Leslie Feist wears many hats. At one time or another, the Canadian songstress has been a rapper, a jester-like sideman and an indie rocker.
"The weirder the collaboration thrown across my field of vision, the more likely it is I will take it," she said.
She started out gigging up north with rockers By Divine Right. She was then rechristened Bitch Lap Lap by potty-mouthed electro rapper Peaches, with whom she was touring. Subsequently she became a vaudevillian partner in crime to absurdist "German" rapper Chilly Gonzales, a.k.a. Canadian songwriter Jason Beck.
Somewhere in between these costume changes and chaotic recording schedules, Feist — who records under her last name only — put out a self-financed solo album, Monarch (Lay Down Your Jeweled Head), that generally went overlooked. Then in 2002 she became an integral part of the Broken Social Scene collective and their breakthrough record, You Forgot It in People (see "Broken Social Scene Tire Of Sprawling Lineup; Look To Solo Projects, Soundtracks").
It wasn't until she moved to Paris and recorded 2004's Let It Die that her true musical identity begin to emerge: a torchy folk chanteuse with touches of silky bossa nova, luminescent jazz and velvety pop both bittersweet and romantic.
The solo endeavor has been a bit of a slog: The U.S. release of Let It Die was delayed a year, and she's been touring behind the disc for almost two years. But Conor Oberst took Feist under his wing, taking her on a Bright Eyes tour and recording a much-downloaded cover of her song "Mushaboom," helping to bring her to new audiences.
While the album was recorded in Paris, Feist says it's too simplistic to say that the disc's cabaret quality was inspired by the City of Lights. "No city can truly be the personification of its clichés," she said. "It's true: Paris is beautiful and has a romantic history, but the true romance of [France] for me was that it was an anonymous blank slate."
At the time, she was taking refuge from a painful breakup, and Feist said much of that heartache informed Let It Die's tone. "The song 'Let It Die' shows [a relationship] cycle: the beginning and the ending, the bittersweetness," she said. "Because the saddest part of a broken heart isn't so much the ending as the start. What's really tragic about the end of a relationship isn't all the little reasons why you're breaking up but remembering what had been."
Currently recording her follow-up in Paris, Feist is once again teaming up with Gonzales, in addition to soul-techno producer Jamie Lidell. A continuation of the theme and mood explored on Let It Die, Feist joked that the album should be called Let It Live, adding that many of her inchoate 2002 songs, collectively known by fans as the "Red Demos," will likely be up for inclusion on the disc.
"I haven't deviated far from what Let It Die is at the core — simplicity — and I'm not quite done with that idea yet," she said. "You know how certain smells can trigger memories and you're not quite sure where they come from? I get that same sensation from writing songs, and I feel like Let It Die was the beginning of something important [that I need to keep exploring]."
Feist has also been busy recording "Somewhere Down the Road," a track penned by Jesse Harris (Norah Jones' songwriting partner), for the Ethan Hawke-written film "The Hottest State." The soundtrack features different singers, including Tony Scherr, Willie Nelson and Norah Jones, covering songs by Harris.
Another feather in her cap was reuniting the Postal Service for a remix of "Mushaboom." Because of Death Cab for Cutie's heavy schedule, the duo of Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello hadn't worked together — aside from an Amensty International charity single — since the release of their debut, 2003's Give Up, but they were so smitten with the song that they fit in some time to reimagine the track. Feist herself was so taken with it that she re-recorded her vocals to better fit the tweaked version.
"It was as if it had gotten a chance to go to the costume shop and rent the most crazy Zorro costume," Feist said of the song, available on iTunes. "It's such a different take. It isn't so much of a remix as it is a remake, and it was so much fun."