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Leslie Feist performing at her Germany show.Maximilian Probst/Handout

Leslie Feist was in northern Germany in the depths of summer, in a black-box theatre on a sprawling Hamburg performing-arts campus, trying to solve a riddle at the same time she was writing it. From a short, barely-there stage, surrounded by concentric circles of wooden boxes, she and a production team were testing lighting levels, camera angles and lyric changes, each in the pursuit of a singular goal: to narrow the gap between herself and her audience.

The Canadian music veteran had been loaned the space for a few weeks to workshop an idea she’d been toying with for nearly four years: to design a concert experience that managed to evoke the feeling of getting away with something. The idea first struck the singer-songwriter as she built a tour around her 2017 album, Pleasure. After years spent playing arenas and theatres, she dreamed of something less like a ticketed concert than a small, intimate speakeasy show in a tucked-away place with a secret entrance – something that flattened the hierarchy between performer and crowd, both in practice and perception.

It didn’t work out back then. But the Nova Scotia-born, often-Toronto-based artist behind songs like Mushaboom, 1234 and How Come You Never Go There kept thinking about the idea. Then, with the pandemic, each day bled into the next amid an inexorable series of monotonous lockdowns. Time itself was flattened – a “great levelling,” as Feist puts it, in which the world became one-dimensional.

Yet it also presented a rare opportunity. Somewhere between lockdown No. 1 and lockdown No. 5,000, as vaccinations gave the world a shot of optimism, Feist’s manager Robbie Lackritz pointed out that performance spaces everywhere were still sitting empty. Their owners were eager to play host, but stuck with capacity restrictions. Maybe, he told her, they would be the right place – and this the right time – to bring her idea to life.

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Feist herself lived through emotional whiplash over the past few years, for reasons well beyond the pandemic. She became a mother just months before the world shut down; and her father, abstract painter Harold Feist, died last spring. “I don’t feel certain about much,” she says, speaking from her late father’s Toronto studio. “I had already been thinking a lot about mortality, and conveyor belts of time, and people arriving and departing.”

Life and death have blended together for her – another flattening. “All of that has levelled me,” she says.

And yet it served to further inform Multitudes, the performance residency she honed in Germany and will bring to Ottawa on Oct. 14, at the National Arts Centre, before taking it to Toronto’s Meridian Hall for a series of twice-nightly performances beginning Oct. 20.

Like the show itself, the title Multitudes hints at a kind of expansion of the boundaries that life can put on people, and that COVID has put on life. Feist described the feeling she wants to evoke as that of a child entering their elementary school at night, instead of day, for the first time. With the light cast differently, the possibilities of space are altered; curiosity and perception are heightened. “It feels like you’re in an alternate universe, and you’re sneaking,” she says.

That’s how she wound up at the campus of the Hamburg performing-arts company Kampnagel, workshopping and then debuting the style of performance she’d spent years dreaming up.

The team behind the show has a history of helping audiences experience music in new ways. Feist met Mary Hickson, the creative producer, at a weeklong residency in Berlin helmed by members of Bon Iver and The National that brought more than 200 musicians together to improvise new pieces. Production and lighting designer Rob Sinclair has built psychedelic light shows for Tame Impala and helped conceive a stark stage-as-plaything for David Byrne’s most recent tour and Broadway show.

With their vision and the help of Winnipeg media artist Colby Richardson, Multitudes contains performative larceny, a dot-matrix-printer rhythm section, and live video – though not exactly traditional Jumbotron fare, with the crowd captured in manipulated footage in equal measure with Feist and her accompanists, Todd Dahlhoff and Amir Yaghmai. That crowd is seated upon physically distanced, wooden-box seats that are just uncomfortable enough to make its members aware of their presence – of their part in the performance.

“There’s nothing about me that feels like I belong on a raised platform, or that I know anything,” Feist says. “I don’t even know how to design a convincing mask to put on to be able to become this larger-than-life performer.”

The performance itself has remained fluid since Feist and her team first began rehearsing Multitudes at Kampnagel’s venue in July. Each iteration arrives after an interrogation of the last one’s merits and flaws. The elements of production remain subject to revision, with the team honing lighting and performance cues to capture the right balance between the musicians and audience. And the songs, all new, remain in flux, with Feist reading lyrics from a binder on stage – sometimes for the first time. Though it is impossible, or at least unfair, to dissect the lyrics of songs still in mid-composition, there is a thematic through-line in Multitudes, Feist says – of imbalance, following the disarray of her past few years.

For all the destruction of tradition promised by Multitudes, however, it is anchored by something familiar: Feist’s voice, at once commanding and vulnerable. During the Hamburg edition of the show, sparse-starting songs spun into controlled chaos as her loop pedal sent countless iterations of her voice booming through the cavernous room – unleashing multitudes, in this case, of Feist herself. In the absence of live music for much of the last year and a half, it was, at points, a deeply emotional experience – to suddenly be thrown back into a concert space, immersed in art, a flood of sound serving up a long-overdue dose of dopamine.

The future of live music is uncertain: globally, venues are wedged between real-estate crises and pandemic capacity limits, and between mask mandates and business models that often depend on alcohol sales. Multitudes is a reprieve from the pandemic, but does not signal the future of all concerts. Feist carries a quarter-century of experience, much of that with global renown, while her show has the benefit of investment – some of it in-kind – from Kampnagel and TO Live, a Toronto theatre non-profit.

Feist herself recognizes the unique privilege of her position. “I don’t think this is a new model” for concerts going forward, she says, “but I’m always interested in how people wrap their minds around what the future might be.” Even when full-capacity touring resumes, she’s not sure she’ll be able to replicate the experience.

Yet this does not distract from what she is trying to achieve with the Multitudes residencies. They offer a chance, in the middle of a pandemic that may not soon subside, for an audience to feel like they’re getting away with something – just as Feist intended.

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