For nearly a decade, Leslie Feist did not stop moving. Her 2004 album Let It Die led right into 2007’s The Reminder, which earned her four Grammy nominations, six Juno wins, the Shortlist Music Prize, and the opportunity to teach Muppets to count on Sesame Street. She made her Saturday Night Live debut and toured the world. She covered an album with Beck, watched Stephen Colbert shimmy in a sequined “1234” jumpsuit, and made a documentary about recording The Reminder. And then, finally, after the seventh year, Feist rested.
“There’s a lot of squeezing yourself out on tour,” she says. “In the downtime afterwards I was sponging – I was trying to absorb as much as I put out for seven years.” She watched Fellini films and read poetry as her creative batteries juiced up again. “I was being still and trying to learn how to be quiet and remember that silence isn’t aggressive,” she adds. “Sometimes after being in a lot of noise and movement, silence and stillness can seem completely terrifying.”
When Feist was ready to make music again, she had very different ideas about how to shatter the quiet. “I played so many shows with such care, I really want to be loud again,” she says, referring to her early days as a guitarist in punk and rock bands. She started writing in the spring of 2010 and met up with her longtime collaborators Chilly Gonzalez and Mocky the following January to arrange 12 songs that would become her fourth studio album, Metals. The trio spent a frigid month in Toronto “Trying to sound like we had played together as long as we’d known each other collectively, around 50 years,” then decamped for California’s rugged Big Sur to transform “audio photographs” into finished songs.
“You just know you are somewhere super-potent and untouched in Big Sur,” Feist says. “And it has this literary tradition, with Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and John Steinbeck having lived there. We truly found a room perched on that edge between earth and sea, a giant empty space that this woman usually paints in. No music had ever been made there.”
The songs Feist and her band – Gonzales, Mocky, percussionist Dean Stone, and keyboard whiz Brian LeBarton – laid down with producer Valgeir Siggurdsson over two and a half weeks in February plumb different emotional paths than her previous work. “Time passes, shit goes down, and then it resolves. Something gets wounded and it heals,” she muses. “I feel a little bit more like a narrator. Rather than being like, here’s my truth, it’s like, here’s something I think is just true.”
Metals is not a reaction to The Reminder, but Feist did learn a few lessons playing her acclaimed album’s songs night after night. “In [The Reminder’s] ‘I Feel It All,’ to have a chorus be, ‘Ooh I’ll be the one who’ll break my heart/I’ll be the one to hold the gun’ – you sing that 300 times and eventually the universe listens. Okay, sure, we can do that for you. So this time I wanted to cast the spell 300 times saying something that’s more of an observation about human nature.”
Metals songs like “The Bad in Each Other” and “Get It Wrong, Get It Right” are forthright, dry-eyed tunes about heart mending, not heart rending. “A Commotion” bristles with tense energy, while “How Come You Never Go There” slips along to a jazzy groove. “It’s a lot more flying off the handle and chaos and noise than I had before,” Feist says. “I allowed for mistakes more than I ever have. But what’s also in there is more brambles. It was a little bit about un-simplifying things. We were sort of testing the air, like a sea captain licks his finger to see which way the wind is coming from. It was less Brill Building and more naturalistic.”
Some of the results wound up being more intimate portraits of relationships, like “Get It Wrong, Get It Right,” which Feist describes as “a slideshow of a season in a place and a dynamic between two people.” But more often she found herself gravitating to the universal. “What’s that expression: We hold these truths to be self-evident,” she muses. “After everything settles there’s really no blame to be laid in a lot of these situations. People are being their true selves, everybody is in their story trying to get to the next chapter.”
Brainstorming along those lines helped lead her to the album title Metals. “I was thinking about a giant force of elemental truth and how people change things,” Feist explains. “We try to harness most things in nature, and we have managed to manipulate metal. The raw material is one thing and what the minds of men turned it into is a completely other thing. Also the word ‘mettle,’ a man proves his mettle by how he manages difficult times.”
Sonically, Feist and her tight-knit crew strove to forge a connection between the future and the past. “We fancied we were developing a modern ancient genre,” she says. “There’s a bunch of human yelling into the air together, all this group singing that’s all over the record, that’s sort of a little ancient. Then Brian LeBarton has access to these ultra modern, futuristic sounds. He has a way of making a celeste completely futuristic.”
Ultimately, Metals’ aesthetic has a deliberate patience and natural beauty that echoes Feist’s approach to writing the album overall. “I read a National Geographic article about soil and modern farming,” she says. “The point is for food to grow, the point isn’t for it to grow all at once and never grow again. Soil does its job, but unless you let it rest it can’t regenerate its own minerals and do the same thing again. You just have to let it lay there under the sun, dry out, get rained on and be still a little while.” That she did. And now she’s back.
Videos & Press
How Come You Never Go There
[Pitchfork] Every music video could do with a bit of dancing, right? But as anyone who’s watched “Making the Band” knows, fancy footwork is tough business. So Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew recruited an expert to assist in his video for the Feist-featuring Darlings cut “You in Your Were”. Directed by by Samir Rehem – […]
[Consequence of Sound] By Michelle Geslani The new Peter Gabriel covers compilation, And I’ll Scratch Yours, boasts renditions by a host of artists like David Byrne, Bon Iver, and Paul Simon. Over the weekend, we heard Arcade Fire’s take on “Games Without Frontiers”, and now comes Feist’s contribution of “Don’t Give Up”. Gabriel’s 1986 original […]
[Pitchfork] June 1, 2013 By Evan Minsker Band to play all of You Forgot It in People at Field Trip Music & Arts Festival The Field Trip Music & Arts Festival on June 8 at Toronto’s Fort York and Garrison Common will feature performances from Broken Social Scene and Feist. And two days earlier, Thursday, […]
[Pitchfork] April 26, 2013 By Carrie Battan 2012 is calling, threatening to make performance holograms a thing again! Last night, Feist “performed” in three different Canadian cities at once– Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal– as a hologram, Exclaim! reports. It was part of a series of launch parties for the Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone. “To get […]
[SPIN] by Kevin O’Donnell It’s been four years since Leslie Feist broke through with her fourth solo album The Reminder, which scored four Grammy nominations, and her hit single, “1234,” which helped sell boatloads of iPod Nanos, thanks to that ubiquitous Apple commercial. She’s remained relatively low-key after wrapping up a grueling world tour in […]