A Conversation With Feist, Canada’s New ‘It’ Girl, By Martha Plimpton

In this guest column, the actress talks with up-and-coming singer/songwriter Feist, whose new LP looks poised for big things.

Emmy-nominated actress Martha Plimpton, currently starring on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s epic trilogy “The Coast of Utopia,” is a veteran of film, television and theater. As you’ll see in this guest column, she is also a big fan of Canadian singer/songwriter Feist, whose new LP, The Reminder, was released on Tuesday (May 1).

I am a music lover, not a music journalist. I am a philistine and an ignoramus with an irrational aversion to reading liner notes.

So, truthfully, I’d heard Feist, who currently lives in France, long before I knew I was hearing Feist. Before the release of 2005′s Let It Die, she’d mostly sung with other people’s bands. But her newest record, The Reminder, written mostly on her own, is her best work yet, and I can’t stop listening to it. When I learned I’d have the chance to talk to her, I was beyond excited.

Leslie Feist, who (as a solo act) goes by her last name only, is a stunningly beautiful woman, with a face like a Left Bank manqué. Yet she’s not an imposing physical presence. At least, she’s not as tall as you imagine she is when you see her in videos flying out of windows (“Mushaboom”) or being carried over the heads of a hundred dancers (“1234″). It’s not surprising that she inspires directors to put her in flight one way or another (see “Feist’s ‘Mushaboom’ Attracts Bright Eyes, Reunites Postal Service” ). Her melodies coast through the air, fluid and balletic, but they’re always tied to an utterly human, earthbound truth. Like an aerialist, she’s flying, but the ground is ever-threatening. You only remember gravity when you’re defying it.

When we finally meet, I tell her about my liner-notes phobia, and how I consider myself a recent fan, and I hope she’ll forgive my ignorance about much of her earlier work. She puts me at ease immediately, saying sincerely, “That’s back-story, you know. That’s stats,” adding, “For me, the windshield is bigger than the rear-view mirror.”

But it’s my curiosity about how she developed her extraordinary voice that really starts our conversation. I want to know about her youthful years with the little-known Canadian punk band Placebo (not to be confused with the British band of the same name), and how she lost her voice — temporarily, thankfully — before she’d hit 20. “I snapped my little pink elastic-band vocal cords in half,” she laughs. “They were pissed off, just like the music.”

She speaks in riffs, with the unpretentious vocabulary of someone who is genuinely smart. She says she disappeared for a time to her “cave,” as she calls her father’s basement in Calgary, Canada, with a four-track recorder he’d given her. There, she says, she “escaped to melody,” in a process of elimination and experimentation that every artist has to go through as they move into a deliberate relationship with their gift. It was during that period, she says, when “the soundtrack just changed.”

So she moved to Toronto and met Gonzales, the pianist/producer whose Solo Piano album broke down the wall between pop and jazz in 2005. They struck up a friendship, and an artistic partnership that has clearly become essential to her. She calls him “My cohort, my partner in crime.” When they made Let It Die together, she says, “I wanted the guy with that topographical ability to see the current, almost when you see a map of the tides around the world. I’m down in the trenches … but he sees it from above.”

For The Reminder, they took over a chateau outside Paris and set to work with a decidedly lo-fi approach. Nature, maps, the movements of the sea — all play into Feist’s musical and conversational imagery with notable frequency, and this album is full of the sounds and strains of nature. Sweetly, it starts with an apology, “So Sorry,” an appeal to our gentler natures in love. She sings, “We’re so helpless. We’re slaves to our emotions. We’re divided by the oceans.” The next track, “I Feel It All,” kicks you forward. When she rips into the mic at certain moments, you want to jump out of your skin.

Feist is just as comfortable with an orchestral ballad like “How My Heart Behaves” as she is simply strumming a guitar, as on “Intuition.” Singing the lyrics, “It’s impossible to tell how important someone was/ And what you might have missed out on,” she sounds so lonely, until she’s met by a distant chorus of voices in a quiet call-and-response to, “Did I? Did I? Did I miss out on you?” The arrangement tells the story of personal experience given greater meaning by what we share with others.

Feist uses her voice like an instrument instead of just simple accompaniment. A lot of singers either belt embarrassingly or croon sullenly without any variation from song to song, as if having to sing at all were a joyless chore. There’s a self-consciousness that pervades much of the indie-girl-singer milieu. Though Feist is a profoundly personal writer, even in songs about heartbreak there’s humor, lightness, even optimism in her.

It’s this lightness that Gonzales appreciates. As he deliciously puts it in a phone conversation from Paris, “What motivates me most is the feeling of superiority I get from hearing other music that makes me sick and makes me want to vomit … there’s this pretension of heaviness around it, yet the result is so flimsy.” I immediately want to fly to France and buy this man many beverages. “There are so many insipid female singer/songwriters and a lot of them have inferior instruments and also an attitude that is sort of playing into the cliché of how a girl is supposed to be … some kind of victim. Feist seems to make you think of the time before that existed.” To work with her, he says, is “like setting things right.”

Toward the end of our conversation, I ask Feist if The Reminder represents some kind of “maturing” in her creative process. (It’s a ludicrous question, but I feel compelled to ask it anyway.) She demurs, but seems to know what I mean.

“I remember, I don’t even know how old I was, but the day it dawned on me that being in the fog of angst … it was just getting boring.” She smiles. “Straight up: ‘This isn’t any fun. This isn’t interesting.’ And it was kind of, ‘OK, I’m going to reach up, grab the doorknob, open the door, and I’m out of here.’ I feel like The Reminder is a lot of firsts for me. That’s what’s great about it. Everything should feel like a first.”