Full of Feist
Leslie Feist is back and ready to talk about that controversial James Blake remix, those cult rumours, making a movie with Cillian Murphy and why Kermit pulls her strings
The Canadian singer Leslie Feist has been wildly famous and successful for going on five years, but, the way she talks about her career, you'd think she was a starving artist until just the other week. "It's not a natural place for me to belong," she says, relaxing in her modest Toronto apartment. "The Grammys and stuff -- that was strange for me. It's surreal. The showbusiness mindset is not something that makes any sense from my perspective."
Not that she's wrestled Kurt Cobain-fashion with her status as a multi-platinum, major-label star. In the spring of 2007, Apple paired her giddy lullaby 1234 with its latest iTunes ad. Weekly sales of the song rose from 300 to 10,000. Up to that point, Feist had been treading the global toilet circuit for the best part of a decade. "To finally, finally have a hit was like a miracle from on high. Spend long enough wondering how you are going to make rent or fund your next tour and 'selling out' starts to feel a lot less objectionable," she says.
"I'd played music for so long before anything happened that I was grateful when it did. I don't have that old 'don't sell out' mentality. I'd been in obscurity since forever. To be in the opposite position felt natural and fun. Yes, it got strange. Then again, I found playing to eight people in a tiny club strange to begin with."
There has been a fair bit of controversy swirling about Feist lately and not simply because, coming off a four-year hiatus, she is at last putting a new record out. When dubstep crooner James Blake covered her song The Limit To Your Love last February, she was said to be highly disapproving of his version. Especially damning was the revelation, breathlessly conveyed by a UK newspaper, that she had turned down an invitation from Blake's management to give it her imprimatur (she never listened to cover versions of her material, they were told).
Meanwhile, the tune's co-author, electro artist Chilly Gonzales, was reported to have expressed his dissatisfaction with Blake from a stage in London (there was some previous in so far as Blake had supposedly turned down the opportunity to remix Gonzales). Given Blake's rendering of The Limit To Your Love is faithful to the point of feeling redundant, it's hard to understand why everyone was so upset. Six months on, Feist is happy to clarify.
"I can only speak for myself. My opinion is that I love it," she says. "Nobody has ever covered a song of mine and had any success with it. It is a strange feeling to hear someone take a track beyond what you had always intended, to give it a second life."
As her fourth album Metals arrives, the other question everyone has asking is: why the delay? It's been forever since the release of The Reminder, the two million-selling folk-pop triumph that yielded 1234 and earned her that Grammy nomination. She toured The Reminder for two years and then promptly vanished off the face of creation. Where's she been at?
"I took time off," she shrugs. "Honestly, my plan was to go away for a year. Then, after a year, I looked around and thought, 'you know what? -- I need another year'. The thing is, there's been a miscommunication with the public. During the two years I was touring, I was incredibly busy. I've haven't really been four years away at all."
People had started to worry she'd run off and joined a cult. "Actually, I spent time with my family. I have a garden, I adopted two dogs, I travelled a bit. I like life being simple and domestic."
More understated and sensual than The Reminder, Metals was recorded in Big Sur, southern California. The decision to record there wasn't a backhanded tribute to The Thrills, whose mention elicits a blank gawp on her part. "No, I've never heard that song," she says. "It's a rural strip of mountain and cliff right on the Pacific Ocean. The place where we were living was on the edge of the cliff. It was so high that you could see the ocean spread beneath you, but couldn't hear it. You felt like the house could be blown into the sea at any moment."
She was born in Nova Scotia in 1976 and grew up mainly in Calgary, where she moved with her mother after her parents divorced. Feist was a tearaway as an adolescent, an angry child with a hefty chip on her shoulder. At 17, she left home, joined a punk band called Placebo (not to be confused with the Brian Molko outfit) and eventually found her way to Toronto, moving into her father's basement. There she became a face on the indie scene, and started hanging about with Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew, who is rumoured to be the inspiration behind many of the lovelorn songs on The Reminder ( the letter 'K' tattooed on her finger stands for 'knuckle' she insists).
Though they've since gone their separate ways, she and Drew remain close. It was through him she got to know Cork actor Cillian Murphy. Quite the indie buff, Murphy got talking to Drew about one day making a movie together. Then he ran into Feist backstage in London and the idea grew legs. "Cillian came to my dressing room after my concert at Shepherd's Bush Empire to say hello. We were shouting at each other across a room full of people about the film. As in, wouldn't it be crazy if it came off?"
True to his word, Murphy flew to Canada and, forgoing his usual paycheque, worked with Feist and Drew on the art-house wig-out The Water. "There was no script, no budget," she remembers. "Cillian came because of his friendship with Kevin. Everyone would agree it was a fantastic experience."
feist is often painted as somewhat of a flake. From reading her press, she has clearly scared a few journalists rigid with talk of whale songs and the swirling mysteries of the universe. Thankfully, her inner kook appears to be taking a few hours off this morning. In dressing gown and slippers, she couldn't be more grounded. The only real shift in her demeanour is when you ask her about her turn on Sesame Street, where she performed 1234 with furry monsters as backing singers. While pop stars go on the iconic children's show all the time, for some reason Feist's appearance has exerted a peculiar grip on the public imagination. To date it has clocked up 13 million -- yes million -- YouTube hits.
"Kermit the Frog was my first true love," she gushes, her face lighting up (it could have been worse -- she might have said Fozzie Bear). "Plus, I love puppetry. It was such an honour to be on the set and to see the way the puppeteers worked, how they twisted like pretzels on the ground as they manipulated the puppets. The way it ended up, I have a cameo in the new Muppet Movie. I sing a line in one song. I'm on screen for, like, 10 seconds. To get to do that was a dream."
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