Feist: The Road Not Taken

It’s a colder album than The Reminder, haunting and straining in equal parts, perhaps best summarized in the song “Bittersweet Melodies.” Beginning with Feist’s wispy vocals, a shimmering of cymbals leads into the piano-driven chorus. Feist’s words could speak to any number of subjects, but what most strongly comes to mind when you hear her sing is the conflict she must feel, caused by press tours and publicists, by denying and granting access to people who desperately want to talk to her at all hours, by having to isolate herself and step away because she is run down, but at the same time still feeling drawn to return to the one thing she has done forever: writing and playing music.

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Bittersweet melodies
Like a sweet memory
Bittersweet melodies
Can’t go back, I can’t go on
Without those bittersweet memories.

Memories and melodies. How about memories of melodies? Here are some of Feist’s:

She stocks beer at a bar and thinks the whole time about what she is going to record in her one hour of free time when she gets home. As she does this, she calculates how to get the riffs in her mind onto her four-track and then how to mix those tracks down to one track so she can add even more layers and sounds.

Then, there was a limit to the cassette. There was a limit to her time.

In those days, when she wrote songs, she did so with headphones on, conscious of her neighbors, not wanting anyone to hear what she’s working on. When she thinks back, Feist says she thinks, UNDERDOG!, and there is a swelling sense of pride in looking out at a tiny crowd of twelve people watching her play on stage.

“Each of those twelve people’s feet brought them here, and it was unfathomable that they would come to hear me,” she says. “There’s a romanticism to the past, and there’s also a dignity in feeling every single scrape and inch. But I think at the time if I had had the ability to see forward, there would have been zero romanticism at that stage. Looking back, it’s easy to wistfully think of that state of hustle.”

There are benefits to fame and success, which Feist is more than willing to point out. Her label allows to her to focus on music; she no longer has to “pimp” herself out to get shows and sell records. It allows her to stay “naïve” in her self-described world of gigs.

But in this world of gigs, where some people still come to see her because of her ability to make the act of counting catchy as hell, would she do it again, or if she somehow had the power to change things, would she replace “1234” with another song to be known for?

She laughs. There is an excitement to her answer that has been missing before.

“Oh my God! That’s an amazing question. It would probably be ‘Sealion.’ I’ve never lost it in terms of playing it over and over. I always find new life in it, and it’s a traditional song.”

Maybe it is strange to want to be known for a song you did not write, a song that has existed for more than a hundred years, but to Feist, “Sealion” must capture something a little more complex than “1234,” a song she says speaks on her behalf as more people know it than know her, but “doesn’t really speak about me.” It’s the arrangement of “Sealion” she is most proud of, a multitude of voices chanting over a very new-age synth, dueling forces pulling this way and that. When you put the pop hit up next to it, the contrast is striking, down to the raucous “Sealion” guitar solo versus the irresistible horn fanfare of “1234”.

Fame or your Do-It-Yourself path, which do you chose? Billboard Top 10 or hipster cred? Grammys or small clubs? Making it or made it? No one frowns upon success, but that doesn’t mean the process is always easy to accept.

“You begin at a certain place: Who you are and where and when you begin,” Feist says. “In my case, over a decade in that mindset can create all sorts of mental blockages when it changes. You aren’t registering it as quickly as other people would.”

The more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that if all the above questions were written by Feist, they would be something a little more forgiving, a little more flexible. There would be an “and” in there instead of an “or.” Big shows and little ones. Charting hits and deep cuts. Diehard fans and new ones, too. There would be a way to keep it all together, a way to finally ask the question Metals may just answer: Can she have both?


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