Feist returns, finding ’Pleasure’ in uncertainty

After years of darkness, the enigmatic Leslie Feist re-emerges, facing up to herself to produce an intimate, intentional album
Feist. (no credit)
Feist. (no credit)
Feist. (no credit)

Nearly the first sound you’ll hear on Feist’s new album, Pleasure—her first in six years—is amplifier hiss. It’s the sort of white noise that routinely gets tweaked out of the mix in pop music, but its startling presence encourages you to imagine you’re in the room with her as she’s singing and playing guitar. She was inspired, she says, by the home recordings of Molly Drake, the mother of folk singer-songwriter Nick Drake: “It’s like I’m in the company of a very private person, who was only writing for her own sake, or her family’s. I feel we’re kindred in some way.”

Except that Leslie Feist is hardly a private craftsperson. From her 2004 breakthrough album Let It Die through her 2007 iPod commercial-soundtracking hit “1234” to her Polaris Prize-winning, platinum-selling 2011 album Metals, she has charmed both critics and a fanbase that numbers in the millions. Pleasure, due Apr. 28 from Universal Music, was recorded on the sly without even her record label’s knowledge, and it’s a sonic surprise; she laughs as she notes that some people, on first hearing it, have told her, “I thought my headphones were broken.” But if its rawness, which ranges from stark intimacy to balls-out rock, may make it less suitable for dinner parties, it is also her warmest recording, with a beguiling, unsaccharine sweetness, and a familiar way around an indelible tune. It stretches some of her best qualities in new directions, driven by a time of personal reckoning.

Curled up on a chair in a coach-house in Toronto’s west end that serves as her typically characterful rehearsal space—complete with abstract stained glass, a resolutely out-of-tune ship’s piano, and several cheap-but-effective Sears-catalogue guitar amps—Feist recalls her album’s faltering moment of conception. “I was sitting in here truly wondering if it was even necessary to make another record,” she says.

In her first interview about Pleasure, with Beats 1 Radio, she painted a folksy picture of her time off: making apple cider on her aunt’s farm, canning tomatoes, and catching up with friends and their children. But after it aired, she says, “I was like, ‘My God, it sounds like I’ve just been sitting around making preserves.’

“I felt a little bit ill because I’d shrunk back from owning up to the fact that I actually had a really dark few years. I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit that these songs were a necessary looking for a handhold in what otherwise was a pretty foggy period.”

Feist found herself in what she calls “essentially incredibly privileged circumstances”—even as the record industry fell apart around her, she was able to step back—“and feeling a real existential unknowingness of what’s supposed to happen next.” She speaks of these years in dramatic terms, as if the only cure was to shock herself out of complacency. “In that period, I wasn’t knowing up from down. I was waiting to be struck by lightning. I was looking for some sense of understanding—to try to give myself meaning.”

Feist is a galvanizing performer—even onstage with her on-again, off-again bandmates in the expansive Canadian indie supergroup Broken Social Scene, she’s an unmistakable focal point. But while she was satisfied by the big shows she had done to promote Metals, some with strings and horns, they left her feeling unmoored: “I would feel so much gratitude outward that I stopped remembering my own place in it.” She booked a low-profile solo tour in 2014, and alone onstage with her acoustic guitar, she felt what she calls “the flamethrower of responsibility. It was exciting and unnerving and real again.”

She recruited longtime friend, multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Mocky—born Dominic Salole, in Regina—as a co-conspirator, and together they devised a decidedly unorthodox way of translating the tightrope act of those live shows into the studio. He became determined, he says, to capture the kind of “shredding” and “sonic plundering” that Feist, an underrated guitarist, does onstage, and they recorded both the basic tracks and the overdubs live as a duo, with a few friends occasionally popping by. Instead of accumulating songs and tracks over time, they decided to record the entire album three times: in Los Angeles (where Mocky lives), just outside Woodstock, N.Y., and in Paris, with co-producer Renaud Letang (Let It DieThe Reminder) helping to sift through the alternate takes to find the best. “The late-breaking, almost improvised version in Paris,” says Mocky, “could somehow at the last second knock out that version that we thought all along would be it.”

