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If you're wondering if success is spoiling Leslie Feist, just ask Jason Collett. The Toronto musician was touring as Feist's opening act last fall, at about the time her presence in a ubiquitous iPod ad was transforming her into pop's latest It girl.

"She'd already arrived at a point where she could start acting the prima donna," recalls Collett. "But what did Leslie want to do? Play drums behind me. I think that was one of her favourite things about that tour, that she got to play drums." He's not sure that everyone in the crowd ever quite realized that the figure bashing away in the shadows during the opening set was actually the headliner.

The music business has a way of destroying its darlings, especially when they get too big too fast. But Feist, who will play for her biggest-ever audience during Sunday's Grammy Awards show, seems to be more than ready for her close-up with fame. "A girl's always got a load of laundry to do," she said during a phone conversation this week, when I asked if the recent surge of attention had made it difficult to stay in touch with normal life. "The best thing is that there's a new level of freedom, of no longer working your imagination around the resources. You can just devote yourself to thinking about what you want to do."

She toiled for years in indie bands, sometimes playing for crowds that didn't know or much care who that woman with the guitar was. She sang herself raw at one point and had to quit, not knowing whether the damage done could ever be repaired.

And then, quite suddenly, she was in Vanity Fair and performing on Saturday Night Live and Letterman, and being discovered by all kinds of people who thought they were hearing a brand new talent. One of her four Grammy nominations (she's also up for five Junos) is for best new artist, a prize she won at the Junos three years ago, and which even then seemed like a late recognition.

The iPod break propelled her into new contexts that seemed weird to everyone who knew her or anything about her previous career. The apex of oddness may have been reached when tabloid blogger Perez Hilton began urging his readers to buy her single 1234 as a way of knocking a Britney Spears song out of the top spot on the iTunes chart ("Team Feist! Down with Britney!").

"The weirdest thing for me so far was meeting Paul Simon, Bono and Barack Obama in one day," says Feist. "Obama asked for my autograph, and I said, 'Only if you give me yours.'." The only other autograph in her collection is from a Calgary kids' TV host named Buckshot, whom Feist approached at an event five years ago, "very nervous and trembling" at the prospect of actually speaking with an iconic figure from her childhood.

"Lately the task has been to make myself the eye of the storm," she says. "For years, it felt like there wasn't a drop of rain. Now it's a storm, and I have to work at being the calm centre."

It's a role she has already had plenty of opportunities to study. When she got up to play solo at the Junos in 2005, for what was then her biggest live encounter with a mainstream audience, her guitar conked out. She calmly walked to the edge of the stage, strapped on another instrument that someone handed up to her, and gave one of the best performances of the show.

"She's got more nerve than a toothache," says her mother, Lyn, a former fine-arts student who works at an investment firm in Calgary. "She's very level-headed and centred. She has a job and she's working hard at it." The job includes being good on several instruments (Collett says she's one of his favourite drummers), and also having a knack for stealing the show.

"You know the moment she walks on stage how much she owns it," says Collett. "It's very uncanny. In Broken Social Scene, for the first few years, there was a problem with Leslie, and that was that she upstaged everyone. And we realized it wasn't an intentional thing, that it was just how powerful she was. She comes out of the gate at full steam."

Feist was born in Nova Scotia in 1976 and grew up mostly in Calgary, where she formed her first band at age 15. She was a tuneful girl even before she started singing in choirs, or screaming punk anthems. "She sang all the time as a little girl," her mother says. "In fact, we had a rule at our house that she couldn't sing at the table, because it drove her older brother crazy."

She also painted, following the example of her father, the abstract expressionist Harold Feist. She was always wandering into his studio, during summer visits to his home in Toronto, "always coming up with something that would surprise and delight everybody," he says. The big-time painters and critics who sometimes came to visit from New York were just so many visitors to her dad's playground. She was still in high school when her band won a chance to open a show for the Ramones. Her voice in those days bore little resemblance to the creamy, cooing sound heard in songs from her album The Reminder.

"The thing about her singing at that point was how she could blow the guitar away," says Harold Feist. "She had that power, and she used it up. It was too much for her vocal cords."

She learned bass, and played rhythm guitar with other bands, including By Divine Right, while consulting voice therapists and trying to plot her next move. She began backing up her Toronto roommate, Merrill Nisker, whose smutty dance-music persona, Peaches, tapped into the same kind of transgressive energy that drew Feist to punk. With Peaches, she rapped and worked a sock puppet, calling herself Bitch Lap Lap, and toured Europe for a couple of years.

She also began making demos of songs with Peaches's genre-surfing cohort Gonzales (Jason Beck) that eventually became the basis of Let It Die (2004), her second solo disc and the one that defined her new incarnation as a sophisticated pop singer with a mysteriously mid-Atlantic touch. One of the songs on the disc was a version of the Bee Gees' Love You Inside Out, with which she had a radio hit, won a Juno (for best single), and startled some of her old comrades.

"That surprised us all the first time we heard it," says Brendan Canning, an old friend who has played with Feist in By Divine Right and Broken Social Scene. "It wasn't the scrappy indie-rock Feist we all knew." It was perhaps less surprising to anyone who had heard little Leslie endlessly singing through the Annie songbook at home in Calgary.

Inside and Out, as she called her Bee Gees adaptation, established Feist as a Janus among musicians, who could turn a welcoming face to a mainstream audience and still hold up a somewhat transgressive image (former punk colonizes disco!) among the indie crowd. The Reminder, which won the Shortlist Music Prize last week, started where Let It Die left off, both creatively and in its effect on her career and visibility. Ironically, its best-known song is also mostly a cover: 1234, which got so much play in the iPod ads, was written under a different title by Australian singer Sally Seltmann of New Buffalo, who offered Feist the song while the two were touring together. Feist rewrote some of the words, and a monster hit was waiting to be born.

She has tour dates for months to come, mostly in Australia and Europe. One of the little epiphanies of recent months has been her realization that she can now steer her performances more toward places she'd actually like to visit, and away from bars with sticky floors in towns that show a homely face to visitors.

"I said, 'I just want to go to beautiful places,'." she says, laughing. "We're going to Italy and Holland and Portugal, when I'm not even sure the record is out yet. We're almost booking the tours around pleasure."

But her comfort in front of a camera still wears out in about five minutes, and the thrill of being in such demand after years of struggle doesn't make up for the times when she might rather be hanging out at her country house outside Toronto. "It's a little harder to get normal time with people," she says. "It's been a long time since I've had a chance to be with friends and just see where the day goes, or since I fell asleep against a tree. But there's a time for everything. I have no doubt that I'll have a lot of empty days in the future."

She wrote a couple of new songs last week, the first since The Reminder came out last spring. The impetus was a very practical one: She and Mocky (Dominic Salole), another some-time collaborator, happened to be crossing paths, so they wrote a couple of tunes that so far have been heard only by her tour manager and guitar player (both approved).

Whatever happens on Sunday, her upward ascent seems likely to continue. Just playing on the Grammy broadcast can be a boost, as Prince demonstrated a few years ago. The landscape is still changing around Feist, and she seems to be ready to plot whatever new course may be required.

"Every time something good happens to her, she raises things another notch," says her father. "She worries about doing the right thing, about what to do next, but when I see the decisions she makes, she always seems to stay true to who she is."