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An Interview with Leslie Feist

[Musician]
“I really can’t wait to be able to stay still again and see what happens.”
Some significant spaces:
The Calgary Community Centre
A dark coach house
A guest cabin
A barn in Big Sur with the same square footage as Abbey Road
by Claudia Dey
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Leslie Feist

[Musician]
“I really can’t wait to be able to stay still again and see what happens.”
Some significant spaces:
The Calgary Community Centre
A dark coach house
A guest cabin
A barn in Big Sur with the same square footage as Abbey Road
by Claudia Dey
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Leslie Feist

Claudia Dey
15 Snaps

I met Leslie Feist in the men’s pants section of Value Village, a huge department thrift store. She was nearing the end of a tour for her latest record, Metals, and was briefly home in Toronto. She bicycled to meet me at the store and smelled like shampoo when she arrived. I handed over one of the two coffees I was carrying, then we relocated to a beige couch that was very 1989 Miami, off in the home furnishings section. Sitting side by side under the industrial lights, our view was of ladies’ blouses, and, to the left, books and records.

Feist was born in Nova Scotia the day before Valentine’s Day, 1976. She moved west to Saskatchewan, then farther west to Calgary, and by fifteen she was singing in the punk band Placebo. It would be nearly ten years before she dropped her first name and became known by the sultry fight of her last name. In the interim, she played bass in Noah’s Arkweld and rhythm guitar in Jose Contreras’s By Divine Right. She performed as Bitch Lap Lap, with a sock puppet, alongside electro-genius Peaches; she toured with Chilly Gonzales; and, in 2001, she joined Broken Social Scene, around which time she made The Red Demos (on which you can hear streetcars going by). It formed the blueprint for the Polydor-released Let It Die, which was followed by The Reminder, then the Grammy Awards, Sesame Street, a duet with David Byrne, an appearance on Saturday Night Live, a stage dive in a blue sequined jumpsuit, an iPod commercial—and ubiquity.

Then, in 2009, she lifted her drawbridge and disappeared from the public eye for two years, reemerging in 2011 with Metals. The title tells you everything; it is of the natural world, and it is incandescent. It is also tempestuous, singular, and elegiac. Part autobiography, part incitement to rebellion, it is sung by a woman who has a ghost in her voice, the same way Nina and Billie did. Accompanied by the heavyweight swagger of her guitar, her songs shake you out of your sleepwalk.

—Claudia Dey

I. A PHANTOM OF THE OPERA NECKLACE

THE BELIEVER: Do you have a certain strategy when you come here, like a certain section you go to first?

LESLIE FEIST: It’s funny, because I was here with my friend yesterday. We’re the same size, and she would get to stuff before me and I’d be like, “How did you find those?” And she said, “You’ve got to go straight to the pants if you want the pants; if you want the shoes, you’ve got to go straight to the shoes.”

BLVR: Can we track that image to making art? You’ve got your shopping cart and you’re making all kinds of choices, and then you take those choices into a room where you’re alone with a mirror and you try them on and see if they fit, and you discard some, and others you keep and reconfigure. Is it the same thing?

LF: Yeah, it’s rifling and then sculpting it down to your ultimate choice that’ll fit in your bike basket. [Laughter]

BLVR: Can I ask you to describe your teenage bedroom?

LF: I remember moving the furniture a lot. You know how you could give yourself that clean slate when you put the bed in a different corner? You have a domain that’s yours and you just want to keep reinventing it and figuring out the most adult association of furniture? I remember the day I got an old armchair, the kind that would be in front of a fireplace in a novel. It felt really grown-up. It was threadbare—kind of an adult affectation to this teen bedroom.

BLVR: Did it reflect your interior life, this chair out of—

LF: Edgar Allan Poe? Yes.

BLVR: I was reading about this photographer who takes pictures of teenagers, and she said that because they’re still developing she thinks of them as abstracts.

LF: Ah! I’m trying to think of what else was in there…

BLVR: Posters?

LF: Yeah, I had posters of Calgary gigs. I was pretty unaware of culture outside my own tiny sphere. Nobody ever came to Calgary, and if they did, I didn’t go to the shows, because they weren’t at the Community Centre, so there were a lot of photocopied posters. I was equally into Phantom of the Opera, and had the pewter mask necklace that my mom got me. I was just picking and choosing like a little magpie: twenty-hole cherry-red Docs, and five layers of ripped fishnets, and then my Phantom of the Opera necklace because I still really liked it.

