Feist on How She’s Leveling the Playing Field Between Performer and Audience With Experimental ‘Multitudes’ Shows

When Feist takes to the stage for four shows over two nights at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium this week, some burning questions may be raised. Like: Where is the stage, exactly? This experimental, very intimate. limited-run tour — which, like a forthcoming album, is titled “Multitudes” — has the smallish crowd sitting in a circle around her in a space that (seating charts confirm) is clearly not the main, massive, fixed-seat auditorium of the Shrine. Beyond that lie spoilers, which patrons may or may not already be clued into from handfuls of previous gigs Feist has done in the run-up to coming to Los Angeles. [Warning: some details of the show will be discussed in this article.]

What can be said without fear of giving too much away is that Feist has collaborated with designer Rob Sinclair — of David Byrne and “American Utopia” fame — to create a show that plays with the separation between artists and their audiences in all sorts of ways. The singer-songwriter premiered the show in 2021 in Hamburg, then took it to her native Canada, before bringing it to Denver last week, L.A. April 26-27, Seattle on April 30-May 1 and Stanford for a wrap-up stand May 5-7. After that, Feist will release the “Multitudes” album and most likely follow it with a more traditional show. But for anyone who appreciates artists playing with the concert form in thoughtful ways, these shows may represent some kind of Canadian-American utopia of their own.

Variety spoke with Feist (aka Leslie Feist) via telephone as she prepared to bring the show to Los Angeles, talking not just about the conceptual novelty of the production but the very personal, life-and-death themes of the songs that make up the new work.

So, how do you feel about spoilers? [She laughs.] Most fans have probably done some research and looked up reports from the other cities where you’ve taken the show. So how much about the nature of the show and how it proceeds are you hoping will still be a surprise for most people who’ll be coming to see it in L.A., Seattle and Stanford?

That’s actually a good question. Because early on it felt like that the sleight of hand of this undertaking was to have available to us these ultimate surprises at each step, when these pieces of the puzzle slot into place, and the context shifts. It was all very subtle and felt kind of like turn-of-the-century illusionist stuff, because it’s all quite simple. … But then, after Hamburg, those surprises weren’t really ours to unveil anymore. It just felt like, OK, well, all bets are off — everyone knows now what’s going on. [Spoiler ahead.] In fact, I just saw that one of the venues announced: “Be on stage with Feist!” And I was like, oh shit, OK, well, I guess it’s not such a surprise anymore! Honestly, I feel that the step-by-step play-by-play feels less interesting than maybe the philosophy behind it. But my manager, who produced the show with me, joked that people know what Magic Mountain is, but they’re still gonna go sit on it because it’s different to experience it than to know it’s a roller coaster. [Laughs.]

What I’ve said to friends who I’ve invited to come is, “Look, just imagine some way that the Shrine could be used in a way that you’ve never experienced it. Is the show going to happen in the lobby? Is the show going to happen in the loading dock? Is the show gonna happen on the floor of the theater? I guess you’ll have to come and find out.” I’ve just been cheeky that way. … No one comes in the front door. They’re led in through either a side door or a work door or a loading dock at each of the venues, so the show essentially begins by shifting their expectations from the time they arrive. In different cities, they’d be led through quite a labyrinth, almost as if they were at some sort of Halloween haunted house or something — or almost like Spinal Tap being led through the bowels of the theater, before then they come into this massive big workspace. It has the element of a scavenger hunt.

And from a video that was put up of the beginning of an earlier performance, we see some people looking a little bit confused that the show begins with you right among them, with no big intro or differentiation in stage lighting.

We had been trying to develop a show almost the same as this in pre-pandemic times. And it proved to be impossible, just because of the way the economy of touring is built upon the most people you can get in the seats, and the quickest you can get from town to town. My manager phoned me and said, “This might be moment to try that thing we were trying to do, because the world is, in a way, asking a way to just dip our collective toes back in.” So it allowed me to think completely in a new way and try to rewrite a lot of those fused expectations of what a gig was or what that relationship between performer and audience is. And there was also a thing where it felt like the pandemic was the great leveler. You had more in common with every single person on your block, let alone someone across the planet, than we ever had had before, in that our lives had been stopped in their tracks. And so there was this egalitarian sense that somehow it didn’t feel like then — or maybe ever again for me — was there anything honest in this raised platform of being elevated and extra-well-lit in the dazzle of a spotlight. When you step into a spotlight, you’re stepping away from your regular self into a sort of narrator self. And I guess I wanted to reveal what that movement was — from a person who goes into the grocery store to buy yogurt, to a person who tells a story about a more universal underpinning of what this collective experience of life is. It sounds grand, but actually it was about chipping away any grandiosity.

