Leslie Feist's California Dream

The singer turns heartache to gold with her buddies in a barn in Big Sur

Leslie Feist Credit: Mary Rozzi

Wrapped in a hotel bathrobe and sipping red wine, Leslie Feist brandishes a tiger finger puppet and makes it say, "Hi, I am Fräulein Forever Jet-Lagged!" The Canadian singer-songwriter, 35, is in Germany to promote her new album, Metals, due out October 4th. In the past two weeks, she's been to Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, Paris and London, and she's not even on tour yet. "He doesn't have a name," she says of the little knitted tiger, which she's had at the bottom of her purse, along with a harmonica she got from her grandfather, for five years. "My manager says, You've lost two passports and you still have that stupid finger puppet?!' But you can make friends anywhere with a harmonica and a puppet."

After finishing a seven-year run of almost nonstop recording and touring in 2008, Feist needed a break. Her third album, The Reminder, had sold 1.8 million copies worldwide, she'd performed on both Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street, and she'd scored her first hit single with "1234," thanks in part to its inclusion in a popular iPod commercial. "The Reminder was an insane thing that happened as a response to parts of the picture that weren't necessarily mine," says the singer. "Sometimes I felt like a tiny little person waving what became an increasingly bigger flag, but it was at least a flag that had something on it that was close to me. I had a record that I loved, and I was able to stand next to it."

She gave herself more than a year with no writing or performing, hanging out at home in Toronto, where she planted tomato and herb gardens. But adjusting to post-Reminder life wasn't easy - and some relationships didn't survive the transition. "I landed hard after all those years on the road," Feist says. "There were a lot of things going on, a veritable commotion of loss. Family, friends and lovers all included on that list."

She traveled to Mexico and Egypt, where she rode a "tiny little sailboat" down the Nile, and took "a girl road trip" to California's Joshua Tree National Park, camping with friends until their tent got destroyed by a windstorm. They headed to Vegas and eventually Big Sur, where Feist bought a bunch of Fifties-style postcards. "Like, Steinbeck-ian drooping oranges and streets paved in gold," she says.

As she felt expectations and pressure recede, Feist started to get restless. "I thought, 'I want to write an album in a way I've never done it before,'" she says. She rehabbed a derelict shed behind her house, painting the plywood floors and walls white, and moved in a beat-up piano, an old amp and a new guitar. "I'd been playing mostly my Guild Starfire - Guildy," she says. "You get in a relationship with different guitars, and Guildy wasn't the one for this album. The new one is a Les Paul Junior. Guildy's definitely a girl. Junior might be a guy – I'm not sure. We don't know each other that well yet."

Early this year, she invited two longtime friends and collaborators, multi-instrumentalists Mocky and Chilly Gonzales, to join her in Toronto to work on arrangements. "We really became a production team with this album," says Feist. "There's sort of an invisible clarity between the three of us – like a feedback loop of brotherhood."

This summer, they relocated to Big Sur, where they rented a barn overlooking the Pacific and turned it into a studio. "I liked the idea of earth meeting ocean in this graphic straight line and the sense of being at the edge of something," Feist says. With drummer Dean Stone and Beck's keyboard player, Brian LeBarton, they spent two weeks recording the album's 12 tracks, finding the songs' "bony edges" and giving them a "modern-ancient" sound.

There isn't an obvious "1234"-style hit on the record, but Martin Kierszenbaum, head of Feist's label, Cherry-tree Records, isn't worried. "I don't think her voice has sounded more pristine or compelling than it does on this album," he says. "It's the perfect antidote to what's happening in the cultural climate, delicate and intimate – it's like an oasis."

Feist's lyrics have never been especially revealing, but she took an even more deliberate step away from herself with Metals. "I want to give myself a chance to age inside these songs," she says. "I also get really superstitious about casting spells by singing something over and over. On [The Reminder's] 'I Feel It All,' I sang, 'I'll be the one who'll break my heart.' But then it happened! It happened, you know? And I was like, 'Fuck! I gotta be careful about the stuff I sing!'"

Still, Metals has subtle echoes of the heartache that preceded it – like on the bluesy standout "The Bad in Each Other." "It's about good people screwing each other up," Feist says.

"I don't share a lot of the shit I go through even with some of my closest friends," she adds. "It's not about Angelina Jolie/Brad Pitt kind of shit. I just don't wanna whine about my feelings from last Tuesday. I want to actually figure something out about them. Song-writing is a frame that you can stick a little piece of life in, but it definitely isn't everything."

This story is from the October 13th, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.