Dancing Through Song

An Interview with Feist

by Stefan Braidwood


Leslie Feist has rapped with Peaches, been queen foil to provocateur, pianist, and “king of Berlin” Gonzales, duetted with the Kings Of Convenience on their last album, and is a member of both Broken Social Scene and the Apostles of Hustle. Over the last year or so her sophomore album, Let It Die, has received universally glowing reviews for the charming intimacy of her songwriting and the versatile lustre of her singing. In fact, such was the buzz surrounding this ex-pat Canadian amongst the critical body that a Wire reviewer erroneously assumed hers was the female voice aiding and abetting Buck 65 on his new album (it was actually his wife, and, hey, he has cropped up in one of Feist’s videos). In this much-delayed long-distance interview piece, PopMatters scribe Stefan Braidwood finds this key figure of the Canadian scene’s renaissance to be as subtle and intriguing an interviewee as she is a performer.

PopMatters: Let It Die is actually your second album, the first being Monarch, which to my knowledge is almost impossible to get on this side of the Atlantic. How do you feel you’ve progressed on this collection of songs, and how would you describe your approach to music to someone who’d never heard them?

Leslie Feist: I guess I would say the way a body has bones, a song has a melody ... and I’m most interested in the bones. I like to dress up the melodies, that’s the recording ... and then slow dance with them. That’s the gig.

PM: Prankster extraordinaire, showman and pianist Gonzales co-wrote and -produced this album with you; given that in the past he’s been known for ludicrous cabaret hip-hop like “Take Me to Broadway”, I imagine your joint songwriting process must be an interesting experience. Did it take long to settle on a joint musical direction, or was it more a song-by-song thing?

LF: Gonz and I have read each others’ minds on stage for a few years while we toured for his albums ... recording together was a gauntlet to throw down in front of each other to look at music in a way neither of us had done in a conscious way before ... to try on roles we hadn’t tried. (Him to produce music without his face as the face of it, and for me to let other limbs do the gymnastics of production I’d always shortcut my way through.) Our writing together actually first happened accidentally with “Gatekeeper”. I had written that song while on a long, cold walk near a lake in Canada and stored it in my head for a long time. I brought it out on the last day of recording because we had some time we hadn’t anticipated. While we played around on the piano to find the right colour chords for it, we wrote the “June, July, and August” bridge together. Having the first co-writing moment be such an easy accident made it easy to bring ideas to each other to work on together after that. We’ve actually only done it a handful of times. We’re working up a good steam though.

PM: The album has a very personal ambience and flows effortlessly through sizeable changes in mood and approach. Gonzales has said that your greatest strength and weakness is your honesty; bearing in mind that this guy has allegedly spent “Intense nights in tents / Pondering the relevance / Of elephants”, do you think that’s a fair analysis? Do you feel that working with you pushed him into his new role as an “honest” piano player?

LF: He is being honest about his “Intense nights in tents / Pondering the relevance / Of elephants”! I think working with Gonzo helped me to rely more on my instincts and less on the lo-fi I was wrapping myself in with my four-track recordings. I loved and love the sounds of a room and the air in it, but Gonzo helped me to trust myself more and rely on the tape hiss. It’s a snake eating it’s tail. Gonzo’s piano playing is what made me want to sing in this light, and so if making the album with me brought him back to his appetite for piano then I’d say the collaboration has become a full circle.

PM: Personally, although I find your singing and writing heartfelt, I don’t get the impression that you’re really singing about yourself or your life on Let It Die. Instead I feel you inhabit different characters in some songs, whilst attempting to capture certain emotions in a more depersonalised way on others. Would you agree to this at all, and do you think your future songwriting will more or less personal—especially given that I hear you’ve been writing for others?

LF: I feel when I listen to this record that there are some nearly uncomfortable self-portraits as well as similar portaits of other people. I have a lot of respect for writers who are able to choose to pop helicopter blades from the top of their head and rise 20 feet above the drama to get a lay of the land, see the bigger picture, like Jason Collett and Ron Sexsmith. I’ve tried to put myself in other shoes but I figure now my own shoes fit best. I’ve only written once for someone else, the duet I sang with Jane Birkin. Otherwise I’m more interested in blinking my own eyes into the fog. But there have been a few times I’ve heard other people cover my songs and that’s a different kind of thrill. Tony Scherr used to play one of my songs from Monarch and it made me hear that a song can take on a life of its own outside of your interpretation of it.

PM: You’re a member of Broken Social Scene and one of their side-projects, you’ve known Gonzales for a long time, you were on the Kings Of Convenience’s last album and I believe you’ve performed with Peaches under the moniker “Bitch Laplap”; last year I occasionally got the feeling you were the Kevin Bacon figure of the hip indie scene. Would you mind giving us an idea of how and when you came to meet and work with all these people, and what exactly it was that precipitated the Canadian artistic exodus to Berlin a few years back, as well as, later, your own?

LF: I’m lucky to have the friends that I do, and we’ve got a summercamp trust fall game going at all times. Peaches and Gonzales came up with a great analogy one time about all of us playing with each other. It’s as if we’re each directing our own movie ... we see how it needs to go down ... and then we look to our left and to our right and see who is standing next to us that can help us make our movies as close to our ideas as possible. Every one of those collabs came about differently but all were born out of mutual respect and good timing. Like a high five that doesn’t miss (you know, as opposed to that dragging-heart feeling when you go for a high five and miss each other). As far as everyone leaving Canada, I can only say that there seems to be a common thread of people hitting their stride once they’ve left home. My current theory is that there’s a charge to try things differently in anonymity that isn’t there in the city where you learned to walk and had your first kiss.

PM: You’ve now spent some time living in both Paris and Berlin. The weight of historical/cultural density aside, do you feel there’s honestly that much of a difference in atmosphere and the way the average citizen lives their lives here?

LF: Berlin is about building a future and Paris is about maintaining the past. Canada isn’t in the same kind of race to define itself. Its (white) history is shorter and the pace is paced by things that in Europe seem to have been cobblestoned over and covered up 1000 years ago. We’re not necessarily topsoil in Canada, but we’re not the 50th level of cultural sediment either.

PM: And to finish off, the question I ask everyone: what do you think the point of music is, or should be?

LF: That’s in the ear of the beholder.

PM: Feel free to mention any artists/authors/people/causes that aren’t getting as much attention as you think they should be:

LF: Another Broken Social Scene member who’s putting out a solo album next month (on Arts and Crafts) is Jason Collett. These songs are very beautiful and I recommend it. You can see in my lack of embellishment that I don’t know how to talk about it as well as I know how to listen to it.

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