Can you think of other performers who’ve done a similar thing?

Well, I saw Peter Gabriel play maybe 10 years ago — I think it was the “Us” 20th anniversary tour, which was in huge hockey arenas. We universally know that when the lights go down, you start to applaud, because “Oh, it’s about to start.” But all of a sudden on the stage, this little man in the distance just wandered across the stage, and everyone’s like, “That’s Peter Gabriel!” I remember the non-grandiosity. And then he stood at the center and the mic and said, “Oh, hello, hello,” kind of waving to get people’s attention because he wasn’t using the bells and whistles to do that. And then he said, “Oh, hi, hi, I’m Peter. … The show is one thing, but something that I think that not many people get to see is how we get to this place to make the show you’re about to see. And it starts by writing a song. I thought I might just show you what it looks like when I’m working on a song with a friend and it’s not quite written yet. So I’m going to go play some piano, and my friend’s gonna come play bass.” And with work lights on, he sat at the piano and just started to sing a song he was in the middle of writing; he basically jammed in front of 25,000 people for five or 10 minutes. And then he went, “OK, thank you,” and then the show kind of seamlessly began, and all of that beautiful elegance of lights dimming and the scene began, started upon that foundation of complete honesty. And it struck me so much that he wasn’t investing in the better-than-everyone-else-ness of live shows. Gabriel’s music had guided me through so many formative years that it was just such a lovely, honest and humble thing to see him just be a guy working on a song, exposing that and showing the underbelly of the entire thing. And the show after that was one of the spectacles of a lifetime. So I think that took root in me, how unguarded that was.

It’s kind of surprising that more artists don’t mess with the formula of doing a show looking out into the audience and spotlights with their backs to their band, with all the formalities that come with that. Obviously it’s worked for hundreds of millions of people, so maybe it shouldn’t be shocking. But it’s always a welcome thing to see someone who messes with that even a little.  

It’s very collaborative in that sense that the people are very much a part of the show. When we did it last year, it was still a very locked down experience. And now, since then… Coachella just happened. [Laughs.] So now I’m curious how this next run of shows will feel, because the show was built in a way for that (pandemic) moment. It was sort of a gentle  “Hey, come back in here. You’ll be safe in here,” not like jumping into a freezing cold lake but sort of an easing back in. Those subtleties were quite powerful, because already with people sitting next to each other, their bodies were buzzing with self-awareness. And then to feel exposed in the light… A lot of people go to a concert and just go into a beta state where they’re soaking it in, and their bodies disappear. They’re sinking into the velvet seat;  they can just take it in. But in this, they’re looking across at one another, they’re looking at me, I’m looking at them… It’s going to be interesting to see how it’s affected by these new conditions. Because with shows it usually never matters what the outside conditions are — you go on tour, you show up and you make a world occur on stage — but this one depends so much on the people with me on the stage, and where the world is at.

When multi-media projections eventually emerge in the show, it’s a mixture of existing footage and live camerawork, right?

The projections are actually entirely in the room. Nothing is prerecorded. It’s sort of like closing the four walls down upon us, then finally dropping the fourth wall — the way at the end of a Shakespeare play the person steps into the footlights and addresses the audience. So there’s a symbiotic kind of feedback loop where they are the show, but I’m providing them a show, but they’re providing me a show. It’s sort of radiating out in concentric circles of ever-more togetherness. There’s no conceit that we’re building this upon. There’s nothing that’s more important than us being together in this room. This is all that we’re going to look at and all we’re going to listen to. And then when those walls drop and the show’s over, we evaporate and the experience evaporates and it’ll never happen again. There’s something beautiful that a normal concert provides in that way, but this one even more so, since they’re the subject of the show. I’ve never had more interactivity with an audience. And there’s been lots of years where half the audience ends up on the stage with me anyway, just because I invite them up. There’s been experiences I’ve had that have felt special over the years that I think I built this show upon — times when a concert turned on its heel and became something more Bacchanalian or communal.

