Overview: The Music of Feist

by Roy Blank

On Friday, March 17th, Feist released her first song in six years: “Pleasure”, from her upcoming record, also titled Pleasure. The song is sparse, bleak, populated primarily by Feist’s trembling and sweet voice. It’s almost a minute before she starts to sing, first we hear a single droning note, then a tightly picked guitar line. “It’s my pleasure,” Feist growls in the song’s ostensible chorus, “and your pleasure.” Her voice is even lower now, grimy and masked in a recording that invokes lo-fi authenticity. The guitar picks up, snarling and distorted, but it’s soon replaced by a chorus of tightly-voiced woodwinds, sounding like they were recorded into a single, cheap microphone. The song is a triumph from here on out.

Leslie Feist has enormous credibility in Canada’s rock scene, even if you forget about The Reminder’s enormous popularity and Metals’ critical acclaim and Polaris Prize. Feist got her start singing backup for her then roommate, Canadian rock’s avant-garde provacteuse Peaches. She also developed friendships and working relationships with pianist Chilly Gonzales and Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, providing unforgettable lead vocals for the latter (“7/4 (Shoreline)” remains my personal favourite BSS song). From there, her solo successes began.

Let It Die was released in 2005, and it is one of the most confident official debut records I’ve heard (Feist has an earlier, 1999 record called Monarch, but it is not usually included in official discographies of Feist). Songs like “One Evening” and “When I Was A Young Girl” have remained essential songs in Feist’s catalogue, and the light-hearted success of “Mushaboom” shows the blueprint for “1234” -- more on that in a second.

Feist has a remarkable voice. It would be a mistake to describe her as one of rock’s strongest voices, but she imbues her sound with a confident ease and emotional weight that resonates across her songs. On Let It Die, her voice stands out in two excellent, disparate covers: the jazz standard “Now At Last”, and The Bee Gee’s “Inside and Out”. She is imbued with a mysterious mysticism when she sings: approachable, yet alien.

On the heels of Let It Die, Feist released the remix album Open Season. Remix albums were a distinctly 90s and early-Aughts phenomenon, but even if she was coming in on the tail end, Feist managed to create a distinct and impressive collection of remixes (and some original material as well).

Feist’s most pointed stab at mainstream success came shortly after, though, with 2007’s The Reminder. Accompanied by the infuriatingly catchy “1234” as its lead single, The Reminder rode its way to being the best-selling album of the ITunes Store in 2007. “1234” got its notoriety from more than traditional radio airplay, being chosen by Apple to accompany its twee, gargantuan marketing campaign for the IPod nano. The colourful, zippy song provided the perfect accompaniment for the colourful, zippy commercial, and Feist as “manic pixie dream artist” emerged.

 

“1234”’s success aside, The Reminder is a magnificent record. Building on Let It Die’s dual sensibilities of sweetness and melancholy, The Reminder takes Let It Die’s strengths even further. The album’s other singles, “My Moon My Man” and “I Feel It All”, combined a strong pop sensibility with similarly strong songwriting. The songwriting on the record shows Feist’s talent for collaboration -- “My Moon My Man” and “The Limit To Your Love” with Chilly Gonzales, the haunting “The Water” with Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning, “1234” with Australian singer-songwriter New Buffalo, and Canadian legend Ron Sexsmith on “Brandy Alexander”.

 

From here, Feist took her time in recording her next record. When 2011’s Metals was released, the initial reaction centered around the album’s lack of another “1234”, nothing as easily digestible and commercial-ready. However, most critics viewed the album in a positive light, commenting on Feist’s mature sound and complicated, jazz-influenced songwriting.

 

Metals is Feist’s towering musical achievement, and she was rewarded as such with the Polaris Music Prize, one of Canada’s highest artistic honours. The direct line from Metals to “Pleasure” seems clear, with Feist experimenting with experimental and edgier sounds. Whether Pleasure will be another Metals or something entirely different remains to be seen, but Feist does have a knack for rebuilding an album’s concept without destroying the great elements that were there to begin with.

Feist’s fourth studio record, Pleasure, will be released on April 28th, 2017.

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Roy Blank is a mysterious, unknowable quantity. I wouldn’t look too hard into it if I were you.