IF YOU FIND YOURSELF in Paris one day and haven’t a clue whether the Musée d’Orsay is à droite or à gauche, luck just might deliver you into the hands of the musician known as Feist. The ultra-hip vocal powerhouse moved to the City of Light six months ago, and she’s been randomly offering directions to Canadian travellers. These acts of kindness aren’t entirely selfless. The 28-year-old Calgary native—whose new CD, Let It Die, has made a splash with critics and on the charts in France—hasn’t yet mastered French and is often on the prowl for some effortless conversation, complete with common reference points. “If I hear a recognizable accent,” she says, “I immediately turn to them and say, ‘Do you know who Shelagh Rogers is?’ And if they do, then we high-five each other and go have a beer.”
On May 18, Canada gets its introduction to the latest incarnation of Feist (her given name is Leslie, but she goes by surname alone) with the release here ofLet It Die (Arts & Crafts), a collection of soul, pop, jazz and even disco tunes that’s bound to show up on yearend Top 10 lists. For anyone already familiar with the earlier work of this petite, striking brunette, the brilliant eclecticism of Let It Die is no surprise. At 16, she was the lead singer of the aggressive Calgary indie rock band Placebo, and after a move to Toronto in the mid-’90s, she played guitar with By Divine Right, a quieter group of rockers, and put out her first solo CD, Monarch, in 1999. For the past couple of years, Feist has been one of the rotating singers with Toronto supergroup Broken Social Scene when she’s not touring the world with Chilly Gonzales—a Canadian hardcore rapper/balladeer/virtuoso piano player who moved to Berlin six years ago and found a huge audience. “We wore matching outfits, did matching dance moves,” says Feist. “No more shoe-gazing rock. It was time to entertain, go back to vaudeville. We went from Russia to Australia to Scotland—you name it. It was a crazy couple years.”
Currently the cat’s miaou in Paris, Canada’s Feist is ready to break out at home
Next month, Feist will tour Canada to promote Let It Die, but she plans on continuing her Parisian sojourn. Living in a fifth-floor apartment that used to be servants’ quarters, she’s been making friends with subway musicians and getting extra keys cut for visiting Canadian rockers. Pretty romantic stuff, even before you throw in the fact that her album has been released on a major label and includes a popular single, Mushaboom. It’s a happy, major-key ditty with daydreamy lyrics about quitting the city for life in the country: Helping the kids out of their coats / but wait the babies haven’t been born / unpacking the bags and setting up /planting lilacs and buttercups / but in the meantime we got it hard / second-floor living without a yard. “I’ve found the one place on earth where that song could be a single,” says Feist. “It’s like a little simple folk song, but over here it’s on the radio. There’s such a range on the radio, they don’t categorize stuff quite as rigidly. There’s not one station for adult contemporary and a whole different one for rap. The biggest stations are the equivalent of college radio at home— they play everything.”
But why wouldn’t Canada embrace the quaint notions in Mushaboom, a song about moving to the East Coast that she wrote while living in Toronto? “I don’t know about the other stations, but I’m banking on the CBC,” says Feist. “I have my CBC pins, Tshirts; I’m a stupid CBC fan. As soon as I get high-speed Internet I’ll be listening again.” Besides getting connected to the World Wide Web, Feist admits she really must learn French, as she’s getting very tired of conducting interviews in an easily understood version of her native tongue—“It’s a dumbed-down English, where all the subtleties get lost. I just kind of speak like a 12-year-old.” But she acknowledges that it’s nice not to be able to read her reviews, to not get “all bogged down by the corrosive self-reflective stuff.” And she continues to be enamoured of the city that she’s seeing through a filter of incomprehension. “There’s no details to anybody, so you can paint your own. An old lady wandering up my street passes a fish market, grabs a fish and is shaking it at the guy and yelling at him. Probably she’s saying something really inane but I can imagine that she’s saying, ‘Fifty years ago, this is the fish that swallowed my wedding ring.’ ”
If I hear a recognizable accent, I say, ‘Do you know who Shelagh Rogers is?’ If so, we highfive and go have a beer.
While Paris may be colouring the singer’s world, it didn’t have much influence on the album, which was recorded there over a year ago. “I was listening to the Plastic Ono Band and Fleetwood Mac, and Gonzales [who co-produced with Renaud Fetang] was listening to hardcore rap and Burt Bacharach.” Let It Die does, though, have a somewhat smoky French café feel and definitely hearkens back to albums of decades past, thanks in part to a cover of the ’50s jazz number, Now at Last, popularized by Blossom Dearie. Feist also redid the Ron Sexsmith song Secret Heart and the Bee Gees’ Love You Inside Out (she abbreviates the title to Inside and Out). After beginning in the studio with covers, Feist eventually felt comfortable enough to hand over to her producers some original material that she’d been carrying around for years—songs she’d four-tracked in her Toronto basement, with the hum of streetcars in the background. Gonzales and Fetang gave the whole collection sparse, elegant, simple arrangements full of brass, percussion and keyboard instruments that, as Feist says, “don’t get in each other’s way.” There’s a hint of Dusty Springfield and Rickie Fee Jones in Feist’s voice, and she’ll likely woo folkie lovers of Sarah Harmer and Joni Mitchell. Bottom line, she’s way more compelling than Norah Jones. And Feist is in no danger of losing the indie rock cred she’s accumulated. She may have gone acoustic, but her songs are charged with sexual energy and a youthful outlook. Every scruffy but sensitive twentysomething will appreciate the fact that the album is both a soundtrack for falling in love as well as a breakup elixir.
So which of the two is the chanteuse currently in need of? How do you say in French—it’s none of your business. f?l
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