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Feist Is in Her Full-Circle Era

“I’d say the person that I needed to be to write those songs was very much a future self,” Feist says of her new album Multitudes. Photo: Mary Rozzi

When singer-songwriter Leslie Feist appears onscreen, my eye is immediately drawn to the painting behind her. It’s a violent agglomeration of primary colors — deep impastoed blues and glazes of red competing for the center. I ask whether the piece is one of her father’s, the late abstract artist Harold Feist. “No,” she says with a smile, “this is my 2-year-old’s.” She pans the camera to her left, showing me a gray canvas with ashen-colored spokes jutting out from the negative space of a circle. “This was his.”

Two years ago, Feist faced one of the greatest challenges she has ever had. Shortly after the birth of her adopted daughter, her father suddenly died, leaving her to learn how to be a parent while grieving her own. Multitudes, Feist’s sixth studio album (out April 14), was composed entirely in this aftermath of new life and death. On it, bursts of energy are beleaguered by sleep, and lullabylike passages are interspersed with wails of joy. Feist’s voice sounds direct and new here, as though it were giving birth to itself. While writing primarily in the little pockets when her daughter was dozing, the singer eventually workshopped a bulk of the album in public at a series of live in-the-round events — her audience dotted around her like spokes. She talked to Vulture about the inception of the new record, why her lyrics are letters to her future self, and how she keeps things fresh this far into her career.

I was just reading some interviews with your dad. Those spokes in his work seemed to provide a creative breakthrough for him in that they limited his scope while providing new artistic problems to solve. Did you ever have a “spokes” moment yourself?
I have to admit, I didn’t read much about him. Over the years, as I was understanding — and maybe he understood before I did — that I was starting to approach a private conversation with craft, we were able to begin to have broad-stroke conversations about process. It was always really helpful and interesting. Plus I witnessed him facing the blank canvas my entire life until the day he died. The last two weeks of his life were spent with his work hung in a gallery. It was an ongoing commitment to that conversation. In terms of the spoke and the formalism of it, there was a repetition to it, and it was about finding new information through that repetition. I feel like what I’ve been writing is starting to refer to its own vocabulary. It has become a large enough body of work. It has become safety in numbers. There are now dozens of songs that are self-referential, and I’m the only one who maybe sees that scaffolding and is like, “This is the granddaughter of ‘Mushaboom’” or “This one is the love child of ‘Century’ and ‘Pleasure.’”

After experiencing the birth of your daughter and death of your father in quick succession, did the circular nature of life become any clearer for you?
The cycle was made clear to me for the first time, I suppose. You see it seasonally. Nature’s such a handy metaphor, because everything’s playing out in front of us and if we tune our eyes to it, we’ll see there are always repetitions occurring. I had never considered myself on a parallel path to nature. I wouldn’t have known in my early 20s that I was in the spring of life. There is a circle that’s presenting itself now, which is ironic, because when I was 16, I had a circle tattooed right on the center of my body, and I wrote myself a letter in the waiting room of the tattoo parlor. (I used a fake ID, which I’d printed at the Army base right next to my high school, to get the tattoo.) The letter explained why I knew the circle was the mnemonic of my life. I’d begun to realize that nothing was permanent. I felt the high-low of social pressure and feeling kind of alpha, then feeling super under someone’s heel. In high school, I’d see that the fates were always shifting. My safety and standing were always changing.

I guess I’m coming — ha — full circle now to a deeper understanding of an idea I’d planted when I was younger, something I branded myself with to keep in my mind. But then you lose sight of the circle, like the dark side of the moon. You’re right though. Everything has come back.

That circle anecdote makes me think of a lot of your songs. They seem like letters you’re writing to a future self — full of ideas that you’ll later try to actualize and manifest.
That’s right. There is a kind of word magic or aspirational future self. Someone recently told me, “Write songs that you feel you’ll need to grow into. Don’t write about the past. Write about an aspirational future, and create a container that’s bigger and a bit more challenging that would require more of you to grow into.” That was running in the background of my subconscious the whole time I was writing this record. Actually, it really did mirror life, because life then, all of a sudden, required more of me. It became a bigger container.

How did raising an infant alter your creative process?
The gestation happened in a hermetically sealed ecosystem — a sort of creative container. I was with a growing infant while I was writing these songs. Let’s carry on the circle analogy here. I was singing lullabies to her in near silence in the darkness, and in that darkness there was a brand-new responsibility. I understood she was listening to my presence, the quality of my warmth. I was the only one in the room listening to my words. There was somehow this truth serum in my arms, and I worked out a lot of the songs in that near-silence. Then when I was able to take it into the form with guitar, my joke with her — not that she was in on the joke — was if you could just give me three minutes, I’ll give you a hundred minutes. I’ll give you it all! Just let me work on this song for a second!

