I thought I might do this while taking a bubble bath,” says Leslie Feist after inviting me into her room at the Lafayette House, a gas light-era hotel in New York’s East Village. Dressed in a cream-colored skirt and sweater with a braided belt dangling from her hip, the petite musician has apparently changed her mind, instead sitting on a couch next to a set of French doors opening onto a garden. Like her music, Feist appears both crafted and casual. Her pale blue eyes shift mercurially and are capable of registering stillness, shyness, and robust laughter within seconds. “Have you been to Maryam Nassir Zadeh?” she asks of the New York boutique. “She carries crazy, beautiful sweaters that I live in. Getting on a long flight with one of her sweaters is the best.”
Finding comfort in unlikely places is one of Feist’s regular preoccupations; her itinerant lifestyle has seen the 35-year-old Canadian singer move between locales with the kind of frequency usually reserved for dry, wind-borne plants. While she’s finally put down stakes in the Toronto area with “a place in the woods” and “several little apartments in the city” (the response to her call in “Mushaboom” for an idyllic home), she’s about to begin yet another tour in support of her new album, Metals. Her need for “very few things” serves her well. As she avers in the single “How Come You Never Go There,” physical objects don’t enrich her internal life. “The room’s full but hearts are empty,” she sings, “Like the letters never sent me.”
It’s been four years since Feist put out her last studio album, The Reminder, an outstanding effort for which she picked up four Grammy nominations, an iPod commercial, and an appearance on Sesame Street in which she teaches kids to count to four. It took time to quell the urge to respond to The Reminder, especially given its success. “It would have been like bouncing from one trampoline to the next,” says Feist, who started her first band, a punk outfit, at the age of 15. “I took the time off I needed.” After a year and a half, following her last tour, she felt a “healthy void” and a “familiar silence” that let her shed all remaining traces of that album’s success. “It was truly a new chapter.”
Metals bears Feist’s hallmark talent for arrangements, as well as her emotional, ambiguous lyrics. Yet it’s a dark and melancholic departure from The Reminder, the pop hooks of which rendered that album a favorite for remixes by the likes of the Postal Service, Bon Iver, and Chromeo. Luckily for Feist, her longtime collaborators, musicians Chilly Gonzales and Mocky, understood that she’s no one-trick pony, that The Reminder was just a taste of her musical potential.
“I brought them some new songs that had nothing to do with anything I’d done previously,” she says. Perhaps it was all those long winter evenings sitting in on sessions of shape note singing by local choirs, a tradition Feist says was brought over by Mayflower-era pilgrims. “It’s a bit fire and brimstone,” she says, smiling. Because of their long-standing “musical brotherhood,” Gonzales and Mocky were able to work with Feist’s needs, which, in this case, called for arranging the music beside a wood stove in a cabin, then jetting to the cliffs of Big Sur, where they holed up on a 350-acre heritage farm with the other members of the band, including keyboardist Brian LeBarton and percussionist Dean Stone. The “calm-pound,” as she describes it, also included a friend who worked at Brooklyn diner Marlow & Sons, and who prepared them meals and confections like fresh goat milk and lavender ice cream.
While The Reminder had a lot of “clean lines” and “stacks of vocals” interlaced above its rhythms like a “sonic loom,” in Metals, rhythm acts as a central core around which the melodies spin. “Boom, kaboom boom, kaboom, boom,” Feist interjects, lifting her hand and moving it rhythmically in a characteristically colorful audio and visual demonstration. “That’s the pulse that yanks the melodies down into it. It’s a lot more like a dust storm.” Another unexpected quality that came from recording the album live was catching the odd sounds produced in the room, which Feist was reluctant to clean up. “I loved hearing this sonic pressure,” she says. “It needed to happen. Cleaning up these songs would have been like giving them the wrong haircut.”
In a 2007 article, Gonzales told The New York Times, “I had 100 percent in my mind the idea that we should have as much material as possible that could be played on the radio or resonate with a huge bunch of people.” In retrospect, Feist says it’s funny to hear his comments about The Reminder given its subsequent success, since there was no way they could have planned for what happened.
This time around, if Feist played editor of Metals, Gonzales provided the rigor and drive that structured her creative flowerings. “Gonzo wears an Anthony Robbins set of glasses,” she says, referring to the famed life-coach guru. “He triangulates everything in the world as it relates to ambition. He has a real fascination with human motivation. He speaks of these things in Rocky-like terms.”
Feist fans expect a lot. While her first two albums were well-received, it was The Reminder that had crowds breaking into impromptu chants of “I Feel It All” at a concert in Mexico City, where she played with Broken Social Scene, a band of which she’s a sometime member. Says Gonzales, “On this album, Feist was emboldened by The Reminder’s big reach to jump even further. It’s a less conventional sound, so I admire her for using her bully pulpit to take even bigger musical risks.”
Our coffee arrives and Feist opens a cylindrical pack of sugar and sprinkles it gingerly a few times over her cup. “This is absurd,” she says, “but I like 20 grains of sugar. It just takes that tiny acrid edge off.” She tastes it, judging its edginess, and says, “That might be more like 30 grains.”
FEIST LIKES ABC Carpet & Home
Photography by Mary Rozzi