Feist - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
No artist exemplifies the shifting of the times quite like Nova Scotia-born songstress, Leslie Feist. During the latter half of 2007, the iPod Nano television spot which featured a video of her single “1234” gave Feist massive exposure, and she went from being little-known indie darling to an overnight mainstream success. A decade earlier, hawking corporate wares would have been considered a compromise of artist integrity, but within a matter of weeks in 2007, Feist was playing Saturday Night Live by landing the spot. Her corresponding album, The Reminder, accordingly shot through the roof.
But she was not really an overnight success, as Feist’s back-story goes back 16 years of touring, songwriting and developing her sound. She had been a struggling musician in various bands dating back to the early-1990s, and it wasn’t until she joined up with Toronto super-collective Broken Social Scene that she earned herself a place on the indie map. Blessed with the voice of a songbird, a knack for infectious indie folk, and super-model good looks, Feist had been poised for big time success for years but was waiting for that big push to get her there. In 2007, that big push came from the most unlikely business: Steve Jobs and his Macintosh empire.
Feist began her musical career by performing in her high school choir outside Calgary, Canada. While still in her teens, she formed the all-girl punk band Placebo—not to be confused with the British band of the same name—and the group went on to win a battle of the bands contest. Shortly thereafter, Placebo played a lofty debut gig opening for The Ramones, and it was there that she first met fellow musicians Brendan Canning and Kevin Drew. The core of Feist, Canning and Drew would go on to form Broken Social Scene nearly a decade later.
Placebo performed and toured throughout Canada for the next several years but disbanded after Feist nearly ruined her vocal chords from overuse and strain. She relocated to Toronto to seek medical attention for her ailing voice, and during the six months of recuperation she sealed herself off in a basement apartment with an acoustic guitar and a four-track recorder. She ended up demoing solo material more akin to stripped-down folk with leanings toward indie pop, a change from her Placebo days.
Around this time she also joined up as a guitarist to Brendan Canning’s indie-rock band, By Divine Right, and participated in the recording sessions for the group’s sophomore full-length, Bless This Mess (1999 Nettwerk). That same year Feist also released her own solo LP, Monarch (Lay Down Your Jeweled Head) (1999 Bobby Dazzler) under her full name, Leslie Feist. Printed in a limited run, the album was primarily sold at Feist’s solo shows, and today is a highly sought after collector’s item.
Feist spent the remainder of 1999 touring with By Divine Right as the opening act for the widely-popular Canadian band, The Tragically Hip. Upon her return to Toronto, she moved in her with her friend Merrill Nisker, who had just begun performing as the electroclash/hip-hop hellcat, Peaches. Feist soon found herself in the Peaches’ entourage, performing back-up vocals on the album The Teaches With Peaches (2000 Kitty-Yo) while touring with her as the sock puppeteer, “Bitch Lap-Lap.” It was during this time that Feist befriended fellow Peaches collaborator and MC, Chilly Gonzalez (a.k.a. Jason Scott Beck), and the two soon began a collaborative partnership that continues to the present day.
By late 2001, Feist joined Canning’s new group, Broken Social Scene. She was one of numerous collaborators, among her future boyfriend Kevin Drew, Andrew Whiteman of Apostle of Hustle, and Emily Haines of Metric and others. Broken Social Scene’s sophomore album, You Forget It in People (2002 Arts & Crafts) was a huge success, winning a Juno Award for Best Alternative Album of the Year, while going on to be regarded as one of the best indie releases of 2002. As Broken Social Scene’s success grew, the media spotlight began shining on the individual members of group, including Leslie Feist—who was now writing and performing under the truncated moniker, Feist.
After touring with Broken Social Scene, she signed to the band’s Arts & Crafts label as a solo artist, and began working on her second record. Having laid down a few rough tracks—now known as The Red Demos—Feist relocated to Paris to record Let It Die (2004 Arts & Crafts). Comprised of original compositions written with Gonzalez and a few covers, the album received enormous critical praise for its innovative mixture of indie folk, cabaret, jazz and pop, and soon she had developed a diehard cult following. The album was a breakthrough critically, as Feist was nominated for three Juno Awards, taking home the Best Alternative Album of the Year and Best New Artist awards.
Feist spent the better part of the next two years touring Let It Die throughout the world and collaborating with Broken Social Scene on its third full-length, Broken Social Scene (2005 Arts & Crafts). She also contributed to albums by Norwegian folk duo, Kings of Convenience, and the renowned chanteuse Jane Birkin during this time. She released the remix album, Open Season (2006 Arts & Crafts) the following year. The album featured remixes by The Postal Service, k-os, and Kings of Convenience amongst others.
By early 2006, she had returned to Europe to begin work on her third full-length, this time with a backing band and help from outside musicians Jamie Lidell, Mocky, and her long-time collaborator Gonzalez. Said to have been recorded in one week, The Reminder (2007 Arts & Crafts) was a more streamlined pop effort that mixed folk-inspired indie rock with sonic experimentalism. It once again garnered Feist critical raves for innovation and boldness. Although the inspired video for the single, “1234”—which featured Feist in a sparkly blue pant suit performing choreographed dance moves with a legion of dancers—helped bolster sales, the album was not a huge commercial success. That is until the song and video were picked for the iPod Nano commercial, and then The Reminder’s sales sky-rocketed. Subsequently, to complete her crossover into pop-culture, the album was nominated for four Grammy Awards.
More than a decade into her music career, Feist achieved the elusive “overnight success” tag, and was thrust into the limelight throughout North America and Europe. Her second single, “I’ve Seen It All,” appeared on the heels of “1234,” and Feist spent the majority of 2007 on the road supporting The Reminder.
In 2008, Feist performed “1234” at the 50th annual Grammy Awards.