Feist Searches for "Useful Truths" Within Life's Dizzying Highs and Tragic Lows

Following the birth of her daughter and the death of her father, Feist gazes into an endlessly refracting prism of selves

Photo: Sara Melvin and Colby Richardson

BY Kaelen BellPublished Apr 12, 2023

We tend to ask songs for confirmation of our experience, to tell our stories in ways more beautiful than we allow for ourselves. We lay our joys next to someone else's; we stare into the mirror and watch ourselves weep. Multitudes, the knee-buckling sixth studio album from Feist, has different intentions — instead of a single recognizable reflection, it mirrors a prism of selves; rather than provide a place to lay softly and witness our past, Multitudes offers a finger beneath the chin and a gentle nudge toward uncharted territory. 

The album is an aspirational statement of intent, a guidebook of sorts for a future self — the stories here aren't the sealed capsules of the prescriptive pop canon; there are no walls or ceilings. Instead, Multitudes deals in endless time-warping circles, rings in which you're invited to step and spar with past selves and present hangups. Perhaps you'll emerge more prepared for whatever future lays around the bend. 

"Drafting as I drift / I cannot write nor reckon it," Feist sings over the rung-climbing nylon strings of "Love Who We Are Meant To" — it all feels achingly alive, a work in transit that promises to fluctuate and amass new meaning as time continues its various journeys.

"I've planted ideas like that throughout the album because these songs, selfishly, I know if I'm lucky enough to live that long, I'll be singing them when I'm in my 70s and 80s," Feist tells Exclaim! over Zoom. "And I hope to get a kick out of these crumbs I've left in the forest for myself." 

A preoccupation with non-linear time is the engine that drives Multitudes, a structure collapse brought on by the arrival of Feist's daughter pre-pandemic and the subsequent loss of the musician's father, the artist Harold Feist, in 2021. As she explains it, these world-shifting confrontations with time weren't clarifying so much as disorienting — a dissolve of the barrier between stasis and flow, between journey and destination. 

"I was like, I need to find a way to represent this crossroads that I found myself at, where time was the currency, time was the new dimension," she says. "It fixed me in time. I am now holding up a new life, while I have the capacity to allow a life that was a foundational pillar to leave. And to realize that I have to stay standing — I have to become the pillar now. It's a very alchemical, shapeshifting thing." 

"I can't even [explain it]," she says in exasperation, laughing as she waves her hands above her head. "It's like one of those Rube Goldberg machines where the dominoes go forever and cause a new action, and the velocity makes a new thing happen."

She continues, "My daughter made me the parent; my father made me the child; I made him the parent — the conveyor belts of time have definitely become a new factor."

In September of 2021, Feist conjured similar imagery in discussing the germination of her Multitudes performance series — "this conveyor belt of time where people arrive, like my daughter did into my arms, and then so many people in the world were leaving" — but now, there's a crucial plurality to these unceasing conveyor belts. Time is moving in all directions all at once, dragging the future back to before and sending the past careening into what could be. 

Rather than try to trace these intersecting ribbons of time, she chose to disrupt the flow with individual microcosms — moments that exist precisely as they are, unburdened by the currents of past and future. "Maybe songs are just sort of a mark on the map; they're one of those little seconds ticking past," she says. "I write a song and it's like a mosquito in amber or something. It's just a psychic snapshot of this exact second, you know? Because there are some things about these moments that I want to try to remember."

She continues, "Maybe that's why I wanted 'In Lightning' to come out first, because I know that to be an expression of joy. And I know what I was looking for in talking about these intermittent flashes of clarity — you see the landscape and it's gone, you see where you are and then it's gone, you feel illuminated and then you're in the dark again."

The affirming cataclysm of "In Lightning" is something of a red herring — it opens the album on a star-shaking burst of drums, a free-fall into the light dappled valley that Multitudes quickly becomes. The whiplash is intentional, an acknowledgement of this new way of seeing. 

"That feels like the way I've been living," Feist says. "Small little brief bursts of understanding or centredness or being here — you feel the soles of your feet on the ground and it brings you online."

And while that centredness may arrive like a flash of lightning, the aftermath — the shimmer in your eyes, the electricity that courses through your skin in the sudden dark — inevitably leads to a desire for a more lasting form of clarity, the kind that comes with conscious effort and mindful intentions. With each flash of light, the dark becomes a little less dark, the shapes in the night a touch less scary.

"I think about this stuff a lot now, because I have a daughter," she says. "I'm trying to make sure I can do my best to feed into her experience, [to have her] believing things that are useful truths."

"Even before your eyes are open / The plot has thickened round your fears," Feist sings on "Borrow Trouble," before a flock of strings comes swinging down from overhead, a flurry of keening gulls above the waves. The line wouldn't be out of place in a Dávila short story, the kind of evocation that cracks into the shell of reality in an instant — how many times are we terrorized by our first waking thought? How often is our mind kick-started by a confrontation with mortality or a needless rehash of our darkest notions?

"A very useless truth that entered my mind," she says, pausing briefly to arrange her thoughts, "Was that somehow my cognition of the world being seen through squinty eyes was important, or it was a way to tap into the drama inside of me. I thought my way there was through investing in my depression. And I don't mean in the clinical sense or in a biological sense that some people are actually dealing with — and of course, I've dealt with it in a biological way as well — but I mean 'having a full glass and pouring it out so it's half empty, and then deciding that's the glass I was dealt.'"

Multitudes is a meditative space, one that's both in conversation with death (of a loved one, of ego, of expectation) and with everything that death is not. Its myriad portals — built from some of the most curious, texturally rich music of Feist's three-decade career — are opening continually to new ways of thinking. 

"It's like a lake, where a wave rises and it brings all your thoughts to a point of complete certainty," she explains, describing the swells of negative thought that once swallowed her mind. "And then, if you wait it out and don't act on it and let it fall; to understand that 'Oh my god, every .01 seconds, there's another absolute knife-like sabre of certainty that rises in my mind, and none of them are binding, they're all passing."

She says, chuckling, "If I can outlast the discomfort of all of that, I end up laughing at how I'm hardwired to want to find something wrong everywhere I turn... If I'm going to squint my eyes and scrutinize, I'd rather be looking at the truth rather than something I fabricated."

Multitudes is rich with truths, though some of them may still take time to decipher. The record's most immediate offering, its greatest gift, is the knowledge that there are ways to escape the trap of linearity — that life moves in endless circles and everything will return to you, illuminated by new perspectives.  

"The endless weight of my life / Can be lifted up like wings," Feist sings on "The Redwing." And just like that, she takes off for something better. 

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