Feist (Photo: Mary Rozzi)

Nearly 20 years ago, a quick perusal of Toronto’s live music listings would have shown the name Feist popping up repeatedly. If the budding solo performer’s work ethic had been matched by audience size, she’d have been a household name long before landing a song in an iPod commercial. But had you stumbled into any of the tiny ramshackle rooms the singer-songwriter was playing back then, you’d often find not much more than a handful of chatterers, the sound guy, and Leslie Feist onstage with her big red guitar and a small arsenal of looping pedals.

Fast-forward two decades later, and upon her return to the spotlight after six long years away, in many ways things have come full circle. Launching her raw new album, Pleasure, at home in a grand old church in downtown Toronto at the end of April, she stood center-stage, guitar in hand, pedals at her feet.

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Back when, though, there was no massive lighting rig or three-man band or guitar tech handing her instruments—and yet, none of the usual rock-show trappings could overshadow the elemental nature of the new songs, which put the focus squarely on Feist’s singular voice and spare guitar melodies.

If 2011’s Metals served as a declaration of an artist leveraging pop success toward her own artistic ends, Pleasure not only moves further along that road but also knowingly nods to the past while looking to the future. Forged from a dark period where Feist questioned her own path—even whether she would release another record—Pleasure’s unadorned songs feel like kindred spirits to her earliest solo material.

The record’s rough-hewn, from-the-gut feel might evoke the spirit of the punk band young Leslie started out in as a teenager, but the singer, who entered her 40s last year, says she was thinking more about her older self while making the long-awaited Pleasure.

“I guess when I was in [’90s Calgary band] Placebo, which was more hardcore than punk, I was 15, so it was just more about being a teenager and all the drama that comes with that,” Feist muses over a Skype call. She’s just returned to Toronto after a winter away in L.A., where she’s spent a lot of time in the hiatus between albums.

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“It’s interesting how women in their 40s and 50s have so much to say about the record—there’s certainly something to be said about the reflection that comes with age, and holding up a mirror to where you’re at now, but also tapping into where you might be. I recently said to a friend, ‘Things may be a mess, but I’m no longer making them worse!’” she laughs.

“It wasn’t necessarily about that milestone [turning 40], but more about looking even beyond that… and how things will continue to evolve in ways that I can’t even begin to predict,” she continues. “In a way, the songs are written to my 80-year-old self—I wonder what she’ll make of them? She’ll probably just want to go back and give me a hug!”

Feist, who speaks in poetic, almost philosophical terms, has always been the type of artist to look forward rather than back. Those who only know her from the delightfully effervescent “1234” (a rare co-write, it should be pointed out, with former labelmate Sally Seltmann) might be confounded by Pleasure’s deeply contemplative lyrics and spare arrangements that nod more to folk and blues, but it’s in keeping with the creative path Feist’s always followed. Where her Toronto-scene pals and collaborators like electro-clash rapper Peaches and piano virtuoso Chilly Gonzales aimed their sights squarely at the big time, Feist never sought out stardom in quite the same way, making her a somewhat unlikely indie It Girl—at least in her own eyes.

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(Photo: Mary Rozzi)

“It’s not that I was shying away from anything—I was always just so grateful for the next opportunity, like, ‘Sure, I’ll try this thing!’ but I never had any sense of what success was ‘supposed’ to look like,” she says. “So when I made Let It Die in a vacuum in this place called Paris—which I never even imagined I would end up in—after years of trying to sell [my first solo record] Monarch out of my car and knowing that just wasn’t going to be sustainable, when I signed to a major label, I never had any sense of ‘selling out’—I was just happy to have people who were going to help me put the album out.

“Maybe that ‘meekness’ served me well, because I never really had a preconceived idea of who the audience is or what they might be expecting,” she adds. “The only way I experience that is through the shows, when I can actually see who’s there. Having not toured in a few years, I have no idea who’ll come out to [these] shows—I guess we’ll see!”

