Feist: A Pop Star With A Punk-Rock Past

Sep 29, 2011
Originally published on September 30, 2011 9:39 am

It's been four years since Leslie Feist released "1234," the career-making single that also became a testament to the power of a still-nascent YouTube. Feist, who performs under her last name, took some time off from performing after that surge in popularity. But she'll return next week with Metals, her first new album since 2007.

Feist may have made her name with sunny pop, but as she tells Morning Edition guest host David Greene, she got into music as a teenage punk rocker.

"I lived in Calgary at that point," she says, "and my world was super-limited. I was in choirs and stuff. But I was also starting to go to gigs that were happening at the community halls."

Feist fronted a Calgary punk band for several years, during which time she met Brendan Canning, her future bandmate in the indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene. She released her first solo album, Monarch (Lay Your Jewelled Head Down), in 1999, and followed it with 2004's Let It Die — her major-label debut, which featured the song "Gatekeeper."

" 'Gatekeeper' was sort of my first attempt to put a little bit of a frame, or boundaries, around songwriting, and try to figure out a way to approach it that had an end result in mind," Feist says. "I haven't written many like that. 'Gatekeeper' was sort of like, 'I think I know what I want it to be about, so how do I go about writing about that?' "

It was Feist's fourth album, The Reminder, that birthed "1234" and its clever, colorful music video. The latter was featured in an iPod commercial and became a YouTube smash, and the song reached a younger audience when Feist performed it (with revised lyrics) on Sesame Street. Time magazine ranked it at No. 2 on its Top 10 songs of 2007. But what's funny, Feist says, is that her original vision for the song was more in line with her punk roots.

"When I first played '1234,' it was on stage in San Francisco, in some kind of sticky-floored club, and it felt like a punk song," she says. "I know it's ridiculous to say that now, but it had a kind of piercing straight melody, and then this fist-pumping ending. ... It just felt so simple in an absolutely non-patronizing way, and it's so funny that the song I approached with that sensibility became what it did, and turned everything on its head."

Metals arrives in the U.S. on Tuesday. Feist says the title is about mutability.

"Metals can be found unforged and raw, and molten in the center of the earth," she says. "But they can also be highly refined and turned into little tiny jewelry."

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

I want to start by playing you a little music, if that's okay.

LESLIE FEIST: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FEIST: Oh, my gosh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FEIST: I am having a flashback.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: I'll let you tell us what it is.

FEIST: That's a young, sweet 15 or 16-year-old me.

GREENE: I don't know how sweet that sounds. You were a real teenaged punk rocker, it sounds like.

FEIST: Yeah.

GREENE: Where was your punk rocker kid shaped?

FEIST: Well, I lived, you know, lived in Calgary at that point. My world was super-limited. And I was in choirs and stuff but also starting to go to, like, gigs that were happening at the community halls.

GREENE: And his mom worried hearing you screaming and, kind of, punking-out when you were a kid?

FEIST: I think a lot of things probably perplexed her...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEIST: ...about that particular era of my life. She just applied her knowledge to that context, like she invoiced me when she lent me money to make our first batch of T-shirts and charged me interest. She wasn't into it. She wasn't out of it. But she just sort of did her mom thing in what I was in the midst of.

GREENE: I wanted to ask you about your 2004 album, "Let it Die;" this is a little bit of "Gatekeeper," one of your songs from that album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GATEKEEPER")

FEIST: (Singing) Well, it's time to begin as the summer sets in. It's a scene you set for new lovers. You play a part painting in a new start, but each gate will open another...

GREENE: There was a lot of romance in that album, but it was sad.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: I mean it wasn't romance that ended well.

FEIST: When does it ever end well?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEIST: I mean if it ends, then it's not ending well. It's ending. And if it keeps going that it's not about ending. So I suppose the ending is usually of an unwell kind. No?

GREENE: And has it always ended for you so far?

FEIST: Thus far, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GATEKEEPER")

FEIST: "Gatekeeper" was sort of my first attempt to put a little bit of a frame and boundaries around songwriting, and try to figure out a way to approach it that had a sort of end result in mind. I haven't written many like that. But "Gatekeeper" was sort of, I think I know what I want it to be about, so how do I go about writing about that?

GREENE: Can I ask you about "Sesame Street?"

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEIST: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1234")

FEIST: (Singing) One, two, three, four, a mouse is walking across the floor. I love counting, counting to the number four...

GREENE: That was the 2007 hit "1234" lands you on "Sesame Street." It lands you in an iPod commercial. I mean you just suddenly exploded with popularity.

FEIST: When I first played "1234" it was on stage in San Francisco at some kind of like sticky-floored club. And it felt like a punk song. I mean it's ridiculous to say that now, but it had that kind of like piercing straight melody. And then this fist-pumping ending, you know that pa-dap-pada. It just felt so simple in an absolutely non-patronizing way. And so, it's so funny that the songs that I approached with that sensibility became what it did, and turned everything on its head.

GREENE: Was there a downside to doing something that became really commercial?

FEIST: It's a double-edged sword. I mean I can only know that I might guide my next decision-making a bit differently. Before that, been signed to a label for the first time after making records for years, and selling them off the edge of the stage, I had no illusions about accepting help at that point. It's just at some point at the umpteenth twirl of that, like roulette wheel of all these external influences, that's when I took some time off.

GREENE: A lot of people would hear a successful musician, you know, talk about difficult times and say, oh, you know, life is difficult for you. I mean you're making money. You have fans. What was one day where you could describe to someone where you could really convince them that like, this really got tough and you needed to sort of escape for a while?

FEIST: I thought you were going to flip that and turn it into like a facetious, like, making fun of people who complain about that kind of thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEIST: Because...

GREENE: No. No.

FEIST: ...there's no way to make sense in your mind of complaining about that kind of thing. It felt absurd to feel the way I did at that point. It's kind of like when you plan a vacation forever. And you get there and it's a lot more real than it looked in pictures, and you just end up tired or hungry, or your shoe is broken. And in the end, you are just a human who's hungry or tired.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Yeah.

FEIST: You know what I mean? At the end of the day, I was ultimately - I just got tired.

GREENE: Well, you got back to writing and your new album is called "Metals." Why that title?

FEIST: The short answer is that metals can be found un-forged and raw, and molten in the center of the Earth. And they can also be highly refined and turned into, like, little tiny jewelry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CICADAS AND GULLS")

FEIST: (Singing) Cicadas and gulls, they scrape on the hull. The land and the sea, they're distant from me.

GREENE: Talk if you can about the song "Cicadas and Gulls."

FEIST: Well, I wrote it in Toronto. And the ocean and warmth are two things that I don't get a lot of experience with. So it creates a certain symbolism for the warmth and unattainablility of all these kind of places that you don't end up.

GREENE: Talk me through the song "The Bad in Each Other" from the new album. Let's play a little of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BAD IN EACH OTHER")

FEIST: (Singing) (Unintelligible) bring out the good in each other.

GREENE: I guess we're still not settled at romance is a good thing yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEIST: Well, there's just some universal truths in a way that I've just observed to be true. You read Voltaire. You read modern literature. Anywhere you go, there's these observations about romantic love and what it does people, and these rotten feelings that rarely are people meaning to do that to each other. I mean unless you mean it when you?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEIST: ...I mean when hurt someone...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEIST: Oh, silence.

GREENE: No...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: I'm not going to answer that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Leslie, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

FEIST: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.