The synchronized dancers. The soaring rhythms. The disco-ball dazzle of her blue-sequined jumpsuit. It’s all more than familiar for the millions of fans who saw the music video and iPod commercial for Leslie Feist’s smash hit “1234” from her 2007 record The Reminder. But Feist essentially knew the steps long before they were even choreographed. She’d practically rehearsed the video’s every detail again and again at the age of 12 for her very first gig — the opening ceremonies of the Calgary Winter Olympics.
“It wasn’t until the video had been out for months that it dawned on me. I was at my mom’s house in Calgary walking up the stairs. Then, on the wall, I saw this portrait that had been taken of me when I was 12, wearing this blue sparkle suit,” she says of the 1988 costume that shared similar stitching to her music video getup. “Subconsciously, I was re-creating on my own terms the thing I had done as a kid.”
That element of control was key on the “1234” set, because Feist had felt so helpless while prepping for the performance that influenced it. While the 2007 video was finished, amazingly, in one smooth take, the Olympic rehearsals of her youth dragged on for two years.
“When you’re that young, there’s not much else you do with that much consistency and commitment,” she recalls. “I wanted to quit 100 times. The most difficult part was to stick with it and make the decision over and over again not to give up.” That work ethic has stuck with Feist for life. “It gave me an innate fortitude... now I’m like a plow when it comes to work — I don’t stop.”
But that perpetual motion can be slow to start. Endless touring with elaborate puppeteer props, a duet with Elmo on Sesame Street (a precursor to her cameo in this fall’s Muppets reboot), four Grammy nominations and incessant press junkets all followed the success of The Reminder. Then Feist brought her career to a startling halt at the peak of her popularity in 2008, only ending the hiatus this year with her followup album Metals.
“I was trying to do all the other things I hadn’t for so many years because I was on the road. Puttering around without a plan all day. Bike riding. Reminding my family who I am, and remembering who they are... I couldn’t feel better about giving myself that time, because really no one else was going to.”
After her life went from frenzied to leisurely, Feist’s return to the studio took an equally steep digression from The Reminder. Compared to the terse textures on the new album, her previous sweet folk-pop hooks almost seem campy. It’s simply another decision Feist pushed herself towards unknowingly, until now.
“It’s all subconscious,” she says of her work decisions. “It makes me realize how much we do is echoing — either escaping the things that echo from our past or kind of re-creating them. I guess it’s pretty important for me to be aware of that kind of motivation because I didn’t know. It was like I was on autopilot.”
Feist’s longtime friend and collaborator Buck 65 (born Richard Terfry) fully understands Feist’s creative process. “It’s about allowing yourself to get lost and then doing something creative when you get there,” he says. “She needs to have a space created where she can lose herself.... She’s crazy-smart, but she goes by feel. That’s the way of the true artist, I think.”
Though she works in her own little world, there’s plenty of room for the puppets that share the stage with Feist on her many Muppet collaborators. After all, those creatures operate on a similar wavelength. “They’re all about bringing something inanimate and sort of filling the still world with potential personality,” she admits. “It’s sort of a wonderment thing.”