The multifaceted musical genius on working with Brian Eno on his new album, the tragedy of Tyler Clementi and why Scott Walker needs to relax
In 2005, The New York Times ran an article about Canadian musician Owen Pallett headed "The World’s Most Popular Gay Post Modern Harpsichord Nerd", possibly the most oddly verbose headline of the millennium. It sounds like a niche position to hold, but he has been successfully mining it ever since. Consider this: in 2014, Pallett has been nominated for an Oscar for scoring Spike Jonze’s Her with Arcade Fire; released four lauded albums as a solo artist, and is the go-to guy for Taylor Swift (and Linkin Park) when they need swelling strings for their Billboard-dominating hit albums. He's also recently taken to writing spectacular pieces for Slate and BuzzFeed deconstructing pop hits; a recent post on Lady Gaga's “Bad Romance”, for instance, combed through the track's chord progressions and semitones before revealing that the chorus's final G-sharp “(leaves) that 'bad' leading note hanging. Why? Because she herself is bad.” Pop music has rarely found such a rigorous yet reverent critic.
Pallett applies the same attention to detail to his own music, but never takes himself too seriously. His first two albums were released under the Google-unfriendly moniker Final Fantasy, and featured Super Mario references and Dungeons and Dragons magic as well as grappling with overarching concepts and themes. (Pallett jokes that he heard “you pretentious cunt” a lot.) His latest, In Conflict, veers in an unexpected direction. Here, Pallett plays it relatively straight, fusing string arrangements with synth innovation and top 40 melodies (they’re in there somewhere, really), making for his most interesting and expansive sonic experience to date.
The album deals with themes of confusion and – predictably – conflict, and the end results are varied in style but cohesive in execution, taking in sputtering, weaving between sputtering, oscillating electronics, string-drenched chamber-pop and ambient interludes. “There’s a general sort of dysmorphia running through the songs,” Pallett says at his London hotel, “and this struggle between alcoholism and sobriety or sanity and insanity, creative state and consumer state, male and female, all this different stuff.” If this description makes In Conflict seem as over-cerebral, rest assured: the melodies sing.
“If I fully wanted to treat my job like a business then I’d be writing film scores and making a six-figure salary for sure, but I would also be in therapy”
While Pallett was recording the album, gay college student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate set up a secret webcam in their dorm and released footage of him kissing another man. “When that first happened I felt this incredible feeling of sympatico with the guy,” says Pallett. “He was a violinist, too – there were a lot of similarities.” The tragic events fed into what the musician calls the “dark and emotional feeling” of the record. It’s “the terror of the infinite”, as he sings on “Song for Five & Six”.
Pallett was born in Ontario, and the violin was placed into his hands when most kids would be building Lego. By the time he was at university he had scored films, written music for computer games and composed operas. In the early 2000s, he began playing in bands that were part of Toronto’s burgeoning indie scene, working on records by Jim Guthrie and The Hidden Cameras. Most significantly, he co-wrote the arrangements of Arcade Fire's gargantuan debut, Funeral – one of the definitive indie releases of the 2000s – solidifying a relationship with the band that now stretches back a decade.
Electronic hero Brian Eno features on In Conflict, after Eno invited Pallett to perform at a festival he curated a few years ago. “He recorded stuff for every single song but I only used about half of what he did,” Pallett laughs. “Not because what he was doing was bad, it was just very dominating." You’d imagine it would take a strong man to rebuff Eno, but Pallett wasn’t phased. “He said: ‘Cut everything you want. It would just be an honour to have a single note on this album.’ Maybe one day I’ll put out the Eno versions of the songs – they’re really dramatic, you’d be like ‘wow!'”
“I’ve heard that Scott Walker doesn’t listen to his albums, and I don’t believe him. If it is true, I’d be like, ‘Dude, you should go listen to your records, they’re really good!'”
Pallett has done arrangements for everyone from Pet Shop Boys to Robbie Williams, balancing these assignments with solo recording and touring. “If I really wanted to fully embrace what I loved doing then I would be writing chamber music and living under the poverty line,” he says. “And if I fully wanted to treat my job like a business then I’d be writing film scores and I would be making a six-figure salary for sure, but I would also be in therapy three or four times a week because it’s an incredibly stressful job. It’s definitely very aggressively difficult and I generally only tell people to get into film scoring if there is absolutely no other possibility of making money.” Pallett wrote of romance in his earlier material in tracks such as “This Is the Dream of Win and Regine” (written for Arcade Fire’s central couple) and “Adventure.exe”, but on In Conflict, he turns his focus to domesticity. “I’ll never have any children,” he sings within the first 90 seconds of his new album. “I don’t have enough money to reasonably adopt children," he says, "but man, would I love to do that.” Stressful it may be, but the film scoring clearly make sense.
Talk turns back to In Conflict, an album that Pallett has unashamedly spent some time getting his ears around, “I’ve heard that Scott Walker doesn’t listen to his albums, and I kind of don’t believe him,” he laughs. “And if it is true, I’d be like, ‘Dude, you should go listen to your records, they’re really good!' I listen to my records maybe once a year – it’s a good way of getting a feeling for moving your direction forward, and also to learn from mistakes.” He pauses, before ending on a throwaway remark that perhaps accidentally, captures the vast breadth and scope of his career. “My ears are always constantly changing.”