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Feist brings the joy to music

Feist’s musical palette contains many emotional colors, but there’s something to be said for joy. More than anything, a playful spirit explains why this was the Canadian singer-songwriter’s breakout year – that, and a well-timed iPod commercial. She’s up for four Grammy Awards at the Feb. 10 ceremony, including best new artist.

One of Feist’s videos shows her flying through the air and literally being pulled back to Earth by someone suspicious of her fun. Another depicts her dancing through fireworks in what one onlooker at the production told her “looks like what falling in love feels like.”

Her clip for the hit “1234” became so well-known that it sparked a “MadTV” parody. She joins dozens of extras in a goofy, colorful dance production in a warehouse.

“The videos are there to make the songs visible, to manifest something audible in a visible way,” she told Feist’s disc “The Reminder” was nominated for a Grammy for best pop album and she’s looking forward to bringing the friends who helped her make it together at the Grammys for a night of dressing up and having fun.

Hitching onto the express train called success is a surreal experience, which she describes as feeling like she’s crawled into the television and magazines – the places she used to hear about other people.

“It’s the kind of thing I’ll have perspective on in about 20 years: 2007, that was the year it shifted,” she said. “Of course, it’s exciting, if only because I constantly have to answer the question ‘isn’t this exciting?’ – even to my family and friends.”

Leslie Feist, who uses only her last name professionally, is one of those musicians for whom a best “new” artist nod is a chuckle. She’s approaching her 32nd birthday, and has been singing on stages for half her life. Feist grew up in Calgary and spent her teen-age years as the lead howler for a hardcore punk band.

One memory that sticks in her mind about those voice-grinding days is what a sound man for her band told her one day:

“He said, ‘What you’re doing is great – I mix it every night so I know – but a song is something you can sing in the shower when there’s nothing else there, and you should think about that.’

“I was 17, going ‘Whatever!'” she recalled. “But it’s true. As the years pass, I think about that.”

Two years later, her voice was shredded. She bused across country to see a doctor in Toronto who specialized in treating music-related injuries, and a friend gave her tapes of melodic indie artists like P.J. Harvey, Portishead and Luna. She saw her musical future.

Feist settled in Toronto, her belongings scattered among friends in Calgary and left for good. After some “dark, dark times” selling jeans in the basement of a mall, Feist began writing songs and became a part of the city’s music scene.

“The Reminder” was recorded nearly two years ago in a house outside of Paris. Although there was a recording studio in the basement, the musicians wired things to work upstairs, opening windows to let spring breezes drift in. That airiness is almost audible; the music is notable for a sense of space that allows the stray banjo or glockenspiel to slip in and delight.

There were a few battles with her strong-willed musicians, but everyone understood it was Feist’s album and she was the ultimate arbiter.

At the end, it was her first record that she felt totally content with.

“I felt like a golden peace,” she said. “I was free of any responsibility for whether it was a success or not, because it was already a success in my mind. I had attained freedom before I even tossed the dice to see what the world would think.”

As is often the case in those circumstances, the world loved it.

The iPod commercial played an important role in exposing her music to casual fans. There is so much music on commercials these days, and fewer opportunities to reach large audiences, that advertisements are almost the modern-day “American Bandstand.”

Feist said Apple “did it right,” making an artful commercial that was respectful to the song.

With success comes graduation into playing larger venues. Before she was booked to play in some, Feist said she had never seen a concert in a theater.

After a few shows, she said she was overwhelmed by the visual space available. She’s always been fascinated by puppetry, and hired Clea Minaker to make a shadow puppet show that unfolds on screens behind Feist as she sings.

She’ll spend much of the next year touring. Booking an upcoming European tour, she told management to go some places she hadn’t gone before.

“I said, you know what, why don’t you book Italy?” she said. “And as long as we’re going to be in Italy, can you book two days off in Rome?”

Now THAT sounds like fun!

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