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From iPod Ads to Indie Icon: The Many Lives of Feist

Thirteen years since her debut, she speaks to us about charting a bolder pop return, the weirdness of interviews and whatever happened to "Torontopia."

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK. 

Torontopia: a term widely used to describe the collectivist music movement—spearheaded by the likes of Broken Social Scene, Metric, Hidden Cameras, and Feist—that rose up in Canada during the early 2000s. A term used in books, articles, and on this very site, that was "thrown around downtown Toronto all the time," "came to symbolize this new urban-enthusiast mindset," and that Leslie Feist has literally never heard of.

"Toront…opia?!" she repeats back to me, delighted. "I've never even heard that! I had never… who are they deeming…" She flings her head back and laughs. "God, Kevin is gonna love that."

Kevin Drew that is—often rumoured to be her partner, and the man responsible, alongside Brendan Canning, for co-founding Broken Social Scene at the turn of the century. Born both from necessity (there was never much money, so cramming multiple people into one recording studio space made sense) and an inherent culture of collaboration, the music collective's membership ranged from six to 19 at any given moment. Today, that era is seen as an important and inimitable time in Toronto; a load of artists poised between scrappy obscurity and global (if sometimes niche) success.

We've got a good enough vantage point to look back at those years, perched as we are 155 meters in the air, at a restaurant in London's Sky Gardens. Feist had, her publicist tells me beforehand, requested to do the interview somewhere within nature, but this is England, so it's cloudy and drizzling outside. This vertiginous giant terrarium was the next best thing, and finds Feist back on the campaign trail promoting her fourth album, Pleasure (due out next Friday, April 28). She's used to the promo cycle by now, though she still finds the dynamic of interviews strange—more than once breaking off to dissect our encounter: "It's a different type of interaction and intimacy than would happen in normal life." She's fascinated, too, by how differently outsiders like me interpret her own story. Take Torontopia, for example. For her, it was "just my 20s."

If it wasn't for a phone call from her mother, she might never have been a part of it. When she arrived in Toronto at the age of 18, 2,000 miles from her Calgary childhood home, the city was "a ghost town for me. I didn't know a single person." Then her mum rang, to tell her that someone called Noah Mintz was trying to get in contact. His band, Hhead, had played alongside Feist's own teenage one a few years before, and he was looking for a bass player for his solo project. It turned out they were living two blocks from one another, "so he sort of absorbed me into his scene. I can trace everyone I know, to this day, back to Noah Mintz."

A few years later, she moved into a flat with friend of a friend Merrill Nisker (who shortly became known to the rest of us as Peaches), contributed to Broken Social Scene's seminal album You Forgot It In People, and recorded her major label debut, Let It Die. As you probably already know, "Mushaboom" off that debut would later become one of her biggest hits, thanks in part to its use in 500 Days Of Summer.

Photo by Cass Bird

More than a decade on from those Torontopia days, Feist and most of her contemporaries have left the city. "Now my scene is so dispersed around the world," she says, "and everyone landed in different places." Of that world she says: "I wouldn't even know what it was. I'm a little on the outside now, because I've been travelling for so many years." Though it was not destined to last, she's grateful for those strange, intense and exhilarating few years, which she describes as a "trial by fire."

What does she mean by that? "Just life, you know? Music being one aspect of it. Just figuring out how to live, and how to make decisions, and how to navigate and respect yourself and treat people well and not be taken advantage of. I mean that happens in every single interaction, like spending an afternoon speaking with someone I've just met"—now she gestures towards me.

She's right. I tell her about a Guardian article I've just read that dissects celebrity interviews, and how odd a situation they can be. Feist nods, lowering a sugar cube into her tea before pulling it out again and discarding it. "It is strange. I mean, I'm grateful that people are interested, but I also have to remember how to ask questions in life. Because there can be this neuro-pathway that gets broadened, which is learning how to encapsulate things that are private, and talk about them. But it's important to remember to ask questions, and to know that everyone has a private mythology that's just as constructed as mine is, they just don't have the opportunity to talk about it." Basically, even though you can spend hours having to talk about yourself to complete strangers for interviews, you can't let go of your own curiosity about other people's stories. The stories that don't always make headlines.

Feist has a complicated relationship with her own success, and with the fact that people like me want to talk to her about it. Perhaps because she came up in a collective where no one member was the star, being in the spotlight doesn't come naturally to her. It's part of the reason she takes so long between albums—a gap that has widened with each release. 2004's Let It Die was followed three years later by The Reminder, whose ubiquitous single "1234" hoisted her to another level of iPod advert, Sesame Street cameo fame. She spent four years working on its follow-up, Metals, and her new album, Pleasure, has taken six years to come to fruition. "I took so long," she says, "because I wanted to make sure I was making it from the right humility, and not just because it's what I do. Not just because there's a place for me to put those songs. I wanted to make sure that it was an honest and necessary thing for me, just as a person."

True to her word, Pleasure is an album rippling with honesty—with feelings and anxieties laid bare. With Metals, she added "more chaos and movement and noise" to the buoyant indie pop she'd made before, and some tracks on Pleasure take this ethos and run with it. Others are starker, with a deliberately muddied musical clarity. The title track is poignant and contemplative, but resolutely unpretty too. Until two minutes in, Feist's voice has just the muted plucking of an electric guitar for company, until a warped riff ushers in other instrumental shades. "It's my pleasure / And your pleasure is my pleasure," she sings, "That's what we're here for! Pleasure!" It's an almost manic resolve towards happiness, though later on the album, she grapples further with her own disposition. "I had to climb down into today," she sings on "Baby Be Simple," "and give up the pain I held myself up by."

"I had a difficult four years," she says vaguely, though with a tone that gently discourages further probing. "I think it would have amplified what was going on by feeling ashamed of having a hard time." Though there's a fine line, she discovered, between making room for the darkness you feel and letting it consume you. It's a struggle she acknowledges in the opening line of "Young Up": "When they cart me away, will I say that I died already years ago?" The refrain changes tack. "Young up / y' young punk," she tells someone, maybe herself. "The end is coming / And fear not / Y' young pup / That everything that falls is falling."

"I don't know if everyone's playing internal chess with themselves at all times," she muses when I bring up the song, "trying to win one more day of feeling that life has possibility to it, or... it might just be me. I've struggled a lot with just a general tone of darkness since I was a teenager. It gets boring. It gets exhausting. It's sort of absolute, and I've been learning that the way you look at something is how it looks. I like to remind myself…" She looks out the window and back towards me with a smile. The sun's broken through a crack in the clouds and a slice of the city below is bathed in light. "It's so symbolic that the sun comes out as we're talking, because 'Young Up' is a little bit like, the sun comes out! As you get older, there's sort of a fossilization of the spring in your step. You're still alive but you've tightened up, you have so many restrictions and rules. It started to happen to me. This grave seriousness was worming its way down into my every thought, and it was sort of ageing me before my time."

In writing Pleasure, which she describes as a "message in a bottle" to her many future selves, Feist edged towards an epiphany. "I started to learn that we are here because our ancestors chose to survive. They chose to go towards the fire instead of off the cliff, they chose to get on the boat during famine, they chose to survive and live, in all of these tiny ways. And that's an impetus that is beyond our thinking, it's just our drive to survive. And so that echoed forward into my consciousness, into what I'm gonna choose to do. I'm gonna lean on the foot to survival. I'm gonna lean on the foot to aspiring to… happiness, even. Imagine that!"

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