Unwanted information, in audio-production terminology, is called "bleed". If you're recording a singer and someone is drumming in the same room, the kick, snare, and cymbals will bleed into the vocal track; if you're miking an acoustic guitar and the windows are open, you'll end up with passing cars and planes bleeding into the mix. Bleed is usually thought of as the sonic equivalent of the plague: thousands of hours and an entire subdivision of the soundproofing industry have been dedicated to its eradication.
But for singer-songwriter Leslie Feist, bleed is a beautiful thing. The Reminder, her new CD, is "a massacre of bleed", she says gleefully, on the line from EMI/Virgin's Toronto offices. Rather than aim for a sonically perfect recording, she opted for one that's full of soulful intersections and happy accidents.
The use of bleed as a creative tool can be traced back to Daniel Lanois, who turned rock orthodoxy on its ear in a little Hamilton, Ontario, studio by recording bands playing live in a single acoustically vibrant room rather than tracking them piece by piece in separate soundproof chambers. The producer-guitarist went on to work his magic with pop legends Bob Dylan and U2, among others, and Feist has a personal connection to the Lanois approach: she cut some of her earliest demos in another Hamilton studio, this one owned by her uncle, former Junkhouse guitarist Dan Achen. Achen's business partner was a Lanois apprentice, and when Feist was getting ready to make The Reminder she wanted to re-create the comfortable, relaxed feel of Achen's facility.
"I knew that I wanted it to be a very 'live' record, with a lot of the real world breathing in it, with the windows open and no preciousness," she explains. "I wanted it to have its own air and its own light; I just wanted the real world breathing into those microphones. I also didn't want the players to be separated from each other in any way. So basically, we set up in the living room of this old manor house outside of Paris. Everyone in the same room: piano, vibraphone, drums, guitar, bass. All of us breathing the same air and listening to each other with our actual ears."
Feist also ensured success by stocking her informal studio with some of the most creative minds in popular music. Starting with the members of her touring band and long-time collaborator Chilly Gonzales–who helmed the making of her breakthrough sophomore effort, Let It Die–she added a pair of eccentric geniuses, Somali-Canadian producer Mocky and English nü-soul innovator Jamie Lidell, to her cast.
"It was a real séance kind of experience at that house, because we lived there, ate there, slept there, and worked there," she says. "For Jamie, Mocky, and Gonzo to put their touring lives on hold to come into the studio with me was a real once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing."
But The Reminder is anything but a big, messy jam session. Each of its 13 tracks has its own distinctive musical environment: "How My Heart Behaves", for instance, sets a Björk-flavoured melody atop Gonzales's cascading piano lines; Lidell's background vocals, occasional harp glissandi, and oceanic cymbal swells add nuance to Feist's plaintive dissection of sorrow. With its campfire harmonies, strummy guitars, and jaunty banjos, "1234" sounds like a lost McGarrigle sisters gem. "Sealion", a traditional spiritual borrowed from the repertoire of Nina Simone, adds low-budget electronics and loopy desert-blues guitars to gospel handclaps and an urgent, piping lead vocal. "My Moon My Man" starts out with Soft Cell piano and an appropriately sexy come-on but builds from this minimalist start into a hallucinatory instrumental break, in which swirling synthesizers play off chiming, chorused guitars.
For a disc that Feist claims was essentially recorded live, The Reminder contains an astonishing amount of sonic detail. And its audio environments are matched by lyrics that will also repay repeated listening. Few of these songs make obvious sense, yet they're all meaningful.
Her intent, Feist contends, was to lace her lyrics with "smoke and mirrors, and trap doors and quicksand, and some scavenger-hunt clues". "That's what makes listening to someone like Bonnie 'Prince' Billy or PJ Harvey so compelling," she explains. "Their lyrics are like little two-way mirrors and stuff. They're not so concrete."
The abiding impression that The Reminder delivers, however, is that of a gifted individual blossoming into both artistic and emotional maturity. Even skeptics unconvinced by Feist's earlier, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time live performances will be impressed by the singer's newfound assurance–and by her record's buoyant tone.
"I remember a few years ago realizing that depression is boring," she says, just before a record-company minion brings our chat to an abrupt close. "I mean, I've lived enough time in the fog to say that it is more fun to be in a momentum that's taking you somewhere positive."
Positive The Reminder most certainly is–and that's exactly the kind of response it should win from Feist fans old and new.
Feist plays a sold-out Orpheum on Wednesday (May 16).