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No Longer the Anonymous Girl: FEIST

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2006)

Leslie Feist photographed by DAVID BLACK for STOP SMILING in 2006

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

As her latest record The Reminder continues to reach new heights, we decided to take a look back at our 2006 interview with Feist, which originally appeared in 20 Interviews. For more on this issue, click here. The 2007 edition of 20 Interviews will be released in December

For a performer who spent her childhood shuffling across the endless expanses of several Canadian provinces — among them Alberta, Saskatchewan and her native Nova Scotia — it’s no wonder that Leslie Feist, the 30-year-old chanteuse known simply by her surname, finds the atmosphere in a recording session constrictive. “In a studio, you’re hermetically sealed off from the world,” she said during an interview in a particularly crammed booth at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. “You don’t know what time of day it is. Fake air is being pumped in. You’re not even breathing the air from the actual city. You could be in Athens, Georgia or Athens, Greece.”

This is an appropriate comparison, considering Feist has become something of an emblem for transatlantic relations. When she isn’t relentlessly touring — whether as a solo artist or accompanying members of a Canadian cadre that includes Peaches and Gonzales — she divides her time between North America and Europe, where she’s acquired her most devoted listeners and created a cottage industry, all from a pied-à-terre in Paris, her primary residence since 2003.

Before settling in Paris, Feist gained international recognition for her sporadic but often scene-stealing cameos onstage and on record with the Toronto collective Broken Social Scene, furthering the group’s status as bellwethers of Canadian art-rock. But it was her breakout solo album, 2004’s Let It Die — released first in Europe and eventually attracting a major label, Interscope, to back it in the States — that set her apart from the pack. The ubiquity of the album in boutiques and cafés, particularly the centerpiece track “Mushaboom,” led to Juno Awards for best new artist and alternative album, seemingly untouchable critical acclaim and packed concert halls. “When you take your songs onto a stage, you can’t stay in that same cocoon mentality as in the studio,” she said. “It’s the opposite — you’re hyper-exposed. You’re on a raised platform with bright lights on you and amplifiers. It’s all about people and synergy. It’s about interaction.”

As she proved during her conversation with STOP SMILING in the Oak Room of the Algonquin, that interaction translates to hotels as well.

Stop Smiling: You’ve toured Europe for a long time, and have now lived in France for several years. Do you speak French?

FEIST: I know 50 words. Actually, my vocabulary is probably pretty good. Growing up in Canada, every single product had French on the back, so I probably absorbed a lot of food product names. But, no, I don’t really speak French. I’m still at the elementary school level. But I have a roommate in Paris. She holds down the fort. It’s almost like I’ve become the Canadian embassy. Any Canadian friends that are going through Paris get the keys to my apartment.

SS: Why did you choose Paris?

FEIST: I was connecting the dots and following my nose. I had been on tour in Europe for a long time. I’d given up my flat in Toronto. There was less and less reason to be there. It isn’t really about a home base. If you’re on tour a lot, the development of the band is happening at the sound checks on tour. I had been involved, at that point, with Broken Social Scene from the beginning; there are so many side projects involved with Broken that everybody started touring a lot. It got whittled down to the five hard-core, pivotal guys. It was clear that I wrote and sang only a few songs on the record. So it was like, “Am I going to make this my 100 percent project?” When I’m playing a show, sure, I’ll add things on top of other songs, but if you’re going to be on tour 24 hours a day and only on stage 30 minutes? Kevin Drew said that the immortalization always happens on the records, and that the touring is the schlep work. Plus, I decided to sign with Universal/Polydor in France. Then there was a reason to be in France, so I went there.

SS: How did the French label present the record deal to you?

