Feist interview Multitudes

Photo by by Sara Melvin & Colby Richardson

An interview with Feist: “Sadness can be a teacher”

We spoke with Canadian singer-songwriter star Leslie Feist about her new album Multitudes, the childhood roots of her signature sound and how dropping out of the Arcade Fire tour was the right thing to do.

Much to the delight for those who irreparably suffer from millennial nostalgia, Feist will release her sixth studio album on April 27: Multitudes.

For followers of her career, now 24 years on from her debut album Monarch, this album should serve as a welcome reminder of why they became fans in the first place. Her haunting melodies persist, and the lyrics remain insightful as hell, but there is a newfound sonic cohesion that is sure to assuage the chaos of the last few years — a time that proved pivotal for the musician in creating this album.

Sruti Islam: There’s a lot in this record about being the best version of yourself. In “Forever Before,” you sing, “Try to be a good friend, most of the time.” It’s even in the album title, in that you embrace containing multitudes, not just being good or bad. What do you think drives our impulse to have to be one or the other?

Feist: I don’t necessarily feel there is such a thing as a hard line between good and bad. Or if there is, it’s a wavy one like an old river winding its way through us, and as we change, or the situation does, who we need to be to meet the moment changes, too. Relationship to ourselves times relationship to others to the power of time itself equals, well, maybe the Multitudes.

SI: I’m also thinking of the line, “And one day our deep humiliation will be known” in “Calling All the Gods.” Were you thinking about guilt when working on this album?

Feist: Not at all, but responsibility, yes. That line is actually from Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, which I found riveting and inspiring and reached into me like only a few books have in my life. It’s definitely because of her way of lifting the ancient text into the light of modern day. I’m no scholar but found it fascinating that Homer is supposedly unknown. Or perhaps there are just generations upon generations of Greek people committing this strangely random story of a fallible self-serving person to memory. Like, why that story? And then dotted all through it are these lucid statements people make where they feel the enormity of the past as they face their particular moment, their own “modern” moment, and wonder at how they’ll fare. It struck me as touching and strange to sing of a “one day” from today’s perspective, to feel the hope that if we’re lucky, one day we’ll know something that will make us seem small and cruel to our ancestors. But those words are 3,000 years old. It’s like a time machine, bringing any one person’s mind into contact with our evolution as thinkers and feelers.

SI: Is “Martyr Moves” a specific meditation on personal responsibility? I’m thinking of your decision not too long ago to pull some shows with Arcade Fire after certain allegations were made, and the decision to donate merch funds to women’s organizations. It’s a lot of personal responsibility women have to take when it comes to these issues and, I can only imagine, especially so for famous women. What are your thoughts on that?

Feist: Well, the record was already finished when I went over to Dublin and met that moment. All I can say is that it’s hard to find your bearings in a fog, and I was grateful to a lot of friends and colleagues who made what felt complicated also quite simple. Each person needs to do what feels right to them, and do their best to take care of one another along the way as best we can.

SI: While there’s been an evolution in your albums, there’s a signature Feist sound, a consistent style of layering of vocals. What is it about this effect, that sounds more like a community than a single woman, that appeals to you?

Feist: That’s a nice description of the feeling I have when I’m mocking those voices up. It’s been that way as long as I can remember. When I was maybe 12, my dad gave my brother and I each a ribbon on Christmas morning and said, “There’s something in the house with the colour ribbon on it and that’s your present!” So my brother and I ran up and down the stairs searching high and low until we found a four-track and a MIDI guitar. Hilariously, like Homer giving Marge a bowling ball for Chrismast in The Simpsons. My brother was five years older than me, so he basically absorbed both of them and lucky for me that meant I had a live-in tutor when I eventually got interested in the four-track.

So from the very beginning of playing around with recording, I was making tone poems of ambient sound sculpture, with stacks of harmonies and bits of radio static and blasts of orchestra and then giggling and more glorious choral phrases. He’d also given us an effects rack mount and so I drenched myself in reverb and learned to bounce tracks and would add more and more voices. They had a call and response feel to them even then, when I was 14. So I guess it was always there from the ground floor.

