Feist Cloaks Pain With ‘Pleasure’ After A Six-Year Hiatus

Catching up with the philosopher-musician

Upon speaking to Leslie Feist, it’s hard not to think of her as a philosopher. Every word that comes out of her mouth is profound and, to be frank, scholarly. It’s something that’s translated to the poetic nature of her music throughout her nearly 20-year career. But it's been missing from the cultural conversation for a little while now, because the 41-year-old singer, who resides in both Toronto and California, hasn’t put out a record in six years—until now.

Since the release of her debut, Let It Die, Feist has explored the breadth of folk-pop, going from gritty to polished and touching upon every emotion possible. On her new full-length album, Pleasure, Feist has found herself delving into the same rawness with which she began her career. By turning pain into something positive, Feist explores isolation, tenderness, and shame with hope and introspection. Fans who discovered Feist after “1234” played in an Apple commercial won’t necessarily find the same type of hits on Pleasure but instead will discover the purity of the singer-songwriter’s raspy vocals and earth-shattering guitar riffs. Co-produced with Renaud Letang and Mocky, the melodies are intense yet delicate as Feist fights negativity with positivity. She found inspiration in literature and podcasts while dealing with her own hardships. With Pleasure, Feist found perspective—something she hopes translates to listeners. 

Ahead of today's album release date, we caught up with the Canadian musician to talk about her thoughts on exploring darkness, standing up for herself, and reuniting with Broken Social Scene.

How long have you been in the process of making Pleasure?

We actually finished recording last winter. I work quite slowly. I don’t feel any external clock ticking, so I tend to work by my own clock.

What were you doing in-between Metals and Pleasure? 

I was touring a lot. By the time I came out of all that, I sat still for a while. It was conceptual non-travel and staying home in Toronto.

When I listen to Pleasure, it seems like you’re going back to your roots. There doesn’t seem to be a “1234.” It doesn’t seem to be a commercial album. Was that the goal?

As much as having “1234” was the goal, having “1234” is also not a goal. I don’t seem to be able to write anything besides what I do. It’s never strategic or something motivated by anything other than getting to a fact I can believe is coming out of my mouth. 

Pleasure really resonated with me because it was as raw as your debut. Were you aiming to go back to your roots?

I don’t think I was here ever before. I know what you’re saying—there’s an unsteadiness about it. That’s a result of having played for so many years, I think. Maybe it’s because I’ve stopped feeling obliged to production—not that I ever really did—but maybe I was dazzled by recording studios. Going from feeling such a gratitude and reliance on the sounding board of really close collaborators and this one feeling more capable of holding myself up and up against the only external judge. Mocky, who I made the record with, is one of those good friends I can feel alone with; I’m by myself when I’m with him because he’s such a close friend and collaborator. [It was about] keeping an eye on what was coming in and out of my mouth, feeling conviction and feeling like these stories were difficult to tell, but feeling conviction in telling them was more of a motivation. [That’s how] it resulted in how it sounds. It’s based on performance more than anything.

What’s the story behind the record? Why did you name it Pleasure?

I think I’m starting to learn the power of words, the power of the versions of stories we tell ourselves. It usually takes some retrospect, but, if something has happened where in the moment you feel entirely burdened and it doesn’t feel like it can ever be positive, then a couple of years later you realize that’s the fire you were forged by. And now, whatever you’re taking on in your life is being fueled by the capabilities you have from being through something so brutal. When you’re in the thick of it, you might not see that it has the potential to be formulating or empowering in a way. In the way that the country right now and women, in general, are being activated by something so negative and calling it something so positive like "activation." We’re choosing collectively to call it "activation," to call it "standing up" and to reclaim the word "feminism." All of these things are choosing to tell a story that is going to motivate us rather than to tell the story of fire and brimstone only. If we only focused on the negatives, how would we move forward with any positive? In a way, titling the album Pleasure is naming pain something that’s more useful.

Was the record about any particular relationship? Or did I misread the meaning behind the songs?

