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[After a decade of bouncing around, Feist is
settling into a serious solo career with a new album, illuminated by
her unique searing voice.
Fellow Canadian Jeremy Shaw (who records lulling, downbeat electronica
under the name Circlesquare) talked to Leslie Feist at her Paris
JEREMY: It seems Canada has a pretty close-knit music scene.
FEIST: Yeah, there are so many layers to the family it's like an
onion. I've known Brendan Canning, the bass player for Broken Social
Scene, for ten years now.
JEREMY: You've been writing and singing for Broken Social Scene
on-and-off for six years now.
FEIST: The winter of '99 was so bitter, it seemed like it was never
going to end. So a group of us Kevin Drew, guitarist Andrew Whiteman,
drummer Justin Paroff, Brendan, and I decided to book a show in
Toronto two months in advance and make our get-through-the-winter
project writing songs for the gig.
JEREMY: Is it weird to see a long-term collaborative project become so
FEIST: Not really. We've all been friends for so long, it feels like we
should be paying each other twenty-five bucks a year to namedrop each
other. Over the years we've all splintered off into other scenes and
bands hence the name, Broken Social Scene. But there's no doubt I'll
still make music with those guys forty years from now.
JEREMY: You grew up in Calgary, and moved to Toronto in 1995, when you
were twenty. Since 2002, you've been living in Paris.
FEIST: Everyone claims I'm such a transient! It's not like I carry my
belongings in a bundle of fabric on the end of a stick.
My mom in Calgary, my aunt in New Brunswick, and my friends in Toronto
have all seen pieces in the regional press claiming I'm
a "local singer-songwriter." But I have been touring my album around
Europe for the past year, so I've hardly spent any time at home in
Paris. I haven't even had the chance to get sick of it.
JEREMY: I imagine that Paris takes some getting used to for a nice
FEIST: Absolutely. I played a show back in Montreal last December. On
my way to the gig, I saw this guy waiting at a bus shelter. He was
wearing a ratty, ankle-length, raccoon-fur coat, a pair of galoshes
with the tongues hanging out, and a big farmer hat tilted way back on
his head. In Paris, they'd think, "Whoa, that guy looks nuts." But to
me he looked like just another Canadian, doing his thing to keep warm.
I felt so proud! And I love how Canadian girls manage to look totally
hot in their enormous parkas. In Canada, it's not about fishnets and
heels, or other fantasy female stuff. Canadian girls are stalwarts
ruddy and healthy.
JEREMY: You started writing your own songs when you were quite young.
FEIST: My dad gave me a four-track for Christmas when I was fourteen.
Then I swapped my twenty-hole cherry-red Doc Marten boots for a Fender
Mustang bass at the local pawnshop probably the best deal of my life!
It had a slim fretboard that was
perfect for my small hands. I taught myself how to play harmonies, and
then I started experimenting, strumming the bass strings with an
electric razor. My friends would come over, and we'd make up stories
and write soundtracks for them.
JEREMY: Does songwriting come easily to you?
FEIST: Everyone has a filter through which they see the world, and
songwriting is mine. It's my way of capturing moments that
are special to me. I love catching that spontaneous musical moment. I
like listening to a record and hearing people's fingers touch their
instruments, and hearing the imperfections.
JEREMY: In high school, you also played in a punk band for a while. You
won a battle of the bands
contest that earned you a spot opening for the Ramones in 1991.
FEIST: I was fifteen when we played our first gig. We were two decades
and an ocean away from the roots of punk, so our band was more
hardcore, like Tool and Jawbox. The guitarist only listened to
Metallica, and the drummer had huge dreads and was really into Faith No
More and Jane's Addiction. I was all about Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel,
Sinead O'Connor. No indie pedigree. [laughs] We were a real mish-mash.
JEREMY: I'd imagine that Sinead O'Connor had a huge influence.
FEIST: It's been twelve years since I've spent any time with her
records, Lion and the Cobra and I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. But I
remember so clearly the first time I heard her at a friend's house
after school. She blew my mind. Her voice sounded like it was from
another universe. She
redefined everything for me.
JEREMY: So why did your band split up?
FEIST: I was singing opposite a guitarist with a Marshall '58
half-stack with two
cabinets. After our first cross-Canada tour, my larynx felt like two
tiny pink elastic bands. In 1995, I sublet my house in Calgary, and
went to see a doctor in Toronto who specialized in vocal-chord injuries
for a three-month treatment. I ended up staying there for seven years.
