Feist interview: "I was endeavouring to push myself harder in my guitar playing"

Feist onstage playing guitar in Toronto
(Image credit: Matthew Tsang)

Leslie Feist is undoubtedly one of the most influential singer-songwriters of her generation. Throughout her career, she’s scooped up no less than 11 Juno Awards in her native Canada and been nominated internationally for plenty of Grammys and Brits along the way, too. 

After an almost six-year intermission since 2017’s Pleasures, she's returned with Multitudes, out now on Fiction Records.

While boppy stand-outs from her early catalogue like 1234, Mushaboom and I Feel It All might have provided the perfect soundtrack to a carefree summer for countless listeners worldwide back in the early-to-mid 2000s, this new effort captures its author at a more poignant and reflective time of life.

The 12 new songs that make up Multitudes started to take shape shortly after the birth of Feist’s daughter and the sudden death of her father – not to mention during long periods of isolation, thanks to the global you-know-what.

Equipped with a Spire Studio 8-track recorder and a nylon string guitar, she set about “trying to solve some problems of life” through her songwriting and demoing processes, all the while trying not to disturb her infant child - a reason why you won’t hear much of her trusty Gibson Les Paul Junior on this record.

But, by relying on the campfire staples of acoustic guitar and vocals, Feist’s knack for elevating seemingly simple ingredients to levels of potent sublimity shines brighter than ever on Multitudes, which also utilised hyper-sensitive guitar and vocal mic-ing to provide an immersive, ASMR-like listening experience that’s rich in warm, woody detail. 

She also professes to having set herself a challenge to “write on the learning edge” of her capabilities, utilising a lengthy pre-album tour as a “masterclass” to up her guitar playing skills before she headed into the studio with a cast of multi-instrumentalists, her “Fidelity Captain” Robbie Lackritz and co-producer Mocky - with whom she also made her seminal 2011 album, Metals

As such, Multitudes houses some of the most arresting guitar work that Feist has ever committed to record, with cascading fingerpicking cycles, nuanced strum patterns and fresh chord progressions – thanks to shaking up the known landmarks of the fretboard with a glut of alternate tunings. It boasts, she tells us, “more guitar moments” than she’s ever “allowed” herself before.

Just ahead of the album’s release, the mononymous musician dialled-in to give a rare guitar-focused interview, digging deep into the instruments,  approaches and techniques that make Multitudes such a spectacular listen for those of a six-string persuasion.

Feist Multitudes album art

(Image credit: Sarah Melvin and Colby Richardson)

I wrote to serve my lostness

What were some of the key inspirations for writing Multitudes?

"I’d say, more than ever before – although this is something I clued into maybe 10 or so years ago – these songs were written entirely because I was trying to solve some problems of life. I found comfort in writing. It was kind of a way to try to recall who I was before I’d become a mother, and grabbing at these last little tendrils of a sense of my identity that was fleeting.

"Then, I experienced a grief that shifts the dimension of what life is. That wasn’t something that needed to be written about, but it was that I needed to learn how to continue to live in the wake of experiencing death. I was, in a way, fortunate that writing has always kept me company through these types of quagmire. 

"I wrote to serve my lostness. It sounds a bit dramatic, but it actually just kind of was a dramatic time, so I’m so grateful that I had that relationship in place; this quiet conversation with myself that I could – not find any answers because there weren’t any to be found – but just maybe pose the questions in a different way. They were little footholds somehow."

I didn’t use GarageBand anymore because they made it more like Pro Tools

There are some beautifully transparent yet layered arrangements on the record. What influenced your decision to almost go back to basics and have acoustic guitar and vocals as the crux of the album? 

"I was sent a digital eight-track by Spire. I had it in a drawer and then one day, when I was using my iPhone as a dictaphone, I was kind of frustrated that I didn’t have my four-track going anymore and that I didn’t use GarageBand anymore because they made it more like Pro Tools. I loved it before! I used it for years, and they kind of just made it more complicated, and I didn’t have the will to figure it out. 

"I didn’t have my cassette four-track around anymore and I thought, 'What about that thing? Maybe I can figure that out,' and it was just such a great tool. I had one of the early versions where they hadn’t podcast-ified it. 