Rob Sinclair is a name that automatically creates some intrigue for people who know “American Utopia.” Is there anything he’d done, whether it was that or something else, that made you think he’d be a good collaborator on this?

Well, actually he built that Peter Gabriel show I talked about, which I didn’t know at the time. “American Utopia” hadn’t happened when we first began speaking with him.  I can’t remember anymore what I saw that felt like maybe this might be the guy to not to create something for me to climb into, but to make it with me, before designing the show kind of got stalled by it just not belonging in the world at the time, because we weren’t able to tour it. And then he went on and made “American Utopia” after that. He’s done a lot of very big productions, beautiful, massive arena shows with lights and video. And so I think for him, this was an escapist art project as well as for me.

In this new material you’re premiering, you’re dealing with sometimes heavy stuff about, influenced by the birth of a child and a death in the family. Do you think people will be able to take that in or sense it intuitively, when there’s so much else to be thinking about with what’s going on with the physical show?

Yeah, that’s a good question. I can’t know how people experience it. But I think I’ve just reached a new era of adulthood. IWhen you experience birth and death, then that firmly plants you in the middle of (life being) book-ended by these very unavoidably, enormous, ground-shifting experiences that can’t be known until you know them. I remember when I first experienced death through a grandparent that I was really close with, it just felt like a new element, like fire, water, air, and any of these things that life is built upon that you take for granted. And until I knew it, I realized I couldn’t have imagined; it was just a word before. And parenthood is definitely a word that can’t be understood until you’re in it. So between losing my father and my daughter arriving, it was sort of a very fine razor pointed, crystallized moment in adulthood that is incredibly challenging…  I’d already experienced my thirties, where you think, “I’m an adult now,” but there’s just some other thing that goes duh-duh-duh… like the “Jaws” theme, and all of a sudden, everything is contextualized by grief and burden and fear and just complete loss of self. It was a couple of years of the ground shifting. I mean, of course there’s joy, but its really true mirror is pain, you know? Just more and more of the pain of loss and the joy of arrival that just shows you to be on this conveyor belt of time. And so very much so, there’s an arrival of a new sense of time as finite, time as precious, time as how are we going to spend it with one another?

You know, l just saw Rush being interviewed, and they were asked, when are you going to make another record? And Geddy Lee said, “Well, if this last couple of years has shown us anything, it’s that time is not to be taken for granted. And time is a precious commodity that is invisible until it’s until it starts to run out. And then what becomes most important is how are we going to spend it, and with who, and what quality of relational connectedness? That’s what matters, not when we’re going to make a record.” It was this kind of this grandpa just laying it down so clearly. Like, who cares if there’s a record? What we (should) care about is who are we having breakfast with and how kind are we being to them. So yeah, the songs very much are touching into this new conveyor belt moment, and I think that the show was built to make room for those ideas.

And so I think it’s pretty evident that, without it being morose or anything, there’s definitely room for the gravity of what everyone in their own way has experienced the last couple of years. I wanted there to be room for people to be able to maybe allow some of what’s been weighing heavy on them to sort of be re-experienceable for them, and let it go, even in the theater, maybe. Who knows. But it’s not just me singing about my difficulties. I hope I open the space for people to feel their own.

Having just established that there are bigger questions than when an album is coming… let’s go ahead and ask: Is there a “Multitudes” album finished?

Yeah, actually just last month I recorded it. We built a studio in a house up in Northern California and we all  lived and worked there for two weeks. And it’s built upon this show; all the same songs from the show are on the record, as well as a few others. Hopefully by the time the summer begins, the record’s done and we’ll figure out when and how to put it out.

Has this experience spoiled you for touring? Do you think when the record comes out, it’ll be like, “Oh no, I have to go do a normal tour where I stand in front of people in a dark room”?

[Laughs.] I don’t know. Everything has a time, and it might be that it’ll be fun again to stand in the old spotlight, or I’ll find a new way to do that type of touring and I’ll bring a little bit of this experience with me back into that other way. You know, I just saw Nick Cave in L.A., and there’s nothing about his show that doesn’t feel like you’re in the round. Even though it’s that same old experience, there’s a skill of a certain type of person giving you the generosity in how they play that. It was a traditional Shine show, but I was at the very back and felt like I was right in the front. There’s a way that in those shows, you can feel really close together with each other, almost like you’re at church.

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