As part of Canada’s alternative indie scene Leslie Feist twirled into the mainstream music consciousness (in a blue sequinned catsuit no less) with seminal hit 1234. It was everywhere, from announcing the iPod to the world, to a cute cover version on Sesame Street with the unforgettable lyrics , “Chickens just back from the shore.” In the intervening ten years since The Reminder’s release, Feist has released Metals (2011), released a documentary focusing on her creative process, played with Canadian collective Broken Social Scene, worked with Beck, played with some of Radiohead, been covered by James Blake, amongst other things.
But she’s back, this time with Pleasure. Despite the album’s title and the lush pink warmth of the accompanying cover art, its songs are often starkly minimal, their slow-burn pace occasionally interrupted by unexpected bursts of dissonance. As thoughtful and observant as its author, Pleasure is an album that reveals its secrets slowly and steadily.
We sat down for a chat with her in a fancy restaurant high above the sprawl of London to talk about scentless flowers, meeting Obama and the ingrained nostalgia of flip phones.
You take your sweet time between albums - did you get annoyed by people asking when the new album was coming?
People just stopped asking (laughs). That's the illusion of it having been a long time because I toured [the last album] for about three years. So then after that you breath for a minute, then you write a record, then you record it. This album was finished a year ago, it just takes time to get it out there.
Do you wish you could work quicker, or is this just how it is?
I plan on touring less on this record. There's just always another loop around Europe to do or like 'oh wait, we didn't go to south east Asia', or 'wait, now we can go to Brazil'. So somehow the world gets bigger each time. This time I'm going to go to Eastern Europe because I've never played there, and I haven't been to Japan for two albums.
After the success of The Reminder album, was there an assumption you'd move into doing big pop records?
Not that they let me know. Maybe because I'm Canadian, or maybe because I work with friends and not with people who are in that larger pop mentality, so no there was never any discussion of that.
Things got kind of crazy with that album - what was the most surreal thing to happen?
You know how weird can become normal kind of quickly? There were a lot of strange convergences - for my birthday my mum sent me a photocopy of Obama's autograph, which he had given me backstage at SNL. I had totally forgotten about that, so it's on my fridge now.
Is that what the artwork represents? You leaping into the warmth?
Yeah. I was living in Venice for a couple of months – that's the one in LA, not Italy – and I drove past this building every day for three months and always noticed it because it was the most nondescript building but it had been totally overgrown by bougainvillea and someone had cut out a door-frame so it just looked like a box that nature had gotten all joyful over. One day I stopped and realised that was the image, that was what the album was. I then realised I needed it shot at night and that it needed to be going from the night into the colour, to symbolise this decision to lean on the other foot. Interestingly, related to scent, bougainvillea is one of the only scentless flowers. There's no scent. I thought the incongruousness of that was telling – there's no opulent sensory overload that can happen with a lily or a lilac.
How does that happen? Did someone just forget to drop the scent in?
Yeah, someone was on their tea break.
Lots of the new album features reverb and a sort of low hissing mixed into the songs - why did you decide to leave that in there?
It's a necessary biproduct of recording live in a room. I don't work inside the computer. My brain doesn't compute – I need to touch knobs, and turn things up in a room, have actual volume responding to actual movements made by my body moving. It results in there being a lot of ambient noise. There's more hiss on this album for sure.
Is that the sort of music you enjoy listening to as well?
I'm one of those producers who doesn't think about production. My input into a production world is usually to do with performance. I like to listen to music where there were some stakes in the moment and you feel that sense of concentration.
"I tried reaching you on your new flip phone" from Any Party is an amazing lyric. Was it written a while ago, or...? Who has a flip phone these days? Was it Adele in the Hello video?
(Laughs) Was it Adele?! Let's just say it was...I have some friends that are currently committed to being tech-less, they just have flip phones. No computer, no social media accounts. There's a nostalgia there.
There are little moments throughout the album where the listener gets used to the tempo of the song to then have it be suddenly subverted. A Man Is Not His Song, for example, features the sudden arrival of a choir. Do you enjoy creating those moments?
I tend to think very narratively and literally. I'm working on the new Broken Social Scene record right now and there were a few times where I'd argue that there's no musical reason why such and such needs to happen because the lyrics make no indication of there being more than one consciousness delivering this message, so why have eight people singing something from the mind of one? Similarly, when a choir appears it's confirming whatever the lyrics are saying. It's like casting a play or something.
It also ends with a burst of a heavy metal song, which then disappears - is that part of the song's narrative?
As a woman, most of us are embodying and shifting feet between, in my case, my tomboy and my more feminine side, and I was singing about what I've observed in mankind, and men, and also of course everyone I know is symbolised by mankind. But it's a masculine perspective – a straight up, flame-thrower of metal energy, and in a way I thought that was the ultimate example of man getting their word in. It's Mastodon too, by the way.
How did you come to work with Jarvis Cocker on the album?
Jarvis came for lunch. He came to the studio to have some soup and next thing you know he's on the album. It was that natural.
Can you write when you're angry?
I don't know, probably. I find it usually takes me a while to get a little separation. If you're in the thick of it you're in the eye of the storm and you don't realise that until it passes.
Do you collect anything?
I have a lot of books. I actually just built some new shelves for the books.
Do you read them all, or are some of them status symbols?
I actually recently took a photo of a friend's bookshelf because I was so in awe of it. Like, how do you curate such an amazing book collection? So then I went and found a bunch of the books and now I have that aspirational shelf. I didn't go to university and that's kind of what this shelf was – it was my friend's English degree, essentially.
Is there a specific smell that makes you think of your childhood?
My mum always used this drug-store perfume and when I'm at her house I still unscrew the plastic bottle and smell it. I'm sure it smells of nothing, but it also smells of my entire childhood.
Do smells trigger memories for you?
Absolutely. Lilac is my flower and when I trace it back it's from when I was six or seven and we lived near a park that had a lilac grove in it. There were these kid-sized tunnels under the foliage and I spent endless days just hiding and playing and being inside the lilacs. There are two weeks where lilacs are in bloom in Toronto and you can ride down the street and just get hit by their smell. I remember my first kiss with my first early boyfriend and he had this cologne that most 18-year-old kids were probably spritzing on way too heavily.
If you had to lose one sense which one would you chose?
[Genuinely shocked] Oh no. I refuse to pick, sorry. They're all too important. I'm hoping to never have to make that choice, whether it's for a website or in real life (laughs).