Feist on How Becoming a Mom and Losing Her Dad Inspired Her to Write a New Album Live

"I was bookended by what was just incredibly acute — you know, the beginning and end of life," she says of what led her to new performance series 'MULTITUDES'
Feist on How Becoming a Mom and Losing Her Dad Inspired Her to Write a New Album Live
Photo: Goodchild Richardson
In a handful of promotional images for her new performance series MULTITUDES, Leslie Feist reclines on a mirror, her reflection multiplying endlessly into the void. The pose is at once commanding — relaxed, unselfconscious, a singular form duplicated to a battalion of selves — and almost fetal, the kind of small shape we make at our most quiet and vulnerable.

MULTITUDES, an intimate, communal deconstruction of the traditional live concert that places performer and audience at equal level, was born of a time that Feist defines as, fittingly, multitudinous. Confronting and reflective, a period when the double helix of life and death intersected in world-altering ways.

"I was kind of in a double quarantine," she says of the pandemic's early days, where the seed of MULTITUDES in its current form first germinated. "Because four months before the world went into quarantine, I did, because I became a mom."

Feist and her growing family were in Los Angeles at the time — where they now live for the most part, she says with a side-eyeing laugh — but returned to Toronto as her identity, and that of the entire world, began to suddenly mutate.

"There was sort of a double reassessment going on — the whole world was learning to relate to itself differently. And then I was completely stripping back my former identity into... this sort of epic, spiritual small-ification, parenting is," she says. "It's so major, because it's such a crucible of identity, but then it's also built upon all these tiny motions of caring for this person. The fear that I had of completely obliterating my former self in that process was making it extra motivating to try to write, or to force myself to put myself back in that position."

She describes the birth of her daughter at a time marked by such universal loss as a sort of creative and spiritual catalyst, one that cracked wide open questions of mortality and collective experience.

"This crucible — this moment of, you know, reassessment, confusion, fear, vertigo — and that kind of mortality, imagining 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," she says. "It was just like, what is life, you know?"

It was a songwriting workshop involving past members of Bon Iver's 2018 PEOPLE residency in Berlin — something Feist describes as a "song-a-day game" — that initially helped push her to confront these big feelings. Full of familiar faces and total strangers, the game asked participants to send in a song at the end of each day for seven days. If you didn't meet the prompt, you'd be booted from the workshop.

"It was good-natured pressure to come up with material. And that, mixed with having no time anymore and pure exhaustion — like, super pure exhaustion of being a new parent — and this sort of peer pressure, it was amazing," she says. "It caused me to face writing at a time when I wouldn't have known how to encapsulate what I was experiencing into songs."

And soon, she would be pushed further into that multitudinous place, as the amorphous feeling of collective loss became suddenly, painfully singular — in May of this year, Feist unexpectedly lost her father, the abstract expressionist painter Harold Feist.

"I was bookended by what was just incredibly acute — you know, the beginning and end of life," she says.

Feist says that losing her father at a time when traditional, collective mourning was impossible ignited a need to find new ways of remembering that, by necessity, rejected easy ideas of closure and finality. 

"For you have to sit in [your home] and find where you can put it in your heart that isn't going to just continually cause you pain — you know, you're like your own architect of your own grief," she says. "And I've had to sort of memorialize my dad in daily living. I bring him into my life every day. And the conversation continues in a way that … he's un-memorialized, he's just in my actions. I'm having an ongoing conversation with him in a strange way."

It's in this place that MULTITUDES — and the songs that have welled up in its process — seem to live. It's a zone open to new ways of feeling, a chapter that, faced with the twin poles of existence at its most extreme, emphasizes intense vulnerability and emotional realism.

"The obfuscation of feeling, the idea that songwriting is anything about obscuring yourself or shedding a particular light, like a Hollywood lighting person — 'Shift your chin a little to get the right angle' — any of that perfection of expression or trying to show your best self was just stripped away," she explains. "There was kind of nothing performative in me anymore. It was very much like the person who was doing a song-a-day workshop was the same person who was going to buy wipes at Shoppers Drug Mart, who was having to figure out how to deal with my dad's passing. There's just no difference between them."

"And that's where MULTITUDES came from. It's like, we are all here," she says. "There's so many of us, so many of us have yet to come, so many of us have already left. And we just happen to all be here at the same time. But we're not here for long, we haven't been here long, and what the fuck is going on?"

Though the weight of its meaning arrived in the wake of this new life, Feist says the vision for the show's physical form first appeared several years ago, around the creation of 2017's Pleasure

She remembers, "I would talk to my manager — 'Can we play an after-hours? Like, play our normal gig and then find some community centre and have a party after? Can I go on tour and just play in, you know, rural churches, with everyone sitting on the floor together? Or can I play in an elementary school gym? Can we find a mechanic shop?' And the answer is always, of course, no, because it's kind of impossible for a thousand logistical reasons."

Feist continues, "But then [the pandemic] happened! And [my manager] called me and said, 'You know that thing that we bailed on? I think that the world will be needing [a] small, kind of liminal state between full shutdown and full opening — there will be this place where small shows will have to happen,'" she explains.

A collaborative effort with designer Rob Sinclair, artist and filmmaker Colby Richardson and musicians Todd Dahlhoff and Amir Yaghmai, the communal show incorporates singing in a round, an ancient dot printer and lights that illuminate Feist and her audience equally — there's no hiding in a darkened crowd at MULTITUDES, as attendees learned during the performance's premiere last month in Hamburg. Canadian fans will get the chance to experience it for themselves when MULTITUDES heads to Ottawa from October 12 to 17 and Toronto from October 20 to 30.

"No part of me wants to climb back into the old high heels and bright lights. I wanted something new, just to take advantage of this moment where everyone would be primed for feeling something subtle. Why blast them with volume?" she says.

Feist explains MULTITUDES as existing "halfway between a regular concert and some kind of constructed theatre piece. Non-narrative, of course, there's no, like, 'And then this happens, and then you read this script,' but it's definitely meant to be an arc of shifting perspective."

That perspective instability extends beyond the structure of the show, as Feist says the songs themselves are transmuting with every performance — living documents of not-knowing, multitudinous chords. 

"There's a sort of expectation that when you sing a song, it's because you know something. You know the thing that was worth interring," she explains. "You inter these thoughts inside a chord structure, and then you sing them over and over and over for the next 100 years in the hopes that someone will sing it after you're gone, because it's something that is known. But I don't know anything anymore!"

Rather than an interring, MULTITUDES is more like a scattering on the sea — its ashes free to drift, come together and float apart as Feist works out what they're meant to say. 

"I'm still on-book," she says. "I'm still reading the lyrics off of paper, because, you know, on Tuesday, the late show, I might realize that a certain line is not ringing true. So I rewrite it. And then on Wednesday, the early show, I'm trying a new version. So the songs are being written on the fly in front of everyone."

When asked how she'll manage to record final versions of songs so defined by their mutability, she sounds excited at the prospect.

"Having repeated the songs over and over, I hope that I'll have caught myself in any beguilement or avoidance or obfuscation, or I'll have unmasked every attempt to avoid the fact of this not-knowingness," she says, laughing. "It sounds so convoluted, but it's actually such a grounding process. Because I've been doing this for a long time. So it does feel like it's time to reassess how I'm doing it… and who's doing it."

Feist will be bringing MULTITUDES to Ottawa's National Arts Centre from October 12 to 17, and to Toronto's Meridian Hall from October 20 to 30.