We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. – John Steinbeck
She counted to four, and then she stopped. Leslie Feist, an artist with a voice of silver fog and a hit single that made Apple and Sesame Street sing, was out of control. Not in the wild way, but in the way of someone on a roll who is pushed, nudged and tugged for more. Knocked askew by the whirlwind success of her 2007 album, The Reminder, and its not one, not two, not three, but four Grammy nominations and five Juno trophies, she withdrew two years ago, musically exhausted from the grind.
Now she's back, with Metals, an elegant, mellifluous work by an artist recharged and in charge. Recorded in a barn in Big Sur, Calif., her fourth album reflects a period of solitude, with a lyrical structure taking inspiration from the writings of John Steinbeck, an author from that neck of the woods.
Another album, another trip, then, for the Toronto-based singer who just wanted to get her hands back on the wheel.
"I ended up veering off-track, going to a lot of places that, not that I didn't want to go, but that I wasn't deciding upon," Feist said recently, recalling the final days of The Reminder's marketing cycle. "I was just being brought there."
Specifically the 35-year-old singer-songwriter was referring to a tour of Canadian hockey arenas in late 2008. Speaking over coffee at a hotel in downtown Toronto, Feist is in pretty form – blue jeans, blouse, red lipstick and her hair pulled back – as opposed to the more Bohemian style she often presents.
For an artist so concerned with the artful presentation of her work, transforming those barns into a space for music was a "super-interesting puzzle" to solve, but the tour wasn't completely pleasurable. "Buses would arrive in the underground parking of those arenas, and you'd wake up and be in a concrete bunker, following the duct-tape arrows to some food and a shower," she said. "Some of those days you wouldn't go outside and see the light of day at all."
Looking back at the experience now, Feist isn't bitter – it just wasn't her thing. "It was more reactive, trying to keep up," she said. "It's not where I wanted to continue to be."
Jeffrey Remedios, co-founder of the Arts & Crafts label, the Canadian home of Broken Social Scene and that band's breakout star, Feist, recalls that final Reminder tour with mixed feelings. "I was at those shows, and they were beautiful, incredible," he says. "It was unfortunate to read, about her [feeling]creatively dead, because she never expressed it to me."
During our talk, the indie superstar is relaxed and amiable, with no celebrity airs at all. When a publicist tells me to wrap up the interview, Feist is actually embarrassed. "They should give you more time," she whispered, cupping a hand to her mouth. "You're The Globe and Mail, after all." On whether or not her dulcet-toned voice is insured, she laughs. "The only thing sure about it is that I'll lose it from time to time, particularly after a night of too many glasses of wine."
As for not expressing any reservations over the arena tour at the time, the likable singer attributes her stoicism to her Alberta upbringing. "I was reacting to all of it with this stalwart kind of Prairie sensibility," she said. "It's about sweat and ingenuity and adaptability necessary to survive."
Not long after that, Feist received a phone call from Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, who was about to board a ship to the Arctic to investigate climate change – a trip the singer had just taken herself. "He said to me 'I just have this instinct that you should draw up the drawbridge. At some point you have to cut yourself off from the traffic and find a new vocabulary.'"
What Ondaatje was talking about was retreating, and finding the starting point for writing again. "I needed to take enough time off to feel reorientated," Feist explained. "To do something relevant for my own sake, and to feed my own curiosity about all of this again."
Her time off stretched from one year to two, though she kept her hand in, working on projects with Broken Social Scene, Beck and Wilco, and helping to put together Look at What The Light Did Now, a documentary on the making of The Reminder and the subsequent tours.
When she talks about being "threadbare on music" and wanting to find some stillness, it's important to remember that Feist's long journey began not with The Reminder, but with 2004's Let it Die, her breakthrough second album. "She went non-stop for years," says Remedios. "She worked those albums globally for four years, which is pretty intense."
It was a long and fruitful haul, but also one not without a significant surprise to it. The jazzy, cosmopolitan pop of Let it Die had earned two Juno awards and sold more than 150,000 copies in Canada. The more rambunctious follow-up was on its way to matching those accomplishments and more – building on the foundation, but nothing out of the ordinary. Feist was enlarging her audience, but not receiving much in the way of radio play. Her music was too modern for adult contemporary; too adult contemporary for modern rock.
"We had conversations about The Reminder," recalls Remedios. "It had outsold Let It Die, and we thought that unless some sort of cataclysmic event comes along, we'll coast through a few more months and the record will have had a nice life."
Its life became longer when the boppy 1,2,3,4 was used for the Apple Nano campaign: The commercial gave radio permission to play Feist. The song became a smash hit internationally, and, says Remedious, "the whole thing doubled."
And now, an indie artist gone superstar, Feist returns, post-hoopla. There's less bounce to the new record – no 1,2,3, 4 or Mushaboom on Metals, an album more intimate, sophisticated and more cohesive than its predecessors.
We can hear where she was back then and the place she's in now in an instant on Anti Pioneer, a languid ballad. It begins with a guitar riff that is the bluest of blue, followed by a line that explains it: "Start with a colour, they always get away with attitude."
Feist's new vocabulary has to do with perspective. She drew less on her own experiences and more on universal sentiments observed to be true. On Anti Pioneer, she hints at the process, looking back at herself while playing with first- and third-person point of view: "For a year, she was anti pioneer, singing sappy songs, about what went wrong, two years before/ And even now is it false or true, that I call me you?"
Working with long-time collaborators Chilly Gonzales (an offbeat producer-pianist) and the drummer Mocky, Feist set down rules for the new material. The syncopated interplay between the hi-hat cymbal and the snare and kick drum wasn't used, for example. "I've heard that so many times," Feist explained. "I don't have a new spoke to put on that wheel."
Another rule? No hand percussion. "We did this in order to deny journalists the pleasure of saying 'Feist is back with her finger-snappy, hand-clappy, et cetera,' " says Gonzales.
Lyrically, Feist cribbed from the scene-setting style of Steinbeck, often opening her songs with descriptive impressions. Bittersweet Melodies, which has a chirpy flutter to it but is tinged with sadness too, begins with "whispers in the grass, under slow dancing tree/ birds were telling me stories, saying you were meant for me."
The arrangements are rich, with strings, bass saxophones and euphoniums heard on The Bad in Each Other and the haunting Graveyard, which both build grandly. "They're mythological-sounding," Feist said of deep reeds and brass. "They sound like something from a castle's rampart – hark, I see."
Nobody foresaw the wild success brought by The Reminder, but Feist's path seems surer now than ever, even if Metals doesn't have an obvious hit single among its dozen songs. "I think we'll see the size of her audience ebb and flow over time," says Remedios. "She's going to have a healthy career, for as long as she wants to make music."
If Feist has regained some sense of control over her direction, making music is still a bit of a mystery for her. "There's nothing better than not knowing what's going to happen until you put the pieces together," she said. "You don't aim for it – you end up there."