"I wanted to show the smoke and mirrors a little bit."
Feist's new documentary Look at What the Light Did Now is a humble and impressionistic chronicle of the making of her modern classic, The Reminder. The film highlights the visual and sonic collaborators that amplified her music and vision in the studio and on tour, including music video director Patrick Daughters (who did "1234" and "I Feel It All"), photographer Mary Rozzi (who shot the album cover), and shadow puppet artist Clea Minaker (who designed and executed onstage projections during The Reminder tour). Running with the "amp" analogy, Feist herself warns in the film: "You play through the wrong amps and you end up sounding like Dire Straits." Too true.
The DVD-- which comes with a 13-track CD of live songs and Reminder covers by Gonzales-- is out today in Europe and tomorrow, December 7, in North America. When we called her up last week, Feist-- who's planning to make her next album this winter, btw-- chatted with us about the awesomeness of Prince, giving away just enough mystery, and why most concert movies are totally pointless. Click on for the Q&A and a clip from the film:
Pitchfork: Are you a big fan of rock films?
Leslie Feist: Not really; I only really know Spinal Tap. I've never been drawn to concert DVDs because they take away the part of the equation that's most important to seeing a live show: getting jostled around and feeling the energy in the room. I definitely didn't want to make one of those.
Actually, just to contradict myself, I really love watching the 70s live performance TV series "The Midnight Special" and "The Old Grey Whistle Test". Those are the best performances you've ever seen, and they sound incredible. There's something about live recordings now that's too hi-fi. But those old performances are unfuckwithable; you watch them and you are absolutely watching what the person is doing as opposed to hearing a hyper-compressed, hi-fi version of what they're doing. It seems like they had it worked out back then but it's lost something with modernity.
Pitchfork: I recently watched some of the old "Johnny Cash Show" on DVD, and part of the appeal is being able to see people like Bob Dylan perform when they're young. In 30 years, do you think we'll feel the same way about watching today's TV performances?
LF: Well, it's amazing when you find a photo of your grandparents when they were young because it's black and white and the care that they put into their appearance back then was so grown up and specific to that era. It's such a rare gem when you find stuff like that.
Now, there's just so much imagery. Imagine what our grandkids are going to be able to see of us? [laughs] All the girls who have photos of them at parties, like, "Woo!"-- that's what someone's going to see of their grandma.
And when you see Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan, it's not tired. You didn't see too much of them so there's a rare beauty, like you're getting a window into the past. There weren't 20,000 windows back then. I wonder what will matter in 30 years now since it's so over saturated now. It's hard to know.
Pitchfork: Considering all the over saturation, why even make Look at What the Light Did Now?
LF: Well, I wanted what's in the movie to be things we've never seen before; it focuses on the people whose job isn't necessarily to be seen. Their part of the puzzle is to make imagery that gets seen, but they themselves are a bit invisible in the process. I wanted to show the smoke and mirrors a little bit. I just think the people I work with are all such interesting, quotable weirdos-- in the best way-- and I really loved interacting with their minds and ideas.
Pitchfork: There's a bit in the movie where photographer Mary Rozzi says that you didn't want to be on the cover of The Reminder, and I was wondering if that played into this film at all. Like, would you be uncomfortable with an entire hour-and-a-half movie just based on you?
LF: I don't think I would ever have been all right with something like that. You need a story arc and some sort of dilemma and passion-play narrative to fill an hour-and-a-half if it's going to be about one person. Otherwise, it's a live concert DVD, and I never would have mobilized that kind of project.
Also, to set the record straight, that's Mary's perspective about me not wanting to be on the album cover. It was more about finding imagery that would leave something to the imagination, like the grandparents' grainy photograph. In challenging her to imagine imagery that isn't plain-as-day, it guided her into a bit of a twilight; as a photographer, how do you look at something that isn't just well-lit and in the frame? That's the collaboration-- I wanted her to imagine an evocative, mystery-stirring way to have an image on the cover that isn't typical. It's not really like I'm allergic to imagery. It's just that I don't want to take photographs that I won't recognize as myself, and myself isn't necessarily just blankly staring at the lens.
Pitchfork: I feel like great music videos aren't often associated with singer-songwriters because they usually aren't as image-oriented. Was there a moment in your career where you decided to really think about videos?
LF: I made some pretty not-great videos-- actually, you might call them "bad" videos. There can be a thing with videos where directors have much bigger ideas than what can be put into four minutes. They want to tell their epic tale, and a lot of musicians can become the pawn in their dream of making a feature film. I made some of those, so I gradually learned what I didn't like.
I got [video director] Patrick [Daughters]'s treatment for "Mushaboom" before I even met him. It just read like the most interesting travelogue. It was like, "Jump off a horse wearing a harness and be pulled up to a second-story window and go to a carnival at dawn and fly out of a window and dance on cobblestones with Czechoslovakian dancers. Oh, and then be in a parade riding a horse with donkeys and mules and children all over." It just seemed like something fun to do for a couple of days. And it also didn't seem like it was trying to cover too much narrative ground; it left some room for the song to just be a spirit rather than a plot line.
Pitchfork: What are some of your favorite videos?
LF: I really like that Bob Dylan video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues" where he's got the placards and he's just tossing them. And the Sinéad O'Connor single-tear video.
Actually, the other night I just happened upon Prince's Sign o' the Times concert movie. I'm going to contradict everything I said earlier again because that is worth having as a live DVD. [laughs] It's completely conceptual and keeping within his world. It's showmanship to the max.
Pitchfork: Were you worried about giving any mysteries away about yourself and your music with this film?
LF: Well, I know the ones that weren't revealed so I don't feel exposed in an uncomfortable way. For me, the best part is people who watch the movie and tell me it inspired them to collaborate with their friend who's a photographer or filmmaker. I guess there are a lot of people out there that think they're supposed to define themselves in isolation, but that's not necessarily the case.
Pitchfork: My favorite part of the movie is when you're in the French mansion recording The Reminder. Considering that you didn't know you were going to make this film when you were recording the album, why were you filming in the studio to begin with?
LF: I'd met Mary Rozzi on a shoot for a German fashion magazine and I invited her to come and shoot during the making of the record just because I'd never been in such a beautiful place before. And the fact that people like Jamie Lidell, Gonzales, and Mocky pressed pause on their own worlds to come work on my record made it a rare moment, and I was aware that this was an unlikely gang. So I asked Mary to come take shots, and she showed up on the second day with a video camera. She was like, "This is ridiculous. There's sound going on here; I need to catch this." It was her suggestion to film, and she was really good at being invisible so I was quickly able to forget she was even there. She only came for two or three days of the two weeks we were there. As opposed to that Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster-- which was amazing-- but you just think, "How were they able to ignore those cameras that were with them for three years?" I don't know how people do that. It's crazy.
Pitchfork: Is there anything you can tell us about your next project?
LF: I'm still trying to figure out what that may be so, it's probably best to not comment at this point. But I'm going to make a record this winter, so at least I know that much.
Pitchfork: Will you have fewer cameras in the studio this time?
LF: I don't know. It's funny because at one point in the making of this film we were like, "Let's scrap it, this is ridiculous." My manager was saying, "Hey, the Tom Petty documentary has 30 or 40 years of footage, so we can just stick this stuff in a vault somewhere and take a look at it later." So if we do film the making of this next record, I think it'll stay in a can for 30 years because it just seems pointless. I mean, this is the film, and I don't think there will be any more.
Watch a clip from Look at What the Light Did Now:
The trailer for Look at What the Light Did Now: