Published May 24, 2017Look at what the light did now: The evening spring skies were a fiery yellow and orange on Bloor Street in Toronto. After a torrential downpour interrupted the unseasonably warm April day, the clouds cleared, a mist rose from the sidewalks, and a line of fans formed in the glowing twilight outside a 120-year-old church to see Leslie Feist debut her first new material in six years. Suitably, her new album, Pleasure, is a song cycle in which the writer addresses midlife turbulence and emotional extremes, and the resilience and beauty that emerges on the other side of a storm.
Plenty of pop shows take place in churches these days, but the setting seemed no small coincidence: churches are communities in which we gain strength from others, churches are about sacred rituals, churches are confessionals, churches celebrate a resurrection. Feist's performance that night was all of those things. (Except a confessional: more on that later.)
And yet: two pews in front of me, just before the show began, a woman was watching the music video for Feist's 2007 albatross of an international smash hit single, "1234" — on a goddamned iPhone, of course.
That song, popularized by an Apple ad, threatened to turn Feist into a caricature — one which, it must be said, she was complicit in creating and for which she reaped many rewards. Were it not for that song, she would not have the kind of career she enjoys today, one that allows years off to recalibrate between albums.
But based on that video, even today she gets tagged the "ultimate manic pixie dream girl of indie pop" (by The Guardian, no less), which, come on, is frankly fucking ridiculous, considering the force of her personality and the artistic depth heard on every one of her five records. No wonder Feist runs away screaming from media requests other than a few obligatory pre-release interviews.
"I'm not running away," she sings on this new album, but in fact that's what she did after 2007's The Reminder sold more than 1.2 million copies, and what she did again after 2011's Metals, which won the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. (When her win was announced, the first words out of her mouth — after she crawled out from under her table — were, "This is my worst fear!")
Each time, she retreated to have something resembling a real life: building a deck on her house, visiting friends' kids. This time was compounded by events that the intensely private and discreet songwriter would rather not get into. Reading between the lines of her lyrics and oblique approach to on-the-record conversations, it's safe to say there was serious reflection and reckoning (she's 41).
"I didn't feel I had any authority to say anything," she says of these past few years, "even to myself in those foggy periods." She says her creative inertia was "an absolute unknowing about anything, a strange vertigo accumulated from a strange, disjointed life." Her lips were sealed. When she opened them to finally sing again, it was to give voice to lyrics like "I got tired before I knew I was done."
"I sat thinking and wondering whether or not it was my place to continue. I don't say that with any self-importance," she says, before slipping into third person momentarily. "Once upon a time 16-year-old Leslie decided to play a gig, and then each gig fed the next gig and here I am. I did not want to make another record just because I could. That felt immediately empty."
In other words, there may never have been a new Feist record ever again.
Pleasure, the album, is like "Pleasure," the song — it's not that pleasurable. At least, not in the way 2004's breakthrough Let It Die sparkled and shone with an easy-listening glimmer. Instead, Pleasure's charms are in catharsis, in a clearing of clutter, a slow seduction that's all the more satisfying in acquired wisdom and experience, what Lee Harvey Osmond's Tom Wilson calls "beautiful scars."
No one thinks of Feist as scarred, of course. She's a born performer, seemingly comfortable in any spotlight. When she was 16 and playing in a Calgary band called Placebo, Noah Mintz and Brendan Canning of Toronto grunge band hHead saw her perform at a festival and immediately took note. When she moved to Toronto in 1996 to find her voice — quite literally, as she had lost it in Calgary — she immediately joined Mintz's band, Noah's Arkweld, and fell in with a scene that included the New Deal, Andrew Whiteman of Apostle of Hustle, a pre-Peaches Merrill Nisker and José Contreras. That led to a stint in Conteras's band, By Divine Right, who were picked to open for the Tragically Hip across North America on 1998's Phantom Power tour.
Contreras taught her all his guitar solos for that tour because, he says, "I thought it would be cool for all the girls at the show to see another girl playing lead guitar in a rock band in a hockey arena." He also remembers that unlike many of the Hip's colleagues, By Divine Right never got "Hipped" by overly zealous fans of the headliners trying to chant over the opening act. Except once. "It started a little bit in Ottawa," he recalls, "and Leslie said, 'Really, guys?' And it stopped immediately."
Shortly afterward, Feist recorded her first solo record, 1999's Monarch, an album on which you can hear direct sonic and thematic links to Pleasure. Undeservedly, the response to Monarch amounted to crickets. Undaunted, Feist played guitar in Royal City for a summer and toured Europe with some Toronto pals reinventing themselves in Berlin as Peaches and Gonzales; Feist played a hype-woman character on stage called Bitch Lap Lap. In 2003, Gonzales and Feist crafted Let It Die, an album that made her a soft-rock superstar luxuriating in an aural "Leisure Suite."
Before that album's commercial success, Feist was known — if she was known at all — as the firecracker who showed up on stage with Broken Social Scene and stole the show with undeniable star power ("Pffft," she responds to this suggestion), consigning even the likes of Emily Haines to the background. Guitars were toys reserved only for boys in that band; she decided she'd just go along for the ride, jumping on and off as she pleased, with no hard feelings.