"I figured out how to trick the gain so that I really could create some different tones. I really understood how to crank the gain but put it far away, or crank the gain and keep it close. I would put it up on 15 books, so that the microphone in it was near my mouth, but my guitar was lower than it, and that would create a natural balance between the two. 

"This was all for demoing’s sake, and I was endeavouring to push myself harder in my guitar playing. 

In some cases, I’d found that the voicings just weren’t available to my fingers - especially because I was in so many alternate tunings. So, I would find that I could complete the idea with a bank of harmonies that were like auxiliary guitar players or something! 

There’s probably five or six tunings on the record that I don’t think are actual tunings, I just shifted things

What are some of your go-to alternate tunings?  

"Well, actually, I was trying to trick myself away from any familiar shapes. A bit like sudoku or a Rubik’s Cube, I wanted to make myself a new puzzle to solve. Also, in writing, I would tend towards folk chords and country chords. I don’t often voyage north of the seventh fret – or, let’s say, north of the fifth. It would be a rare day! 

So, to just literally move it at random – I don’t actually have them written down now – but there’s probably five or six tunings on the record that I don’t think are actual tunings, I just shifted things. In Lightning is one, Become The Earth is one. For Love Who We Are Meant To, my drummer left the guitar at my house in a tuning that he and his brother like to use, and I wrote the song in that. 

"In Lightning’ was sort of like the I Feel It All tuning except something is different up in the high strings. I don’t know what it is though!"

Diving into a new tuning is a really great way to spark inspiration… 

"I think so, yes. I think I found more passing chord nuances, and maybe even some key changes that wouldn’t have been available to me if I had been in standard, playing G, C and D. I wouldn’t know how to shift my playing to less of a squared-off, known place. It was nice to venture off into the unknown a bit. 

"I had a nylon-string that I was primarily playing at the time, and it’s funny because I toured these songs for this record and they were workshopped live. I played something like 90 shows and it was only near the end of the 90 shows that I could tune without the piece of paper with my legend to where I’m meant to be! 

"There are so many songs in so many tunings and none of them intuitively go from one to the other – especially if it was like; third fret capo in some strange open tuning, and the next song is fifth fret capo but only two of the strings need to change."

The nylon-string guitars bring such a great warmth to the whole record. Have you used them much before, or was this more or less a first? 

"I owned one and I had one around. It was sort of the one on the couch all the time. I didn’t tour with it, but it was around the house. I didn’t really play a nylon in earnest until I was asked to play a memorial for Leonard Cohen at the Canadian Grammys kind of thing [The Juno Awards].

It was ‘Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’, and my instinct was that I wanted to play that on a nylon string. So, I bought one for that show and then I had one! I had a recent memory of playing it and I liked the way it felt. I liked how buttery and how quiet it was. 

You know, I had an infant and it felt like it was softer than the steel string and it belonged inside this liminal exhaustion. It was just gentler on me. Also, I was singing so quietly - often because she was nearby - really leaning into the Spire, and the nylon string was never overpowering my voice. 

I want to be in charge of gain, and I don’t have a loud voice, so I’ve often used things besides my larynx to cause gain because I can’t sing loud

It’s interesting that you mention that because there’s a really intimate quality to the way the guitar has been captured on the record and you can hear all these almost whispered details like string sounds, creaks and that slightly percussive knocking on the wood of the body of the guitar. Was there anything special about the way you went about recording the guitars to catch all of that? 

"Yes! I asked my manager, Robbie Lackritz, who is a producer as well and he had made Metals with me, but I hadn’t worked with him in a musical way in over ten years. The live show I did was in Atmos surround, and that was his contribution. He said, “Look, if we’re going to do a show in the round, I think that you should use this!” 

"I’m a bit of a suspicious technology user. I thought it sounded complicated for complicatedness’s sake, but he was like, “No, no, no. You’ve been talking about wanting to shift the fidelity and you want it to be a gentle, somatic experience and that’s what Atmos surround can serve. In a live setting, it’ll be quite unique.” 

