Real Vocal String Quartet: Feist's Secret Weapon

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Feist had always had plans to add strings to her new album Metals. So when she and her three co-producers (Gonzalez, Mocky and Valgeir Sigurðsson) finished the basic tracks at Big Sur, they went looking for a California string quartet. Mocky called someone he knew who recommended someone else, who recommended the Bay Area’s Real Vocal String Quartet. The studio’s remote location meant that it took three hours to download a YouTube video of the band at the Berkeley nightclub Freight and Savage, but that was enough for Feist to extend an invitation.

What she saw in the video were four women in a semi-circle (cellist Jessica Ivry sitting on a riser; violist Dina Maccabee and violinists Alisa Rose and Irene Sazer standing) playing a classical piece based on Brazilian folk tunes with great precision before breaking into lively dance rhythms and even some improvisation. The RVSQ was founded in 2003 by Sazer, who’d been an original member of the trailblazing Turtle Island String Quartet, which still pursues a similar mix of classical, jazz and world music. But while the TISQ is a purely instrumental group, Sazer wanted to create an ensemble where singing was as important as bowing.

“Driving down the coast to Big Sur,” Sazer recalls, “we were hoping in our wildest dreams that they’d realize we were creative artists and weren’t just another typical classical string quartet that you use as a sweetener. Little did we know then, but they were hoping in their wildest dreams that we were creative musicians who could do more than play written parts. When we got there and they discovered we could improvise, they said, ‘Ooh, we can use you on this track and that track.’ When they discovered we could sing harmony, they said, “Ooh, and also this track and that track.’”

“We hadn’t written any arrangements down,” Feist adds “but we had them mapped out in our minds. So when the quartet got here, we’d say things like, ‘Play arpeggios in this scale with only two-thirds as many notes as you’d want to play, but don’t play the G because that will resolve the chord.’ And they would just go with it. We brought them in for strings, but what a happy accident that they were also singers. The five of us would gather around the mics in the studio, and I was like the choir director, but they picked up things so fast I didn’t have to explain much.”

Brought in for just a few songs, the RVSQ ended up on more than half of the album’s tracks. On “Caught a Long Wind,” a reverie about flying through the sky like a bird, the quartet makes the fantasy credible by improvising vertigo-inducing string parts against the guitar and keyboard arpeggios. The album’s best track, “The Circle Married the Line,” describes getting away from troubled relationships and exhausting work schedules by going to a coast where one can stare out across the circular ocean to the horizon line. The therapeutic qualities of such a view are made audible not only by the best melodic hook of Feist’s career but also by RVSQ’s wave after wave of string harmonies and by the reassuring hush of the group’s vocals.

As it happens, the album was recorded at just such a site in Big Sur. The rented house that became a studio was just a short distance from the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, as cows grazed on the meadows in between. “I knew I didn’t want to record in a city,” Feist says. “We had arranged the songs in this windowless bunker in Toronto and I didn’t want to record there. To me, the idea of being at the edge of an entire continent and entire ocean was very enticing. To be within a few feet of where North America and the Pacific met felt like teetering on a tightrope.”

“The Circle Married the Line” isn’t the only song on Metals that uses nature to express a feeling. “Caught a Long Wind,” “Cicadas and Gulls” and “Comfort Me” all refer to the liberating example of birds in flight, while “Bittersweet Melodies” and “Get It Wrong Get It Right” both refer to Whitmanesque grasses.

“Nature is always a touchstone for me,” Feist acknowledges, “always familiar territory. Much of what we live out emotionally has visual analogies in nature, and when I’m writing songs, I find myself turning to those analogies. Nature provides guiding principles. People try to find meaning through a particular lens, and my lens is nature.”

“At one point in the second day,” Sazer recounts, “they asked for a command performance of what we usually do. Feist, Gonzalez, Mocky and the engineer pulled up chairs; we stood up in front of them and did one of our pieces. They kept saying, ‘Another one, another one.’ What could be better than that?”

The sessions in Big Sur gave a tremendous boost of confidence to the RVSQ, who are trying to create an audience for a genre that barely exists. After all, how many string quartets are there that also improvise and sing harmony? The RVSQ is currently recording the follow-up to its impressive 2010 debut album, Real Vocal String Quartet. Overseeing the new project is Bill Frisell’s producer Lee Townsend.

“Because we can all sing and because we can all play two strings simultaneously,” Sazer points out, “we can make as many as 12 tones at once. That makes us sound much larger than you would think. All of us have been influenced by fiddlers like Tim O’Brien and Laurie Lewis who play and sing at the same time, but that’s usually a solo tradition or one string player with banjos and mandolins, while we’re four people singing and playing at the same time. We want combine that tradition with jazz and classical; we want to remind people that classical musicians, especially during Renaissance and baroque music, were once improvisational players.”

“They sent us an email saying they had just bought tickets for my San Francisco show,” Feist says of the RVSQ, “and hoped they could come backstage and say hello. It was so sweet, such a lack of presumption. It dawned on me that not only should they not buy tickets, they should also be on stage that night. Then it dawned on me, if they’re going to do San Francisco, why not the whole West Coast run? So they will.”