Four Grammy nominations, a Vanity Fair spread and an Apple ad campaign -- thanks to her stunning album The Reminder, 2007 has certainly been the year of Feist, says John Meagher
Right from the off, you sense this is going to be a special gig. Leslie Feist takes to the dimly lit stage, divides the crowd in three and asks each section to sing back a different note. The audience follows the instruction with enthusiasm before she catches the highest note and starts into a sublime version of one of her most affecting songs, So Sorry.
For the next 90 minutes, she charms on her debut Irish show in Dublin's Tripod, barely putting a foot wrong. For someone relatively unknown at the beginning of the year, the Canadian has enjoyed a remarkable 2007 and it's all thanks to her third album, The Reminder. It's an old-fashioned record, in that it's spawned numerous hit singles and its success is largely based on word-of-mouth success rather than a slick marketing campaign.
"I love the idea that it's done well because people are liking it and telling their friends about it," she says, chilling out in her dressing room a couple of hours before the show. "It wasn't one of these records that gets hyped to death and then falls flat on its feet when people hear it -- or at least I hope it isn't."
Feist -- Leslie is only used for the taxman -- is no overnight sensation. The 31-year-old's first, little-known album, Monarch (Lay Your Jewelled Head Down), was released in 1999 (it's an album she's not very proud of today) and her breakthrough-of-sorts, Let It Die, came out in 2004. But this year's The Reminder succeeded because it's packed with classic, confessional songs in the vein of Joni Mitchell, enigmatic moments that recall Cat Power, as well as a bunch of show-stopping tunes straight out of Broadway.
"I guess there's something for everyone on the album," she offers. "Some tell me they like the intimate, quieter songs the best. Others like the sort of singalong poppy numbers. I didn't set out to make an album that would have an eclectic mix of songs -- it just sort of happened."
Feist recorded The Reminder in a 200-year-old mansion in the outskirts of Paris -- a city she lived in for four years, before returning to Toronto this summer.
The album features plenty of found sounds and has the feel of something that wasn't recorded in a conventional studio. "When I conceived of how I wanted to go about recording this record, it was in a space where I could open the windows. There wasn't a classic studio set-up with its own air, its own light, you're in a basement, you're in a cavern making your own reality," she says. "I wanted to be in a living space."
She scattered microphones throughout the rooms of the house to catch her organic, love-driven lyrics in motion rather than squashing the sounds in a studio.
She says the rigorous worldwide touring schedule supporting Let It Die helped spark her creativity on the latest album. "I was thinking about music as a soundtrack to our own lives, not to pre-conceived, written scripts," she says. "Having been on tour for so long previously, I had a lot of air moving in and around the songs as I was writing them. It wasn't happening in a vacuum."
Since releasing The Reminder in April, Feist's solo career seems to have taken on a full-throttle soundtrack of its own. In the past six months alone she's received rave reviews for the album, has performed as a stand-out musical guest on Saturday Night Live and was featured in November's Vanity Fair issue, photographed by Annie Leibovitz for a folk feature including Joni Mitchell and The Guthrie Family. The photo looks stunning, by the way, but then Feist's classic good looks -- slim, high cheekbones, browny-black hair with fringe falling over the eyes -- gave Leibovitz plenty to work with.
To cap a remarkable 2007, the video for her single 1234 is on heavy rotation on the current iPod Nano ad and in the last couple of weeks she has received four Grammy nominations.
"I'm just grateful for the year I've had and I'm trying my best not to jinx it," she says. "The singles have done well but the people coming to the shows aren't the type that are yawning and thumb twiddling while waiting for the hits. If that happened, I would quit" -- and, she says, with a laugh "go open a book store."
When Apple came calling, she had little hesitation in letting 1234 be used. "It was easy to say yes. Artistically, it's a clean ad with no politicking. It's also helped me get the video onto MTV, VH1 and Much Music [a Canadian version of MTV]."
She admits that the iPod has helped move attention away from albums and towards songs, but feels there will also be a constituency of music listener for whom the album is the most satisfying way of hearing new music. "I'm going to keep making records and hopefully there will be people who will want the whole thing, and not just a chapter -- and will actually want to wait until the album is officially released and feel it is something they want to pay for.
"The album got leaked online -- it wasn't mastered and the sequencing was all over the place. That's incredibly frustrating."
She takes her craft seriously and admits to pining over song lyrics for weeks on end. "Lyrically, I don't ever want be too prosaic. I like to leave room for interpretation. I like to plant seeds and leave trapdoors open. I love listening to Bonnie Prince Billie and PJ Harvey -- their songs are intriguing. I don't want to ever be behind a podium."
Not for her the half-baked politics of many of her contemporaries. "I spent my life writing songs and other people spend their lives writing about politics. They have much more to say than what I have to say. I might work with charities and organisations behind the scenes, but I'll let them do the talking."
It's difficult to speak to a Canadian musician these days and not ask them about the rich vein of talent springing from the country right now. What's the secret?
"I don't know if this is a golden generation," she says. "There have always been great musicians coming out of Canada. But I think this generation is having a greater impact in Europe than ever before because bands like Broken Social Scene [of which she is a member along with boyfriend Kevin Drew], Stars and Metric toured Europe from early on and got a good reception there.
"My uncle was in a band called Junkhouse and they went to Europe in the early 1990s and found it prohibitively expensive to tour there. They never returned.
"It's easy to do it nowadays. Seven years ago, I started touring Europe with my friend Peaches and I've spent most of the intervening time there." Despite her years in Paris, she speaks almost no French.
What next for Feist? "I've been asked to score a film, an American film. I'm flattered, I'm not sure I want to, or that I'd be good at it. I'm not sure I'd be able to cope with the discipline of it.
"I write in my bedroom alone and I'm not answerable to anybody, even the record company. I just get an album done, hand it to them and if they like it great, and if they don't then too bad."