THE BACK PAGES

FRYING ONIONS IN NEW YORK

The idiosyncratic Feist tries to stay 'super calm' in the storm of fame

AARON WHERRY February 18 2008
THE BACK PAGES

FRYING ONIONS IN NEW YORK

The idiosyncratic Feist tries to stay 'super calm' in the storm of fame

AARON WHERRY February 18 2008

FRYING ONIONS IN NEW YORK

THE BACK PAGES

music

The idiosyncratic Feist tries to stay 'super calm' in the storm of fame

AARON WHERRY

She is 45 minutes late, but when she breezes in with a smile and an apology, all is forgiven.

Three camera crews—one each from Canada’s major television networks—have spread themselves out around this New York City theatre. Leslie Feist, in town to participate in the austere New York Times Arts & Leisure Week, approaches each in the predetermined order—“Hi, I’m Leslie, nice to meet you.” She sits down, her stylist fiddles with her bangs, and the questions begin. How do you feel about the Grammys? How are you absorbing it all? What’s the most surreal thing that’s happened to you? Have you thought about an acceptance speech? What are you going to wear? At the end of the first interview, the cameraman asks for an autograph for his 15-year-old daughter. Emboldened by his co-worker’s request, the sound guy asks if his daughter might have one too.

“I don’t have any interest in entering that crazy, bubble-gum sphere,” she had said earlier of these glib TV interviews. “I eat the bubble gum too. There’s merit to the bubble gum, sure. But it’s not something I’m interested in.” But this is fame. Or at least a moderate amount of it. Frivolous, fun, disorienting and generally unexplainable. Except maybe in the metaphors that fall out of Leslie Feist as if by accident.

“What success is—and I’ve had plenty of time to think about this—it’s if you’re doing exactly what you want to be doing and then somehow circumstances allow you to just put your hands into each decision and have it be your own decisions that guide the thing you’re doing,” she explains. “You actually start to

build the Lego blocks. So when you have something at the end, it feels like it’s entirely your own. It doesn’t feel monumental. It just feels like you’ve chipped away and whittled yourself something that looks like you.” Hers is the classic story. Only with half a dozen tangents that, even in hindsight, defy easy explanation. As a teenager, she was the lead singer in a Calgary punk band. She shredded her vocal chords and moved to Toronto, variously working with a hippy-dippy, powerpop band (By Divine Right) and an electroshock rapper (Peaches). She made a solo record (Monarch) that she now disavows, moved to Paris, collaborated with some friends on an indie-rock supergroup (Broken Social Scene), recorded a few primitive demos (in the background of one, a Toronto streetcar can be heard rolling past) and, almost inadvertently, put together 2004’s Let It Die, an album that, if nothing else, made it possible to believe Leslie Feist, now 31, would one day be somewhat famous. Ambition, she says now, unwittingly repeating a Radiohead lyric, can be a bit ugly. “I just never was an ambitious person. My ambitions were always really homespun. And it’s not that different now. I mean, Let It Die was just such an accident, so that kind of poised me for allowing myself to just take the ride.” That second attempt at a first album included the song Mushaboom, for which Feist was known before she became the girl in the iPod commercial. If she were a novelist, we’d say that it was here, with this bouncy pop song about the simple life (the song is named for a small town in her native Nova Scotia) that Feist discovered her voice. As it is, Mushaboom represents the point at which Feist seemed to figure out the relationship between her voice and her music—that deceptively simple songs might be built around an unadorned voice to strikingly intimate results. Consider the scene last year when Feist performed at Toronto’s Massey Hall. During one song, she asked if a young couple might want to come up on stage and slow dance. When she wondered aloud whether anyone else might want to join the show, she found herself almost run off the stage by eager pairings.

“I honestly don’t think mainstream success is something Leslie ever really thought about. She’s always been doing her own thing, her own wicked song la-la-la-ing in her head,” says her close friend Tyler Clark Burke, a Toronto artist. “I think she just slowly walked into this light.”