Feist cover Cult MTL April
Feist on the cover of the April issue of Cult MTL

SI: “Song for a Sad Friend,” again, feels like a meditation on personal responsibility. Out of care for a friend, the song reflects on letting someone you love feel sadness, even if it’s hard to bear and watch. Is that a right reading?

Feist: Yes, I’d say our sadness can be a teacher, an asset. I let it rule me like weather for years, as if I had no say or authorship of my experience of it. When I began to have panic attacks — which were so shocking and obliterating of what I understood the material of life to be made of — I started to understand that they were being caused by a deeper and wiser capability within me who wanted me to stop, drop and roll. They were caused to essentially save me from doing myself more damage, and later I began to be able to listen when more smoke would creep in under the door and I’d sense myself close to that sort of takeover again. And really, what my sadness told me was fucking important. It’s hard to not want to make it go away, or to console someone you love who’s hurting. But also, just letting it play out, seeing what it wants to point you at, that could be a helpful way to sit next to someone in pain as well. Like, when was the last time you saw a bloodhound stop barking at a scent it caught just because you said, “Ah, it’s okay?”

SI: Visually, this album is full of mirrors and reflections and fragments. Did the visuals feed into the music, or the other way around? Did you always know how this album was going to look? 

F: I didn’t know, no. I had already written the songs and the live installation tour was booked when we went into quarantine together at a farm in Canada to workshop ideas of how to stage it. Colby Richardson and Heather Goodchild met for the first time on the drive up to the country, and by the time they tumbled out onto the grass, they had concocted a bunch of ideas and felt they’d known each other for a long time. Colby is a video artist and as I showed the songs to my band — Todd Dahlhoff and Amir Yaghmai — in the barn, Colby set up a camera and began to show feedback effects. It made a lot of sense that the content of the video was being sourced from within the playing of the songs, that nothing making up the images came from outside the room. It was a commitment to the rarified air of establishing the language of multitudes together and in collaboration.

SI: Your last Valentine’s Day show was billed as a “mini-concert” — I’m curious why you took that approach and how comfortable or uncomfortable it is to be so raw and intimate with your listeners in those kinds of settings?

F: That tour was the sort of event that’s been hard to explain after the fact… not quite a concert and not a theatre show. But somewhere between the two, there was a very intimate communication with the audience that happened. It felt really unguarded and honest and the making of the show was as much a part of the show as the spectacle. Maybe making the spectator the spectacle, but not spectacularizing it? It felt essentially like a kind of egalitarian theatre experiment. To answer your question, having just lived through the pandemic, I felt a real lack of bravado and more so, a tenderness that recognized we’d all been through some kind of uncomfortable transformation. So to create a show that allowed space for that collective experience made more sense to me than anything. The mini concert was just a mini version, though lacking in a live audience, of that bare bones ethos.

From Multitudes, the upcoming album by Feist

SI: You’ve obviously grown and changed over time, and despite the years that have passed since you wrote songs like “Mushaboom,” and even ones like “It’s Cool to Love Your Family,” I wonder what pulls you to that theme? You know, for some people, family is the least appealing ideal, especially in my generation these days, so I wonder what pulls you towards the concept of family, or has that changed?

Feist: I belonged to a very solid family when I was just forming my expectations of the world. For better or for worse, it made me feel that belonging to a system built as much for love as survival is a beautiful thing to work towards.

SI: I know this album was a product of the pandemic, but was that period of forced isolation something you’re grateful for?

Feist: I’m grateful it stopped me in my tracks so I could just stay still with my baby girl. I suppose I’d imagined we’d just keep moving after she was born, the way I always had. But I’m glad I was made to just stop and be in one place and stare into her eyes for a couple of years, and learn what I needed to learn about what compels me to move so much in the first place. ■

Feist performs at MTelus (59 Ste-Catherine E.) on Friday, May 19, 8 p.m., $70.50. For more on Feist, please visit her website.

This article was originally published in the April 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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