TORONTO — Four years ago, the hit-packed disc The Reminder launched Leslie Feist with such swift force she seemed at risk of being burned up — or burned out — in the atmosphere.
The sudden success of her album led to a series of surreal opportunities for the Toronto-based songstress. She spent a dizzy year cavorting with Elmo and Stephen Colbert, threading her delicate folk-pop through cavernous hockey arenas and amassing enough award-season back-pats to temporarily skew her posture.
But after a restful respite from music, Feist found the challenge in crafting her fourth album was not trying to repeat The Reminder, but to forget about it entirely.
“The biggest hurdle to get over was to not make a record reactive to The Reminder at all,” the personable singer said during a recent chat at a chic Toronto hotel.
“(It) would be pointless to try to tell the same story as The Reminder. I mean, I’m in a totally different place, I’m curious about different things in every way.”
“If you’re a reading a fantastic book by an author, you don’t expect the next book to be the same character set at the same time in the same place. You’ve already read that story. Where else are you going to take me?”
This particular sojourn — which continues with Tuesday’s release of Feist’s fourth album, Metals — began only after the singer took a lengthy break following the demanding support schedule for The Reminder.
Feist’s core fanbase was already entrenched after the sophisticated pop of Let it Die, so The Reminder was successful immediately upon its release (a slate of sterling reviews didn’t hurt). But it was only after Apple co-opted the feather-light pop ditty 1234 in an ad for the iPod nano — a commercial spot that did as much to hawk Feist’s whimsical folk-pop tune as it did tiny mp3 players — that her star was elevated to another level.
Soft-spoken and uniquely introspective, Feist wasn’t charmed by all the trappings of her newfound fame. She was uncomfortable with the arena performances that threatened to overwhelm her hand-stitched tunes, for instance, and will tour smaller venues this time around.
And even more joyful opportunities carried unexpected lessons — like her bow at the 2008 Grammys, where she was nominated for four trophies and put in a hushed performance of 1234, a showing that still leaves the singer with mixed feelings.
“My performance on the Grammys was so colossally mediocre because I was so unbelievably overwhelmed and I did not belong there,” said Feist, clad in jeans and an airy blouse, with her hair pulled back.
“On one metaphysical level, I was like: ‘Where am I? Who am I? What is this?’ And on another level, Aretha Franklin is singing right before me with five of America’s biggest gospel choirs. And then I’m alone there, with a couple kazoos tooting behind me basically.”
But afterwards, Feist says she found “true peace” in acknowledging that her performance was, essentially, average. It wasn’t earth-shattering, but it also didn’t feel as though the earth was going to swallow her up.
She says she recognized the “core of that middle ground,” and it extended to her approach to “Metals.”
“I wanted this recording to just be really true — no studio trickery, no Chinese Democracy amount of triple-thinking, quadruple-thinking, quintuple-thinking,” she says, referring to the infamously delayed Guns N’ Roses debacle.
“Really, just a moment that you properly consider what you want to do, and you do it, and it is what it is.”
Aside from approaching the new material with that modest mindset, however, Feist — who began her career by playing in punk bands — had another mission statement to address.
“I wanted to turn up again,” she said with a laugh. “I wanted to reclaim my axe — kind of like electric bolts going into my guitar as I hold it above my head. I played so many shows over the years . . . and there were certain things that stand out as you feel powerful, so I sort of planted myself a few opportunities to do that.
“I had kind of relinquished my guitar throne a few years ago when I had other guitar players on stage with me . . . and I was reclaiming that.”
The 35-year-old Feist’s guitar noodlings are only one component of the record’s lush, varied instrumentation. String and brass arrangements buoy Feist’s new tunes, from the creaking opener “The Bad in Each Other” to the gentle swell of second-half highlight “Anti-Pioneer.”
Other tunes begin as brittle folk-pop but give way to an unexpected clamour. “A Commotion” contrasts Feist’s delicate whisper with the cacophonous chanting of several male voices on the chorus, while “Graveyard” gently winds its way toward a triumphant singalong finale.
Lyrically, Feist says she was inspired by age-old truisms, the type of inherited wisdom that has become cliche but is also difficult to deny. But there’s also an anguished tone to her voice that suggests struggle, particularly when she wraps it around a series of acidic lines — for example, “When you comfort me, it doesn’t bring me comfort, actually.”
While unworkable relationships are a theme of the record, Feist said she wrote from less of an autobiographical perspective than at times in the past.
“People can just destroy each other, without even meaning to, without having any ill will,” she said. “A song like ’The Bad in Each Other,’ the core idea (is): I’ve seen it a million times. I’ve lived it, I’ve done it, I’ve felt it, I’ve seen it in other people — good people do bad things, without meaning to.”
“So I tried to plant some of those universal observations into the record. So of course I’m in (the songs), but it’s not so much: ’And then on Tuesday, I felt this.’ You know what I mean?”
Recorded in Big Sur, Calif., with frequent collaborators Chilly Gonzales and Mocky at a studio built on the side of a cliff, the album feels organic and lovingly crafted, with each supple sonic detail standing out. In a positive sense, it feels unhurried, but then — as many reviewers have pointed out even while praising the album — also not as immediate as the most popular corners of the chanteuse’s catalogue.
That, seemingly, is fine with Feist. She didn’t pursue fame, and says she remained living in Toronto in part to ensure a life of continued normalcy, where she can bike around or shop at her local farmer’s market without eliciting much notice.
She’s wiser after her experience with “The Reminder,” so she plans to resist any opportunities that make her uncomfortable.
“I’m 100 per cent re-igniting my selfish directive, which is that there’s no point in doing this if I feel ill at ease about it.”
But since Feist says she doesn’t evaluate success in album sales or critical plaudits, how will she measure “Metals,” a rewarding yet subtle listen that seems to have been designed to fill smaller spaces?
She pauses to consider the question for a moment.
“The word ’success’ is used a lot in relation to the album ’The Reminder,’ which I can recognize because there’s signposts of that. But on my own, the way I identify it, I already have it.”
“Leaving that safe ’making’ place and stepping out into the ’reaction’ place, I’m not as comfortable there as I am huddled over, with my headphones, with the guys, making music…. It’s a bit of growing pains coming back into the reaction side of things.
“But how can I complain? Because it’s not like it’s been negative. I’m so grateful. I couldn’t be happier.”