Q&A With Feist

Leslie Feist, who’s profiled in the July 10 edition of Westword, has a way with words that can’t be duplicated. As a result, the following Q&A stands as a virtual adventure in lexicon, with Feist herself serving as your winsome guide.

Words are at the forefront from the beginning, with Feist commenting on the types of phrases she heard growing up in her native Canada and attempting to trace her fondness for unusual imagery. She then looks back to earlier days in her career, when she roomed with electro-clasher Peaches, a previous Westword interviewee, and hung out with Maya Arulpragasam, better known as M.I.A., who got the profile and Q&A treatment earlier in 2008. From there, she admits to being exhausted by the notoriety she achieved with her latest CD, The Reminder; shares the secrets she uses to trick her muse into blossoming; details the rigors of her touring regimen; shrugs off criticism of artists who license their songs for commercials, as she did with “1234,” which became a smash after it turned up in an iPod spot; and enthuses about guesting on Sesame Street – a topic that leads naturally into a tribute to puppetry that makes more sense in context that it does here.

Like pretty much everything else she says.

Westword (Michael Roberts): I came across an article about you that featured a quote I loved from your mother. It said, “She’s got more nerve than a toothache.”

Leslie Feist: (Laughs.) I hadn’t seen that, but she’s said that to me for years. That’s a Saskatchewanism. I think my grandpa probably used to say that, too.

WW: The way I interpreted it was, you’re always calm no matter the situation. Is that how it’s meant in Saskatchewan?

FL: I think she’s probably referring to guts. A toothache is like an exposed nerve ending, a live wire. It’s really, really sensitive and painful (laughs). Like a bare electric wire. All the time I was growing up, I kind of interpreted it to mean, “You’ve got guts,” or something like that. But I could be wrong. Who knows? My mom’s got lots to say (laughs).

WW: The colorful phrasing of that comment really struck me. Did you grow up around people who had a love for language, and who used it in unusual ways? And if so, do you think that’s rubbed off on your work?

FL: I always had an ear for those things, but they were kind of few and far between. I didn’t grow up with my dad; I was close to him, but I didn’t grow up with him. He left his family when he was a young fella, came up to Canada and was an art professor. But his family is more from St. Louis. His dad was in the Army, so Texas – and they moved around a lot. He’s got these amazing… (Pause.) Oh! I just found a frog!

WW: (Laughs.) Where are you at?

FL: I’m at my house. I live in the woods, and there’s a little frog on my deck here. He’s basking in the sun like a salamander. But anyway, my dad has a lot of those, and he pulls them out of his hat all the time. Like, “You don’t know shit from shinola.” I kind of wish I had a collection of those – a little Rolodex of catch-alls, catchy little wordplays.

WW: In terms of your lyrics, you may be expressing an emotion that a lot of people feel, but you tend to do it in a very individual way. Is that something you have to think about consciously? Or do the lines just come out that way, with your stamp on them?

FL: Everyone kind has a filter of their own language. Everyone uses language their own way, and some people play by rules, and they feel safe in there. Some people like turns of phrase. Some people are completely esoteric and hard to understand. It’s the same as you know what colors you like to wear and which ones you don’t. It’s something that’s individual to people, and I’ve always liked riddles. I’ve always liked nursery rhyme archetypes. Things from a distance. The symbolism of things rather than the grainy fact of them. I guess I like analogies, I like metaphors, I like riddles and little catch phrases. I don’t know. It’s sort of like language is always hinging on itself, and you just find what makes you feel like it resonates right, you know?

WW: A few months ago, I got a chance to interview M.I.A.

FL: Oh yeah.

WW: I understand that you got to know her a little bit when you toured with Peaches [profiled in Westword in July 2006] on an Elastica tour a few years back. Is that right?

FL: Well, kind of. I was with Peaches… She did an American tour with Elastica, and I wasn’t on that tour. But then I did a European tour maybe two or three months after that, and when she had some time off in London, because she’d just gotten to know Justine [Frischmann, Elastica’s lead singer, who spoke to Westword in June 1995]. And Justine invited us to stay at her place in Notting Hill, in London, and we had six days off, and Maya [Arulpragasam, M.I.A.’s given name] was her roommate. She wasn’t a musician at the time at all. She was an awesome kind of film-making, clothes-sewing eccentric, awesome girl. We just cooked and watched The Sopranos and went to the flea market and hung out. She wasn’t making music yet, but Justine and Maya were both really curious about Peaches’ 505 and talking beats and “What’s it like to use machines to make music?” Anyway, it was sort of formative times, I guess. It was great. I love M.I.A.’s stuff, and I think it’s amazing she found it somewhere. Obviously, it was just meant to me.

