By 2020 Leslie Feist, known to fans of her music as simply Feist, had written close to 100 songs. Many won accolades and some have gone on to be generation-defining classics. In this interview we find out that pre-pandemic Feist looked for ways to shake up the box as a songwriter and joined a program with producer Phil Weinrobe and a handful of other artists around the world that led to the bones of what became her new album, Multitudes.
I connected with Leslie Feist around the time Multitudes was released.
On The Record: A Q&A with Feist
Justin Barney: Multitudes is out now. Your first album since 2017’s Pleasure. Was there a big life event that happened that was the thrust of this album?
Leslie Feist: Did anything happen for you in that time too?
The world was echoing what was happening inside of my life which was a different sort of enclosure called: having a child. As well as a different kind of enclosure which was losing my father. So I would say that the world was an accurate echo of the amount of tumult that I was experiencing myself.
JB: I have an adopted sister. I heard that you adopted your child, is this true?
LF: Yes that is true.
JB: That is sweet. I just wanted to note that and I love my sister so much and was heartened to see that.
LF: That’s lovely. I love hearing adult stories of how it feels years down the line, you know?
JB: Yeah, it has been nothing but wonderful for us. OK, I want to go into a couple songs on the album. The last song is “Song for Sad Friends.” Where did that song come from and who are you singing to?
LF: Through the pandemic, maybe four times, I took part in sort of a game that a friend of mine in New York is at the helm of called Song-A-Day. It’s a tool and a ticket to bypass all of the machinations and the overthinking and the making of songwriting into this arduous self-important, self-mythologizing struggle.
The goal is, for seven days in a row you have to write a song in which the genesis of which was born in that day and you bring it into completion. Phil, in his little introduction write up he lays the rules and what time you have to have the song to him and all the brass tax and in that he says, “What’s a song? That’s a song.” So you decide for yourself the container of what a song is. In some cases it was instrumental. Some people wrote slow jams, for others a cappella, there were some poets involved and they wrote what were songs to them. So “Song for Sad Friends” there is something about the repetition of song-a-day. By day seven I had a better instinct and musculature to open up the aperture. So for “Song For Sad Friends” instead of writing into the void I started to point these songs at different friends. Friends whose consciousness I know all about and who feeds my interest in exhuming whatever it was that I was writing about. So I would point these songs at friends who would better understand me. For that one I collated a few friends who I had been talking to who were all going through this brand new pressure. It was sort of an amalgamated friend. That’s why it became plural. It applied to multiple people.
JB: How many songs did you do in the Song-A-Day?
LF: I mean, the bulk of this record. At least the seeds were found. “Hiding Out In The Open,” “Sad Friends,” “I Took All My Rings Off,” “Martyr Moves,” and others. I would say for at least half the record the genesis was found in that method. It was a new way to approach what I’ve done for a long time. I so appreciated the feeling of community in there because I’ve always written alone. And of course I was writing alone, but there was a group of friends there. Also there was a rule of no cross talk. No commenting. For as much as we were together we were all facing our own strictures and rules and trying to unseat certain tendencies. Everyone was working on their own thing. Like one guy had just got a new synth and said that he was writing each day to figure out his new synth. So there was so cross talk on that. So we were still alone but there was a sense of being alone together.
JB: And how did you start that?
LF: It was a friend in New York named Phil Weinrobe. He’s a producer, songwriter, mixer. He had already done it for a few years in kind of a New York-centric kind of way. I’d gotten wind that it was going to happen again and I asked to be invited and it was pretty far-reaching. There were people in Australia, Iceland and Europe. Phil said, “Look, the rule is that I don’t care what time zone you are in, the song has to be in my inbox by the time I wake up in New York City, and I wake up early. If it’s not there by the time I drink my coffee you’re done. There were consequences! It was so good-natured, though. The reason you would want to stay is because he would make a playlist with everyone’s songs from the day before and there was a sacred vow that no one would let anyone else hear it. You couldn’t play it in your house speakers if someone else was there. It kept a rarified air going.
JB: As we get to the end here, I always like to know what people are listening to. So, Feist, what’s the last song you couldn’t stop listening to?
LF: Just yesterday morning I kind of rediscovered Dusty Springfield. I listened to this just fantastic song called, “Just a Little Lovin’” I think it must be Burt Bacharach. It’s just incredible. Her voice goes from this smoky, quiet pillow talk to this opening-up-the-heavens key change. It made me think that I need to find a biography of her because I know nothing about her.
JB: Why do you say that it must be Bacharach? What identity of his is in there?
There are these rounded edges of the arrangement. It doesn’t go into a blocky verse/chorus/verse/chorus. There seems to be the Bacharach liquidity of key changes sneaking in halfway through a phrase. And the rhyming scheme isn’t squared off. I think a lot of music can be written in banks of fours and eights. The chorus, the bridge, the middle eight. The very clunky blueprint for a song would be those types of tendencies. I’ve become more interested in ways where I can bypass my tendency towards those squares. It must come from my early hardcore punk band days where there would be a verse and then you would just click on the distortion pedal and play the verse again but way louder. Bacharach is a masterclass in intuitive songwriting. Like how water can find it’s way down any hill through a thousand paths, water finds the path of least resistance. I feel his arrangements have that quality.