Feist. (no credit)
Feist. (no credit)

Where other musicians speak in clichés about “getting out of their comfort zone,” Feist invents her own vocabulary: In writing the songs, she says, “There was an over-plot that I was finding, about questioning any instinctual go-tos or any knee-jerk ‘intendencies’ ”—presumably, a cross between an intention and a tendency. For Pleasure, she forced herself into a more direct way of writing: “I wanted to know what I was avoiding saying. I wanted to face myself: ‘If I couldn’t use a metaphor right now, if my pencil was chained up until I chose other words, what are those words?’ ”

Hence, Pleasure’s daringly simple choruses, from “I wish I didn’t miss you” to “It’s my pleasure and your pleasure / That’s what we’re here for,” to the apt “Baby, be simple with me.” On “Get Not High Get Not Low,” she sings, “As long as I stay closed like that / Secretive to stay intact / Well that is not fun / That’s why I couldn’t trust anyone at all.” Incessant touring, she says, had left her feeling that way: “Just by necessity from being in one town to the next, a bit of armature ended up on me. Emotionally, socially, I ended up quite guarded.”

Not that Feist has ever been one to lift the public veil on her private life—and in speaking about Pleasure, she drifts off into the second person as she discusses what could be nakedly personal lyrics: “The tectonic plates shifting under you when you first experience death, or you first start to lose people—those kinds of things forge you by the flame, don’t they?” But she’s also effusive, and quick to laugh, especially at herself—“I’m not … what’s the word? I don’t even know the word for it … Prolific! That’s telling, that I don’t even know the word.” Writing and recording, she says, drew her out, and at times, on Pleasure, there’s a kind of cathartic jubilation in the music. “A couple of the songs,” says Mocky, “sound like our 14-year-old selves jamming in a garage.”

Other songs take wild leaps into the unexpected. The insistent rocker “Century” swerves into an eerie, synthesizer-led jam in which Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker starts talking about “endless dark nights of the soul”—as if he were, as Feist puts it, one of the surviving characters at the end of a Shakespeare play, offering a moral. And even more drastically, the ethereal outro to “A Man Is Not His Song” becomes mashed up with heavy-metal riffage, imported directly from Atlanta metal act Mastodon’s recording of their song “High Road.” Fearing that her lyrics about how male singers tend to be wrapped up in their artistic personas was becoming too pat, she decided to balance it with what she calls “the ultimate flamethrower of masculinity, just to commentate at the end: ‘Here’s another version of the truth.’ ”

What do all these jarring left turns add up to? “It’s the idea that there’s this rolling, ever-shifting truth—basically, certainty being ever-shifting quicksand.”

True to form as the daughter of her abstract-expressionist painter father, Harold, Feist prefers the search to the soundbite. Pleasure is a rich album, and antithetical to a culture of hit records written for people with six-second attention spans—in other words, the last few years in pop music, which she, perhaps wisely, sat out. Re-emerging now, Pleasure feels like an antidote. Says Mocky, “To be an artist, you have to be willing to turn more and more corners and not just succumb and try to repeat what you’ve done before. That’s what I really, really respect about this album and her: just standing for something, in this era.”

Indeed, Feist imagines with horror what would have happened if her early years of finding her artistic voice—sometimes while wearing spandex onstage and jumping around as a hype person for Peaches—had been broadcast on YouTube, or snarkily dissected on Facebook. “It’s [like the] Prime Directive in Star Trek,” she says, laughing. “If the planet the starship is hovering above gets influenced by knowing that space travel’s possible, then their own development has changed forever. To make anything already embedded with the idea that [it will be] seen within 10 seconds, and that there’s a number attached to the meaning—like how many ‘likes’—is reductionist. I feel incredibly fortunate that most of my laying-in of routes happened before the internet, in that sense. I felt I had a chance, in a rarified air of a community, to judge myself against the people I respected. To think of a peanut gallery way beyond you—it literally makes me break into a sweat, thinking about accepting all of that commentary from strangers.”

But playing in a more intimate venue, like Trinity St. Paul’s church in Toronto—where she’ll kick off her Pleasure world tour on April 27—affords her some kind of meaningful sharing: “Not being secretive to stay intact. Being a mirror and recognizing other people have the exact same issues—a daily continuum of trying to figure out who and how to be. And songwriting is an extension of that experience.”

Calling her album Pleasure was, in part, an attempt at magical thinking, at calling something into being. “For God’s sakes, there was something intentional in that,” she says, “because these dark times actually fortify you and give you more to work with. You don’t know it till later, that something you’ve gone through actually can become the most useful tool to be a 70-year-old with. Something that turns out to be the luckiest period could have been experienced as the worst.”