FEIST, BRY WEBB at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), tonight (Thursday, December 1), 7 pm. $35-$55. RTH, TM. Sold out. See listing.
Can't a gal put her feet up and relax for minute without the world assuming she's had some kind of breakdown?
Leslie Feist's richly textured and moody fourth studio album, Metals (Arts & Crafts), has been enjoying a strong critical response. That hasn't stopped the press from latching onto a narrative that paints a picture of the artist struggling against debilitating writer's block and a crisis of confidence after the iPod-commercial-fuelled success of the insanely catchy 1234 propelled her to international pop fame.
According to Feist, though, she just needed a vacation after coming off a marathon stretch of endless touring.
"I like to call it a sabbatical, because it sounds more professional than a vacation," she jokes from a tour stop in Los Angeles.
"I didn't have writer's block at all, because I wasn't trying to write. I just wanted to stop touring, so I took a break and stayed still for a while. I didn't even try to write until last fall, and as soon as I sat down and was interested again, I wound up writing more quickly than I ever have in the past."
The result is her most cohesive and confident album yet, a disc that feels much more like a self-contained entity than a collection of great songs. While it may have no obvious singles that could translate into memorable 30-second ads for Apple products, it's a record that demands to be heard in its entirety. You're never tempted to hit the skip button.
"I usually write on the road, and in fragments. In this case it was more determined, clear and relatively quick. That's why it feels more like an album than a compilation of ideas. The songs all point to each other and have more in common than the songs on my other albums."
Metals finds Feist sounding more like a live rock band than a singer/songwriter, and that's no accident. In fact, that was the plan for The Reminder as well, but it's a tough trick to pull off when you're in the middle of the hurricane of the endless touring and recording cycle.
"I was on tour forever and then was spat out into the studio with just some bits of songs for The Reminder on my Dictaphone," Feist explained to me earlier this fall at the Thompson Hotel as she prepared for Metals to hit the streets. "We were arranging on the spot and choosing the chemistry that would balance out each song as we were recording. We just didn't have enough time to deliver that kind of band feel, so we had to play the hand we were dealt.
"This time we really knew that you have to take some time if you want to get that feeling."
As was the case with The Reminder, her initial song sketches were later fleshed out and developed with her go-to team of Chilly Gonzales and Mocky (aka Dominic Salole), who are known in Europe as principal members of the Canadian Crew, an unofficial collective of Canuck expats that also includes Peaches, Taylor Savvy, Feist and others.
The next step was assembling a live band for the tour. It would have to bring a collaborative spirit to the task of reinventing the older material so it would sit comfortably alongside the new songs.
As the documentary Look At What The Light Did Now explored in detail, Feist sees the larger team around her as an essential part of the package. Feist is a person, a recording team and a band, as are many solo artists, but that fact is rarely acknowledged so explicitly and consistently.
"I want to and need to write alone. I also want to and need to make the records with Mocky , Gonzo and Renaud Letang [a French producer and mixer who's worked with her since Let It Die]. They're kind of a mirage of a band. And then to tour with people who roll their sleeves up and feel like the work belongs to them as much as me - that stage feels more like Feist is the band's name than my own.
"That interests me more than carrying it all on my own shoulders. It's the way I've figured out to twist and turn things so I feel each of those steps is at its optimum enjoyment for me, which is kind of selfish.
"It's not about people beside you who can carry some weight, but about people you admire and can learn from. Within this thing called Feist that I've built, there's no place where I feel alone. The band I have right now is blowing my mind every day. I come to rehearsal and they've gone to junkyards and welded scrap metal into new instruments."
Feist often speaks about her music as a type of physical space within which the songs live. As collaborators come and go and as she explores new musical paths, that space changes. The place where Metals lives is more like a loft where a garage band is playing a party in a haze of hash smoke, which has given her older material an injection of fuzzed-out guitars and rock bravado. It even encourages semi-regular stage invasions by the audience, something that would have seemed bizarrely out of place a few years ago.
"There's a will in the collective mind of audiences these days to break down the fourth wall, and I absolutely welcome that."
Some songs are easier to transform than others, though, and the absence of 1234 from set lists on the Metals tour has surely fed into assumptions that it's the hit she's trying to run away from.
"I just haven't found a way yet. It's one of the songs that's resisting finding its new shape, and I'm not really interested in playing it like a jukebox or with a karaoke vibe.
"This album lies within certain sonic boundaries, and some of the older songs were able to crawl inside this new world and take the shape of the instrumentation and intentions of the new songs, but others not so much."
"You know the relationship that women have with their jeans? If you swap jeans with your mom or your best friend, they're not necessarily going to work for you. Some songs are just resisting putting on the clothes of Metals."
So if her sabbatical/vacation was blown out of proportion, should we also be taking the breakup of her sometime collaborators Broken Social Scene a little less seriously?
"The difference is that they're calling it a breakup, whereas I just went into the distance and took a couple of years off. I know it'll only last a couple of years, and you can quote me on that."