Leslie Feist: 'Metals has been about me regaining my self respect'

When Apple used her quirky 1234 for an ad campaign, Feist's popularity soared. But now she’s ready to go a little deeper, she tells James McNair

In 2010, producer and director Anthony Seck released Look At What the Light Did Now, an enthralling, much acclaimed portrait of Canuck singer Leslie Feist and the fellow restless creatives who helped make her 2007 album, The Reminder, so artistically rich. As the film records, it was when Apple opted to use the playful single "1234" in an iPod Nano ad that The Reminder went stratospheric. The net result was the kind of cross-cultural appeal that only happenstance can bestow.

Soon, Feist guested on Sesame Street, helping sundry Muppets teach children how to count. By the end of 2007, even The Eagles' surly drummer Don Henley was bigging-up The Reminder, an album that has since shifted more than a million copies and earned four Grammy nominations.

Songs such as "Brandy Alexander" – a breezy co-write with balladeer Ron Sexsmith – tended to cement the view that Feist was your sensitive singer-songwriter type; beautiful and super-talented, certainly, but maybe a little strait-laced. What many didn't know was that the singer had previously appeared in the video for "Lovertits", a song by her potty-mouthed electro-punk pal, Peaches. The treatment for the video required Feist – then also known as Bitch Lap Lap – to lick a bicycle in a way that can only be described as lascivious.

We meet before the singer brings her Metals tour to the UK, beginning at the Royal Albert Hall this weekend. Feist, 36, is chicly dressed in a colourful woollen coat, jeans and boots. If the game provocateur of old is not immediately apparent, her current choice of ringtone – "Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin – suggests Feist has yet to succumb to carpet slippers and Ovaltine.

"That song has such a giant riff; every now and then you'll see a spark of jealousy in someone's eye when my phone goes off," laughs the singer. "It also makes me answer before Robert [Plant] starts singing, because, great as his screaming is, it tends to disturb people."

Hard rock – and indeed heavy metal – seems close to Feist's heart right now. In April she and the Atlanta-based metal band Mastodon will release a joint 7-inch vinyl single; they'll cover Feist's "A Commotion" and she'll take on their skull-crushing nugget, "Black Tongue".

This unlikely two-hander came about after Feist and Mastodon met while guesting on Later... with Jools Holland last October. "Bon Iver were on too," recalls the singer, "but they took you into this cosy dreamscape and Mastodon beat us around the head with a club!"

While Feist laughs easily and often, the retina-scorching media glare sparked by the success of The Reminder and its attendant, almost endless world tour took its toll on her. She was careful, though, to take two years out prior to making Metals, a purposefully less commercial, ultimately more rewarding record with soulful, searching arrangements. "Feist's days as a provider of hip, trendy TV jingles may be over", wrote one critic, but Metals still peaked at No 7 in the Billboard Charts, giving Feist her first US Top Ten album.

"I didn't want to feed the Reminder slot machine," she explains. "Commercialism isn't challenging creatively; it's only challenging in a stamina way. Metals has partly been about me regaining my self respect and I feel like I'm growing the muscles I want to grow again."

A touching, questioning affair with brass, strings, simpatico piano and more feel than the braille edition of War and Peace, Metals is something of a veiled break-up record. Songs such as "The Circle Married the Line" and "Comfort Me", wherein Feist sings, "When you comfort me/ it doesn't bring me comfort, actually", point to a couple sadly weighing up their incompatibility.

The album also deals with another relationship travail, namely that of the couple who can no longer see each other clearly. Isn't it strange, I venture, that only crisis or distance can bring that clarity back?

"It is," smiles the singer, but she's a little wary and changes tack: "You know, the other day I was at the airport. My boots were ripped to shreds and I was getting them shined. Then this couple went by having this very bitter argument. They were pushing a baby carriage and having this dark moment that made everybody around them cringe.

"The guy shining my shoes started grinning and I was like, 'What? What do you see?' In broken English he said, 'It's good for them to fight, because they will be stronger when it's over.' I loved his outlook, but I was like, 'That sure as hell didn't look like a strengthening fight to me!' The point is that we can all explode under duress, but the thing you really need to examine is the triggers."

Leslie Feist was born in Nova Scotia, Canada. After her parents divorced, her mother raised her and her elder brother, Ben, in Saskatchewan, and later Calgary. When she was seven, her mother would drop her at the local community library at 10am, then pick her up again at 4pm. This act of single-parent necessity fostered both a lifelong love of books and a useful independence in the young Leslie.

"I spent a lot of time alone even before that," says the singer. "I remember doing my mosaics or being in my little hiding place behind the couch snooping. I'd get bored sometimes, of course, but I think that's good for a kid, because it forces you to be creative."

By the time she was 15, Feist was fronting Calgary punk band Placebo (no relation to Brian Molko's lot). Her uncle Dan Achen, a producer and musician himself, taught her about the music business and helped her make her first demo.

"My grandma had a gold disc by his band [Junkhouse] hanging on her wall," she says. "It seemed so magical and unreal. When I was a little bit older I was able to climb aboard their tour bus while they were hot-boxing [smoking joints with the windows rolled up]. After I moved to Toronto, my uncle showed up at this residency I had where I was playing to about 12 people. He handed me this red Guild Starfire guitar that I still play today and said, 'I've been watching – I think you're ready for this now'."

Sadly, Achen died of a heart attack in 2010. Feist also lost her maternal grandmother prior to making Metals. The album track "Graveyard" is ultimately uplifting, its massed "Bring them all back to life" chorus an act of remembrance.

"It was almost impossible for me to record that vocal," she says. "And when we play it live, if there's a family member in the audience, I have to turn around and go... (she mimes a sharp intake of breath). When my dad first saw me play it live, he came up to me afterwards and said, 'But what if they all did come back to life?' I think he was thinking of all the people he'd lost since he was about five."

As our interview winds down, we move to lighter matters, namely Feist's cameo in last year's musical comedy The Muppets. "It was fabulous!" she says. "After Sesame Street, it's a hyper-familiar world to me and I have this childlike ability to ignore the fact that I'm talking to scraps of cloth. Every country I go to, I see posters promoting the film in different languages. Los Muppets – I love that!"

Feist plays Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (0845 401 5045) 25 March; O2 Apollo, Manchester (08444 777 677) 26 March; Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow (0141 353 8000) 27 March