BLVR: Without irony.

LF: It fully brought me joy. I love this French expression, premier degré. It means “top layer,” hyper-mainstream culture, and there is no shame in loving it.

BLVR: What was it about Phantom?

LF: I don’t know. I was just flicking through the TV at the hotel the other day and there was the live London stage show, and it’s atrocious! It’s like Beauty and the Beast.

BLVR: Though there is such a draw to that story: Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, Gwendolyn MacEwen and Milton Acorn. I’m fascinated by that kind of parasitic exchange: he wants her youth, she wants his experience.

LF: I should show you this book, Shapely Ankle Preferr’d. It has personal ads from the Elizabethan and Victorian times. The language is so beautiful. Then it gets into romanticized love, maybe in the 1800s or late 1700s, when it’s the beginning of it not just being a business deal. And men are putting in things like “A genteel visage would be preferred and a calm mind and a refined education.” Women want someone they can sit by the fire and talk with. One of them says deformities will not be excluded from consideration.

BLVR: How much has that changed?

LF: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think much. But the language we use to describe ourselves has changed so much.

II. A TINY TAPE DECK WITH A HANDLE

LF: Do you remember the first time you held a cell phone?

BLVR: It was like a shoe phone!

LF: I remember the exact moment. I was in Paris. I phoned my mom and I was like, “I’m standing in a square and there is nothing attached to me right now and I’m talking to you.” This was long after cell phones were pretty normal for most people.

BLVR: I still can’t believe we write to each other on telephones. Did you consciously resist the technology?

LF: I think part of me did, in the same way that I don’t want to be involved in Facebook or Twitter. Part of me did resist the modern trappings that everyone in a split second decided to absorb into their life. What an unhealthy direction it pushes my mind, when I am too associated with all of that stuff. But I love coming to Value Village, because you get reminded of the dead technology. Endless shelves of VHS tapes… who is deciding to change the technologies? It’s not only that you need to buy a new device to play music. It’s also the way you’re associating with your friends, the way you’re valuing your communication with people. It’s these invisible mental tools to live your life by. Facebook and MySpace, all that stuff—this place is a physical reminder of life before that.

BLVR: How do you like to listen to music?

LF: I travel a lot, so it makes sense to have a laptop, but my keyboard player, Brian [LeBarton], recently brought out a little tiny tape deck—the kind with the handle, and batteries in it, and there must be a little shoebox of tapes on the bus. Every time that thing is on, we can have a conversation, and it’s not another level of blast coming from every direction. I put old music on it because it sounds like it belongs there.

BLVR: And you’re listening to the tape right through.

LF: And then flipping the tape. Brian’s and my main goal with the band was to not get bored, to not end up photocopying a photocopy, because then everything becomes pixels. You play two hundred shows and you just don’t hear anything anymore. That’s what happened to me the last time on tour; it was just repetition.

BLVR: Like that John Baldessari homework: “I will not make any more boring art.”

LF: Who’s that?

BLVR: This American conceptual artist, this pop-art guy who looks like an unburdened Hemingway; he put the bright dots on people’s faces? He had three tips for art-making. One is: talent is cheap; the second one is: you have to be in the right place at the right time; and the third one, which I love, is: you have to be possessed—which you cannot will.

LF: I love this guy.

III. A CRINOLINE

BLVR: I’m curious to know how you negotiate shyness. Are you shy?

LF: Yeah.

BLVR: How do you deal with that? Do you send out your stunt double?

LF: There is probably some Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing that has occurred in how I deal with that stuff, because I’m not comfortable with it. My sound guy, Brenndan McGuire, was saying that he was working at a bar on Yonge Street [in Toronto] twenty years ago, and Céline Dion was playing, and this was before she had taken off, and she changed outfits between every song. She would sing one song, leave the stage, change her outfit—and it would happen instantly. The band would start the next song and then she’d come back out and be in another outfit. He remembered her hair was up and then down. Even when she was slogging on Yonge Street at some bar, that was as important to her as her singing: changing outfits.

BLVR: That was her stagecraft.

LF: You’ve got to be groomed to be able to continue in that world the way she does. For years I’d be gazing at my shoes, wondering, How did I get up on this stage? I was playing shows since I was fifteen and it was basically hardcore music, and I was standing there barefoot—ripped tights, nose rings all over—then the next week I’d be into henna and do a hair wrap and put my twenty-holes on and a crinoline. I remember thinking, If I ever wear jeans, that’s just such a cop-out; jeans are just this sterile common denominator. Meanwhile, I live in jeans now. [Laughs] But there was no development of the external, the way things looked. It was really about playing in the band.

BLVR: Did that make it harder?

LF: Gonzo [collaborator Gonzales] has a quote that served us really well when we had both moved to Paris and it was just overwhelming. I didn’t speak French, even—I would go sit at dinner, and I can’t understand anybody and everybody is chain-smoking, you know, just sort of not finding my way in—and he would be like: “Put your body in the right place, the place you know is the right place to be, and the rest of it will happen. It will just unfold the way it is supposed to.” And I would always be like, “But I don’t want to be here.” And then you kick in, and you know where the right place is.

IV. A TABLE WITH PERFORATIONS AND LINES

BLVR: I’m interested in this idea of contrariness and whether happiness is the enemy of art.

LF: That seems to play out in my life. [Laughs] There are some happy songs out there, but aren’t the bulk of songs about some state of desire and the thing you’re not sure about, the horizon? Happy songs are sort of Jack Johnson and not as compelling. Just everything feeling fine. That’s what’s on the radio.

BLVR: Yes. I want to talk to you about your record. I had so many responses to it. One was that this is the sound of post-claustrophobia, post-containment. It has this fury to it, but also this lament, this elegy. I pictured you in a headdress and a Victorian morning coat, cavalry behind you, and the Shakers dancing to encounter their god. And that Patti Smith lapel pin, focus thine anarchy. I thought, This is her anarchy focused.

LF: Oh my god, I just got—look at that [holds out her arm to show goose bumps]. Those are beautiful descriptions. I wrote the album alone in a little coach house behind my apartment that I soundproofed as best I could, because I have a real thing about people not hearing a peep. I can see now how I developed doing what I do from not wanting my roommates to hear me. Back in the day when I lived with Peaches, I mean, nobody cared but me, nobody gave a shit—

BLVR: But it’s like keeping the door to the darkroom closed.

LF: It keeps it potent somehow. Extreme privacy—it’s like pitch black. I really need to be alone and in a really private place away from my life. I read an interview with Jonathan Franzen who said that when he wrote Freedom he got the most bland office space in an office building where you can just rent an office with buzzing fluorescent strip lighting and a window looking across at a parking lot or a brick wall, no view, and one of those gross, everywhere desks, and he brought in an old clunky laptop and he put an Ethernet cable in it, glued it in, and then cut the cable so it was basically just his mind and an empty room.

BLVR: You have to be a true hermit to create such an unmagical space for yourself—

LF: It’s true! I love authors and that terrifying privacy they need, and that terrifying silence, and then they make these multidimensional people and they all relate; it’s like lifebringers. How do they do that? A song is kind of easy in the sense that you don’t have to be responsible to a character and to its entire story arc; a song can be about a split second in time. But in a novel you have to guide people through, and when it’s interlaced, like Ondaatje or Franzen or Steinbeck—like any proper, true author—I end up feeling like they’re magicians, truly gods, because they are creating these worlds that I get to go and live in.

BLVR: I think it works both ways. Writers look at musicians and at how music is made—

LF: [Distracted by a shelving staffer] That’s crazy!

BLVR: What?

LF: Oh my god, look, it’s one of my albums, getting put in the [housewares section]… That is fucking… it belongs here, it’s the remix record. [Laughter]

BLVR: Can you identify the point when the creating began? You were in your dark coach house with no light and no outgoing or incoming sound…

LF: Yeah. I would bring my laptop out there to work. I put it on this old sewing table I found and really liked— you get so superstitious when you’re laying groundwork. Everything means something, every postcard I put up in front of the desk. The table had all these perforations in it, and lines. I liked that it had been used by a craftsman who had made tangible objects, because you feel like you’re picking strands of smoke out of the air. How can you keep track of the melodies you’re working on? So yes, the tangibility of the table where things had been made… it was the only time in my life I’ve ever written something all at once, too. I mean, it all came in a few months.

BLVR: In a kind of spell or mania?

LF: It was. I always can’t wait for the touring to be over because writing’s the most fun part—not even fun, but the hyper-private art is the writing of it, and I don’t write a lot, and every time I think it’s going to be the last time, so there’s this sort of thrill when there’s something there after I figured there wouldn’t be. Then you’ve got to go out there and play it for a year, and some of that specialness wears off and I forget that it came from a proper, potent well in me. In terms of me caring and standing next to the thing I made, I am happy to do that. It’s just that your arms go a little numb holding it up. And then I really can’t wait to be able to stay still again and see what happens, and maybe nothing will. But yeah. I got a little contrary. I knew there would be an expectation for another record. I think, in retrospect, I can say that I was not well. I had just been living in a blur for so many years at that point, and my North Star had been completely obscured—like I was moving toward something, but I no longer knew where. It was like the scales were tipping, where I was maintaining the external shit just by repetition—things like the Grammys or TV shows or whatever. You just start to maintain the outside. And all you’re dying for is an apricot or something new, something fresh, something simple and like nature. Something that was born off a tree, not sent through science to become food again… So I landed off the tour, didn’t pick up the guitar. I wanted to leave it completely so I could come back on the right terms. In this case, there were some really good confines; after taking two years away, I was in a total rush to get it all going again. I was a bit afraid that the momentum would get lost. The writing happened relatively quickly, starting in October, maybe September. Then I went to Mexico City and I remember frantically writing one of my managers, begging them to help me back up my computer some way out in the ether world. [Laughter] I was terrified it might get stolen or lost—everything was on there—and I didn’t have it backed up anywhere. So the thing is: on the Day of the Dead in Mexico City, I was aware that I had a record. Gonzo and Mocky came to my place up north on January 1, 2011. They flew in, drove up, and we jammed and arranged the whole record in my guest cabin for a week—

BLVR: Wow.

LF: Crackling fire, making meals, walking through the snow to the house and back out to this cabin. We went to Big Sur a month later, and it was only a month later because it was like, we have to find a place to record and make this happen fast. Everyone around me was like, “Can you fucking give us some more notice next time, please?” But there was this sense of, what if I lose it? It’s like a ball of mercury. How is this tangible? It was so invisible three months ago.

BLVR: Do you get superstitious about it?

LF: Yeah. Or like I was going to lose my—like you said— what did you say? You have to be possessed—

BLVR: And it’s something you can’t will.

LF: I was really possessed, and I think I was just scared that I was going to somehow lose my will. That can happen. You can’t tell yourself to stay in love with someone. You either stay in love with them or you stay admiring them or something clicks and then you don’t, and you lose that invisible engine of desire toward somebody. The same thing is true of a record. What if I lose my magnetic protector feeling to this ball of mercury? It’s just totally… you have to be fascinated.

V. 1970S SCIENCE BOOKS

BLVR: Do you find more of a kinship with the natural world than with the human one?

LF: I think so, because there’s broader strokes out there, less nuance. I have this collection of old 1970s science books. There’s a geological explanation in one of why volcanoes occur, what is happening under the surface when they explode. And the other day I was like, did I fucking get the album title from this science book that I’ve had in my house forever? It’s called Noble Metals.

BLVR: Did you have the title before the album?

LF: After. It was late-breaking. I had a lot of not-as-good titles, but there’s no clarity about a title until the very end. Metals. It was like how I chose Big Sur. I knew what the songs were about and who I was going to be working with. Gonzales and Mocky being the kingpins, my brothers-inarms, old witnesses, and I knew the expansion was going to happen. “The Bad in Each Other” was going to be a war cry. I was talking to the guys and I was like, “This has to be like they’re coming—there’s an army bigger than you’ve ever seen that is about to come over the rise of the hill, and you’re in your fortress, and you’re playing, and someone’s going [makes a trumpet noise] because they’re harking to call their brothers out to fight for their lives. It has to be that sense of massive life or death.” I worked with the euphonium and bass saxophone and bari sax and bass clarinet, all with a flag hanging off the end, all these fairy-tale-esque instruments. It was exciting to dream up. When I was in my coach house, all I had was a table and a floor tom and a mallet and one guitar and one Silvertone amp. At the end of “Undiscovered First”—even when I was alone in that room—I wanted there to be eighty women speaking as one, everyone claiming these words as their own and asking the same rhetorical question: is this the way to live for me to be yours? Is this the way to live? Is it wrong to want more?

BLVR: Does different work come out of different landscapes? You’ve worked in a manor house in France, and now you’re recording in a studio in California on a cliff with goats.

