Some artists can hear the album they want to make in their heads and go into the studio simply to realize that vision. Leslie Feist is not one of them. “I don’t know what the record is going to sound like before I begin to make it. I just begin to make it and make decisions that at each crossroads are clearly a yes or a no,” says Feist. “Like, strip all the reverb away, yes. In a different song, have the back-ups play a dramaturgical role of a bunch of people other than me who are in resounding agreement or disagreement with what the narrator’s saying, yes. In each case, it’s a series of questions that I’m asking myself. How it ends up looking by the time I get to the end is always a surprise to me.”
In the case of her new album, “Multitudes,” that meant a degree of intimacy — in the songs, the singing, and the production — that initially sounds like it might be too intense for some listeners more familiar with 2007′s buoyant and openhearted “1234.” But Feist, who brings her songs (but not her first name) to the MGM Music Hall at Fenway on Wednesday, isn’t worried. “I like that Venn diagram where my privacy can meet another person’s privacy,” she says.
Q. “The Reminder” [in 2007] was such an outward-looking album, where it seems like all your songs extended a hand to the listeners and offered to take them on a journey. And it seems like since then, you’ve turned more and more inward, to the point where so much of “Multitudes” is by and large just you and a soft-plucked acoustic guitar. What’s caused that shift?
A. Hmmm. Well, far be it for me to disagree with you . . .
Q. Please, no, that’s your job.
A. Or to be caring to compare myself to a record from 16 years ago. But if that’s the essential premise here of this question, then I would say that “The Reminder” would probably be the first record where I understood that more introspective, quieter conversation could stand to be had next to essentially pillow talk, breakfast coffee conversation, and the party that is in between, in the loud club or something. They could all be on the same record. I’ve just understood that that range is available to me, and this record is no different. There’s songs where the proximity of the message belongs somewhere closer, like whispering right in an ear, and there’s also the laying-in-the-grass-looking-up-at-the-stars scope. So in a cinematic sense, there’s hyper-close-up and there’s hyper-hyper-wide-angle lens stuff.
Q. In “Hiding Out in the Open,” you sing, “Love is not a thing you try to do/ It wants to be the thing compelling you/ To be you.” My question is: How do you know that?
A. I think it’s a big leap of faith to imagine love as a sentient contributor to your state of being. I guess I’ve lived my life imagining that it’s something that you give and receive as if it’s something you can hold in your hand. But if all of a sudden you personify it into being a sentient mind — it’s something that is hoping for you, it’s rooting for you, it’s believing in you, it’s at the sidelines saying “Hey, no, no, no, stop, don’t run to third base, stay here and just wait for a second” — if it’s looking out for you, then it changes the whole thing. Then it could become like an elder to take advice from.
I think I liked imagining it as: If love was alive and could watch what I’ve been doing, what would it have to tell me? And what it really wants for me is to be uniquely my own thumbprint in the world and not be trying for anything outside of the range of my own reality. I think it would just get you right home again. It would just bring you back to yourself.
Q. You don’t ever seem to have been all that interested in building off of the success of “The Reminder” and “1234″ in particular. You seem to just be doing your own thing, at your own pace. The last two albums, you’ve taken six years to put them together each, so you’re not rushing to capitalize on your biggest moment of commercial success.
A. I think I may have been lucky enough to discover that success or whatever from the outside it might look like — attaining something, doubling down based on something that had happened external of myself — it wasn’t that I had made that moment occur. Then to twist myself into a shape to try to catch another strange lightning in another bottle or make lightning, put it in a bottle, and deploy it back into the world, it just was not a dignified, true thing that I knew to myself to be good at.
I did manage to feel that the real success is autonomy. It’s being able to make decisions at my own pace. It’s being able to work in a mutual respect with all of these badasses that I’ve had the luck to work with for 15, 20 years. It’s finding my way back to old collaborations with a brand-new curiosity with someone like Mocky, who’s co-produced every record with me and who in between that, we’re just friends going for breakfast. We don’t even talk about music for three or four years. And then there’s more songs and I say, “Hey, would you come back in and bring your expertise?” That’s success to me. It’s not feeling that I’m chasing the dragon that’s way over there that has some sense of promise, because the promise is right here in my daily doing of my having a healthy camp and a healthy culture inside the people I get to work with. I can’t take it for granted for a split second. So why would I want something other than that?
At MGM Music Hall at Fenway. May 17 at 8 p.m. $26.50-$52. crossroadspresents.com
Interview was edited and condensed. Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc.