Published Jan 01, 2006Anyone who's ever seen Leslie Feist on stage solo, fronting Broken Social Scene, as a sidekick to Peaches or Chilly Gonzales, or as guitarist in By Divine Right circa 1998 knows that she has charisma to burn. The self-assured stage presence, the laissez-faire good looks, and that unbelievable voice all make Feist seem larger than life for the environs we usually see her in.
That could change for this Calgary/Toronto transplant, who now finds herself living in Paris and re-launching her oft-delayed solo career, where her songwriting is just one more seemingly effortless talent to add to her list. Her second solo album Let It Die (out on Universal France, Arts and Crafts in Canada), is a guaranteed jean creamer, focusing purely on the spine-tingling voice sure to set thousands of hearts swooning into soft rock heaven. Whether she's falling in love ("Leisure Suite") or sealing its fate ("Lonely Lonely"), every note is sensual bliss.
Yet Feist is quick to deflate any romantic visions of Paris in springtime when relating the history of the album, which she made with her old Toronto pal Chilly Gonzales (aka Jason Beck). "It certainly wasn't sexy when we were making the record," she laughs. "We were staying at the cheapest hotel in the whole city. We could only afford one tiny room, so we pushed the two single beds as far apart as we could. It was winter and there was no heat, with a draft coming through the windows, and we were shivering. It could be that amidst all that we were dreaming of a warm, fuzzy paradise but no, it was entirely unsexy!"
Her intimate musical relationship with the Berlin-based Gonzales is another story. The two have known each other for eight years, two of which were spent touring together in Europe for his project. When it came time for Feist to follow up her grossly underrated 1999 solo debut, Monarch, she decided to surrender her original four-track vision to Gonzales with a few conditions. "In the beginning we set the rules of the game," she explains. "I pointed at him and said, Okay, if we're going to experiment this way, you got this Berlin thing you've been doing for years, so now you can't use any electronic instruments and you can't program beats or use any synths from the 90s.' Then he pointed at me and said, Oh yeah? Alright, girl-from-the-rock'n'roll-past: no Fender amps and cool guitars.' Most of the guitar on the record is a nylon-string classical guitar. Maybe that's why it sounds so different than everything else I've done."
With help from Manu Chao producer Renaud Letang, Feist and Gonzales started off toying with cover songs to test the waters. They began with Ron Sexsmith's "Secret Heart," which is miraculously transformed into a bouncy shuffle. "It's a song I love as much as one of my own, but it's not mine so the stakes are different," she says. "By the second four-day session, we realised that it could be a record. At that point, we were eight songs in and doing some of my originals, plus I was co-writing with Chilly, and I'd never co-written with anyone before."
Three more covers made the album, including the Bee Gees' disco-era "Love You Inside Out" and two jazz-era songs Feist learned from an old Blossom Dearie record. Her originals incorporate all those influences and more, from Colombian percussion to Latin grooves to candlelit torch songs. Even though she's surrendering her solo personality to a full-on collaboration and other people's songs, there's no danger of Feist's personality getting buried.
"On Monarch, I was proving something to myself, and at this point I think I've proven anything I need to," she says. "It's not because of a lack of originals that there aren't more of them on this record. I have another album's worth waiting in the wings. We recorded a lot more covers and a lot more originals too, so we just chose the ones that wanted to hang out together."
Feist will be hanging out with her new band of "garcons" on Hammond organ, trombone, and percussion when she comes home to tour Canada in June. Talking to her, however, it's obvious she's enamoured with her new Parisian life, which has included writing and recording a duet with French pop icon Jane Birkin, ex-wife of John Barry and Serge Gainsbourg. Feist's command of the native language is convincing enough on Let It Die's "Tout Doucement," and she's also sung the French half of the Calexico duet "Ballad of Cable Hogue" with the band live but she says she still has a way to go. "It's, uh, coming slowly! I'm a Western Canadian, you know? Reading the words lait' and pain' on labels is about as far as my French education went out in Calgary."