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Blame Canada 

Thus arrives another musically savvy Canuck, Leslie Feist, with a sultry voice and a bottomless bag of tricks

Wednesday, Jun 15 2005
If you think you've experienced a disorienting weekend or two, you should have been in Leslie Feist's shoes several years ago. Then living in Toronto, the Nova Scotia-born, Calgary-bred singer's schedule might've looked something like this: Friday night -- don some garish aerobic gear, grab a sock puppet, and rap in Spanish as "Bitch Lap Lap," sidekick to then-roommate and über-carnal electro-instigator Peaches. Saturday night -- strap on a six-string, hit a couple of chords, and strike a few poses as rhythm guitarist for mainstream rockers By Divine Right, perhaps even in a stadium warming up tens of thousands for the Tragically Hip (which, for the uninitiated, is Canada's answer to the Counting Crows). Sunday night -- take the stage of a tiny club alone with just a guitar, a drum machine, and some backing tapes and crank out some crunchy lo-fi stuff, or, if that loose collective of musical buddies known as Broken Social Scene happens to be in town, join them for a few songs and make all the heart-on-cardigan-sleeve indie kids swoon.

While things seem a bit less complicated in 2005 -- at 29, she has amicably abandoned her prior collaborative projects and is pursuing a solo career under the simple moniker Feist -- the raven-haired songstress is still all over the map. Literally, as she's now based in France, yet finds herself frequently jetting around and between Europe and North America for press days, promotional appearances, and tours, including her current U.S. jaunt opening for Rilo Kiley. And stylistically, too, as is strikingly evidenced by her new album, Let It Die, which is technically Feist's second disc (she self-released Monarch in 1999, selling it from the stage after gigs) but, for practical purposes, is her proper introduction to the world.

"Peaches was actually the one who said, 'Hey, you've been musically schizophrenic for years, why hide it?'" Feist laughs over the phone from a hotel room in Toronto. "And then I think back to singers I love like Peggy Lee and Patsy Cline, where their albums had the 'western track' and then the 'jazzy track,' and then the kinda 'hokey track' -- they were singing all different styles, and in that era the definition of a pop singer or whatever was a lot more broad, so that's what I wanted to do with this album."

Let It Die's topography is indeed variegated, but rarely does it resemble any of Feist's previously covered terrain. In spots, she's an old-fashioned torch singer, hanging her coy, creamy purr on the acoustic parlor-guitar hook of well-upholstered opener "Gatekeeper" or warbling playfully on "Mushaboom," a vintage Parisian saloon shuffle that dances on the back of sprightly string plucks, elegant horns, and piano tinkles. On the willowy title track -- under the hypnotic sway of vibraphone and Hammond organ -- she delivers lovelorn soulfulness ("The saddest part of a broken heart/ Isn't the ending as much as the start," she intones) with enough penetrating grace to do Dusty Springfield proud; elsewhere, Feist turns up the flame under her already sensual susurrations to play disco-lounge temptress on the particularly plush "One Evening" and "Leisure Suite," as well as on a sumptuous cover of the Bee Gees' "Inside and Out."

While the album points to a singer in complete command of her vocal nuances and range, and supremely confident in her songwriting ability, Feist says that her decision to go solo, despite feeling like the natural course of action, was slightly vexing at first. After all, while her career options with Peaches (who now, sadly, appears a casualty of the fall of electroclash) and By Divine Right were growing limited, she easily could have stayed in Canada and continued touring with Broken Social Scene (she contributed several vocal leads to 2002's stellar You Forgot It in People), which is now benefiting greatly from the wave of Montreal indie-rock mania sweeping the States.

"It's like your friends are all going to the ice cream parlor down the street and you have to stay in and do your homework," she chuckles. "And you're looking out the window and watching them walk, and they're all punching each other and laughing and one of them has a bike and it really looks fun and you're thinking, 'Aww man, I wish I was there ....' So for a little while I was gazing across the Atlantic from Paris where I had set up shop, watching Broken Social Scene just keep going to the ice cream store, and I was feeling like the lonely martyr off in the distance. But it was something I had to do."

Feist's road to France was paved by the initial late-'90s forays of both Peaches and Chilly Gonzales, another longtime friend, former roommate, and musician (a jazz-trained pianist, electrobeat merchant, and ribald rapper) who was Peaches' backing instrumentalist and MC on tour, and who wound up producing Let It Die. The two rappers had traveled to Berlin, settled there, and managed to get signed by Kitty-Yo Records, then Peaches flew Feist over to tour Europe in mid-2000, and she returned later that year and in 2001 to tour with Gonzales behind his own solo releases. Spending far more time overseas than at home, and finding that she and Gonzales had the makings of a great artist-producer partnership, she decided to permanently relocate.

"Gonzo and I were just like, 'Let's make some recordings' -- not necessarily make an album, but I had all of these four-track demos and I just wanted to see how we could flesh out the ideas. So there was a reason for me to move there, but not to Berlin -- what was I gonna do, try to sign to Kitty-Yo, this electro label? It wasn't my scene, so I picked Paris."

There, the pair met producer Renaud Letang (known for his work with Spanish world-beat rocker Manu Chao), who brought them in to craft what was evolving into a full-length album in his well-appointed studio (it was the first time Feist had ever recorded anywhere but on her four-track or at her friends' modest home studios). "We made the record in total isolation in a country that neither of us knew about. It was like, I couldn't be playing rough mixes for friends at the end of the day to get their opinions on it, but I think that was really the best way to do it, since I wanted to make a different-sounding album."

The resulting tracks eventually made it to the ears of Interscope Records execs, who signed Feist and released Let It Die in France in the spring of 2004, with the idea of staggering its release around the world if and when the album got media attention.

"It was an entirely new way of approaching things for me, with the name being mine and the music being mine, and I had never signed to a major before so I kinda wanted France to be the litmus test to see how it would all go down," Feist explains. "You know, how much freedom the label would give me, how I would develop the live show -- I had to find a band because I'd left all the players I loved back in Canada. Those kinds of things. So I was happy to have it happen first in a country where they didn't know me, I didn't know them, and I could take risks without feeling like everyone who's known me since I was a little kid was going, 'What are you doing that for?'"

Things worked out well enough that Canada's Arts & Crafts Records (also home to Broken Social Scene, Stars, and Apostle of Hustle) released the album a few months later, and Let It Die finally arrived in the United States in April on Interscope imprint Cherry Tree Records. Despite being nearly two years removed from its completion, and already working on songs for her next album, Feist says she's thrilled to get her music to fresh ears in America, and hardly minds the fact that she, too, is being swept up in the wave of Canadian cool.

"It's nothing but fantastic, it's all really positive. It's kinda like every time one of us refers to another, that makes this really strong cable shoot across, and eventually it makes this iron web that will catch all of us. Maybe I'm so altruistic about it because I live so far away, and nobody is trying to attach me to that whole scene that much. So I don't feel threatened by it. I suppose that if there was another solo girl who was from Calgary who moved to France, it would feel like ehhhhhhh, but so far there's not. There's just me!"

About The Author

Michael Alan Goldberg


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