Part of the joy of writing about music is learning not just about great bands, but about world traditions. For instance, July 1 is Canada Day, which is, according to the Canadian Heritage website, a celebration of “a proclamation signed by the Governor General, Lord Monck, call[ing] upon all Her Majesty's loving subjects throughout Canada to join in the celebration of the anniversary of the formation of the union of the British North America provinces in a federation under the name of Canada,” a little factoid I picked up while interviewing Leslie Feist in transit from Ottawa to Toronto to play the second of two gigs in one day.
That kind of gig-hopping might be unusal for Feist, but genre-hopping has become de rigeur for the Canadian-born singer. After stints touring with rock bands and making homemade demos, she collaborated with her then-roommate Peaches (yes, the hirsute Peaches of ‘Diddle my Skittle’ fame) on 2002’s The Teaches of Peaches
and the subsequent tour. Then, as a way to pass the Candadian winter, she got together with some friends and booked a show a few months down the road with the intent to write all the material fresh in the time before the gig. The result was the formation of indie rock darlings Broken Social Scene. And now she’s 0ut in the U.S. and elsewhere supporting the release of her proper debut solo, Let It Die
, which is a perfect slice of makeout music. You might not expect that, based on her resume, but that’s just what it is; she’s a kind of Norah Jones for the hip set and the disc is a sweetly compelling mishmash of ballads, torch songs, and Brill-building era pop channeled through a breathy, slinky, and definitely sexy set of pipes.
Ever since I heard lead single ‘One Evening’ after downloading it from salon.com, I’ve been pushing Feist on everyone I know, saying that the song made me want to have one night of life-affirming getting-it-on after years of coke-addled one-night stands, circa 1978. Apparently, I’m not the only one. “Things are just starting in the States,” she explains. “[Let It Die
]’s only been out for a month or maybe six weeks. I’ve been pretty astounded; I thought I’d be playing to completely closed and fresh ears and all the playing I’d done in Canada and Europe wouldn’t make a difference, but I guess from the Internet people are already familiar with the album. And the first tour I had done was with the Kings of Convenience so anybody who had heard that record knew me from that.”
Besides guesting on the Kings’ most recent effort, she’s made appearances on Apostle of Hustle’s and French siren Jane Birkin’s latest outings, so when did she even find time to make her own album? “The sessions that we had done were song by song and we didn’t have the intention to make a record,” she says of her work with Chilly Gonzales, who played a large role in bringing the record together, playing most of the instruments and co-writing and arranging many of the tracks “It was just to see how the collaboration would look; what the songs would become if they weren’t in jeans and T-shirts. Since they were one-offs we’d just do a few songs between tours. Some stuff didn’t fit together well. Some stuff we’d approach from left field and some from right field and in the end there were 20 songs there and it was clear which songs fit together as an album, that sounded like they came from the same session.”
The result is a an intimate but far-ranging work whose unifying quality is a certain sparseness. It’s an album that doesn’t force its way down your throat, opening with the lovely ‘Gatekeeper,’ featuring Feist’s vocals supported by only acoustic guitar and vibraphone, and closing with ‘Now At Last,’ a gentle Blossom Dearie song reminiscent of parts of Ella Fitzgerald’s Pure Ella
, where her only accompaniment is piano. In between she channels P.J. Harvey’s swampiness (‘When I Was a Young Girl’), Maxwell’s bedroom eyes (‘Leisure Suite’) and hits the highlights of ‘Mushaboom’ and ‘Inside and Out,’ the latter a cover of the Bee Gees ‘Love You Inside and Out.’ In fact, the last four tracks on the disc are covers and her live shows often include her rendition of the Kinks’ ‘There’s Nothing in the World to Stop Me Worryin’ About that Girl,’ a mainstay on the Rushmore
soundtrack and a gem of a sixties ballad. “I like to try traditional songs so there’s no mirror flashing back at you from current times,” she also explains, in reference to ‘When I Was a Young Girl,’ “It’s like free reign over the song.”
Her trip to the Twin Cities is bringing her to the Varisty Theater for a solo show, and I’m hard-pressed to think of a better environment to be introduced to her music: it’s cozy, classy, and what could be better than seeing a show from the comfort of red-draped air mattresses on risers? Abroad, though, she’s played to considerably bigger audiences, and has already won a Juno (the Canadian Grammies) for Best New Artist and been nominated alongside Celine Dion and Michael Buble for a MuchMoreMusic Award from MuchMusic. “I don’t really think about it,” she says on winning and being nominated for awards, “That’s one of the external responses in general and all those external things just come from people who see your videos or look at your website. It comes from those people who are in positions to nominate. I don’t mind being singled out; it only means there are more people who recognize you. But it’s not like ‘Oh, it’s like my life is falling into place right now.’”
Speaking of falling, in the midst of our conversation, she deals with the impending disaster of her amp falling off the luggage belt, not to mention making her way through security, marshalling her band into two cabs for the ride to the evening’s venue, and snappily deadpanning when asked about plans for the future, “Go[ing] to community college and becom[ing] an elementary school teacher.” After the ensuing pause and half-laughed “Really,” I shoot back, she says, “No, of course not; I’m going to make music, it’s what I do! Of course I’m going back into the studio, of course I’m touring. Of course I’m going to make a new record and another one after that. You do what you do.”
That kind of unerring sense of direction is the kind of thing that helps you make a simple, subtle record that doesn’t come across as mannered or sentimental. Her voice is strong, but not overpowering, always used in the service of the tune and never at the expense of it. The arrangements are spare and alluring; the melodies addictive and hummable. All those things have brought her recognition abroad and in her native country, and here’s hoping someday she’ll be hopping flights to hit multiple gigs on some of our biggest holidays. Happy Canada Day, Ms. Feist.