FEIST: It was pretty ideal. I was on tour with Gonzalez, one of my oldest friends. We understood each other on stage and we decided to make some recordings. Around the same time we decided to rework some of my home demos. This guy named Renaud Letang, who is a producer in France, called Gonzo and said, “Hey, we’ll work together one day.” They made a track. I did a song on his record called “Shameless Eyes,” in English, and they made a French version with a singer who is like the Debbie Gibson of the early Eighties in France. Their version became a huge radio single. But with that one day when Gonzo and Renaud met, they rerecorded the entire track and it was done from zero to finish in a day. I think Renaud was stunned. He said, “I’ve never worked that quickly with somebody.” Gonzo said, “I’ve never worked with somebody who has such amazing gear and amazing ears.” So there was a mutual respect. Renaud called him up and said, “Do you wanna maybe try to do more together? Do you have any projects you were thinking you wanted to do?” Gonzo turned over to his left, where I was sitting next to him, on the train in Belgium or somewhere on tour, and he said, “Want to go to Paris instead of Berlin?” We had been planning to go to Berlin to do these demos, so we just started to go to Paris in between touring. For 12 broken-up days we recorded, and then the record was done. We had 16 or 20 songs.

SS: But you started touring and playing around the world because of Peaches?

FEIST
: She was the first one to send me a ticket. I’d been playing with her in Canada and we were living together. We were hanging out in Berlin the other day and I was telling her how I get asked about her all the time. I can’t fucking remember any anecdotes. She loaded me back up with anecdotes about living together. The point is that she did send me a ticket. I went on tour with her, and some of those dates were with Gonzalez, too.

This would be 2000 or so. People were lumping them together as if they were the same thing, especially in America. In the US, it was Peaches and Gonzalez. If you put a drop of food coloring in water, it’s going to change the whole thing. Gonzo is a little bit like the water that was getting colored by Peaches being so potent. He was becoming a bit colored by that, and was going with it. There was a lot more variety. His material is really not sexualized in the least. He was getting to that point where he was like, “Okay. That’s not my thing. That’s Peaches’ thing, and all the power to her, but I want to branch off.” He said to me: “Come on tour and be the girl who sings the girl songs that get sung.” Two years later we became a duo.

SS: Feist and Gonzalez?

FEIST: It wasn’t even named. It was Gonzalez, and I was “anonymous girl.” What I was going to say was that the French labels heard about Renaud, who was famous for all this high-end, French-sophisticate stuff. He’s really a young prodigy. Then there’s Gonzo, who is doing really well in France with that single. We toured and played hundreds of shows in every little town in France. I was the girl with Gonzalez. What we decided to do was finish the record, lock it, throw away the bad tracks, pass people a mix and say, “This is it. There’s no changing it. If you like it, great. If you don’t, cool.”

SS
: You had released a full-length album before in a similar manner?

FEIST: I’ve always been four-tracking. I put out the first record independently and every single one that sold was from my hands to people off the stage. I had been booking the tours, working as a bartender to make the money to pay the drummer, driving the van that I had paid for. I was a bit burned out — a lot of people can relate. It’s just hard to get up and think, Here I am. This is what I do. It doesn’t feel as impulsive and real when you’ve had to scrape your fingernails raw to get there. I think I was just a bit dismayed, or a bit tired out by it. I just thought, I don’t think I’m cut out for this. And right at that time, Peaches mails me a ticket to Vienna. So then BSS started to happen, and there’s so little pressure with that because it’s all my oldest, best friends and we’re just jamming. All of a sudden you have this giant fire under your ass. I was in no rush to make another album. I had made this collection of demos to give to people on tour with Gonzalez, because the odd person would say, “Well, what do you do? What do you do when you’re not doing the Gonzalez thing?” I decided to make these demos for that purpose. I think I burned about 12 of them and put them in my backpack to take on tour.

SS: And then you randomly passed along one of these demos to Erlend Oye from Kings of Convenience? Was that how you ended up on Riot on an Empty Street?

FEIST: It was hysterical. I didn’t know who the Kings were. I was in Portugal at this electronic festival, and there were all these projections during people’s DJ sets. The backstage area was on the stage with white sheets separating it with some folding chairs. The DJ right before us went on playing jackhammers and planes crashing and explosions. It was painful. It was four in the morning, and our set time was five, our flight was at seven, and we’d been up for 30 hours. And in this environment is Erlend and Gonzo, who knew him because they both lived in Berlin. They’re chatting. We’re screaming over this noise and he’s like, “What else do you do?” I’m yelling, “Play really quiet, slow, melodic music.” You know? And he’s like, “Me too. I have a band called Kings of Convenience.” He was a DJ there. I was thinking, Oh sure. Another DJ who plays the guitar, whatever.

