Feist on Motherhood, Loss, and Making Sense of Multiple Selves Through Songwriting

Vest and pants by Brunello Cucinelli; shoes, stylist’s own.

“It felt difficult to come up with lyrics that I believed were true, when I didn’t really know what was true anymore.” I’ve been talking with Leslie Feist about her experience of writing songs during the pandemic. Hearing an icon describe uncertainty feels unnerving, but perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. In preparing for our interview, I’ve realized that the Canadian singer-songwriter is something of a paradox. Highly vulnerable in her first-person lyrics while maintaining a relatively private personal life, Feist —who has used her surname as a mononym since the ’90s— is both an open and mysterious book. Speaking via Zoom from Los Angeles, where she and her three-year-old daughter live part-time when not based in Toronto, Feist is by turns engaging, thoughtful, humble, and funny when describing her experimental writing process. Suddenly another paradox comes to mind: the genuinely low-key star.

Thinking about Feist in terms of paradoxes or perceived contradictions may, however, be missing the point. Her new album, Multitudes, explores the harmonies and tensions —both sonic and existential— that can arise between different aspects of one’s identity. Having delved into the subjects of pain and its life-giving corollary, pleasure, on her appropriately titled 2017 record, Pleasure, Multitudes reflects a deliberate, almost spiritual, quest for cohesion. The album was workshopped through a series of intimate live residencies at various locations in Europe and North America during 2021-2022. Long before the pandemic, Feist tells me, she had been pining “to make a concert intended for only one to ten people at a time, and to do it on the hour, every hour, for long stretches” in experimental settings. Then, when the pandemic shifted the parameters of live performance, she found herself able to explore the idea of smaller concerts. Collaborating with designer Rob Sinclair, who previously worked on David Byrne’s American Utopia live shows, Feist developed an “in-the-round” format that allowed her to blur the boundaries between performer and audience.

“I had to burn through a lot of shame and grief. And, at the same time, I had to identify where the wellspring of love actually is and try to stay tapped into that.”

Cardigan and earrings by Coach; pants and shoes, stylist’s own.

The songs on Feist’s sixth solo record chronicle the complex personal and global circumstances of the past few years. Three months before the COVID-19 pandemic kicked off in March 2020, Feist adopted her daughter and became a single parent (“I’m not in partnership” is her eloquent phrasing when the topic arises). Not long after, Feist’s father, the New Brunswick-based abstract expressionist painter Harold Feist, passed away. “These experiences were such huge personal puzzles and I had to hold my own counsel,” Feist recalls. “I had to burn through a lot of shame and grief. And, at the same time, I had to identify where the wellspring of love actually is and try to stay tapped into that.” The subjects of friendship and love beyond conventional romantic relationships braid throughout Multitudes, and I ask Feist about the bonds that sustained her during quarantine. “I suppose in a primary romantic partnership, you get used to the flux of giving and receiving care, but it can be difficult to ask friends for what you need. But the pandemic made figuring out how to ask, and how to be in support of myself, so much more necessary.”

Dress and bra by Dior; ring by Bvlgari; necklace, talent’s own.

The last song on Multitudes is called “Song for a Sad Friend” and its sparse acoustic instrumentation and understated lyrics embody the album’s themes of acceptance and resiliency. Feist’s shimmering soprano begins, “Don’t be sad my friends / That’s the last thing I’d say,” a sentiment that swells to the crescendo, “Well things are bad, my friends / And you feel exactly the way / That proves the mettle of your heart.” There are nosier, catchier, and more swaggering songs on Multitudes, but simplicity of this final track and the narrator’s commitment to empathic listening catches me off guard. The raw emotions germane to Feist’s previous records also surge across Multitudes, manifested in the explosive intensity of the lead single “In Lightening,” where Feist puns on the parallels between nature’s voltage and psychological enlightenment. By the end of the album, though, there’s evidence of hard-won clarity. Feist, it seems, has learned how to soothe herself. The acquisition of this skill may not be incidental to the experience of motherhood: “When I’m with my daughter, it can feel like I’m witnessing a pinhole of light, and I just try to uphold kindness and model de-escalation to her. Sometimes I can see that her whole being is so ready to embrace extremes. It’s like she can choose to be a superhero or a supervillain, and I can see she’s just learning her power.”

Full look by CHANEL.

Being a mother is just one of the identities Feist is inhabiting these days —she’s also a grieving daughter; a musician ever-honing her perspective; and a curious, joy-seeking participant in the world. She compares trying to experience multiple selves coherently to “reading a flipbook,” because “everything is changing all the time.” During our call, Feist has been sitting in her kitchen, sipping from an earthenware mug, and resting her hands on a sturdy wooden table when not thoughtfully gesticulating. On the softly lit wall behind her, a bright blue and orange finger painting made by her daughter hangs near an equally colourful painting by Feist’s late father. Suddenly, the singer points beyond the laptop camera’s frame toward her backyard. “My niece is visiting me right now on her reading week. I told her she has to do some reading while she’s here,” Feist laughs, “so she’s out in the hammock with a book.” “Lucky girl,” I reply, imagining that visiting your global popstar aunt, even if she is admittedly relaxed, must be pretty wild.

Top, skirt, and pearl ring by Dior; ring by Cartier.

“I’ve been telling my niece that adulthood is not a place you arrive at, as if it’s a fixed point. It’s one thousand rivers to cross, one billion needles to thread, and the target keeps moving on you. It doesn’t get easier, but you can get better at staying on your toes and waking up as a person more capable of dealing with your day.” When I read through my notes after our conversation, I’m reminded of a line from another Multitudes single, “Hiding Out In The Open”: “Everybody’s got their shit, but who’s got the guts to sit with it?” In the accompanying music video, half a dozen Feists appear in a partially constructed performance or rehearsal space—there’s a blue ladder and a couple techs in the background who seem unfazed by the presence of multiple Feists. With her side bangs and ’90s-style white jeans and sweatshirt, the artist could still be in her mid-twenties “Mushaboom” era, but Feist is a lot wiser these days and, as if to prove it, there she is, harmonizing with her many selves.

Photography by Mary Rozzi
Styling by Avigail Collins (Forward Artists)
Makeup by Sara Robey
Hair by Ashley Lynn Hall (Atelier Management)
Photo Assistans: Paul Carr