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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Laura Barton

‘I was singing myself through the grief’: Feist on losing her father – and finding her voice

Feist … ‘If you don’t allow yourself to be seen, you’re not bringing yourself to the table to grow’ Photograph: Mary Rozzi

A few years ago, the Canadian singer Leslie Feist bought a home in Los Angeles: a house with a small plot of land where she could plant tomatoes in February, and find a kind of warmth and ease far from the fierce Ontario winter. Today she sits bare-armed in the sunshine of a California morning, the sound of birdsong catching on our video call. Above her, two gleefully coloured pictures have been thumbtacked to the white kitchen wall: one by her father, Harold, an abstract expressionist painter, the other by her young daughter.

Feist adopted her daughter in 2019 and her arrival proved a galvanising force in the life of the songwriter. She tries to describe the experience – the vulnerability, the sleeplessness, the love – and tells how in the time before her daughter arrived, a photographer friend gave some advice: being a parent will incinerate you. Feist balked. But the friend continued: “The person who rises from the ashes is someone who you’ll be really glad to be for the rest of your life.”

At that point in her life, Feist was five albums deep, and one of the most acclaimed artists of her generation. Over the course of three decades she had risen up through Calgary punk bands, electropop collaborations and a stretch with the sprawling Toronto outfit Broken Social Scene, to a solo career that garnered Grammy nominations, Juno awards, soundtracked arguably the most famous iPod commercial, and, most importantly, scored a much-feted appearance on Sesame Street. Her music had been celebrated for its intimacy, intellect and experimentation, for the extraordinary contours of her voice. It was a lot to incinerate.

To a certain extent, the confines of the pandemic eased the process, enabling her to focus on her daughter, and give little thought to touring or songwriting or album-making. “I wasn’t diffusing my energy by trying to maintain a former sense of how life is meant to be,” she says. “I was forced to double-down into home life.”

Feist quarantined with her father and her daughter, in the countryside just outside Toronto. “It gave me this beautiful advantage,” she says, “of staying still with two people I love.” She describes her father as a thriving introvert, his mind busy with art and inventions, with history and science and quantum theory. Then in his late 70s, the time he spent with his new granddaughter seemed to rejuvenate him: “He was older, and dealing with his own litany of difficulties, and somehow to put this little cherub in his arms, I could see it actually shift him.”

In the spring of 2021, when her daughter was one-and-a-half, Feist’s father died. It was a levelling moment for the singer, who saw herself suddenly on what she describes as “the conveyor belt of time” – caught somewhere between the loss of a parent and the helplessness of her young child. “It’s a necessary cycle,” she says. “I think until you either meet birth or death you don’t really know where you are on that assembly line.”

That spring, she was preparing for a series of work-in-progress residency shows, a new way for her to shape the songs she had half-begun over the previous 18 months and that would eventually lead to her new album Multitudes. It was strange, she realised, not to have the steer of her father, with whom she had held a lifelong creative conversation. “The bummer is he didn’t hear any of these songs because they were all sketches,” she says. “But his work was to face a blank canvas and to balance light and colour and absence and presence, and his absence was so with me then that it was like a presence. In a way, my conversation with him could continue through my work.”

The residency shows began in Hamburg, and ran to Toronto and on to Denver, LA and Seattle. They were originally conceived as a way to bring people together after the pandemic, taking place in the round, in a way that felt simple and intimate. What Feist hadn’t expected was how much their closeness would hold her through her more personal loss. “I hadn’t known,” she says, “that I was singing myself through my grief.” She titled the residencies Multitudes, a way to describe all of the different new selves she was inhabiting. “The songs were new, the loss of him was new, the role of being a mother was still new,” she remembers. “I had to figure out how to show up for all these different faces I needed to wear.”

Songwriting had changed since she became a mother. She speaks of the need to write in the slivers of time available to her, of using her hours better than before. “I’ve never really been prolific when it comes to writing,” she says. “There are periods of time where I decide to open up the solar panels and find that generative feeling that I can engage in a longer form of conversation with myself. Maybe dig a little deeper than what my normal day would require.” Now, finding the moments to write and distill her thoughts came to feel “almost like I was grasping at the last tendrils of who I am”.

She found her relationship with melody and harmony became more complex. She became interested in lullaby and the soothing mechanism of repetition. She listened to classical Argentinian and Haitian guitar music and to the songs and poetry of Molly Drake, things that sounded soft yet complicated. “I found more detail comforting in that way people enjoy maybe doing a crossword,” she says, “the feeling of having to work on something.” She worked with minimal equipment: a digital eight-track recorder, about the size of a coffee mug, and a nylon string guitar. “I was gravitating towards that rather than a steel string because I was just looking for anything soft that would ease the rigour that parenting an infant took,” she says. “Everything was a bit hard edged, you know?”

She also began to think about how she had written songs in the past, how deliberately opaque she had made them. “I’d written songs in which I’m the only one who knows what I’m trying to hide, and what I’ve tried to show, and what I’ve put behind the soft lens,” she says. “There are songs where I felt that I’ve pulled punches. But if I’m going to be doing this as I have been for [another] 20 years, wouldn’t it be more interesting to actually not hide?”

A lot of the tracks on the new album explore a similar theme, particularly the way the pandemic caused a re-examination of our home lives and our closest relationships. “It’s the tendency to hide from the person that you’re meant to be most visible to,” she says. “But if you don’t allow yourself to be seen, you’re not bringing yourself to the table to grow.”

All of these experiences – lockdowns, motherhood, grief, the residencies – brought a new kind of intimacy to the material; a sense that Feist was leaning in more than ever before. “Leaning in brings you closer, and when you get closer there’s more clarity,” she says. “And actually there’s the opportunity to be quieter, and to be more direct.”

When she came to record the album, in the quiet of northern California, she told her producer she wanted “almost that ASMR amount of proximity” to the sound. “Almost like the binaural headphone thing, where there’s a voice right here, and it’s almost making the hair stand up on the back of your neck.” Her producer obligingly built a kind of half-shell out of foam for Feist’s face to sit inside, and another that arced over her guitar. It was a canny way, she explains, for the sounds of her voice and her guitar to stand quite separate from each other, to make them sound ever closer.

Last September, Feist took her back catalogue and her fledgling songs out on tour, supporting her fellow countrymen, Arcade Fire. But just as the shows kicked off in Dublin, allegations of sexual misconduct against the band’s frontman, Win Butler, surfaced online. He denied the accusations, but two days later, Feist pulled out of the rest of the tour, explaining her decision in a lengthy statement online.

Today she is open about the difficulty of that day, recalling sitting in a Dublin pub, reading the headlines, along with the rest of the world, and knowing that she needed to act. “There was more weight on a single moment than I’d ever felt in my life, in the sense that a decision needed to be made,” she says. “An impossible, philosophical tangle needed to be untangled, under this scrutiny, and under this pressure.”

Feist performs at End of the Road festival
She contains Multitudes … Feist performs at End of the Road festival in 2018. Photograph: Burak Çıngı/Redferns

She felt a responsibility, she says, to her band and her touring team, who would all feel the impact of cancelling shows. She worried, too, that she did not want to cast herself as judge or jury. But there was another responsibility she felt to people she did not know, who had come forward with their stories. She likens the sensation to trying to thread a needle. “I was not comfortable with the thoughts going through my head, with the sense that this was on my shoulders,” she says. “Any attempt to try to move forward as if I didn’t need to respond, was just impossible.”

The moment she decided to leave came to her on stage, during the second show of the tour. She drafted a statement, and shared it with a handful of people she trusted – with Chilly Gonzales and Peaches, and Andrew Whiteman of Broken Social Scene, as well as a friend who works in crisis management.

She showed it to her tour photographer, Sara Melvin, who was there beside her in Dublin. “And she sat next to me and let me read it to her over and over and over, over the course of many, many hours of twilight, through the night, into the dawn,” Feist recalls, “knowing that I had decided I wasn’t going on, and I needed to figure out how to tell people why.”When it was written, she turned to her team and told them they were leaving. “Tears broke out all around me,” she remembers. “They were relieved not to have to function in our healthy culture inside what felt like an unhealthy culture of their [Arcade Fire’s] band and crew.” She has not spoken to any of Arcade Fire since. “We weren’t friends,” she says. “Everyone believes that we were tight because we were all Canadians, but we almost never crossed paths. There was no relationship to tend to, because we didn’t have one to begin with.”

She rarely thinks of that episode now. “Somehow I think that means it didn’t follow me home,” she says. But when she looks back, it is with the sense that she was at the wrong place at the wrong time. “Or at the exact right place at the exact right time,” she suggests. “What needed to happen inside of me in that moment will serve me and my daughter well.”

Across our conversations, Feist often talks this way; as if after the incineration of parenthood and loss, she is finding a way to rebuild herself as the person she would like to be. “Over the years, I’ve found I’m increasingly writing inward, I’m writing towards the woman I hold in trust, who I hold inside me, who I hope to grow into,” she says. “These songs are kind of breadcrumbs in the forest for me to try and figure out how to do life.”

Sometimes she worries there is something selfish or self-serving in writing songs to make sense of her own life. “But then I remember that when I was holding my three-day-old baby, in so much exhaustion and such huge emotion, there was nothing that could feed me except [the music of Big Thief vocalist] Adrianne Lenker,” she says. “And then in the wee hours of sleep training, my brain hurting so much, the only thing I found that could help was Philip Glass’s saxophone quartets.”

Sometimes she remembers being 16 years old, on her way to school, listening to PJ Harvey on her yellow Sony Sports Walkman. And how every morning driving her daughter, she wants to listen to Hit the Road Jack as soon as they hit the road. “And I remember that songs are part of how we remember to be ourselves and make it through our actual real lives,” she says. “It’s important. They are translators for how to do life. That’s what songs are to me.”

Multitudes is released on 14 April.

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