n 2001, the Canadian musician Leslie Feist was twenty-five years old, couch-surfing in Berlin, and occasionally performing with two musicians from Toronto: Peaches (born Merrill Nisker), an electronic-music artist given to profane lyrics, and Gonzales (born Jason Beck), a multi-instrumentalist. As Peaches, dressed in a pink mesh top and hot pants, barked terse, hammering songs like “Fuck the Pain Away,” Feist would stand behind her, wearing a leotard and manipulating a sock puppet. (Her stage name then was Bitch Lap Lap; she now performs as simply Feist.) When Gonzales released an album called “Presidential Suite,” Feist accompanied him on tour around Europe. At the end of each show, Gonzales posed for photographs with audience members while holding a placard bearing the name of the city in which he was performing. Later, Feist explained that she and Gonzales made the placards before each show, using a “font that we felt expressed the city’s character.”
When not helping her friends, Feist, who had spent her teen-age years in a Calgary punk band singing so hard that she damaged her vocal cords, was recording songs of her own. The material bore little relation to Gonzales’s musical stunts, and it did not sound much like the noisy, epic songs she had been playing in Toronto as a member of the large indie-rock band Broken Social Scene. Feist’s new songs were quiet and careful, with no trace of confrontation. Her voice is gentle but grainy, and full of emotion—capable of swooping up to end a phrase on a full, strong tone. In 2002, a collection of recordings that Feist made in Toronto, informally called the “Red Demos,” began to circulate on the Internet. Though the quality of the sound was rough-—on one song you can hear the hum of streetcars in the background—tracks like “The Water” and “Mushaboom” were confident and subtle, recalling the work of the English R. & B. singer Sade. Between gigs in Europe and North America, Feist recorded “Let It Die,” which consisted of six original songs and five covers, including an airy, largely faithful rendition of the Bee Gees’ 1979 No. 1 hit “Love You Inside Out.”
When “Let It Die” was released, first in Europe in 2004 and then in America the following year, Feist became the most visible member of the close-knit Toronto indie-rock community (she also has a home in Paris). Her looks—she has icy blue eyes and in photographs evokes the severe glamour of Françoise Hardy—helped make her a pinup girl for indie fans, and her music was smooth enough to appeal to mainstream listeners. “Let It Die” sold five hundred thousand copies, and the visionary pop musician Andre 3000, of OutKast, called her music “amazing.”
I’ve seen Feist live several times in New York in the past few years, and found myself wavering between admiration for her controlled performances and the quality of her songs—especially “Mushaboom,” a lilting track about a city woman who yearns for a house in the woods, aware that “it may be years until the day my dreams will match up with my pay”—and unease that the indie community, which had previously wanted little to do with commercial pop like the Bee Gees or Sade, was eager to embrace a woman who often seemed content with being merely a deft, twenty-first-century version of those artists.
Credit her audience with some foresight. Now thirty-one, Feist makes a persuasive case for herself as a songwriter and a musician on “The Reminder,” her calm and luminous new album, which consists of twelve original songs and one remarkable cover. “Let It Die” was a sleek affair, alternating between electronic bleeps and lounge music, ready-made for hotel bars and furniture stores. “The Reminder,” most of which was recorded live at a large house outside Paris, is less mannered. Feist collaborated with Gonzales and the engineer Renaud Letang (who produced “Let It Die” together), as well as with the British musician Jamie Lidell and a member of the Toronto scene who goes by the name Mocky. (Do these Canadians simply not like the names their parents gave them?) Feist’s main topic isn’t love so much as relationships, and the various emotional combinations a man and woman can form.
