Feist Is In It For Herself. You Just Happen To Be Listening

Feist tiptoes along a shaky tightrope. For a lot of artists haphazardly grouped as the Canadian-American’s peers, plummeting from that wire into a pit of maudlin music at some point in their career is easy – and most often fatal. The pathway to sugary and sentimental seals up right behind them, and they can’t go back. Some musicians start out that way, and comparisons to Feist were always blasphemous. (Don’t believe me? Just listen to Feist’s Pandora station. Sheesh.) But there are plenty who start out as promising – like Regina Spektor, for one – and regress into a contrived condition, misled by a mission for mainstream appeal.

On the surface, 35-year-old Leslie Feist’s music has the potential to be that saccharine. Birds and cicadas and moons and even secret hearts are the stuff of Feist’s music. Love songs are by no means off limits. It’s not a stretch to say that, on the three albums she made before this year’s Metals, it’s all been one big love song for Feist. She’s explored the delightful derivatives, like utter content (“Mushaboom”), to the more melancholy residues, like perpetual self-analyzing (“How My Heart Behaves”) and hopelessness (“Limit to Your Love”).

Her third LP, 2007’s The Reminder, was especially beloved by both critics and consumers, and even earned her a Grammy nod. It’s been four years since then. The need to repeat the avalanche of acclaim on Metals, released in September, felt urgent. If Feist were ever going to fall victim to an earnest want to gratify, Metals would have been it. She’s always been a crowd-pleaser. But there’s a catch: It’s merely a happy coincidence that we like her music.

“I guess [the albums are] similar in that I approached [Metals] from the same kind of place in myself, where I wrote for myself and I wrote with the same sense of curiosity and, I guess, selfishness,” she laughs, “to kind of please myself.”

Feist could have squinted in the blinding achievement of The Reminder. She could have squirmed, buckled and rehashed pop standouts like “I Feel it All” and “1234.” Those singles specifically were influential in amplifying her appeal.

But that’s not what Feist is about. In fact, Metals is generally free of anything like those gems. It’s got a charm all its own.

The album is a fist-in-the-air take on the same brand of rich folk Feist has been cultivating throughout her career. “The Bad in Each Other,” which leads the album, could rest comfortably on the fringes of any Feist work if it didn’t crescendo to an almost anxious clamor of horns and drums in its final 40 seconds. “How Come You Never Go There” boasts the subtle sauciness of Let it Die‘s lounge-y tunes, but blunt lyrics and breathy accents take the sass to more brazen territory. Near the end of Metals, Feist tricks you into thinking she’s coasting into a lullaby on “Comfort Me,” then shakes you awake. The track isn’t a pretty-please request, it’s a renouncing of sorts: “When you comfort me/ It doesn’t bring me comfort actually.”

Surprisingly, Feist’s newfound grit – the most integral reason why Metals is a triumph – came from looking back, not anticipating the future.  “I sort of reclaimed guitar playing for myself which…it’s always been something I’ve been engaged in, but I sort turned back up,” she says. “I was just motivated by different parts of my past and different types of bands that I’ve played in. That’s sort of where it ended up.”

Even some of Feist’s most fervent followers only know her group work through Broken Social Scene, the Canadian indie-rock collective of which she’s still a member, albeit mostly passively now. Apparently, however, that’s neglecting some vital moments in Feist’s chronicle. “Even before Broken Social Scene, I was in a band called By Divine Right where I was just a rhythm guitar player. Before that, my first band was a hardcore band from my hometown, and that was quite loud and quite different from Let it Die or The Reminder or Broken Social Scene,” she explains. “At this point, there’s a long and mottled past that I can draw on.”

Taking from that noisier period and reintroducing herself to guitar was what made Metals “louder and brasher and bigger,” she says.

Feist hasn’t completely rekindled a more riotous spirit, however. She’s never been categorized as a hippie by any means, of course, but she’s still as nature-driven as she ever was. Metal is, after all, a natural element. Is that what inspired her?

“[The title of the album] came after [the music], for sure. I feel like sometimes this album-making can be a little bit of an invisible process. It’s not that concrete,” she says. “It’s taking things from the air and moving them into shapes and making them into songs, then ultimately, even when you’re pressing play on the album, it turns to air and is going back into to your ears. Again, it becomes something that’s not concrete and tangible. They’re ideas and sound, but it’s not necessarily something that you hold in your hands. I’ve often worked in a kind of more idea way, or a more conceptual way, and I really wanted this record to have a more concrete, sort of physical basis within its title.”

Considering the financial flourishing The Reminder must have provided, it’s hard to imagine that Feist didn’t consider the toll an album without a clear-cut hit would take on her bank account. Apple, it’s fair to assume, pays well. But again, that’s not the point. Feist isn’t writing jingles, or even singles for DJs to remix into club jams, although that’s certainly happened with a bevy of her more beat-friendly songs.

“I didn’t work for that to happen the last time around,” she clarifies. “It’s sort of funny if anyone was ever to aim at having some type of hit. It’s a pointless endeavor because you can’t really guess. There’s sort of a formula, if you’re in R&B or something, you can imagine that there might be a formula to make a banger (laughs). I don’t think in the world that I live in that there’s a way that I could be sure, and I’m not really aiming at a kind of mass appeal, dancefloor type thing. It’s a little more subtle.”

“A Commotion” is the most likely candidate for a pop hit, but it’s too wild and frantic to be welcomed by the masses. Lyrically, Metals takes a few more risks than its predecessors in terms of sentimentality. “Bittersweet Melodies” repeats its namesake, followed by “like a sweet memory.” Luckily, that’s one of few banalities on the album, and it’s positioned as a relief between more intense and abstract tracks. Feist frequently relays unambiguous, clear-cut messages on Metals than on albums past, but she counters that simplicity with meticulous instrumentation to either exaggerate or soften the message, like on the final track, “Get it Wrong, Get it Right.” It’s a slower-paced song made featherweight by breathy backup vocals that match Feist’s. It’s almost a quiet anthem of acceptance that offers closure to the album, and maybe even the world-weary.

“I suppose it’s more of an observation of just the stumbling and finding your way and recovering, and you know, when you kind of take a fall and you recover,” Feist makes clear. “Basically that cycle, and how best intentions can keep you grounded. Keep the intention that you want to eventually get it right, even if you’re stumbling around, and you don’t feel like you are getting it right, you’re still motivated by the right thing at the core.”

Where Feist has made a misstep – as a solo artist, at least – must be too minute for memory. For the fourth time in a row, she’s gotten it right, all while catering only to herself. And while there may not be a lot of hooks to hang onto, Metals is still very much magnetic.