WW: The fact that Peaches played a part in both of the careers of two such different performers is interesting to me. Do you think she’s an underrated artist in some quarters, and something of a role model?

FL: Peach? I don’t know. I don’t really keep tabs on how things are being perceived. But she’s becoming a role model, I guess, because she was on the cusp of something that kind of expanded to become a genre. She’s sort of the father figure, so to speak, of that. But she’s really spending a lot of time… She’s reached into conceptual art, and I know she’s spent some time working on a long-term installation piece in Berlin. She’s working a lot in that realm, and she’s done some installations now. I think she’s finding a bridge between the performance aspect of her conceptual art that she was doing and now art, straight up – art for art’s sake. I think she definitely has some purity to what she’s doing, and it’s completely who she is.

WW: When people hear the music you made with Peaches and with Gonzales, and then they hear The Reminder, they may be struck by how different it is. But does all of that music represent different sides of you? Did the older stuff represent the “you” back then, but you’re a different “you” now?

FL: Well, that was never me, because I wasn’t writing it. I was really happy to join forces and be on tour with those guys. They were really my best buds, and at the time, I lived with Peaches. We were roommates when she first started to do the Peaches stuff. So it was kind of a strange, visual, public extension of what we did at home anyway (laughs). Just her making beats and cooking dinner at the same time, and having tons of friends drop by, and those friends were Mocky and Gonzales and Taylor Savvy, and people who went on to move to Europe. It was sort of this time where everything was being stirred in the cauldron. It wasn’t a fact yet, and nobody was taking anything for granted. We were all living hand to mouth. And so when they sent me a paper ticket, because back in those days, that’s what it was – in the mail came a ticket to join them on tour. And it was like, yeah, of course. I did it because that’s what you do with your friends – you went on a trip to Europe. I wasn’t collaborating with them at all. I was really a backup singer, in essence, and it would be really unremarkworthy if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve made a couple of records that are really different from that was. But I was never making those records. So it’s not a big surprise for me.

WW: At the same time, do you think that the music you’ll be making five years from now could sound entirely different from your current stuff, and yet it would be just as true to yourself as what you’re doing today?

FL: Of course it’s possible, and I would be excited if that was the case. It would mean I caught some new whiff of something. But honestly, right now I’m kind of slowing down, I’m gearing down. I’ve been on tour for about six years now. Let It Die [from 2004] went straight into The Reminder. I think there’s something to be said for everything in moderation, and I haven’t done anything moderately. I’ve just been stoking the engine – going and going and going. And I don’t really have much perspective right now. I just need to stop it all for a while and hear what might come next. I made The Reminder on the go, but I couldn’t do it again. I couldn’t make another record on tour.

WW: Do you feel you need to stop and collect inspiration and information, and be patient enough to wait for what comes next?

FL: Exactly. I need to allow myself to believe I may never write another song before I write another few dozen. You know what I mean? You have to believe you could let it go. It’s sort of like the muse. You’ve got to trick the muse into showing itself by pretending you don’t care. Sort of like the ghost in the room, and there’s a flicker in the corner, and as soon as you look, you can’t see it anymore. You know that sensation? You see something from the corner of your eye and you get the sensation that you can only see it from the corner of your eye. You can’t see it if you stare straight at it. And being on tour, you’re staring straight at it every day. It becomes a kind of banal, scheduled thing, instead of something you’re tripping over while you’re doing something else. And then it’s that moment of “Eureka! There it is!” So yeah – exactly what you said (laughs).

WW: In America, it’s a little bit unusual for someone like yourself, whose work is challenging and multifaceted, to reach a mainstream audience, as you have. Did you shoot for that? Or has your level of success in the States been a surprise to you?

FL: Oh, it’s all been a surprise. It’s a total surprise (laughs). I realize, I guess, that I did some things that helped it grow, but that wasn’t the intention. The intention wasn’t for it to grow, but just the fact that I came from this sort of boot-camp touring mentality. I’ve toured since I was sixteen. I’ve just been doing it for so many years, and then all of a sudden, when it was in front of me to continue – but there would be people listening this time around? (Laughs.) I just kept doing it, and I kind of felt this strange gratitude. People’s ears were finally open, and if I shut down, if I get too tired to keep going, how ironic would that be? I toured for ten years and people weren’t listening, and now people are, so I’ve got to keep going. I guess I fueled this thing to go beyond where it was maybe intended to, or something like that. I can’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but it’s not something I sought after. And what I’ve always appreciated is that there was a real motley crew of Mötley Crüe fans – no, just joking! But a motley crew of different people at the shows, and it would be a real shame if it homogenized out to one type of people who listened to one type of formatted radio or something that it happens to be played on. I would love to do what I can to put a stick in the spokes and slow it all down again.

WW: A lot’s been made of the use of “1234” in an advertisement. Did you resist doing that at first? Or is that whole Neil Young-“This Note’s For You” kind of thinking hopelessly out of date at this point?

FL: What’s “This Note’s For You”?

WW: He did a song called “This Note’s For You” in which he talked about how he wouldn’t use any of his songs in commercials. It was a parody of the Budweiser slogan of the late ‘80s.

FL: Oh, okay. Well, no, I didn’t think about it in those terms. It’s like anything. My mom always says, “I don’t have to think about feminism because all the work already got done” (laughs). That’s how I grew up, and I took for granted things that weren’t taken for granted in my grandma’s generation, or whatever. I guess I’m just of the generation… The term “selling out” is just a little bit more particular to each person and their opinion and what you feel and what your gut tells you. And there have been tons of things I’ve said “no” to – that my gut said “no” to, but other people might say “yes” to. And maybe Neil Young would say “no” to what I did. But my motivation wasn’t, “What’s my role in this political debate? And how am I going to represent myself in this debate?” It was really just that I’d made a video with my friends and here was a chance to have it seen. Probably that’s naïve, and maybe I’d think twice about it in the future…

WW: I don’t know why you would given how successful it was…

FL: Well, maybe Neil Young was saying that because his mortgage was paid, you know? (Laughs.) There’s a thousand reasons why people say “yes” and a thousand reasons why people say “no,” and you really have to know the whole story. It’s like my lawyer always says, I’m comparing apples and oranges. I can’t look at anybody else’s anything. You can’t ever really know what you’re looking at. You have to know the entire picture as to why someone said “yes” or “no,” and you can’t make a judgment about it without that, you know.

WW: One of the other things you said “yes” to was performing “1234” on Sesame Street

FL: Yes!

WW: Was that something you agreed to immediately? Or did you wonder, “Do I want people to think this was always really a counting song”?

FL: No, I was so glad. In a way, I was so sick to death of “1234” at that point. It was such an amazing, cathartic release to have the song turned into a song for kids, which is what, in essence, it turned out to be in reality, too. So many people came up to me and said, “My three-year-old can’t stop singing it!” (Laughs.) And like I said, I love nursery rhymes, I love fairy tales – so why not? It was great. And the puppets – are you kidding me? I learned to count watching Sesame Street. To be there, well, it was one of the best days. It was truly a great day.

WW: You have some background in puppeteering, don’t you?

FL: I’m just an admirer. Like people will say, “I love music but I can’t play.” I’m a puppet fan, and I feel like – you know that movie Sliding Doors, where the character’s life could go any direction at any minute? I kind of feel like the doors may slide one day and that’s where I’ll wind up.

WW: Really?

FL: Well, I work with this girl on tour. Her name is Clea Minaker, and she’s doing a shadow-puppet show. Like, my show now has this shadow puppet going on behind it. It’s just a beautiful, black-and-white, two-dimensional, non-narrative subplot that’s going on behind it at the same time. Feelings and movements and little storylines that are loose enough that the song can kind of interpret it rather than be like nails in a stone. And that was something I thought of after I saw Clea and I started to play theaters and bigger venues and realized that they weren’t the sweaty clubs of yore. I needed to consider other people’s eyes, and it’s just a real pleasure to have the chance to do that.

WW: Given what a long haul your tour has been, do elements like the ones she brings help keep you engaged in the performances even though on some level you’re exhausted?

FL: Exactly! (Laughs.) I really have loved creating the group around me. They create themselves, really, but just having this group around me makes me feel like I’m one of many rather than in the spotlight. You get a little weary, a little dizzy from the vertigo when you’re in the tower of notoriety. You get a little dizzy up there, and I’m really lucky to have really, really ironic, down-to-earth, tongue-in-cheek, irreverent friends that I tour with. It keeps it very real, not to mention the level of being aware of the art you’re making. It makes me feel like it’s just one step beyond what I did for all those other years. Now that I have Clea on stage, I would feel so exposed just strumming a guitar at this point. I kind of need a little something to wrap myself in.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts