Feist is turning up and turning down
After releasing two songs—“Mushaboom” and “1234”—that were inescapable in the first 10 years of the new century, Leslie Feist leads us into this decade with Metals, a shiny new album that doesn’t lend itself to easy labelling. You have to lean in a little to get it, not that it’s a hushed or entirely introspective affair.
“I like that about it,” says the veteran Canadian scenester, on the line from Toronto. “Anything good in life is worth working for, or something like that.”
Lord knows she worked at making this, but it was less a case of calculated reinvention following the inescapability of Let It Die and The Reminder (both spawning numerous tunes that showed up in movies and TV shows, and elsewhere) than a matter of simply not working for a while. That meant spending 2009 and much of 2010 in faraway places (sans entourage), gardening, and just generally avoiding industrial noise. Last fall, when rested and ready, the singer grabbed an acoustic guitar and spent three months writing, “mostly in the shed behind my house”, she recalls. She then recruited producers Mocky and Chilly Gonzales, drummer Dean Stone, and Beck keyboardist Brian LeBarton to help shape the sounds that would become the album. And the next step was renting a cliffside cabin in Big Sur, California, where they holed up to do the actual recording. (Valgeir Sigurðsson later helped with some of the arrangements.)
“I’ve been making albums more than half of my life now,” declares the 35-year-old artist, “and have been looking at life through that particular lens, which either magnifies things or makes them smaller—or, like, burns your initials into a tree trunk, with a heart around it,” she adds with a hearty laugh. “But the point is that this is invisible work. I mean, the playing of it is physical work, but the creation is kind of mysterious—pulling images and ideas from your mind. Even when they seem done, they’re still just fragments moving through air, and your ears somehow pull them back in. It’s this amazing, mercurial thing.”
Feist is known for fairly abstract lyrics, although they are hardly impersonal. In the instantly catchy “Caught a Long Wind”, she declares that “The room’s full, but hearts are empty”—a pretty straightforward look at loneliness on the rock ’n’ roll highway. But most tunes here are filled with allusions to the ebb and flow of nature, with a special emphasis on our winged friends. The meaning of all this is still elusive to her.
“After making something like this and being really close to it, it helps to find new angles on the music. There is, of course, an endless amount of things in nature that somehow echo the things you’re already experiencing—especially things that are invisible on an emotional level. I mean, everyone knows you can feel volcanic rage, and there are plenty of symbols and metaphors to be found in the natural world. For me, they help make things more tactile and concrete.”
Indeed, she went back to the periodic table for this particular experiment, stripping life down to its chemical base.
“Some of the things I was looking at in Metals had to do with simply turning my amps back up again after a couple of years of not doing it. Then there’s the process of dialling it back down and trying to protect my voice. I was interested in silence and subtlety, but then there’s that rumble that comes from the amplifier and makes you turn it back up again. That’s a lot of what the title refers to.”
The record also seems to wrestle with the notion of creativity itself, directly in a song like “Bittersweet Melodies” and more enigmatically in the fretful “Anti-Pioneer”, with its sweeping Bollywood strings. On “The Circle Married the Line”, she seeks new horizons—to “Get some clarity while the words come in,” the gorgeously melodic song says.
“The horizon represents a kind of renewal,” Feist explains. “Just as your day is ending, it’s beginning for somebody else. I just love the idea of that line just inching its way into people’s lives.”
Other songs suggest tentative, sometimes even contentious, contact between people as on “A Commotion”, which finds feminine strings insistently undulating against a massed male choir—or “the football team”, as she puts it.
“I do think this record is sewn together more tightly than anything I’ve done before. And that probably has to do with it being all written at one time. The songs all point to each other and I feel they are like the characters in a play. If it was a book, it would be The Sound and the Fury. I also try to place a lot of rhetorical questions in my songs because they age well that way; they stay liquid and so, in some way, true.”
For her touring band, she has added three female singers and other new elements, but of the original Metallurgists, only keyboardist LeBarton is on this flight.
“It’s good to have at least one witness to making the record,” she concludes, “even if it’s just to keep the inside jokes alive.”
Feist performs at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Friday (November 18).