Following the crush of public adulation that surrounded Leslie Feist’s breakout third album, “The Reminder,” and its iPod-commercial-fueled hit single, “1234,” the Canadian singer retreated to her home in Toronto for some much-needed time off.
She was uncertain when, or if, she might resume her music career.
For a long stretch beginning in November 2008, Feist didn’t so much as pick up a guitar. Instead she traversed the globe, spending weeks at a time in Mexico City, Berlin and Paris. She also read incessantly, devouring works by Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens. At times, she even daydreamed about launching a new career outside the music industry, questioning whether she wanted revisit the exhaustive cycle of touring and press that led to her self-imposed exile.
“I really admire people when they dismantle their lives and start a new chapter and do something completely different, like go back to school or learn to make cheese or move somewhere weird and open a deep-sea dive shop — especially if what they’ve been doing is art that became public,” said Feist, 36, who performs at the Capitol Theater on Sunday, June 3. “In a way, they’re not stepping away from their art. They’re stepping away from the maintenance of the public side of things.
“If I let myself think that way — that I can walk away and do anything — then decide to keep writing songs, I know it’s for the right reasons and my motivations are true. And that’s what happened this time around.”
The singer did the bulk of the writing for her 2011 album “Metals” at home in Toronto, working in solitude in a converted toolshed in the backyard. Feist outfitted her writing retreat with only the most basic tools, including a desk, a guitar, a single floor tom, a mallet and a 1950s Sears catalog amplifier she described as “half broken.”
“With those tiny ingredients there was a way to make a sketch of the whole picture,” she said. “(Album opener) ‘The Bad in Each Other’ is just, ‘boom, kaboom, boom,’ and that’s me smacking the floor tom.”
Compared with “The Reminder” and in particular the ultra-chipper “1234” — a song that sounds like it could have been lifted from a musical about sunbeams — the knotty “Metals” is a much darker, more insular record, packed with avant-garde folk tunes that are often as unsettling as they are gorgeous.
While the early demo versions of songs Feist sketched out in her shed were sparse and primitive, she ended up using an orchestra of instruments to bring this vision to life, incorporating booming brass and sweeping strings alongside the usual guitars, piano, bells and drums. And though no one will confuse the record with the output of metal masters like Mastodon, the Atlanta group Feist recently teamed with for a split 7-inch single (she covered Mastodon’s “Black Tongue,” and the band stampeded through her “A Commotion” for the single’s flip side), the singer said the songs come from a similar creative place.
“There’s a mythological and elemental potency in metal, and I’m interested in the same things even if I come from a different aesthetic world,” she said. “At the center of things, I think there’s the same pleasure being found in massiveness. This record in particular has a lot of massiveness and epicness in it.
“I chose the horns because you feel like ‘Lord of the Rings’ when you hear euphonium, like, ‘Hark! Here comes the army marching over the hill.’ And when you hear bass saxophone — especially as played by Colin Stetson (Arcade Fire, Bon Iver) — what you’re hearing is basically the earth cracking open when Krakatoa is exploding.”
Inspired at least in part by her literary obsession, Feist opted to hold the recording sessions for “Metals” in Big Sur, Calif., a picturesque coastal region championed by authors like Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck, whom the singer referred to as the album’s “godfather.”
“I was joking with my band, like, ‘Hey, Steinbeck already recorded like 17 albums up here. We’re just adding to his legacy,’” she said, and laughed. “(His books) make you feel like you’ve not only been to Big Sur, but you’ve lived some meaningful, deep life there amidst all these salty characters.”
From her Toronto home more than 2,700 miles away, Feist could comfortably hold on to this idealized picture of the region. Prior to the February 2011 recording sessions, which took place on a sprawling coastal ranch, the singer believed California to be eternally sunny, with, in her own words, “oranges trickling down from every tree.” In that regard, northern California’s sometimes-harsh weather proved to be a bit of a wake-up call.
“During that first week, the storms were so raging and intense they were washing sections of highway down into the sea,” said Feist. “It was whipping trees around so they were horizontal to the ground and snapping off giant tree branches. It was crazy.”
It was also, by California standards, quite frigid, and the singer and her bandmates were often forced to huddle around two wood-burning stoves between takes in the barn where most of the recording took place. At times, it sounds like this stormy weather has wormed its way into “Metals.” “A Commotion,” for one, builds to a chaotic climax of shouted vocals, urgent violin and clipped, jazzy guitar lines that whip around as violently as the great trees of Big Sur.
“I think there’s definitely something about us being so cold during the making of the record,” said Feist. “I think all your senses are sharp and alive when you’re dealing with less-than-humane conditions. There’s a very intense intention behind everyone’s playing.”
Part of the singer’s decision to record in relative isolation reflects her newborn approach to surviving within the music industry. Too often during the touring and media attention surrounding “The Reminder,” Feist felt no control and struggled to maintain the enthusiasm that informed sessions for the 2007 album.
“There’s only so much honesty and presence you can bring to talking about the same thing over and over, or singing the same songs over and over,” she said. “It’s really important to me to stay present and to stay a part of the whole thing when it’s in my name. And it started to get diluted by virtue of it being too much for too long.”
So this time around she’s cut down on interviews, and tours have been structured so she can take a week or two here and there to rest and recuperate in Toronto. Reached for our interview, Feist was at home enjoying an afternoon snack of pecorino cheese and smoked trout in the midst of a well-deserved two-week break. Out on the road, she’s even started cooking more, shopping at local farmers’ markets and preparing meals on a stove purchased by one of the members of her sometimes backing band Mountain Man.
“Before the show, we’ll cook out in the parking lot or in a local park,” she said. “It changed everything because it felt like what we were doing was camping across America, and then we got to play shows, too.”
It might sound like a small thing. But even something as simple as determining what her next meal might be, instead of letting someone else make them for her, helped Feist reclaim some semblance of control over her life.
“The fact that I just opened my fridge and there’s food in there took great effort on my part, because I really don’t know how to maintain normalcy when I’m home,” she said. “On the road, you don’t have to think about where to go and what to do. That’s determined for you. You’re going there. And what you’re doing is playing a show.
“It sounds ridiculous, but even deciding what you’re eating can be lost in the shuffle. (Cooking) was really a way to take ownership of my days just a little bit more. That’s probably why I got home and went straight to the farmers’ market. I had just been on the road remembering how great it can be to decide what you’re eating.”