Prompted, Leslie Feist turns and looks up behind her at a large, bright, abstract painting, hanging on its own on an otherwise bare wall. “That’s my daughter’s finger painting,” she tells me, of her three year old’s masterpiece. “That says it all. She’s like Minnie Mouse in Fantasia.”
Mere weeks before her new album release, she seems blissfully unaware that her fanbase has been holding their breath, waiting. For most, she had us at “Mushaboom” (2004), or perhaps it was the sight of her dancing to 2007’s “1234” in a blue sequin jumpsuit, forever oozing cool-girl gamine vibes. (Singing a version of “1234” to Muppet monsters on Sesame Street only added to her allure.)
April 14 marked the moment of exhale, and the release of Multitudes, her sixth full-length album and follow-up to 2017’s Pleasure. Like the world around us, Leslie’s music has evolved too. The album embodies the same layered “simplicity” (yes, in quotes) that has defined her. “Layered” in its ability to contain/reflect/embody the weight/exuberance/infatuation with and for life itself. This is why, when you speak of Feist’s music to her devotees, many refer to her as their therapist. They genuinely feel they know her. The songs reflect a deeper understanding.
So, even if it sounds simple, there’s nothing simple about it. It’s true artistry.
What is it about Feist’s music that offers exactly what we all need to hear at the time, when the world is spinning out of control?
“I work in a hermetically sealed box, and then it seems like it’s all in my computer, and I’m still making changes, and I’m still obsessing about mix nuances, and then it’s sort of like the next day, it’s in the world,” Leslie explains, of her process. “It’s just so strange. I’m still like, ‘Wait, I’m not done,’” she chuckles. “It’s fun too. It’s like you can never finish a work of art. You literally have to back away from it. What’s that expression? You just have to just back away and not do any more damage or something.”
On the adjacent wall, to her right, hangs a painting by her father, an abstract expressionist—another “simple,” layered, mesmerizing artist. “This is the Feist family gallery right here,” she says, smiling, and the two paintings—her father’s and her daughter’s — complement one another. “The joke is my dad said you can’t be an artist, and then I tricked him,” she says. “I was like, ‘Fine, I won’t paint.’”
We talk about the production of Multitudes, how it was written and developed as a live theater piece, and the six years between album releases. “I was on tour for probably two years or something, and then I became a mom [in 2019] and the pandemic hit.” She also lost her father suddenly.
Multitudes reflects all of this, the heart swells and the fiery lows of healing and being passionately human. It is a Peer Gynt-esque epic musical journey.
Her phone rings and she graciously apologizes, explaining that a dear 77-year-old friend—“my elder”—has called to let her know that he’s put a pie in the oven and when she’s finished, they’ll have warm pie to share.
“We all need elders,” she says, wisely. She explains that this friend’s land is where they shot the video for “In Lightning,” one of the album’s more sonically riveting songs.
“It’s a family affair, all of this stuff,” she says.
How was the process of creating Multitudes different from the others?
This record was written, essentially, for a live show that we toured through the pandemic. I made a theatrical socialist theater experiment that we staged with David Byrne’s production designer [Rob Sinclair]. It was in the round, and we built it in Germany and moved it through North America. You could have very limited capacities. It was a dream I’d had for years, this egalitarian theater experiment. It was the moment where the world had room for that. That would allow for such an un-commercially viable way to share space with audiences. The songs were written largely for that show… it was sonically in the round as well [for] the audience. Essentially pre-production for the record was on tour. The songs were continuing to change, and I was changing lyrics. I was changing arrangements because we did it two times a night as well.
It was like a play in that sense. We just did it twice. It was getting refined and refined until we just went into the studio and in two weeks recorded it. It was relatively easy in the sense that the songs were well-vetted at that point.
How did this process affect the sound?
Normally I record in a live-off-the-floor collective way. The way that this show was formed was it was half solo and then slowly it seemed like an audience member was getting up and grabbing things and plugging things in and everyone was sort of, “What is that guy doing?” Then he’d sit down and begin to play.
It was a bunch of treated violins and organs and synthesizers and then acoustic guitar. I was playing mostly solo for the show. The idea that my co-producer Mocky had was, “Why don’t we record primarily you solo — instead of playing live off the floor with everybody. Like Metals was a live album essentially, and Pleasure was in large part a live album with just Mocky and I playing everything.
The way we approached, it was me alone, and then I identified the few players that I have always admired and said, “Let’s just call them wild cards. They don’t even know the songs. Let’s bring them in to listen to the solo performances and then we’ll find what the instrumentation might need to be.”
It’s kind of, let’s get Gabe Noel in and whatever he brings with him. Then of course my two live players who are on the tour with me.
How do you achieve so many emotional layers?
I think I have been working to take my own lostness because I do feel on a daily basis challenged. I understand the mountainous mood shifts, the weather systems pouring in, and the quiet interior battle for just one optimistic thought a day. You know what I’m saying? Time having been reduced down to nothing because I have a toddler. There’s no time anymore. There’s no room for myself, it feels sometimes.
Songs are luckily my own medicine. I can understand and respect the role that music can play for people because I’ve medicated myself through many a dark moment, I’m trying to say, with Philip Glass Saxophone Quartet, or with Adrianne Lenker, who I wrote a soliloquy to when I was in the wee hours of my daughter having been… she was maybe four days old and I wrote Adrianne and said, “I understand now what music is for… I’ve been cracked and broken by exhaustion, to the degree that the only medicine, the only salve for my exhausted brain, is you playing guitar and singing because I don’t know how else I could make it through this hour.” Because it is true.
Sometimes there’s a life raft in the form of “Just Like Heaven” by the Cure, which will be the only thing that can completely snap me out of it and put me back on the bus to school with my Sony Sport Walkman.
