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Feist on cancelling her tour with Arcade Fire: ‘I couldn’t continue’

Leslie Feist on the aftermath of learning about allegations against Win Butler, her post-baby album, and ‘singing poorly’ at the Grammys

Leslie Feist has a question. “So which one were you at?” she wonders. She’s referring to two concerts she played in Dublin last August. The gigs were as support for Arcade Fire, the big-hearted indie band from Canada with whom Feist, a big-hearted indie singer from Canada, was understood to share a natural empathy.

A haunted expression flickers across her face. Days before the shows at 3Arena, Arcade Fire singer Win Butler was accused of sexual misconduct – and of being unfaithful to his wife and bandmate, Régine Chassagne. By the time Feist stepped out on stage in Dublin, the idea that she and Arcade Fire were on a shared mission to better humankind had been revealed to be a cruel joke.

Butler denied the allegations, saying, in a statement communicated through New York-based crisis public relations expert Risa Heller, that the relationships were consensual. Chassagne said he had lost his way and that she forgave him. This merely fanned the flames. The controversy was still expanding outwards when the spotlights went down and Feist walked out at 3Arena for the first night of the tour.

“I was having an out-of-body experience,” says Feist, speaking ahead of the release on April 14th of her sweet and beautifully unguarded sixth album, Multitudes. “Not to mention, I had brought all of these new songs. I thought, ‘Okay, maybe I’ll go do this tour and workshop how to play these songs in a bigger context’.”


I tell her I was there for the first of the two shows (in a professional rather than personal capacity). The vibe was grotesque and unsettling. It got even weirder when Arcade Fire followed her on and Butler fell off the stand-up piano upon which he had been manically dancing. He jumped up, shaken yet desperate to project a sense of everything being okay. Talk about being slapped in the face by a metaphor.

The allegations against Butler were reported by Pitchfork that Sunday – with the tour kicking on in Dublin on Tuesday. In Ireland, for rehearsals, Feist was as blindsided as anyone else. Her very human immediate instinct was to “duck my head and get through this”. However, when she went out and started to sing, the songs, both new and old, rang hollow in her ears.

“I was out of body. My body was just doing the songs,” she says. Usually, she says, playing music is as normal and natural as “brushing your teeth in the morning”. This was different. She felt she was in a police procedural and that her fingerprints had been found at a crime scene.

“My presence is here. Here is what I’m saying. Here is what I am doing. It was sort of this crime-scene wand [a device used to dust for finger prints]. You put a wand up and you can see the fingerprints.”

Cancelling a tour is both easy and complicated. Easy because you simply have to stop playing. Complicated because, in Feist’s case, it meant writing off the upfront expense of bringing a band across the Atlantic from her base in Los Angeles.

“It took me until the second show where all of the practical discomfort of having to dismantle this crazy machine and fold it back up and lose what I had invested in being there [on tour] ... The whole thing was made so clear to me. I couldn’t continue.”

Dublin was to have been followed by a trek around the UK with Butler and his no-longer-very-merry gang. But Feist couldn’t go on, and took to Instagram to share the news. “It was like, actually, no ... ‘I can’t avoid my responsibility here’,” she says. “Not to mention every word that came out of my mouth, I was hearing through an ear that wasn’t my own. I was hearing how twisted and skewed ... In the context they were in, the songs weren’t safe. And neither was I ... It was deeply difficult.”

The Arcade Fire debacle came at the end of a period of upheaval in her life. Feist adopted her daughter, Tihui, in early 2020. Then, in May 2021, her father, the artist Harold Feist, died. Squeezed in between these events was the pandemic. This was the context in which she wrote new tunes such as In Lightning (“In lightning, I can’t keep my energy intact”) and Borrow Trouble (“we borrow trouble, we even borrow time”).

“My daughter was born four months before lockdown.” Composing music while a newborn baby required constant care was a challenge, she says. It made the record what it is: a beautiful, sometimes messy mingling of grace and guts.

“My joke, with an infant who can’t understand, was that if you could just give me three minutes [of peace and quiet], I promise, I’ll give you 100 per cent of the publishing,” she says. “Trust me – you want me to do this. It’s good for both of us. Just give me a second.”

