AFTER FOUR YEARS of quiet repose, the work of Leslie Feist—better known as simply Feist—has taken on an air of desolation. There is a distinct, shuttered chill that lasts for the duration of her fourth studio album, Metals, and though it has not been wholly confirmed, this is most likely an environmental response. Feist recorded this record, with understanding and input from longtime collaborators Chilly Gonzales and Mocky, on a rickety old farm out in Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac's fabled edge-of-the-continent bohemia: Big Sur, California. And once you climb thousands of feet above the huddling brume and get a good look at all of the space, you can't help but succumb to an ineffable loneliness.
Contrary to the belief of a few foolhardy Canadians, the weather on the Northern California coast is not so forgiving in February. "It was madly storming where we were there, and I barely brought a sweater," Feist says. "Trees were whipping around, the rain was pouring, and giant thunderheads rolled in off the Pacific, shaking and beating up the walls while we were recording."
The record took on some of that crouching shape: the kind of survival pose used to trap precious body heat. "I think being freezing cold the whole time and huddling around the wood stove and feeling the pressure from the outside world pushing in the four walls, it created this really potent sense of space. It was our refuge in there," Feist says.
When asked about the vantage point of Metals in regard to her past albums—more recently, 2007's The Reminder—Feist seems very adamant about shedding any sort of manufactured sound that might have resulted from what she refers to as "one single point of light," or rather, the meteoric success of single "1234" via Apple's Midas touch. "That song waved a giant flag at the world," she says, with a laugh. "And I found myself running to keep up and make sure that my music wasn't shape-shifting into something that wasn't familiar to me, as things began to change externally and people became more aware of what I do. So I had to stop."
The reassembly took time—creation is enough of a beast to reckon with in a silent, steady room, much less while caught up in the constant motions of tour, as Feist was for so many years. What resulted was well worth the wait; Metals is a study in the importance of liminal space, of all the echoes in between the lines. Songs like "Anti-Pioneer" and "Caught a Long Wind" are tempered and spacious, with plenty of room for an autumn wind to rustle through and disturb your circadian rhythms, while "A Commotion" takes on the clamorous responsibility of its title. "I knew I wanted to turn up the guitars and conjure the power of volume from my punk days, which Let It Die and The Reminder weren't really engaged in," says Feist.
And of course, the woman's voice remains a thing of unshakable beauty—each hollow note hard-boiled and sieved over honey—and if nothing else, you can't help but hear her words echoing clear through the canyon scrub to destinations unknown. "I've been moved to write in a direction I don't consciously understand," she says. "But it's clear to me on a cellular level."