Although those lovely neighbors to the north have had no problem releasing the vocal histrionics of Celine Dion and Bryan Adams on the unsuspecting denizens of America, they did manage to keep Leslie Feist all to themselves — or so they thought. It turns out, a voice as commanding as hers just can't stay a secret for too long. Let It Die (Cherrytree/Interscope, 2005) crossed the border earlier this year, with three Juno Award nominations already in place, but this is not an album of raw power, vocal gymnastics or emotional grandeur. Feist, in collaboration with Chilly Gonzales and Renaud Letang, has crafted an arresting, intricate study of the interaction between voice and keys.
Her voice may already be familiar to a good chunk of listeners thanks to work with Broken Social Scene and Kings of Convenience, not to mention a memorable role in ex-roommate Peaches' stage show as the spandexclad sock-puppet rapper Bitch Lap-Lap. Showcased solo on Let It Die (with Gonzales taking on arrangement and co-writing duties), Feist's voice takes on an altogether different tone: more rich, variegated and powerful, yet she exercises a restraint that's not immediately apparent in her easy, unpretentious delivery — not bad for the former lead singer of a punk band whose high-decibel delivery sent her to the doctor. “It was all about volume back then,” she says with a laugh. “As you get older, you realize you don't have to say everything you think. Singing is sort of the same; it's about your instincts and what you need to do, what you don't need to do.”
The album germinated from demos that were recorded using a 4-track and a computer running Apple Logic, albeit in a fairly rudimentary fashion. “My ability to learn new technology is quite limited,” she admits. “Right now, I'm using [Apple] GarageBand, basically not really utilizing it the way it should be used. I have it in my laptop, and I use it as a glorified Dictaphone to catalog my new ideas. I just use the microphone in my computer and sing into the air or hold my Dictaphone up to the microphone to record into it or use my cell phone to record into it ideas, and, basically, it's become a library more than a multitrack.”
Once Feist had the demos in place, Gonzales worked with her to build tracks based on her voice and his keyboard playing. They laid some ground rules: no beats, sampling or Berlin techno references for Gonzales and no indie rock or bass-drum-guitar vocals for Feist. “We were left with both of us being on turf we had never been on before,” she says. “It was a conscious effort to do something neither of us was accustomed to doing.”
By stripping their ideas down to the bare essentials, Feist and Gonzales were free to roam. Cover songs proved useful for testing boundaries; “Inside and Out” bears passing resemblance to the original Bee Gees version and, according to Gonzales, was a “no-brainer.” “The song is so great, all one needs to do is follow the chords and sing the melody,” he says. The finishing touch? “Get a singer who can hit the notes, who has charisma and is willing to put their face on the music,” he concludes.
The pair started out tracking in MIDI in Gonzales' Berlin apartment. As luck would have it, Letang (best known for his work with Manu Chao) was keen to work with Gonzales again and offered up his studio in Paris, where they were able to translate the MIDI into live instruments. They experimented with different arrangements and often recorded two versions of the same track — inevitably, the one with less instrumentation made the cut. Leaving space in the arrangement is ultimately what draws the listener in so closely; Feist's voice remains unfettered by distracting percussive elements. “What I value more than anything in another player onstage with me is when I can hear them deciding not to do something,” Feist says. “That's the restraint that I respect.”