SS
: Little did you know he’s half of Norway’s Simon and Garfunkel.

FEIST: Yeah, and he’s probably thinking, This is the girl who wears the spandex. It was a segue between Peaches and Feist. With Gonzo, it was all matching outfits and dance moves, skits, magic tricks. It was not cheesy. It was a bit tongue-in-cheek. It was entertainment at its least ironic, kind of like, “We’re here to entertain.” A month later I started to get emails from Boston, throughout Germany, and maybe Scandinavia. It was all people that he’d burned the CD for. I finally got back in touch. First, I think I ran out and got a Kings of Convenience record. Obviously there’s something here that is resonating with them. Then I heard the record and it floored me. That’s when I very shyly wrote an email saying, “Thanks for mailing that all over the place.” They mailed it to a publisher in England and a year later I ended up signing a publishing deal there. It was pretty nuts. One thing led to another. Erlend’s solo guitar project is called Sasha. He found out I had a day off in Berlin and organized a show for me. He’s like, “You’ve got to play your own show in Berlin — not a Gonzo show, but your own.” I said, “What? I don’t have a guitar. I’m not ready.” He made fliers and slid them under Gonzalez’s apartment door so that I would be like, “It’s a flier for my own gig I didn’t know about.” It’s pretty amazing. I played in front of like 40 people in Berlin. Erlend and Eirik were both there, and that’s when we really met for the first time. After my set I said, “Does anyone want to play?” Of course, Erlend jumped right up and said, “I’ll play, I’ll play.” He played some solo songs and he convinced Eirik to get up and they sang “Cayman Islands.” It was the first song I’d ever heard them do. It just floored me. After the show, they were going, “Maybe we should do something together one day.” I made 12 of these demos, which became an album.

SS: When did you start recording under your last name alone, and why not Leslie Feist?

FEIST: Even the record I made in ’98 was Feist. I think in Canada there’s this culture of double-named girl strummers.

SS: Were you trying to avoid the singer-songwriter label?

FEIST: I didn’t feel I belonged in that category.

SS: You received a four-track recorder as a gift from your dad when you were a kid.

FEIST: Yes. My brother learned how to use it, and I just copied him. My dad’s a painter. He’s an artist. He makes websites now, too. He made my website. It’s a family operation. Families used to have a general store and live in the apartment above, and this is the modern-day version of that.

SS: You’ve had so much success in Europe and your native Canada. Are you worried about how your records will be marketed in the US?

FEIST: I was. I have been. I was worried about signing to a major in general — even in France. But I came in with my guns firing so hard on that topic, because I’ve been indie for so long — not even indie. I’d been selling off the stage myself. I couldn’t imagine, “Who are these evil people with fangs who are going to come and sink their teeth into my little world?” To tell you the truth, the other day I wrote a letter to the president of Polydor, saying, “It’s been awhile since you put my record out and I just have to say not one of my fears have been confirmed.” It’s this climate of trust. They hand me money to go and make videos with my friends. I say, “I want to make a video for ‘Mushaboom,’” and they say, “Who do you want to make it with?” “Well, I want to make it.” They’re like, “Okay.” Then I say, “I want to make a video for ‘One Evening.’” “Okay. Who do you want to make it with?” “Actually, I wrote this treatment. I want to make it with my friends in Canada.” And they say, “Okay.”

SS: I like how you give shout-outs to Canadian girls in some of your interviews. You always say something prideful like: “Canadian girls are stalwarts, ready and healthy.”

FEIST
: It was the middle of the winter. I had just been in Montreal, and in Paris everyone is hobbling along in heels and with their fishnets. All these Canadian girls are in galoshes with jeans tucked into the top and huge parkas and bright red cheeks from the cold, with big smiles on their faces instead of frowns. It’s a little bit more of a dainty vibe. I love that.

Interview by JC Gabel

 

 

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