No, it wasn’t, but having lived long enough and had really close friendships, I see that that can eclipse the sun. I’m at a point in my life where that doesn’t occur anymore. I’m no longer high on another as I have been a lot since my 20s, and it’s an empowering state of mind. No, it wasn’t what it was about, but it always will factor until the day I die, of course.

How did you land on choosing the singles for the record, “Century” and “Pleasure?”

Maybe there’s a good naivety to having not put out a record in a long time and knowing what’s going on on the radio isn’t my world. I don’t think there was any sense that these were singles; they’re the doors to walk into the album from. The album itself is more of an entirety. Maybe if it was 1972, there would be a chance for these songs to be coming out of their kitchen counters, but it was a record to tell a particular story from.

How do you feel like you’ve grown as an artist since your first record?

I don’t know. I never feel like it’s a sure thing, that I’ll always have something to write about. I tend to think that every song I write is a victory and the last one I’ll always write. I don’t know if it’s humility or being realistic, but I really want to respect that process and never presume anything about it. I don’t feel quite as dire about the possibility of never writing another song. Now I just feel grateful when they arrive. That might be a growth: not feeling quite as white-knuckled about my identity as a songwriter. 

Broken Social Scene has a new record coming out. Are you going to be featured on it?

Yeah! I have a song on the album I really love, and I was really glad to be able to find a home for myself on the album. It’s been even longer for Broken Social Scene than for myself between albums. It’s like a family reunion; it’s great to be back at the table again. Stars, Metric, and myself have all put our flags back in the ring. We do feel it’s such a rare thing to have that kind of musical hub because we’re all doing our own thing most of the time. To have that chance to come back together isn’t to be taken for granted.

Was the process for writing this record different than the way you wrote your previous ones?

I think this one was as similar to Metals as possible, in that I isolate, I hole up in little spaces that I manage to find that are my own where I find real privacy. I work studiously in that way. It’s a little bit like an invisible net—it’s casting out a net to see what you might catch. There’s nothing to be presumed about it. The people I share that with are only a couple in the world, like Mocky and Chilly Gonzales, besides Broken Social Scene, but in terms of bringing my songs to people, it’s very few people. I guess we share that sense of treading carefully and hoping something true will happen.

What were you listening to when you made Pleasure?

For better or for worse, I do put a bit of a cloak over [music]. I read a lot, listened to a lot of podcasts, and watched films. I was actually on the jury for a film festival. I was taking in a lot. I don’t find it helpful to listen to music while I try to write. There’s no space to listen to other music. In a way, it’s all a sponge soaking up a perspective.

What were you reading and listening to podcast-wise?

I listened to a lot of On Being, which is Krista Tippett. It’s science-meets-philosophy-meets-spirituality. It always beams some light into my head and gives me a sense of the world being a place I want to live in. I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy, which was pretty awe-inspiring. I read a really beautiful book by Kyo Maclear called Birds Art Life. She gave me a tender, quiet perspective, which I found really helpful in the writing. I also read John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, it was his diary while writing East of Eden. I loved seeing the bones and architecture of his life. 

What do you want fans to get out of this record?

Sometimes I feel like I’m writing from one privacy to another. If I do imagine anyone listening, I imagine them listening alone in whatever version of privacy they have. Writing about a difficult time or feeling like you’re treading water and can’t get your grip... to feel entitled to go through those dark periods because you gather momentum to swing back up. It’s the law of physics. When you’re having a difficult time, we tend to make ourselves feel ashamed of having a bad song. If anything, it’s a story of that being necessary. These cycles are necessary, essentially. When I was in a dark period, this is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for to contextualize it happening.

How did you find yourself in a dark period?

There’s this great phrase I heard once: "a confluence of shadows." It’s the coming together of a lot of things that come up on you. It wasn’t any one thing in particular.

In 2017, would you say you’re happy or is there a looming darkness for you?

I can’t invest in either. If I’ve learned anything, there are 24 hours in any given day, and there’s bound to be a cycling through of feeling suppressed. Maybe it’s learning it’s all of our responsibility to decide which of those natural propensities we’re going to invest in.