Interview: Feist

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

As outlined in my feature from this week's print edition, Leslie Feist responded to the frenzy surrounding 2007 album "The Reminder" by retreating into private life, taking a year off music and returning with the intensely personal 2011 release "Metals." Thankfully for her fans, Feist is back in action; the folk-pop ingenue will headline the Wexner Center's Mershon Auditorium this Wednesday, June 6 with opener The Low Anthem.

In our interview last month, Feist was immensely fun, friendly and insightful. Put on "The Bad In Each Other" and read the full, colorful conversation below.

Alive: So you were flying in from somewhere?

Leslie Feist: Was I flying in from somewhere? No, no. I'm not sure what sort of subterfuge you were told, but I'm just in Toronto. As far as this morning, I was just finishing a meeting and, yeah, everything had to be pushed a little bit. But no, I'm just in Toronto. And you're in Columbus, Ohio.

Alive: Yeah, that's exactly right. So, my good buddy David who's like my longtime music soulmate said "Metals" was the most underappreciated album of last year. Did you get that sense?

Feist: I think I just appreciated that it was appreciated. It could have gone in any of many directions in terms of it being so different from "The Reminder" and how much time had passed and all that stuff. So the fact that people seemed to generally embrace it - and maybe it was less people, but for me, that's a little more potent. Because as opposed to many people vaguely caring, it seems like less people care more or something. And that makes playing shows a lot more meaningful to me. Your friend David's very nice, though, to say that.

Alive: His praise doesn't come easy. You mentioned how having a narrower but more intense response makes you enjoy shows more. Has promoting "Metals" been a different experience than promoting "The Reminder"?

Feist: Well I guess that's another thing. I sort of - I checked out of the mayhem that was "The Reminder." It was kind of mayhem, and I hadn't really learned how to steer things properly, so I was just kind of on a rollercoaster of promotion, that side of things. At the time, I was looking at it like, "Well, I said yes the last 100 times, so if I say no this time, does it render meaningless the first 100 yeses?" So I just kept saying yes, and every opportunity I looked at a little bit naively and just thought, "Well, yeah, why wouldn't I play a couple songs on that TV show? Or why wouldn't I talk to that person? It's nice they want to hear it, and nice they want to talk." But this time around I realized that that's sort of an endless pit of possibilities to talk and play. So I kind of did hardly any promotion around "Metals" this time, which was more of being able to concentrate on finding my band and rehearsing with them and planning kind of the inside of things, you know? Which is, like, my side of the equation. And I was a little less concerned with the external side of the equation. So it felt right, yeah.

Alive: When I would read about "Metals," it had this reputation of being rough-edged or at least less approachable than "The Reminder," but I feel like it's this very intimate, welcoming album, like you're bringing us into something very private and personal. Did it feel less approachable to you, or did you feel more like what I was getting from it?

Feist: Yeah, I mean, it meant a lot to me. I mean, it still does. And it came from a really true place, and I really took my time to make sure that I really could stand behind every word and behind every choice. And I think that as far as I'm concerned, I'm more inside this album than any I've ever made. But I think along the way I've felt that way about pretty much every record. (laughs) So I think as far as people are seeing it from the outside, pop melodies and pop structures and arrangements can give people the indication that they're being welcomed. The door's open, and it's like, "Come on in!" But as soon as you lose those aspects of arrangement or whatever, it seems like you're making it harder for people, but I don't think that's the case. I mean, it just means different people are going to feel welcome, you know? Or they'll feel welcome on a different level. Or they'll feel more welcome on a one-on-one conversation rather than, "Come to the house party." It becomes about connecting on kind of a more personal level instead of, like, "Hey, everyone! Street party!"

Alive: Yeah, that's definitely the feel I got from it. I feel like it's one of those records that you can put on when you're driving alone in the middle of the night, coming back from some trip or something, and everybody else in the car is asleep. Or something like that.

Feist: Yeah! That sounds great! Yeah, that would be great. That's sort of the ideal listening circumstances.

Alive: You mentioned that you feel more inside this album but that's been kind of a pattern with each new album. Is that because you're getting progressively better at pouring yourself into your music, or is it just because the most recent work happens to match up with where you're at right now?

Feist: I think it's just that with "The Reminder," like I said, there was just such an external flurry. And my reality became a lot different than what it had been for all of those years leading up to that. And I didn't necessarily enjoy the difference. So when it came to writing another record, I really just - I got selfish in a really healthy way in the sense that I just … I was of course thinking that I may never make another record. I think that's kind of important to let yourself imagine that you could go back to school or that you could open a book store or just that life can have many paths. And then if you choose to go back and make another record, obviously you're choosing it. There's a true desire to do it, rather than that's just what you're supposed to do next. I approached it that way. And so I took a couple solid years off and just kind of maintained other aspects of life. You know, I put some effort into some other parts of things like trying to figure out "Where is my home?" and trying to remind my family that even though I've been gone for 13 years on tour, I'm still around. (laughs) And you know, stuff like that. So when I came back to writing, it was from a place that was really, really private again. And I think that just made things a little more potent for me and just made me feel like I belonged inside of it all again.