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While the rooms she’ll be playing this time around will be much smaller than the arenas that followed in the wake of “1234” and The Reminder’s success a decade ago, there’s still a fiercely dedicated following for the finely-wrought songwriting that’s Feist’s hallmark—something that’s distilled to its essence on Pleasure, which is deliberately a near-solo album recorded with some of her closest collaborators, including Mocky (drummer-composer-producer Dominic Salole) and Renaud Letang (who co-produced Let It Die).

“Working with someone you’ve known for so long, you can often understand each other without even needing to speak,” Feist says of Mocky, Pleasure’s co-pilot. “We’re both from the same generation, grew up listening to the same kind of things—though he was more on the hip-hop side than I was. In fact, my exposure to that scene was more through him and Peaches and Gonzo. And even though we weren’t of that era, we have that Brill Building-type approach to songcraft deep in our bones. We just know when something’s maybe too saccharine, when to pull back or how far to go with it.”

Working with collaborators who understood her, and the songs, was doubly important given that Feist was mining some pretty emotional territory—coming through dark times and trying to better comprehend herself, her relationships with others and the world around her, and growing older. The songs reflect that pensiveness with a hushed, live-off-the-floor sound and a far more naked lyrical approach than ever before. Simple doesn’t equal simplistic, however: Acoustic lament “Baby Be Simple” blooms into a garden of harmonies; “A Man Is Not His Song” counters its loveliness with a growly Mastodon outro; Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker turns up to play Father Time on the huge, clattering “Century.”

“When I’m writing, it’s to try to work through things and try to understand them in some way,” she explains. “I was recently talking to Jarvis [Cocker]—his songs have this beautifully unique perspective, and he said they’re often written two years after the fact. That’s fascinating to me, to be able to process things in that fashion, but I just don’t approach things from that kind of hindsight.

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“So a lot of these songs were written as a way of moving me out of the period I was in at the time. Like with ‘Century,’ it’s like a water wheel, where the buckets are dipping back into the water—that’s how electricity is created, if you think about it. I wanted the arrangements to be very deliberate. There’s something that happens when you’re onstage where there’s a bit of a remove, but with these songs [musically and lyrically], I didn’t want there to be any ‘excuses,’ any not taking responsibility.”

Although she may be laying her own lows bare for the listener, the exercise proves a deeply universal one, something that’s not lost on Feist herself.

“You could be fine today or for the next year, but then maybe tomorrow you won’t be, or the year after that. And it’s tough to give voice to that—everyone goes through it differently in their own way,” she notes. “But we often don’t want to talk about it, even with the people we love. But a big part of friendship is, ‘On Tuesday I’m a mess and you have my back; on Wednesday you’re a mess and I have yours.’”

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Lucky for her—and music fans—Feist’s circle extends to a big group of longtime collaborators, including Canadian indie-rock supergroup Broken Social Scene, which also returns later this year with a new album, featuring her vocals and a song she wrote. It’s clear she’s buoyed by making music again with her comrades, who she’s been playing with since those early Toronto boozecan days.

“I’ve been watching [FX series] Feud [about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis], and I’ve just never experienced that kind of thing,” Feist declares. “Like with [fellow BSS vocalists] Amy [Millan] and Emily [Haines], two people who’re around the same age and have had the same kind of career trajectory, there’s been nothing but support. I know we’ll be hanging out at Emily’s house in Majorca or Amy’s cottage in the Laurentians when we’re 80!”

(Photo: Mary Rozzi)

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Ten years removed from The Reminder’s flirtation with the pop mainstream, Feist sends Pleasure forth into the world as the latest offering from an artist who’s ever-evolving—but also clearly knows what kind of statement she wants to make. “I can’t tell or be told where to go,” she sings on “Get Not High, Get Not Low”—perhaps a rather apt assertion for where she’s at after making music for more than half her lifetime.

“I decided to call the album something that inherently has within it both delight and pain,” she explains. “But putting that name to it meant intentionally pointing to the positive side, as kind of a signpost to my future self. In giving name to something, it’s like you’re deciding what it’s going to be.

“Singing is a proclamation—you’re so sure of something you’re going to turn it into a song; you’re going to amplify it,” she continues. “I like the idea of singing these songs many years from now and knowing they’ll have important truths to tell me.”

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