Songs in a cultural and literary key
Leslie Feist sang Madonna songs into a hairbrush as a child, but her influences are from a deeper well, writes TONY CLAYTON-LEA
‘WHEN I THINK back to my teenage times there was no way to assume I’d be a musician. I was playing music but there was no example that I knew in my applicable real life – as opposed to television and magazines – making a living playing music. I was in a big community that had lots of bands, and everybody, including myself, had jobs. The plan was to go to university and take literature because I have always been into books.”
Canadian singer Leslie Feist, now known as much for her solo work as for her duties in the band Broken Social Scene, is chatting away in a basement art gallery in one of London’s most exclusive designer boutique hotels.
“I probably would liked to have written,” Feist says. “I feel the rock stars of my reality are authors, you know? When I meet a musician we have so much in common I can kind of squint at their life and see parallels or similarities – even if it’s someone from another generation.
“But when I meet an author I’m always a little tongue-tied and very self-conscious about whether I’m using proper grammar, good vocabulary. And as we are in London, I can say that I’ve read most of Charles Dickens in the past two years. I bought David Copperfielda few years ago and, well, after that you just can’t go back, can you?”
Occupying the space between Björk’s flighty sense of experimentation and Joni Mitchell’s home ’n’ hearth melodic sensibilities, Feist is the kind of artist who will easily find a home with those whose love of singer Joan As Police Woman simply isn’t strong enough. You’ll find no overstatement in Feist’s music, rather a requirement to lay a sequence of direct lines from melody to emotion, from lyrics to voice.
“I totally care for what I sing, and it has become more and more the case. I then have the flip side of singing my songs hundreds of times, and because of that the voice and the words become almost formalist art, abstract expressionism. There is a repetition of one shape, and all you’re really doing is playing with variations of that shape . . .
“When you’re singing, factors such as what kind of day you’re having, the country you’re in, what the venue is like, how tired you are – all of that, and more, affect the way the song is performed. I have observed that if the words have a certain hinge to them, if they’re pivotal enough or can be swung in different directions depending on your perspective, the song doesn’t always remain the same.”
Feist’s family background is arts-oriented. Via her visual artist father and her ceramicist mother, she quickly discovered that engaging in something “solitary and mysterious” wasn’t necessarily damaging to the human spirit. From quite early on, she has deemed what she terms “private work” to be essential, and it’s clear from even a cursory glance through her back pages that she is the type of artist who falls, softly, somewhere between earnestness, outlandishness and practicality.
“If you’ve been the person making things happen, and it’s been on a small scale for many years, innately you’re going to have had to do things such as make your own posters and T-shirts. I did that using the high school’s lab where there was a silk screen set up; and I cut the covers for our first cassette tapes. So I’ve always been into that, and even now it would be ridiculous for me not to be engaged in the process.”
How does she feel about the hijacking of certain art principles and fashion aesthetics into pop music via the likes of Lady Gaga and others too numerous to mention?
“I guess if you can do something, then why not?” she says vaguely, before heading in a direction that is more to the point.
“The kind of fashion houses other singers use are the kind I don’t understand. I don’t know what they mean. I know they have a certain cultural currency and vocabulary, but I don’t speak that language.”
Feist says she wants her identity to be based on what she is and what she knows, not what she thinks will work in her favour.
“That’s a fairly rudimentary idea, but it works for me. My reference points in that area include someone like Annie Lennox, who was a giant for me when I was a kid. She was drawing from a deeper well and laid down some serious groundwork that many have been influenced by the whole gender/sexual thing, but she didn’t trade on her femininity for it.
“But, hey, I grew up singing True Blue into a hairbrush, so it’s not like I don’t appreciate what Madonna does. But if you’re going to spot some cultural antecedent for me then it isn’t Madonna.”
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