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Feist Has A Message For Her 71-Year-Old Self

Feist says her goal with <em>Pleasure</em> is to "[go] back to a place that would be sustainable, that I can imagine enjoying when I'm 90."
Courtesy of the artist
Feist says her goal with Pleasure is to "[go] back to a place that would be sustainable, that I can imagine enjoying when I'm 90."

Leslie Feist's new album is her first in six years — and it sounds nothing like the polished alternative pop that got her nominated for Best New Artist at the 2008 Grammys, nor the big ensemble sound that won her a Polaris Prize for Metals in 2012. This one is gritty, spare.

The album's title, Pleasure, is a little misleading; Feist, 41, says it came out of a time when she wasn't feeling much enjoyment or happiness. She chose that title, she says, in an effort to be deliberate about the use and power of language.

"I think it was a little bit of a game of wielding words in a way that I thought would manifest something," she says. "And so, having a tough few years, I was at one end of a pole, and I was experiencing ... the opposite of pleasure. So in writing this record, I started to feel, 'Well, wait a second. I can make the opposite be true. I think I can will it to literally become true.' "

Feist spoke with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the perspective that comes with adulthood, why Pleasure's starker sound was so important to her and how she delivers messages to older versions of herself. Hear their conversation at the audio link and read on for an edited transcript.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro: What was going on in your life that made it so difficult that you felt the need to do something like this, entitle it Pleasure?

Feist: There wasn't a particular thing. I was in a low-grade — just confusion. Or maybe it was like, what direction to go next? Like your compass stops working. It might have been from repetition of touring; from having been an adult for long enough to have observed what I was doing as an adult [and] how adulthood was looking on me. So I think it was just a confluence of a bunch of different factors.

For those of us who are older, we call it a mid-life crisis. You have these crises of confidence — but I don't think that's what was going through you.

Well, I don't know. I mean, I think maybe it manifests in Lamborghinis or, like, affairs or whatever.

Not for me.

Nor for me. It manifests in a whole bunch of songs or something. Maybe that's true, in a way — time starts to factor in, in a way it didn't before. You see what a decade is because you've just felt it as an adult. It's not like a childhood decade, where every day is a brand-new day, every day is a reinvention of all that you've ever known, the world can turn on its heel in a second. But when you're an adult, there's a fossilization of habits ... I started to feel like I had to crack off this armor that had culminated without me noticing.

One of the things that people notice about this album is its spareness. The albums you've made before have been very lush, but a lot of the tracks on this one are just you and a guitar. Why did you want to have it so prominently on the album?

Well, it was the tool that I wrote with. And also, I guess it was probably because I began playing solo years ago, long before even Let It Die ... And then when Let It Die came out and I started to tour North America with it and couldn't bring a band with me, I was playing Let It Die songs — interpreting them solo again. And they sounded nothing like each other, the record and the way I played that record live. So I started to realize that it was sort of my translator, interpreter — the way I could hold up a song, hold up a minute, hold up an hour, was with me and this thing.

So in 2014, after I finished touring Metals, which was a bigger record — there were big arrangements, there were horns and strings and bombast. And after touring that with a seven-piece band, I just felt I needed to go do a solo tour, just to remember I could hold it up for my own sake. And then that is what informed writing this record.

You achieved huge success in 2007 with your album The Reminder, but you've said your goal since then was to "descend the ladder with dignity and go back to the altitude that [you] can breathe at." Does that mean that you'd leave music altogether — or at least the way you've been doing it, the tours and the limelight?

No, I think it meant — before The Reminder sort of took on a life of its own, I had been playing for so long where I felt that any of my own effort would be — I could feel the response. Like, if I worked hard, then A, B or C; there would be a response that I could sense had come from me. And it made me feel like my hands were on the steering wheel.

"1234," off [The Reminder], kind of took on a life of its own. It sort of pulled me along with it. But I actually enjoy playing smaller venues, and I enjoy that rarefied air of a smaller group of people being in a room together and passing those two hours together. There's a synergy that can happen that can't happen at the Hollywood Bowl, for instance — or at least it can't happen for me, because I really enjoy and feel invested in the quieter side of things. So yeah, I basically just meant going back to a place that would be sustainable, that I can imagine enjoying when I'm 90.

The very last song on the album is called "Young Up," and it feels like one of the tracks on the album where you're speaking most directly to yourself. What is the message to your younger self?

It's funny because I'm kind of giving a message to my 71-year-old self, in a way, more than the past, which is: You will age as quickly as you think you are. You will be that sparkly-eyed, white-braided 80-year-old, or you're gonna be a hunched-over, resentful 80-year-old, and that's a choice.

I've learned, having sung the same songs for 15 years, that some of them do carry little embedded, codified messages. And I appreciate the perspective that 28-year-old Leslie's shed on my life, and I kind of want to echo that forward and intend for something — I don't know — richer. Keep the sparkle in your eye.

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.