LF: It was a barn in Big Sur. Robbie [Lackritz], my manager, says it was the exact square footage as Abbey Road, even the ceiling height versus width and length. But we’re out in this goat pasture on the cliffs of Big Sur. Nothing had been made there before except sculptures and paintings. I thought that was so beautiful. It was a clean slate. With albums, you want to evoke a feeling, and maybe have it be homogeneous enough that you have a story arc to it. I’m kind of an album-liker. You can like a song and it can be plucked out of a record and it exists still, but how beautiful is it when it’s this peacock fan of everything fitting together like storm fronts, the whole story of a storm: you smell the air change and then you’re in the thick of it and then it slows down and then everything smells different, and that’s a lot of things happening, but it’s basically a rainstorm. If an album can have that to it, where a lot of different things happen, and it’s capped by some event, or mood or feeling… Steinbeck, the way he begins so many of his chapters is he pulls way back, and he tells you about the one-hundred-mile-long valley, and it reaches those mountains, and then it reaches the ocean, and then he zooms in and talks about one bee on one blade of grass. That area around Big Sur is where he set so many of his stories. I’ve read everything he ever wrote so I really felt like I’d smelled it and seen it and tasted it and felt the winter and felt the summer. I was joking with the band. They were like, “No record has ever been made out here,” and I was like, “That’s not true. Steinbeck made, like, eighty records out here.” [Laughs] He did the same thing we were trying to do.

BLVR: So when do you call it as being done? When I’m writing, I have a sense of the beginning and I have a sense of the middle; the middle is so hard to articulate, but I felt like the title of the documentary about you and your collaborators does it: Look at What the Light Did Now. That film was like the marginalia in illuminated manuscripts—

LF: Like the marginalia?

BLVR: How monks would transcribe illuminated manuscripts for hours and hours, and they wrote in the margins about the process—though their remarks were plaintive, like, “Oh, my hand.”

LF: [Laughs] Oh my god, that’s great.

BLVR: Or “Deliver me from writing.”

LF: My dad is an abstract expressionist, and he’s been painting these spokes my entire life—just radiating colors out of the center of the canvas. My whole life, these spokes. With the repetition of anything, you’re not looking at the thing anymore, you’re looking at the variations on the theme. So my dad’s been engaged in the variations on the theme for a really long time—color, light, balance, thickness, thinness—and the spoke has disappeared for him. When we’re performing, the songs are like the spokes, because I feel the variations the band puts into the repetition. That’s what I’ve gotten fascinated with.

BLVR: This is the thing that can’t happen in publishing. You make a book and it’s a fixed object, whereas when you tour a record, you can scissor it up the middle and find other iterations.

LF: Absolutely. My manager, who has more perspective on things than I do, is like, “You might want to play one of the old songs from The Reminder in a way people might recognize,” because they have all been ripped apart at the seams and put back together. And I’m saying, “The songs got invited to the Metals party. If any of the songs from the past made it through the door at the Metals party, they have to figure out a way to have something to talk about with those songs.” Not all the songs have anything to say to Metals. The song “1234” doesn’t have anything to say to Metals. Metals would probably be like, “Come on in, wanna hang?” And “1234” is like, “I don’t belong, I’m not cool enough.” That song is almost like a yearbook photo, in that it’s a really legitimate era. It felt revolutionarily melodic and simple in kind of a punk way to me. It didn’t feel like pop music to me. It felt like this laser-beam lasso, like a weird weapon on a set list. When I wrote it, it was so alien to where I came from previously. I was in rock bands and I was looking for the long way around. I always want to find my own circuitous terrain. I don’t want there to be simplicity. It was kind of like the teenage jeans; I don’t want to go straight from point A to point B. Even when I’d walk to school, you eventually see the grass that you have tromped in your shortcut, and I thought, That’s my grass, that’s my shortcut, and then I would make a new one. What happened to “1234” was not the way I ever saw it playing out, and I’m grateful in a practical I-am-my-grandmother’s-granddaughter-just-don’t-be-ungrateful sense, but on the other hand, it oversimplified what I had been doing all those years. So, in a way, it doesn’t come to the party now. I have probably played a hundred shows, with an average of three thousand people a night, two thousand people. So twenty thousand people. Not one person has yelled “1234” out during the show. In all these countries, all over the world. It feels like everyone is on the same plot as me.

BLVR: So did you feel like this new record ended up being—like, in terms of lovers, one is always the antidote to the last. You’re with someone who is buttoned up, and then you’re with Rasputin—

LF: Totally. That’s my path, too.

BLVR: So is Metals the antidote to The Reminder?

LF: Not the record, because the record I made in much the same rapture as the last one, where I felt pure and I belonged in it and it belonged in my life. The whole thing felt like—

BLVR: —the possession you can’t will.

LF: Yeah, and it was made in the same state. Totally going to do that again.

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