The last time Feist recorded an album, it was in a 19th-century French manor house with the windows open and the birds singing. For the follow-up, she found an even mellower spot, building a studio in a converted barn in the California hippie-chic enclave of Big Sur. (Watch an exclusive clip of her in her studio above.) "On one side, you have the cliffs and the ocean — on the other, it's forest and craggy rock," says the Canadian songwriter and sometime member of indie collective Broken Social Scene. "Your guard has no choice but to come down."
Feist's breakthrough album, 2007's The Reminder, went gold and turned mainstream ears on to her artful, pliable pop — largely thanks to an iPod Nano ad featuring the supercatchy singalong "1234." But as her crowds got bigger — including a Saturday Night Live gig — the singer decided to slow things down. "I just wanted to remember what it is to be still," she says. She spent her break catching up on classic fiction ("I read every word that Steinbeck ever wrote") and collaborating on Look at What the Light Did Now, a documentary about The Reminder that also includes footage from her early days.
Last year, she finally felt ready to start work on the follow-up, writing by herself in Toronto. "I had the advantage of enough time passing that I didn't feel any psychic weight of responsibility to expectations," she says. She brought in multi-instrumentalists Chilly Gonzales and Mocky, percussionist Dean Stone and Beck's keyboardist, Brian LeBarton, to fine-tune arrangements; in February, everyone headed to Big Sur, where they recorded for two and a half weeks with Björk collaborator Valgeir Sigurðsson. "We tried to record The Reminder live, but there ended up being a lot of overdubs and enhancing," Feist says. "This time, we had the arrangements completely done by the time we were in front of microphones."
The resulting 12 tracks hover between quiet and noise, as Feist sings of steadying herself after a failed relationship. "It turned broke what was right," she whispers on the harried "A Commotion." "Undiscovered First" erupts from bare-bones guitar into a symphony of clangs, while hypnotic closer "Get It Wrong, Get It Right" marries intricate, pretty instrumentation to raw vocals.
While there's nothing nearly as sticky as "1234" on Metals, Feist won't rule out licensing her music again: "I'll wait and see whether or not I'll be as motivated — or as naive — to say yes or no to certain things." Her focus for now is on rehearsing for a fall tour and setting the new tunes to visuals. "I've seen how songs with videos are the ones that survive beyond the album," she says. "They're like the kid with the bike versus the kid that has roller skates."
This story is from the August 18, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.