JEREMY: Peaches was your roommate in Toronto.
FEIST: Yeah. I used to listen to these beats coming through the wall.
I'd bang and yell at her to keep it down. She was already so on her
tip. I used to help Peaches out at some of her Toronto shows, doing
synchronized dances and G girl-ing it out. I was her Flavor Flav! I was
just cheering on a friend, but instead of doing it from the audience, I
was doing it next to her on stage. It didn't even feel like performing.
We'd have been doing it at home for our friends if we weren't on stage.
JEREMY: Your new solo album is being released in the U.S. this spring.
Let It Die is loaded with smoky ballads. It's filled with a certain
FEIST: I wanted to go back in time. I was thinking of the Brill
Building in New York where all the music publishers were located during
the '30s and '40s. I imagined an art deco beehive of offices with men
in starched white shirts and rolled-up sleeves, cranking out beautiful
songs. I love the music from World War II, like boogie-woogie and big
band swing. That music is all about feeling good when you're terrified
of going to war tomorrow. It's about that last hot, sweaty dance with
the girl with the coiffed hair whose picture you have in your wallet.
a nostalgic kind of girl.
JEREMY: Your songs are really elegant and simple, so your voice is
FEIST: I made lo-fi demos before going into the studio. One of my best
friends, Chilly Gonzales, produced the album. When we first went into
the studio, Gonzo tried playing all the melodies on the piano. Hearing
my songs played that way allowed me to imagine singing them differently
to how I'd initially planned. We distilled the melodies down to their
JEREMY: Did you try experimenting with different instruments?
FEIST: Yeah. There was a Hammond organ and a nylon-string acoustic
guitar sitting around in the studio, so Gonzo and I played around with
those. We even found an old vibraphone in the closet. We tried that
out, too. I tried to answer every "why" with a "why not?"
JEREMY: You make it sound so easy!
FEIST: It's not like we were effortlessly slaloming through on our
instincts. I'd never worked in a studio before, let alone with a
producer. Gonzo is my best friend, and I trust his judgment, but I was
a little nervous. We tested the waters by playing some covers. I'd
never covered a song in my life. We tried "The Look of Love" by Burt
Bacharach, but we realized we didn't want to be that schmaltzy.
JEREMY: Your cover of the Bee Gees' "Inside and Out" made it onto the
FEIST: I'd already done all these slow, three-four-time ballads. I
wanted to kick-start something. I'd certainly never sung a disco song
before. The lyrics are actually really sad, but the Bee Gees played it
their way "Yeah! Alright! I'm sad! OK!" [laughs]
JEREMY: Your label released it as a single in the U.K.
FEIST: But it didn't really go anywhere. Part of me was breathing a
sigh of relief. Imagine having a single out and hoping
nothing will happen!
JEREMY: You felt that it didn't represent you
FEIST: I can't stand behind a cover the way I can stand behind my own
songs. With the songs I write, I get every syllable. I don't get sick
of hearing myself sing them night after night because I'm reliving my
experiences. When it's meaningful to me, hopefully it's more
interesting for the crowd.
JEREMY: I hear you're collaborating woth Massive Attack. That's a
serious compliment when you think of their past collaborators.
FEIST: They came to my gigs in Bristol and London, and I'm going to
Bristol to hang out with them in the studio. They sent me some demos,
which I'm using as a starting point to write a few tracks. It's a blank
slate I'm free to put down whatever I want. But you know how it is
you never want to say you're committed to a project until it's done.
JEREMY: I saw you play last summer. The way
you looped your voice through a guitar pedal was really charming.
Simple electronics are sometimes the best.
FEIST: Sometimes našvetŚ is misinterpreted as charm! But I am trying to
expand on the pedal-vocal idea. I bought my first sampler two days ago.
It's still in the box. I asked for the low end of the line you know,
the simplest one with the fewest buttons.
JEREMY: What's your favorite effect?
FEIST: I have an omnichord at home that I love. It transforms single
notes into whole chords. I want to make a vocal omnichord using a
sampler. Imagine you're singing and you think, "I wish there were a
gospel choir here right now." You could just sing the note and
there's the gospel choir!