It’s an unfortunate name, one that doesn’t lend itself to immediate embrace:
12 May 2005: Black Cat Washington, DC
“I’m going to see a pop singer who just got signed to Interscope. You should come.”
“What’s her name?”
“Feist? Her name is Feist!?! Tell me, dear friend… [donning a clever, mischievous grin]... this pop singer of whom you speak, is she…. quite feisty?
Jackass. Mention “pop” and a female vocalist with a one-word name and you’re begging to get beaten over the head with other people’s baggage. Who with a discerning palette would accept such simple description without bitching about the times they’ve been burned? If cred is what I sought, I should have mentioned Leslie Feist’s collaboration with indie up-and-camers Broken Social Scene or her college roommate, another woman with a deceptively sugary moniker: Peaches.
Of course alone, Feist doesn’t warp sound quite like she did with Broken Social Scene and unlike her obscene, indie-rapping roommate. Her record doesn’t feature taped armpit hair and references to empowered “father fuckin’”. But this Canadian does attack her music with similar vigor. The difference? She’s attacking the elusive nature of melody, not the melody itself. She’s using pop to strain the deceptively simple frame of the pop song.
On the stage, Feist stands tall and slender, draped in red gels. She grasps a cherry red, full-bodied Gibson guitar. It dwarfs her small frame, pulling desperately at her shoulder strap; I fear its weight might bowl her over. The stage lights sink into the body, deepening the red, allowing a distant, foreboding sexuality to seep from its features. This is the kind of guitar that can bleed, that can billow warm, thick, smoke-worn sound. It’s the kind of guitar you name after a woman you met through equally thick plumes of smoke in some seedy, southern bar. It’s the kind of guitar that demands fat, leathery fingers, and bones worn to the edges. It’s the province of the weathered Southern blues man and, well, Feist is 40 years too young and 150 pounds too light to hold it.
But, defying all rationality, her bony fingers take to the frets and the guitar begins to sing slow and scathing blues. I’m surprised. On Let It Die , out a year ago in Canada on Arts & Crafts and recently released stateside on Interscope Records, Feist’s blues backdrop factors more lightly in her sound. The songs are slow, lamenting numbers, with plucked guitar, sure, but dressed with a more poppy persuasion and rife with orchestration and vocal harmony. Feist’s voice dances over light, sexy notes that allow only the occasional soulful moan to escape. Live, the notes are naked, issued by the solitary performer. They’re not the most scorching riffs I’ve ever heard—they’re slow and simple—but they do exude a genuine spirit, one missing from the record. The tones are darker, sexier, and more complete.
The crowd is divided evenly into the absolutely engaged and the utterly apathetic. Feist is opening for British Sea Power, but the energy by the stage is so deeply personal, and the fans by the stage so invested, that from this angle you’d never know. I, like many of them, have come solely to hear her sing. Fans of the headliner, though, glance from the back of the room, unconvinced. There’s no middle ground: you’re either packed against the stage in silent reverence or issuing loud banter over beers in the back. It’s an indie show, and these are the perils of an indie audience.
Feist is undeterred by the ruckus. Sipping a flask between songs, flashes of a darker underbelly eclipse her sexy saunter. Standing tall, she riffles through the set, peppering it with flighty, distant banter. Her words wander at the edge of the uncomfortable and she sometimes cuts herself off for another sip, or because her words have become too introspective or tangential. All the better for us. Her words are cute, if awkward, but the music is the mortal weapon that she wields most convincingly.
Much to my surprise she is not content to strip her songs down for solo performance. Working through songs like “Gatekeeper”, Mushaboom”, and ‘Secret Heart”, Feist builds the orchestrations step by step: she begins by plucking out a bass melody into one of her guitar pedals, then stamps at the mechanism calling for it to repeat the sample. She adds a second and sometimes third loop to the mix. She uses a second microphone at her side to perform similar sampling with her vocals, laying three-part harmonies piece by piece. Feist manages to build a five- or six-part song in as little as 30 seconds. She then enters the mix live, vocalizing and picking out the notes of the main melody on her guitar. This is an evolving process; she doesn’t simply build the song and then sing along. She cuts parts out and adds others to the loops as the song goes on, as with super-human concentration she navigates it’s complex pop melody. It’s stunning, though with your eyes closed the result sounds simple enough. It’s not until you remember that one person not six, is creating the sound.
As she sings, the lyrics are simple enough, middle-weight poetry about love and loss, with minor insights on each. Feist’s voice is full and powerful in this setting, the expert keen and moan of an affected blues starlet, not, as on Let It Die, the sometimes stark, flawed sound of a fair rock singer. Perhaps because she’s had a year behind the songs Feist has transcended her previously pleasant, though often incomplete vocals, attaining a far superior tone and delivery.
What’s obvious from the songs, what Interscope knows, is that Feist is rife with mainstream potential. There’s a light, whimsical nature to the tunes, one underscored by deep emotion. Feist has the means and the music to break well beyond her indie station, striking out as a respectable blues/pop singer. Whether or not she will is a function of luck and a solid marketing strategy. What is clear is that the talent is there. And from the look of the club’s walls, spattered like the streets of DC with promotional posters, she’s getting the marketing money to make a fine go at it.
Towards the end Feist begins to whip her hips as she sings, a sexy sway of both body and guitar. There’s something vulnerable in her delivery but it’s layered, just below the surface, with a fiery, empowered edge. The color of her guitar, like the lights and the cover of her album, are well chosen. She’s sensual and sexy but also shadowy and untouchable. She may lull you into infatuation with pop songs but she can also tear your heart to pieces with pained, sorrow-ridden moans. She’s fey perhaps, but she’s a heartbreaker. Here’s to hoping, sometime soon, that she breaks enough hearts to leave more than just the indie kids softly singing the blues.