"No one had really heard music live for two years, and they hadn’t heard an Atmos show, so it spoke to this not-quite-a-concert-not-quite-a-theatre thing. It was a bit of an installation – like a museum installation or something. 

"I wrote to that, because I knew that Atmos meant those vocals could travel, move and sing in the round. They could go from one quiet voice in the centre to call and response with many voices. 

"So, when it came to recording, I asked Robbie to come and co-produce with me in the role of this type of 'Fidelity Captain'.  

"I said, “I don’t want any interference, or filters or any of me and my noise veils – like singing through guitar amps, which I’ve done for so many years. My tendency is to want to push a cone. I want to be in charge of gain, and I don’t have a loud voice, so I’ve often used things besides my larynx to cause gain because I can’t sing loud. 

I said to him that I wanted to cure myself of these reliances on all of these interference stages, and I wanted it to be like ASMR. I wanted to lean as far into someone’s ear canal as I could and sing quietly but connectedly. 

"So, he brought in this Sony C800 or something. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but he called it 'the pop mic', because it’s a naked mic. It doesn’t have tube warmth, and it doesn’t come with any of its own innate tone. It is very much like an uncomfortably clear document. 

"Then, for the guitar, I said similarly that I wanted to hear the wood and the strings and have it be hyper-close. I don’t know that this has happened before, but I like that you can hear that there’s something different about the way it was recorded because it wasn’t a mic in front of me; it was these two clip-on mics. There was one on the top and one on the bottom, and they were almost like lav mics, but they were pointing at the soundhole. 

"The point was that he could get a stereo image of the guitar, and it was interesting because I had to play inside of one of these foam half-domes because I was playing live the whole time and my voice would have bled into the guitar and vice versa. 

"I locked myself into this really specific position so that I could play live and not have it bleed into itself because everything was tuned to be so sensitive. The creaking of my chair is all over the record!"

Beyond the nylon string, what other guitars did you use? 

"Well, I don’t think there’s any electric guitar on this record, which is weird because I've always played my Junior. But, it didn’t belong somehow. So, I think the record is only the nylon, my two Martins and maybe this tiny little Framus parlor guitar that I have as well. 

"You know, maybe there’s actually some overdubs with my [Les Paul] Junior – just some tonal overdubs in the background, like the out-of-tune electric in the far distance of the bridge of Forever Before. It was like I was purposely bending everything a little bit to make it sound out of tune, and that might be one of the only electric guitars on the record."

Do you tend to have an attraction to guitars that have lived a life before you’ve owned them, or do you prefer to buy new and wear them in yourself? 

"I do prefer – and it’s kind of the house I prefer to live in, too – one that has some stories already. 

"But, I was once given a Breedlove guitar that Jeff Tweedy helped design. I think it’s called The Honeycomb or something because, instead of the fret dots, there are little honeycombs and there are some bees on the pickguard. It’s a very big-bodied acoustic and he gave it to me to say thank you for singing on a Wilco record once. 

It was the first new guitar I’d ever had and it’s beautiful. It just took a few years for the chimey-ness of the new strings to warm up. 

There’s more guitar moments, I feel, than I’ve ever allowed myself before

Which guitar moments on the record are you most proud of? 

"It’s so fun to talk guitar. This is great! There is something that experience has served me with, which is: I’ve made records and then toured them four times now. Those cycles are three years and sometimes more. From the writing to the recording, it’s sometimes four or five years. 

"That’s why it looks like a long time between records. I was working the whole time – it just takes that long to finish touring! 

"But, I’ve had the experience such that I’m aware that there is a type of repetition by the end of a few hundred shows, and I wanted to push my capabilities. I wanted to live on the learning edge and write on the learning edge, where I was maybe going to write things that were a little bit too hard for my hands to be able to do, so that – by the end of the tour – I’d have created myself a masterclass to cause myself to have to get better. 

"I did that tour, where the songs were being workshopped and changing from night to night. In that bridge of Forever Before it’s quite a span – it’s farther than I’m used to - and I kind of have to hitch my body to get my pinky over there. Sometimes, I would just mess it up and I would laugh and say, “This was on purpose. I’m screwing up because I want to get better.” 