“I Feel It All,” one of the album’s best songs—like “Mushaboom,” it was written without a collaborator—skips along while Feist describes feelings that she can’t control: “I didn’t rest, I didn’t stop. Did we fight or did we talk?” The song is built around Feist’s vigorous acoustic-guitar strum: she plays like a street busker, strong on the downstroke and evenly loud. A three-note motif on a glockenspiel and an organ runs through the song, softening the forward motion of the guitar. In a short chorus, the guitar stops and Feist sings harmony with herself: “Ooh, I’ll be the one who’ll break my heart, I’ll be the one to hold the gun.” Then Gonzales plays a rising and falling two-note ostinato on the piano, subtly coloring the song. The accretion of felicitous musical details is typical of the album’s smart, unfussy arrangements.
Feist can be charming when she wants to be; “Brandy Alexander” is a mixture of the cute and the direct. The rhythm for the song is provided by regular finger snaps, which are joined occasionally by a kick drum that mimics the steady iambs of a human heartbeat. As the verse begins, Feist’s voice is relaxed and free, and she declares her longing unambiguously: “I’d like to be the girl for him, and cross the sea and land for him.” The chorus adds three piano chords, played squarely on the downbeat, and a conceit that succeeds in being adorable only because Feist sings it so plainly: “He’s my Brandy Alexander, always gets me into trouble, but that’s another matter.”
In March, Feist and her small band—the brothers Jesse and Bryden Baird on drums, keyboards, and trumpet, Afie Jurvanen on guitar, and Dafydd Hughes on the piano—played the songs from “The Reminder” live for the first time, at a small church in Toronto called St. George the Martyr, not far from Queen Street, the city’s main drag for clubs and bookstores. The church, a squat stone structure with wooden beams stretching across the nave, was filled with about two hundred people sitting in white pews and in folding chairs. Feist wore tight black jeans, a simple black shirt, and pointy black boots that forty years ago would have been called Beatle boots.
Feist’s manner onstage is businesslike: she is not given to moving much, unless a song is so rhythmically pronounced that it seems odd not to. For all the aloofness she projects in photographs, onstage she is plainspoken and relaxed, more focussed on playing than on winning over the crowd. Though the material was obviously new to some of Feist’s bandmates (other musicians had helped record the album), they ably navigated the quiet songs, adding dashes of trumpet and backing vocals at unexpected moments. (This was one of many recent shows suggesting that arrangements may be the new frontier in indie rock, as the music moves farther and farther from its punk roots and as musicians like Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson are cited more often as inspirations; the glockenspiel is the new guitar feedback.)
For “The Water,” a ballad with an almost imperceptible pulse, Feist moved to a piano and played by herself. In this song, the relationship isn’t between two people but between Feist and the earth: “The harbor becomes the sea, and lighting the house keeps it collision-free. Understand the lay of the land and don’t let it hurt you, or it will be the first to.” Feist sang this verse in a restrained head voice, and then opened up, back in her chest voice, for the three syllables of the title words, which she repeated twice.After so much quiet music, I was ready for a little rhythm and noise, which Feist supplied by singing the album’s most daring track, “Sea Lion Woman,” a traditional song whose best-known version is a recording by Nina Simone from 1964. The song, which sounds a bit polite on “The Reminder,” was crackling and appropriately ragged at the church. As in Simone’s version, the performance began with clapping on the offbeats and Feist’s band members chanting the words “sea lion” several times. Feist sang the first verse unaccompanied; unlike Simone’s throaty and robust reading, her voice was a near-whisper: “Sea lion woman dressed in red, smile at the man when you wake up in his bed. Sea lion woman dressed in black, wink at the man and then stab him in his back.” Then she stepped back and paraphrased the melody on her electric guitar, a curvy red Guild Starfire from the mid-sixties, giving it a rockabilly twang. Here Feist seemed fully an artist—unafraid of tackling a revered song made famous by another woman who also lived in Paris. Feist and Simone do not share much in the way of sound or history, but the late—and notoriously prickly—singer might have found something to like about the Canadian’s spirited take on this piece of the American public domain. Maybe the idea of playing secular music in a church would have pleased the contrarian in Simone (who also covered a Bee Gees song, “To Love Somebody,” in 1969), or perhaps she would have admired a woman who, with little self-congratulation, was pulling off a feat that many would have warned her against even trying.