Alive: Let me switch from talking about really deep, personal songwriting to the Feistodon thing. How did that come about?

Feist: Well, I'd never seen or heard Mastodon before the day I played on "Jools Holland" with them. You know, the TV show in England? And they were just this laser beam. They were like crazy magma power. And it just triggered all these old memories. Basically all the first gigs I ever went to were metal bands and punk bands and just where that level of, like, razor-sharp precision, intensity, hyper-masculine feeling stuff was where I was basically weaned into music. And it just makes me so supremely happy to hear them. So Brent Hinds came up to me and said, "Nice riffs, girl. You've got some nice riffs." And I was like, "You've got some nice riffs, too." And it was this, like, little casual hallway flirtation about guitar playing. And then I sort of said something about "I double-dare you to try my riffs." And he was like, "I bet you couldn't even take our riffs." So it was basically this really casual, ridiculous hallway conversation. And then it just - I actually wanted to try. And then it turns out they wanted to try. So it happened. It's really just a matter of the most casual mentioning it, and then it somehow taking root and being something that we both wanted to do. I have literally not exchanged another word with those guys since that day. I've heard their song and they've heard mine. I keep thinking we're going to run into each other and be like, "Yeah! Nice riffs!" You know? (laughs)

Alive: How'd you decide on "Black Tongue" as the Mastodon song you wanted to cover?

Feist: Well they have a lot of amazing melodies, and of course their time signature stuff is sort of scientific and really deep. And they have a lot to hook into in their stuff in terms of trying to figure out what I would do. But I just went - I couldn't listen to their entire catalog and get a real sense of their whole body of work, but I went on to or whatever and I just read all the lyrics. You know, you can just rifle through a dozen songs. And I just looked through all of the entire discography for any kind of storylines or imagery that I could imagine myself singing. And then I would go on YouTube and listen to the songs and check if the melodies were there too. And "Black Tongue" just met all the criteria of, like, really great imagery that I could climb inside and some great melodic potential for me to do my thing. So yeah.

Alive: It seems like a lot of people desire to cover your music. Obviously there was the James Blake one. To me, that communicates that it really resonates with people when they get the desire to reinterpret the songs. How does it make you feel when other people are covering your songs?

Feist: I like hearing the songs climb into different clothing, basically, you know? They're climbing into someone else's interpretation, and it's across the board different from mine. I mean, it's a compliment, but it's also just really fun for me to hear. They usually come up with different voicings, and they find their own way to play it, and usually it's just something I never would have thought of. And I just feel like if the songs were people, they're basically just going on a field trip to some different place that I couldn't take them. And I really enjoy it. I really like that. I feel like the point of covering someone's song is to make it your own, and when someone takes it somewhere really far from my world - remixes can be like that too where it's like, "What is going on? That's great!"

Alive: What's the deal with the illustrated hand on your forehead in the promo photo? Is that something you had control over? Was that an idea you had or something?

Feist: That was actually plated in some sort of cast metal pin that I found at a thrift shop. And it's got fingers crossed. And so I've actually been wearing it for a couple years, sort of like, you know, people cross their fingers for luck - sort of a superstitious thing that you do. So I don't know, it was just literally on my jacket when we were doing the photo shoot, and so I just put it on my forehead because it's sort of like my third eye of ultimate hope. It's ultimately like crossing your fingers that things go well.

Alive: Wow. I seriously thought it was an illustration, like somebody had altered the photo or something.

Feist: No, it's sitting on my forehead. (laughs) It's like balancing there like a little oracle. A little totem.

Alive: Thanks for explaining that.

Feist: Thanks for asking. What was your theory?

Alive: I didn't have one. I guess I thought somebody had drawn it in there, but I didn't know why. I was very curious to find out.

Feist: Well there you go. Superstition is the answer.

Alive: One more thing - do you still see the Broken Social Scene people around town at all? Do you still get time with them?

Feist: Oh my god, yeah! They're like my family! Of course. And Charles Spearin of Broken is in my band, so we're on tour together every day. He's one of the founding members, too. Yeah, it's not like I'm in Toronto much, but when I am - and actually we run into each other like, someone will be in L.A., someone else will be in New York. They're like deep family for me, so it's like saying "Have you talked to your mom lately?" It's like, well yeah, of course. Not that they have the authority of a mom over me. We're more like all delinquent children together.