By Tabassum SiddiquiShe’s gracing covers of stylish magazines everywhere you turn, but just a few years ago, Leslie Feist was schooling me in the wonders of dollar-store blush in the cramped basement bathroom of yet another dingy Toronto bar she was about to play. A trip across the pond and a slow-burner of a hit album later, fluorescent light bulbs have given way to floodlights and shabby stalls replaced by dressing rooms, but there was a time when one wondered if the world would ever get to hear the Calgary-bred, Toronto-incubated siren’s searing songs.
Her strikingly lovely new record The Reminder is one of the most anticipated releases of the year, but it was only after years of slogging it out on tiny Toronto stages before equally small (and largely disinterested) crowds that she decided to move to Europe to join ex-pat pals Peaches and Gonzales. She eventually settled in Paris to make 2004’s Let It Die, a charmingly accessible set of simple, melodic chanson that slowly wormed its way into listeners’ hearts.
Her steady rise comes as sweet satisfaction, but Leslie still sounds nonplussed by the crossover success of Let It Die, which kept her touring the globe for the better part of three years. "The joke at the end [was] that I wished I could just ‘let it die!’” she laughs. After progressing from opening slots to headlining concert halls, changing bands and song arrangements along the way, the long road brought Feist back to Paris, where she gathered Let It Die producers Gonzales and Renaud Letang with her tour-seasoned live band and iconoclastic musical pals Mocky and Jamie Lidell. The group set up in a 200-year-old manor house on the outskirts of town and over the course of two intensive weeks, shaped the scraps of songs Feist had accumulated.
"It became a physical lunge towards new songs on tour,” Feist explains. "It’s something to do with repeating yourself, or hearing yourself doing the same thing over and over again — it can become like photocopying a photocopy of a photocopy. Your life becomes almost like a moving art installation of repetition — elastic time, elastic space. It’s a strange thing.
"It was really wanting and needing to feel and hear new ideas and new melodies, and for my voice to be able to go somewhere else than that one thing it was doing on that one song over and over. So on a cellular level, the songs were written on the road — desperate times call for desperate measures, you know?”
A compendium of songs both old (like the stark pre-Let It Die tunes "Intuition” and "The Water”) and new (bouncy Euro-tinged first single "My Moon My Man” and dulcet Ron Sexsmith co-write "Brandy Alexander”), The Reminder serves as a bridge between Feist’s lo-fi guitar-based material (her vastly underrated Monarch debut) and Let It Die’s piano-heavy, vocal-centric focus. One can hear the spirit of the Calgary teen who blew out her voice in punk bands before going on to make whispery four-track demos in her Toronto bedroom, then learned to let her voice soar during her Parisian sojourn, and to let it all hang out on occasional jaunts with her extended indie-rock family in Broken Social Scene.
Yet Feist remains a bit bewildered that she’s being swept along by the whirlwind of the music machine. "I don’t know if it’s the product of how I grew up and how I learned how to think, or influences of the people around me, watching them live healthily versus not, but I never really had ambition for this — I really didn’t,” she insists. "I remember Chris Murphy saying that never in a million years did he imagine Sloan could be something he could make a living doing; there weren’t any indications in the world around him that he could make a living making music. And the same goes for me — there was absolutely no way to predict.
"I’m in Berlin today, and it was Berlin I first came to, and I was couch-surfing at Peaches’ and Gonzales’ place. And now Peaches is coming in 15 minutes to pick me up and we’re going to go for dinner. It’s bizarre — it’s full-circle from my last experience in Berlin. I was so anonymous here the last time I lived here — it was the dark months on a borrowed bicycle barely having enough money to go buy some lentils to cook, and now I’ve sat in this hotel for the last seven hours [giving interviews]. It’s just bizarre that people would be interested in this record, or what I have to say. It’s like my life is a book and I ripped out a bunch of pages, and I accidentally stumbled across a chapter that’s supposed to be three chapters from now. I’m just trying to piece together how I got here.”