industry

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Wow that was odd. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn't show up. Grrrr... well I'm not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

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