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The Hidden World Of Feist's 'Let It Die'

Read An Excerpt From The Liner Notes To Our New Reissue

On August 27, 2018

It begins with the opening of gate, an invitation into a private but unhidden world that’s at least a little lovelier than our own. From that first-line summoning of lovestruck summer haze, Feist’s 2004 breakthrough album Let It Die lures you into a more charmed dimension, one that’s alternately soaked in the glow of sunshine-pop, shrouded in folky mystique, lit up in disco-ball glimmer. It’s an album that happens almost entirely in rooms, tiny and sometimes-solitary spaces where the mood is ruled by Feist’s shape-shifting vocals, her finespun melodies that melt all anxieties and heart-numbing guardedness. Through it all Feist reveals herself as a songwriter with a singular power to alter the very texture of your emotional experience, lending purpose to longing and turning heartbreak into something elegant and possibly enviable.

At first it wasn’t even meant to be an album.

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In the years following the release of her 1999 debut Monarch (Lay Your Jewelled Head Down) — a record sold independently, mostly at merch tables — Leslie Feist had co-founded Broken Social Scene and contributed to the seminal album You Forgot It in People, as well as self-producing a batch of songs now known as The Red Demos. She’d also spent much of the early aughts touring all over Europe as an alter ego she called ‘Bitch Lap Lap,’ playing flank and B-girl to her former roommate Peaches, as well as with longtime collaborator Chilly Gonzales. Playing the part of a “sort-of singing, exploding-cigar-lighting Vanna White in what felt like a post-modern vaudeville act, we covered a lot of territory.” Feist says, “I didn’t have any ambition to make anything of my own at the time, I was just having fun touring with my friends, being their back-up and having no real musical responsibility.” As Peaches and Gonzales steadily grew followings around Europe, Feist found herself at the center of an electro-pop scene that felt worlds away from her own sensibilities, but would soon upend the trajectory of her career and transform the landscape of indie rock itself.

At the time, Gonzales had been in talks with French producer Renaud Letang about teaming up on a project, and enlisted Feist as their test subject. The arrangement would serve a dual purpose: Gonzales would have his first go at producing another artist, while Feist would approach making music without the need to self-produce. Though she was intrigued, she knew it would involve sliding further into an electro-centric landscape she found mystifying. “I’d started making hardcore music when I was 15, so the whole idea of beatmaking and creating music on machines just wasn’t where I was at home,” she says. “But at the same time, it didn’t feel like this music would ever actually be heard by anyone, so I felt free to play a sort of musical hooky from the lo-fi world I identified with.” Gonzales adds, “She’d been struggling with these existential questions surrounding the complex self-image of the songwriter, and I was trying to show her the joy of letting go of the parts of what you do that stress you out. The idea was to concentrate on something specific that would take us each out of our comfort zones.”

Partly inspired by Gonzales’s stumbling upon some old Dusty Springfield records, and a vision of playing Burt Bacharach to Feist’s pop chanteuse, the three began by recording a series of covers at Studios Ferber in Paris: Springfield’s “The Look of Love”, Stevie Wonder’s “All in Love is Fair”, the Ray Davies-penned, Cher-sung “I Go to Sleep.” First intended as a kind of creative throat-clearing, the covers experiment turned out to be what Gonzales refers to as “a really nice way of fooling ourselves into making an album.” Letang remembers, “We didn’t know what exactly we were doing at the time, but everything was natural and done without really talking about it.”

While recording those synth-heavy updates of classic pop hits quickly expanded Feist’s sense of possibility for her own songs, there was some lingering resistance to submit her own songs to the lab. “I remember we started with covers because I mistrusted the synths. I remember thinking ‘I’m pretty disoriented here — can we tone this down a bit?’’ says Feist. “And Gonzo laid down the gauntlet: ‘Well, then, bring your world to the table. Why don't we do some of your songs?’ Like, ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’”

Lacking any expectation of her new material ever finding a major audience, Feist entrusted a song from The Red Demos to the process that would emerge as an international hit, one of the most iconic songs in her catalog to date. With its dreamy whimsy and delicate truth-telling, its easy blurring of the idyllic and the mundane, “Mushaboom” bears a time-bending simplicity that inspired Gonzales to explore how the song might “nod to the past but also nod to the future.” Making use of the beatmaking methodology he’d begun applying to his own music, he then reconstructed Feist’s original chord production with samples of acoustic guitar parts lifted from a stack of old folk albums. With Feist ultimately enchanted by “all these new ways to hear sounds that were already friends,” the trio moved forward with bringing her sophomore album to life.

Throughout 2002 and 2003, Feist and Gonzales headed to Paris whenever their tour schedule allowed, joining Letang at Les Studios Ferber. For two musicians accustomed to making home recordings, stepping into such a grandiose studio ignited a childlike sense of wonder. “All of a sudden we were in this giant room with all these beautiful instruments — I’d hit one little slap of a bongo and couldn’t believe how hi-fi it sounded,” says Gonzales. “There was the feeling of conspiratorially being with a great friend in some sort of playground, and I think that’s what really lit the spark of this album.”

That playful spirit persisted as Let It Die began to take form, embodied in the album’s constant genre-hopping and its flashes of goofball experimentation. (As Gonzales remembers, one outtake featured percussion constructed from the bubbling of water droplets. “It was our way of saying, ‘You know, we don’t really hang out in professional studios that often.’”) The carefree mood of the studio also helped Feist to shape Let It Die’s distinct gentleness, an element enhanced by what she later described as a “timeless quality to [Gonzales’] piano-playing that made me feel old-fashioned, playing dress-up with melodies that otherwise would be 4-tracked-out and dominated by lo-fi.”

Despite the many ways that gentleness manifests — not the least of which is the first full expression of one of music’s most magnetic voices — Let It Die is an album that welcomes a deep involvement from its listener. Breaking from the wistful lilt of “Gatekeeper,” “Mushaboom” sweeps you into a dream life so intricately detailed it’s as alive and vital as any real-world scene. By the end of the first couplet, with those make-believe babies bundled up in their winter coats, you’re completely in on the fantasy with Feist; that fragrant patch of dreamed-up lilacs is planted in your own mind too.

In fact, Let It Die’s most jarring moment comes when all that play-pretend vanishes into the crushed-heart repose of the title track. With its quiet acceptance of heartbreak’s inevitability, “Let It Die” also marks a notable turning point in Feist’s growth as a songwriter. “I remember being back in Canada for a bit of winter and writing ‘Let It Die’ on a walk between Kensington Market and where I lived, above the record shop Soundscapes on College Street,” says Feist. “Back then, I used to phone my own answering machine if I had an idea… I wrote ‘Let It Die’ on that walk and I challenged myself: ‘Don’t call the answering machine… if it’s still in your head by the time you get home, then it’s worth bringing to the table.’” Returning to her apartment, Feist had the whole song worked out in her mind, and “Let It Die” soon landed on the album’s tracklist.

Once she’d finished the making of Let It Die, Feist returned to Toronto and shared the “accidental album” with her bandmates in Broken Social Scene. “I’d heard The Red Demos — which she made in her bedroom with a guitar and a 4-track, where you could hear the streetcar passing behind her — and to me that was one of the most stunning recordings I’d ever heard,” says frontman Kevin Drew. “In comparison Let It Die was so slick and so produced, it almost made me uncomfortable.” Ultimately taken with the album’s timeless quality and subtle magnetism, Drew regards the release of Let It Die as a pivotal moment in the progression of indie rock. “This woman comes along with a record that’s so intoxicating and has so much depth, it just commands your attention,” he says. “The songs really reached people and became part of their lives.”

After a sort of old-school courtship by industry veteran Jean-Philippe Allard, Feist found her home with Polydor France in 2003. Released in Canada on Broken Social Scene’s independent label, Arts and Crafts in May 2004, Let It Die found immediate adoration among critics and paved the way for Feist’s signing to Cherrytree/Interscope Records in America, who released the album that summer. Through the years the album has proved to be indelibly influential, with an ever-growing number of artists drawing inspiration from Feist’s elegance of songcraft and singular gracefulness in drifting between genres.

With its songs revealing more nuance upon every revisiting, Let It Die has emerged as an immaculate introduction to an artist whose insight and complexity only deepen over subsequent albums — a feat that’s especially remarkable considering Let It Die wasn’t even meant to be. “It was all so strange and so contrary to everything I’d done before, it was almost like an accident to end up with such solid footing,” says Feist. “But at the time there was this feeling like all the doors were open. There was so much less forcing or presumption or overt self-awareness that goes on today. We were all just throwing ideas at the wall, and starting to explore who we’d eventually become.”

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