Having done it on the other end of things, made songs for 20 years or longer, but 20 years’ worth of record-making. I think I’ve been quietly identifying what my vocabulary is and what the scaffolding and the structure of what I’m trying to do [is], and it is to get closer and closer to an uncomfortable [truth]. Imagine it in some fantasy novel where the protagonist finally finds the well and looks down into the water, and that’s where the truth is revealed.
I’m looking to songs to help me pose the question more accurately. I don’t want to live inside my own illusions. I don’t want to project onto the people around me to make myself more comfortable. I don’t want to live in a lie where I’m slightly more comfortable but way more constricted. There’s been a lot of just trying to reckon with my — I don’t know, with my responsibility to my path in life here.
Songs are luckily something that served that questioning. It’s not like I can provide a single answer. God knows I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing from moment to moment, but I think that I’m learning how to pose the question in a way that can maybe be in service of other people’s questions. That would make me feel that I am good. Maybe that’s what all of us want, to not cause harm.
There’s so much on this album that feels so provocative and so different—where did songs like “In Lightning” come from?
This morning I wrote something for the song and the video that just came out this morning. About the collective and how the song kept shape-shifting until — “Borrow Trouble” did, but also “In Lightning” very much did, and similarly. It was an acoustic song because of the live show, in which there had been no drums. Then my dear friend Mike Mills, who makes films, has become the guardian of these songs because he was hearing them from their earliest demos. He was my pen pal through the pandemic. While he was editing his film C’mon C’mon, I was writing what was going to become the show.
We were…talking about process and art and aspirations, and where we snag ourselves, and giving each other dares and taking each other out of our comfort zones in each of our work. It was a real gift. When I finally came back to Los Angeles and we were going to record, we brought the hard drive home from having captured everything. At that point, it became a major carving exercise. Because people had played a lot of beautiful stuff. Then I had to decide, carving it away, sculpting what the final thing was going to be. Then Mike came in and said, “I know that I’ve said I’m behind this solo record thing, but you need to play drums because you’re not a drummer and you need to play drums like a guitar player. You need to just do what you would do this way, but with sticks, and just be feral, and the song needs more feral.”
He was the one that pushed me towards what became that syncopated glitch drum wildness.
Taking it from a solo acoustic song [laughs], where the “la la la la” and the verses were very unfettered by tons of production, to turn that in a way, take what the song is saying and make us hear that. It’s concrete poetry or something in the sense that you try to take the lyrics and have the production reflect what the lyrics are saying. It is about trying to be seen and see ourselves clearly.
Exactly what I was just telling you. The project of owning my time and place, not diminishing myself. Because, ironically, women tend to diminish, we diminish ourselves the more years we accumulate. My friend who’s my age, she has a great clothing brand called Local Woman. She said, “Why is it that the less of me there is the better? Less time, less space? My role as a woman is to diminish myself in time and space.” Then that somehow has a higher currency. Just naming it, calling it, and the song is essentially that idea as well. It’s trying to catch those glimpses of clarity and collect them. Collect those little intermittent blasts of eureka moments and just try to find some love of self in those moments.
Why do you think it’s important to get outside our comfort zones?
Maybe just to really take a good look at those comforts and whether they’re serving us or not, whether they’re serving our growth. Because I think a lot of comforts can be to spin our wheels in place because it’s more comfortable right here than lifting our eyes to the horizon and really assessing where we’re at and who’s here with us and how we want to take our next step. Sometimes comfort can be a tractor beam just gluing you to a certain way of behaving that doesn’t require any real plumbing of the depths or unpacking of the tendencies towards this or that.
I don’t know that it’s about being uncomfortable. It’s just about maybe making a bigger container of comfort so there’s a little bit more wingspan inside that comfort so you can actually move.
Some might be surprised to hear that you started off in punk…how do you feel that background correlates to the music you create now?
Maybe it’s a full circle or something because I think that I was first drawn to it, probably because it was a way to enact the velocity I felt inside of me. Being in a punk band, screaming into a microphone, sweating, and mosh pits, the whole thing was an accurate reflection of the scope of my feelings when I was 15, 16. I think that punk is innately supportive and community-driven. It’s positive. It’s anger with activism at its core. It’s calling it as you see it. I suppose a lot of that remains in me.
It just expresses itself as befits my time on Earth or something. I’m not as angry. I would say that I feel more grief and despair. I don’t get as angry about it, I suppose. If I look around at what’s happening in the world, I feel overwhelmed by the nuanced darkness. I think that the [closer] people can be in touch with their feelings, maybe not anger as the primary one, but compassion, and curiosity, then maybe it doesn’t need to be quite — we could shed a little light into the darkness or something. As I say that, I don’t know that I believe that because — we’re in a freaky time right now. But the punk, yes, I think you could agree that it was always labeled by the generation that came before as something negative, but we know from within it that it wasn’t. It isn’t.
Obviously people have fans, but community is something a little bit different and really, really special.
That show in the Round — I felt like we really exchanged something. There was a synergy — we were really on the same same moment. It was a really amazing way to see each other and to feel each other, and it really felt like a collective. Sure, I was playing songs, but I didn’t feel it was a concert in that binary give and receive.
It wasn’t a two-dimensional stage and performer thing, which is usually the case. Even emotionally, it didn’t feel transactional in that way. It felt like something else. There always are shows where you are at where a swelling collective kind of rarefied air can happen, but I felt maybe because everybody was quite porous.
Most people have gone through some loss, either of an illusion or a person, or a tendency or a habit, you know what I mean? That there was a lot of reassessment going on, and a lot of discomfort and pain had been endured by so many people, and in a way we were able to grieve it and laugh at it together in that context. It felt different.