"There’s a lot of that. The bridge of Love Who We Are Meant To was a joy to discover, and Forever Before. Even with songs like Hiding Out In The Open or Borrow Trouble, which are more simple and chordal, there’s a right-hand challenge there to not overdo it. 

"In Hiding Out In The Open, I didn’t necessarily want it to be a shuffle. I wanted to play it straight, but imply a shuffle. The nuances became more detailed and it was fun to create these little problems that I have to continue to solve. That was the open tuning. I found all of those because of open tunings. 

"Even the bridge of Song for A Sad Friend – there’s more guitar moments, I feel, than I’ve ever allowed myself before. Or, maybe a little more contemplative or exploratory melodies and asking more of my hands than I have before. I did what I set out to do, and I think it’s going to make touring continue to be fun because I’ll keep improving."

There’s something about the hanging over of an open string with something else happening that just sounds so pleasant

Many years ago, your right-hand picking technique tended to be a thumb and index finger affair, but with all the cascading patterns on this album, it sounds like there must be a lot more fingers involved these days. Was that something you noticed evolving along the way? 

"I would say that it’s only the pinky who’s not invited at this point! I would say so. I think it was maybe the nylon string that encouraged it because it’s just so soft and it sounds like singing. It sounds so expressive and those tones want to overlap over one another more than a steel string to me.

"There’s something about the hanging over of an open string with something else happening that just sounds so pleasant. So, that was probably a little subliminal side project - to have access to more fingers." 

As a slightly philosophical question to end on: beyond being a wooden box with some strings attached, what would you say the guitar is to you? 

"It might be because I buy older instruments, but I feel part of a lineage that I don’t understand. I listen to a lot of stringed instruments from other cultures. I love Ballaké Sissoko and the kora. It’s one of my favourite instruments, let alone something like cello. 

"A musician who played on this record named Gabe Noel invented a new instrument that he calls 'The Cell-ar'. He had it made. He’s an incredible cello player and bass player. He’s played with everybody from Kendrick Lamar and Harry Styles, all the way through pop stuff to jazz and experimental. He invented this thing – and it looks like a giant-bodied mandolin – but it’s strung and tuned like a cello, and a lot of that stuff is on this record. 

"A lot of stuff that you may have heard, and you might assume is me, is likely him. He’s never the lead or the backbone, but some of the expressive flourishes might be him. 

Live, for so many years, I was plugging in and volume was a motivator. Lately, I’ve felt quieter

"But yeah, I just feel like it’s the accident of the culture and time that I was raised within, that the guitar is the instrument that’s leaning in the corner of our cultural room, and it’s the one that was available to me. So, much like a piano is a box with strings, it’s sort of a living thing that you get to breathe through and it gives me access to more of myself. And I give it the chance to express itself. 

"It’s a beautiful relationship that maybe I felt more tenderness towards when I began to play the nylon-string. 

"Live, for so many years, I was plugging in and volume was a motivator. Lately, I’ve felt quieter. I’ve felt like a quieter person, so I felt that a real warmth developed between me and the guitar in a way that - as much as I’d played it for 20 years - I hadn’t had this warmth between us."

Do you feel the urge to go back and revisit any of your earlier material while you’re in this quieter, nylon string frame of mind? 

"It’s likely to happen! It’s likely to happen because the way we’re touring this next bunch of shows is sort of a version of that live show I did in the round. It's going to be, similarly, mostly solo and in the round, but I’m going to be playing old songs as well as new songs. 

"So, I think it’s going to be likely that some of them will have a strange new telling!" 

  • Multitudes is available now, along with tickets to Feist’s North American tour. More info at listentofeist.com
Ellie Rogers

Ellie started dabbling with guitars around the age of seven, then started writing about them roughly two decades later. She has a particular fascination with alternate tunings, is forever hunting for the perfect slide for the smaller-handed guitarist, and derives a sadistic pleasure from bothering her drummer mates with a preference for “f**king wonky” time signatures.

As well as freelancing for MusicRadar, Total Guitar and GuitarWorld.com, she’s an events marketing pro and one of the Directors of a community-owned venue in Bath, UK.