That lack of commitment also meant she didn't feel invested — especially because she was singing songs that featured placeholder lyrics she'd improvised in the studio back in 2002. It wasn't easy to do for a woman so careful with her words, both on stage and off. "I had a hard time showing up," she admits of her BSS appearances on stage over the years, "having to squint at [lyrics written in] my stream of consciousness that day [in the studio]."
That convinced her to take her solo career more seriously, by moving to Paris in 2002 and reinventing herself with Let It Die. "It was there I found a blank slate, a place where I wasn't obliged to any former identity," she says. "Would I have done it if I was here [in Toronto], feeling beholden to those former echoes of what I'd done? I don't know, if Brendan Canning had been popping into the studio, if I'd have been proud to show him this strange other thing I was in the midst of, because his opinion matters to me. I had to come home with it completed. I remember the first time I played a song from it, I think it was probably 'Leisure Suite.' I played it for all the Broken guys at [Kevin Drew's] old house. Evan Cranley was the only one who stood up and shouted, 'YEAH, SUMMER JAM!' The rest of them were shell-shocked and not sure what to say, because maybe they were worried for me."
Flash forward 15 years, and Feist returned to the studio with the reunited BSS, on one condition. "I said I really want to be involved, but I need to contribute something that means something to me," she says. "We wrote this song in three passes, then I paused and wrote the lyrics, so there is a story that will matter to me. There has to be an anchor to go to every day when you're approaching the song again. It's all I do — I might as well do it in a way that matters to me. If it matters to other people afterwards, I'm very grateful. I'd feel hollow if it didn't mean anything to me at the onset."
When Leslie Feist decided it was time to start writing again, she rented a tiny coach house next to a large Toronto park and turned it into a writing space, an intimate retreat and musical playground hidden in plain sight of a busy neighbourhood. The songs that began to flow were not mere exercises; they were safety lines pulling her back from artistic oblivion.
Pleasure is an interior record — a direct contrast to its predecessor. "I felt a little bit like Metals was a battle cry," she says, of that album's bold sound. "I'd never heard of a euphonium or a bass sax before those songs told me they needed them. The big arrangements were embedded in the emotional reason to write those songs.
"These songs, contrarily, it was this room," she says, gesturing around the small second floor. "It's a little tower of potent solitude in here, knowing I'm not being heard. We put triple glaze on the windows. We approached it almost like a solo album, except every now and then the songs would want a little more."
The record sounds incredibly tactile: one can hear her fingertips muting her guitar strings, or the saliva on her lips before she articulates a lyric. Close pal Chilly Gonzales — who, for Let It Die, told her to stop playing "indie rock guitar" — was not part of the process for the first time since 2003 (nothing personal; they're still close friends). This time it was just Feist, longtime engineer Renaud Letang, and the man known as Mocky (born Dominic Salole in Saskatchewan) on drums — whom she's known for more than 20 years now.
Pleasure "is a mysterious thing," as the title track claims. Start with the arresting cover: a picture of a woman, presumably Feist, throwing herself into a closed door in the middle of a floral wall, under a sign with the titular word. The message of the cover: pleasure is an alluring yet unattainable concept, and throwing yourself into its pursuit can be dangerous. The message of the music inside: love hurts, and the songs we sing about love are betrayed promises — yet necessary illusions.
If you're looking for salacious details of Feist's personal life, you won't find them. She knows better, being friends with so many songwriters; in them, she has seen the personal pitfalls of ossifying emotional pain into a narrative that one has to sing on stage every night. "I've seen some people begin to inhabit their persona, or the versions that came out of real experiences become the memory," she says. "As much as I need to reduce these kind of 3D-surround experiences to frame just one thing, to turn it into a song and something I understand, you can start to buy your own myth." On the album, she cautions: "A man is not his song, and I am not a story."
This was an element on Metals, as well, in which she aimed to write more empathetically about relationships' ends. She says she wanted her songs to "tell a version of the story that leaned into multiple truths at once. It's not saying, 'You acted terribly.' It's saying, 'A good man and a good woman can bring out the worst in each other.' It also does me no good to reiterate a story of me being a victim for the rest of my life. I wanted to speak a version of the story I'll be repeating until I'm 70, and when I'm 70 I won't call bullshit on how I took the easy way and told myself a version of the story that was easier for me to deal with."
During her recent press tour, she visited Berlin for the first time in four years, where she had takeout Thai food at Peaches' house with Gonzales and Dave Szigeti (who arranged strings on Monarch). "We're rarely in the same city at the same time anymore," she says. "We're not stuck or overvaluing that time as good old days. These are good 'now' days, too. But there's something to be said to being able to fold 20 years with people. That helps me stand here now and fold forward 20 years from now."
The visit in Berlin, where Feist once couch-surfed while Peaches and Gonzales were launching their careers, was but one stop in a unusually nostalgic few months leading up to Pleasure's release. She also passed through Paris, where she recorded Let It Die, then found herself in Ottawa for the Juno Awards in April. There, she ran into the Tragically Hip's Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, who picked up hardware for an album produced by Feist's close friend Kevin Drew. "I told them, 'You guys handed me this venue when I was 22 years old' [playing with By Divine Right]. I was playing to the backs of everyone, because they don't care, they're waiting for the Hip. That's a different kind of being forged by a strange flame — how to carry it off to people's backs, to a grand number of people not paying attention."
As long as Leslie Feist continues to perform — something we shouldn't take for granted — she'll never have that problem again.
Pick up a copy of Feist's Pleasure on vinyl here.