My friend Ariel Engle, a singer in Broken Social Scene who has her own project called La Force — she said she wouldn’t have found La Force or made her first record until her daughter raised the stakes because, all of a sudden, time became finite. Our identities are completely called into question and incinerated by this new role and responsibility, so there’s an even deeper compulsion to find what there is to say, to plant the flag and find some turf. So I hadn’t written quite so quickly or quite so much in such a short amount of time. Usually, it takes me … what’s the right word? When you give endless permissiveness? I would give myself the luxury of endless time. And though it looks like I took a long time between records, really, I toured for two and a half years, took maybe a year of tending to life, and this time the pandemic hit and my baby was there and the world shut down, so most of these songs were written after she was born.

This record sounds like nothing you’ve done before — like you’re exploring your instruments (both guitar and voice) in completely new ways. How do you achieve a feeling of freshness six albums in?
I was trying to find something new to do with my hands. I was moving the tuning heads to make myself get lost, so that I wasn’t able to make a G chord or a C chord, because I would just detune the guitar and make it sound like something I needed to learn from scratch. So, almost every song has some kind of alternate tuning, as a way to trick my hands. Then with the building of the songs, I was trying to shake off some of my old habits or double down on some of the skills that I wanted to get better at.

I’d say the person that I needed to be to write those songs was very much a future self. So much was shook by the bookends of my heart opening a thousand times bigger than it could have ever known. To the open heart, I received the blunt-force trauma of losing my dad. It’s still sort of strange, because these are two of the most important events in my life that have been shifting and changing me, and they don’t really feel like things I understand yet — but, luckily, that’s what songwriting is. It’s not a place to put the solutions. It’s a way to phrase a question so that I can keep learning what the answer might be. All of that has to do with who I am hoping to evolve into in order to carry this weight of all these questions, these unanswerable questions.

There’s a kind of yearning for the collective across the album. It seems like you’re trying to find a new way for us all to relate to one another.
I suppose I had felt a bit like an outlier or a silo of knowledge. I had felt — maybe not isolated but not quite possessed of a vocabulary for what my internal world was starting to piece together. Maybe the pandemic really brought into focus the chosen family around me — who I work with and the people I cook meals with. They’re all equally important to me, because they’re the people who hold me up so I can continue to find joy and connect. Then, becoming a mother, I was looking around and realizing half of my friends have been doing this for so long. I was like, “I didn’t understand you were under this amount of pressure,” so I suppose I’m more interested now to find a common language.

In a way, I guess I’ve been wondering about that for years, because the last record came out of a real time of isolation, when I was maybe at the beginning of the time of wanting to reach out and understand what we may all have in common. The record was exploring some of those ideas, then I made a podcast series after that, which kind of explored the common ground under all of our subjectivities. And this record — you’re just making me realize — may have been the result of popping out of the other side of that.

You just described yourself as a “silo,” but there was certainly this twee moment at the beginning of your solo career that may have fit you into its center all too neatly. How do you look back on that moment — if you ever do? 
Well, the joke was that after The Reminder, we banished the glockenspiel. We were like, “Okay, the glockenspiel is maybe responsible for this twee moment.” So we moved toward baritone saxophone and synthesizers. Maybe it was a little feeling like a pisshead. Actually, it was interesting, because it didn’t feel like I was aiming at a target that was twee. I come from being in punk bands, and the glockenspiel felt kind of radical to me because of my life experience. Even the song “1234” felt conceptually radical, because it was so direct and unapologetically a Muppet-style sing-along. So the word twee — I retro-realized that was what was happening. But I appreciate that moment. It was a Zeitgeist of people feeling safety in primary colors or something. I think, like anything, there has always been experimental art made in parallel to art that’s on the surface. I feel like I’ve decided that I wanna get a little subterranean and maybe acknowledge my shadow self. She has always been steering the wheel, but I don’t know if I can sing from her, you know?

Last year, you departed a tour alongside Arcade Fire when allegations concerning Win Butler began to surface. What have you taken from that experience, and has it allowed you to set clearer intentions for the rest of your musical career?
If I could just boil it down … First, it showed me that nothing is more important than my personal responsibility. The corruptive force of needing to make a living — even that needs to take its context from my morals, ethics, and responsibility to myself and to everyone who works with me. It was very uncomfortable to need to thread that needle, because I wasn’t comfortable with the thoughts going through my head. I wasn’t comfortable with understanding that, though we operate as a collective, nobody around you would even proffer a single opinion. My team just said, “Whatever you decide. We’re with you 100 percent.” Like, no! What do you mean?! In that moment it became uncomfortably clear to me that there was a responsibility that I needed to find an answer to that question and walk toward it. Interestingly, there’s a song on the record that wasn’t just about what it felt like to become a parent but to understand what’s in front of you, then to move with full intention into it — not try to dodge it sideways, back out of things, or recuse yourself of responsibility but to actually assess, then move with intention. I would say that moment might have been my boot camp for personal responsibility.

This interview has been edited and condensed

Feist Is in Her Full-Circle Era