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Independent measures 

Emerging from the Canadian indie-rock scene, Leslie Feist finds solitary success

Leslie Feist has a vivid imagination. "Mushaboom," a song from her critically acclaimed 2004 album Let It Die, is "a little village that I dreamt of living in," says the Canadian singer/songwriter. "It's a state of mind, a dream of a sun-dappled blueberry patch outside your back door. It's better in your imagination than in reality."

On "Gatekeeper," another fantasy track she wrote for Let It Die, she brightly marks down each season as it passes. "Gatekeeper seasons wait for your breath," she sings in a remarkably smoky and frail voice that bears some resemblance to Billie Holiday. On the darker side, there's "When I Was a Young Girl," a traditional number Feist performs by knocking her hand against her guitar and calling out, "Out of the ale house down/Into the jail house/My body's salvated and hell is my doom."

Let It Die is evenly split between these flights of fancy and more sensuous songs like "One Evening," "Leisure Suite," and "Inside and Out," the latter an improbable cover of the Bee Gees' "Love You Inside Out." The disc's cover art has evolved as well, from the original portrait of Feist wrapped in a coat and lying in the grass on the 2004 Canadian release from Arts and Crafts Records, to the hot, red-tinted snapshot of an anonymous man warmly kissing Feist on the cheek that adorns the American version, which Interscope Records issued through its Cherrytree imprint last year. The album's international success made her an indie-rock sex symbol, at least for hipsters unafraid to embrace its decidedly tempered, adult-pop sound.

Feist, a charismatic stage performer, has toured the world for the past two years, boosting sales of Let It Die to more than 300,000 worldwide and more than 58,000 in America, according to her publicist. In this country, that's a modest indie hit. But in Canada, it's certified gold and has earned her two 2005 Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys).

Feist has played locally several times, most recently in November as a supporting act for Bright Eyes at the Georgia Theatre in Athens. Her upcoming headlining appearance at the Variety Playhouse will be her last before she begins recording her third album.

"I've played the songs tons of times," she says of the years spent touring behind Let It Die, often with different musicians. "That's the most fun part of this whole thing. Doing an album is so stressful, it's like forever etched in marble. You can feel like, 'What if the photo I'm taking of this moment is not accurate?' A live show is over as soon as it's begun, and it's all about slaloming through your instincts, y'know?"

Before her solo career bloomed, Feist was primarily a collaborator, with a little-heard 1999 debut album, Monarch (Lay Down Your Jeweled Head). She sang backup vocals for her one-time roommate Merrill "Peaches" Nisker on the infamously explicit The Teaches of Peaches (remember "Fuck the Pain Away"?). She's also part of Broken Social Scene, a Canadian supergroup that makes raucously multiphonal rock music.

"7/4 (Shoreline)," the epic first single from Broken Social Scene's self-titled 2005 album, finds Feist in full rock-goddess mode. "If you wanna get it right/You can own what you choose/But you wanna live a lie/And love what you lose," she sings with all the glorious abandon of Ann Wilson in her 1970s hard-rock prime.

The song is a stark contrast to the quiet, introspective Let It Die, which is the result of being alone, if not necessarily lonely. "Let It Die and the songs on it are really me alone in a room; solo not being just a project name but also a state of being," Feist says. "It's alone, private, and being able to listen a lot more closely to yourself."

Feist is often linked to the Canadian wave of indie-rock stars -- a movement featuring Broken Social Scene, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, the Dears, Metric, Death From Above 1979, and many others. But Let It Die was recorded in Paris with Jason "Gonzales" Beck, a pianist, drummer, rapper and producer who also makes Peaches-style party rap albums. (Feist calls him a "musical genius.")

Canada, Feist explains, is a vast country, marked by major cities and wide, unpopulated spaces. Musicians often must travel abroad to establish themselves, she notes. "It's like you can go to elementary school here, but you have to go to high school somewhere else." Around the time Monarch was released, she tried to book shows in America, with little success. Luckily, Peaches sent Feist a plane ticket to Berlin, which led to guest spots with Peaches and Kings of Convenience (the heartbreaking "The Build-Up" from Riot on an Empty Street), and then Let It Die.

"Canada is kind of a haunted house for me. It's filled with booby traps, old memories, good friends, bad enemies, ex-lovers, crushes," she says. "It's fraught with life." For Feist, Europe was a respite from all that -- much like Let It Die itself.

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