Leslie Feist talks about her first new release in six years

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Feist performs at the 2013 Newport Folk Festival.
Feist performs at the 2013 Newport Folk Festival. (Adam Kissick for NPR)
Interview with Feist
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In April 2017, Leslie Feist released her first album in six years. She spoke with David Safar about the gap, as well as what sets Pleasure apart from her other albums.

David Safar: Imagine not seeing a friend for six years, and catching up with them. What are the things that you'd first start the conversation with?

Leslie Feist: I suppose you'd be excited. You'd pick up the conversation where you left off, ask a lot of questions. Check in on the broad strokes, what the big movements of life led them to.

With that in mind, what were the broad strokes in the last six years between the making and release of Metals and your new album, which is now out?

A reckoning, maybe? I didn't feel obliged to do what I'd done in the past, which is finish an album and get right on making another one and be on that yo-yo. That see-saw of off/on. Making and doing, making and doing. I did press pause and take a look at my motivations, my integrity, honesty and doing this for a living. Doing this for as long as I have, most of my sentient life has been spent making songs and making records and touring. I just took a second to get a look at that and make sure there was a legitimate reason to be feeling like that was my place in the world.

What brought you back to it?

I realized that when something is so natural to you or when something is so embedded in you, it's easy to take that thing for granted. It was the natural state of how I found I was interpreting that time, that liminal between knowing and doing. It feels like that would be contrary to write a song about; that moment of being in-between. Eventually, I started to feel like maybe that's the luxury of songwriting. You can choose a spilt second and expand it into five minutes. Or you can choose a five-year period and turn it into five minutes. I started to experiment playing with time that way and figuring out how to tell these very subtle stories. Making sense of that confusion is what became songs that help me make sense of it. It was like a snake eating its tail, a kind of self-fulfilling understanding of a moment. It's a lucky access, I suppose, that that's the way I've dealt with confusion for years.

Have all those stories come into focus now that the album is out and you've completed this album?

There's some advantage to having made records in the past. The stuff I'm writing about, the writing about it gives me some distance from it. The touring it, and the repeating it and 500 times later the words have taken on new meaning. By repeating it, by touring it, it becomes a new thing and you get distance from it. Having experienced that so much with my last record Metals, it's sort of a strange medicine. It just gives you distance. It creates the thing while you're writing that you can't get until later, and the making of the record gives me that. That stuff feels very much in the past.

What are some of the themes on the record for you?

Self compassion and understanding your motivations. I should speak for myself, I don't know what it will mean for anyone else. But for me it was understanding. Believing the words coming out of my own mouth and believing still in some sort of positive, even when you're right in the thick of a fog and there isn't much positive. That earning of your own self respect seems to be a running theme, and the solitude of writing those kinds of thoughts. I always imagined, if anything, because it's a bit obtuse to picture an audience that are those people besides when you're playing a show and they're there, and they're real and you're all sharing a couple hours together. Other than that, I just had to imagine that I was in my privacy and the record would go into people's own privacy as well. There would be a solitary person and I could offer what had been going on in my life. That's what I had been looking for as well, when I was in a bit of a foggy time. Reading books or finding films or music that would give me a vocabulary for this little crisis.

Talk about that a little bit. Was the crisis triggered by a life event? Or events around the world? It's interesting that you use the word "compassion", because that word is coming up a lot lately. Especially with all of the changes that have happened in politics.

There's a scourge going on, it's such a dehumanizing moment. The record was made before the world had fallen off a cliff, but it does seem apt. For me, it was more that after a certain amount of years as an adult you catch yourself repeating patterns or repeating yourself. Before you make a decision, it's been made by some subconscious lobe of your brain. I started to resent that. Because that knee jerk was based on times that weren't relevant anymore. I wanted to make sure I become that 90-year-old that I want to become, who's got a sparkle in her eye and still feels ten. That was a motivation for sure, to plant some seeds for that type of 90-year-old.

Without turning this interview into some kind of armchair psychology, I'm wondering: what's your advice for people with that same feeling of being stuck in a pattern?

The thing I took away, and maybe this is an incredibly unassuming, humble perspective on the record, is that I made that bad time way worse by feeling I needed to hide it. My friendships have deepened with the people that also have words for admitting that they're going through that kind of thing. Not necessarily like getting stuck in a whirlpool, where it lasts ten years or you hear yourself complaining. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm not to invest in it or feel obliged to talk about your dark times. It's more like admitting that it's sort of like weather. It'll come, and it'll go and it's totally inevitable. In any given day you'll have a triumph and a total defeat. I have a good friend who, with her family at the dinner table, at the end of the day they play a game called "Highlights Lowlights" with their kids. It's to point out that those highs and those lows are in every single day. That's something I didn't give myself the benefit of, is giving myself permission to have that experience be valid. I compounded it and made it way worse by feeling ashamed of it. The album ends on a high note. The point is that you can make stronger whatever you focus on, and manifest whatever you are thinking let alone saying. Word, deed, thought, all of those add up to the life you're living. Those are some serious self help book platitudes right there, but I've learned it to be actually true. That's the kind of thing that I take away from the record. Certainly I didn't have that perspective while I was making it.

You mentioned that the record was made before the world changed, especially when it comes to politics, and that a lot of this album was an exercise in introspection for you. As a dual citizen of Canada and the United States, now having your album out in the environment that we're in, are you motivated to make more music to address what's going on in the world?

On an individual basis I feel awoken. Like going to the Women's March and seeing so many like minded people who are activating. After the Bataclan shooting, I felt idiosyncrasy, individuality, nuanced eccentricity and all of the stuff that makes us different from each other doubling down. I felt like that would be an appropriate response, not to unify into some sort of monoculture, but for everyone to go deeper into what they think this thing called life is. That extends to music. Get weirder, go deeper. Be more exactly authentically the only person you can be. Times like this can cause us to be so deeply politically correct and correcting each other's language and policing each other out of fear for how bad things have gotten. My perspective would be the more opinions, the better. The less we become the enemy, the better. The less we try to control each other, the better. The more perspectives on our side of the coin, which I like to think is the good side of the coin. The self-supporting and community-supporting side of the coin. Double down on your own weird.

I love that. Stepping away from politics, let's talk about guitars. A lot of people have noticed the guitar playing on this album. My question for you is, is the guitar the genesis for all these songs?

Yeah, I think so. At this point I've played it for so long, I have my own relationship with it. It's an extension of what I would have to find or say. For sure with this record, it's a culmination of the most time my hands have spent on that instrument. It became an extension of the writing process.

Were there sounds you were trying to channel, and do you feel like you got there?

I will definitely learn from the sounds on this record, moving forward. But I think that it was all an extension of an honest intention. I think the sounds are exactly what they need to be.

We are going to leave with the song "Century." Can you tell us about this song, and about how Jarvis Cocker made his way onto the album?

We had finished recording, and we were in Paris just finishing touches. Chilly Gonzales, he's worked with me on a bunch of stuff, he was in the studio. We were just playing him everything as our first witness for what we'd made. Jarvis came by as well, just to visit and hear some stuff. I had laid the groundwork for what that outro was. I wanted the Vincent Price thriller moment. Jarvis was there and I looked over and was like: "Wait a second. You are the most authentic voice, the most committed to every syllable you've ever sung." I said: "Would you be up for giving this moment a try?" It was a first take, best take. What's on the record here, it was the only thing he did. It was exactly the right thing.


Feist - official site

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  • Feist, 'Pleasure'
    Feist, 'Pleasure' (Universal Music Canada)

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