Feist’s success in her chosen field is now relatively unquestioned. The Reminder, her third record, released last May, reached l6th position on the American charts and was endorsed by music critics from sources as disparate as the New York Times and the Honolulu StarBulletin. Her nursery-rhyme-simple single 1,2,3,4 is now ubiquitous. Later this month, she will go to Los Angeles to see if anything is to come of her four Grammy nominations (most notably for Best New Artist). “Fm not doing anything incredible,” she says, a couple of weeks before finding out that she will also perform on the show. “I’m not raising children on my own. You know what I mean? I’ve got to keep perspective here.”

People paid to write about music for a living like to describe her music as “timeless.” But history will just as likely remember Feist as a success story distinctly of these times. Her record is sold in Starbucks. Her songs have soundtracked poignant scenes of The O.C. and Grey’s Anatomy. She’s been blogged about by Perez Hilton and sampled by Kanye West (who also blogged about her). She let Apple use 1,2,3,4 for an iPod commercial and was mocked by MadTV for it. She performed on Saturday Night Live, at the behest of NBC news anchor Brian Williams, and was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair.

On paper, it all appears very random. But then nothing happens without at least implicit intent. “In my heart of my hearts, I have to admit to myself that when I was making The Reminder, I was aware that there might be some ears listening,” she says. “But I guess I didn’t imagine like a statistic, a number or anything. It was more that I had played so many gigs that I just pictured all these rooms full of people. When I imagined ‘The People,’ it was always like a room of 500 people.”

To date, she’s sold tens of thousands of records. But it’s difficult to say exactly what that means—what power, fame and luxury that amounts to. Shortly before Apple offered her massive commercial exposure, Feist says, an executive at a major Canadian radio network blacklisted her for a couple of weeks because she declined to play a party of his. “It was like he wished he was Tony Soprano or something. And I didn’t give a shit. I honestly didn’t give a shit. It was just so petty and ridiculous.” (A moment after telling this

story she wonders if relating it to a reporter might get her in trouble.) If you explain to a U.S. customs agent you’re on your way to New York to interview Leslie Feist, the woman in uniform will stare back blankly. But then that’s Feist staring at you from the cover of the inflight magazine. In New York, Feist is being put up at the Gramercy Park Hotel, where Hilary Duff was recently spotted and the smallest room is priced at $500 a night.

But when Feist arrives, she walks through

the lobby without notice, dragging her luggage behind her. Later, she and a dozen friends—including, on this night, a furniture designer, a children’s television producer, a local music critic, a photographer, a clothes designer and Feist’s manager—will relax at a Mexican restaurant and giggle about her recent appearance at an awards show that involved co-presenting with Snoop Dogg.

“It’s really difficult to take a complex thing like your life and make it into a phrase,” she

ventures, before doing just that: “You’ve got to keep the eye of your storm super calm and keep it about frying onions and making phone calls to your grandma.”

A couple of hours after the TV shows are done with her, she’s interviewed again, this time by a nervous writer from the Times in front of a few hundred fans. She talks as she usually does, in stories that sometimes go nowhere and metaphors that seem to have only just been invented. Eventually the audi-

ence is invited to ask questions. Their queries are as vaguely unanswerable as those asked earlier by the professionals. If you were to play with three people living or dead, who would they be? Has the attention affected you? How do you write your songs?

Feist tries to answer each one, then returns backstage where someone else’s daughters have been brought by to meet her. When she leaves an hour or so later, a couple of fans are standing by the back door, waiting for autographs. An unidentified man snaps pictures as she climbs into a waiting car.

She remembers standing on stage one night, somewhere in America, performing for another 500 people. That Apple commercial was everywhere and The People were clamouring for her to play the iPod Song. For a second, she got scared. Oh crap, she thought, what have I done? Am I just the girl in the commercial? Is that it? Have I reduced my entire existence to a 3y2-minute pop song now used to sell a portable music player that will no doubt be rendered obsolete by year’s end?

But the panic quickly passed. “I just sort of had this calm in me,” she remembers. “And I said, ‘Well, if that’s the case, then my decisions guided me astray and I’ll go open a bookstore.’ ” All things considered, this does not seem an inconceivable conclusion. M

AN EXECUTIVE AT A CANADIAN RADIO NETWORK BLACKLISTED HER WHEN SHE DECLINED TO PLAY A PARTY OF HIS