I feel that I sang poorly, and I was incredibly nervous when I did the Grammys. I found real peace with that … That moment was a natural reaction to that pressure. I’m not built for that kind of pressure. I’m not Madonna

Multitudes is, as she says, a portrait of private and shared bewilderment. Feist was acclimatising to parenthood as the world was adjusting to the pandemic. “I wrote everything since [Tihui] was born, for the most part. Which exactly mirrors the pandemic. The lockdown part ... do you really remember it? Opening and closing, opening and closing. I was in America and it would be one thing. We’d get back to Canada and it was another. I would say that whole weird, foggy time was when all of these songs emerged.”

Some artists found the pandemic a difficult place from which to be creative. For others it was the opposite: the existential angst gave them something on which to chew. That is the camp in which Feist found herself.

“I give myself a pat on the back. I’m not so prolific. I mostly give myself a limitless cushion of time: it happens when it happens. In this case I was compelled by the possibility of the incineration of identity that happens when you become a parent. I was grateful to have a tool that I have often used to help myself understand problems and questions. This was a very problematic and question-filled time that I was lucky to have songs to meet with.”

Had things gone differently, the Arcade Fire tour would have been an opportunity for Feist to introduce herself to a mainstream audience. Or, rather, reintroduce herself. In the 2000s, she was part of the renaissance in Canadian indie music. There was also Broken Social Scene (with whom she sang) and Stars. And, yes, Arcade Fire. Feist, though, outshone them all, becoming an accidental pop star in 2007 when her song 1234 featured on an Apple ad and zoomed up the charts.

The tune was sweet, if slight – imagine Björk’s It’s Oh So Quiet filtered through thrift-store indie wonkiness. Unfortunately, it also catalysed the idea of Feist as a mix of alternative songwriter and children’s entertainer. In the same year she received both a Grammy nomination and an invitation to appear on Sesame Street.

One of the things she did was publicly announce that proceeds from her merchandise stall at 3Arena would go to Women’s Aid in Dublin. Here, too, Feist felt conflicted. Was she just trying to get herself off the hook?

She went to the Grammys and did Sesame Street and regrets neither. Yet fame was ultimately a chimera she had no interest in pursuing. “I feel that I sang poorly, and I was incredibly nervous when I did the Grammys. I found real peace with that ... That moment was a natural reaction to that pressure. I’m not built for that kind of pressure. I’m not Madonna.”

Feist hopes to be in Ireland later this year, potentially to perform in Cork. She is close to Mary Hickson, curator of the city’s Songs from a Safe Harbour festival. Hickson was by her side in August as Feist agonised over how to handle the Arcade Fire situation. Without the Cork woman’s steadfastness, she isn’t sure how she would have made it through.

One of the things she did was publicly announce that proceeds from her merchandise stall at 3Arena would go to Women’s Aid in Dublin. Here, too, Feist felt conflicted. Was she just trying to get herself off the hook?

“Since 2007, the merch has always gone to support local charity. I often don’t post about that at the merch table. Somehow in that moment I was like, ‘Well, maybe I should make that be known’. It’s a naturally occurring truth that predates the stupid scenario I was in. But even to let that be known, it was as if I was trying to recuse myself from the actual responsibility. It is something I have always done. But even being like ‘Hey guys, look ... ’ It was as if I was trying to excuse myself of my real responsibility’.”

Feist parted ways with the Arcade Fire tour after Dublin. The example she set did not go unnoticed. Beck would later recuse himself from a joint US tour with Arcade Fire. If anything good came out of the omnishambles, I suggest, it’s that it has opened up the conversation about #MeToo and music and how reluctant the record industry is to hold male artists to account.

“I think so. That’s what I felt. I returned to Canada. I was having quite an out-of-body experience there as well. I was having parents come up to me with teenagers on the street saying that [by quitting the tour] ‘You helped us start a conversation in our house that we wouldn’t have had a way to begin’. And I’m like, well ... ‘no amount of wrongs ever make a right’. But if it can start a discourse – then I’m one drop in the ocean of that discourse.”

Multitudes is released April 14th