Owen Pallett has earned himself a holiday. The Canadian musician has worked tirelessly for over a decade, creating a body of work that most artists can’t match in a lifetime. With a background as a classically-trained violinist, Pallet utilizes a broad palate of textures - primarily built around violin and vocals - to create music that can be both soothing and jarring. As a solo artist, Pallett performed as Final Fantasy until 2010 (dropping the name due to legal reasons), winning Canada’s most-esteemed award, the Polaris Music Prize, for his 2006 album He Poos Clouds. His third album, Heartland (2010), delved into an imaginary world called Spectrum and was written entirely from the perspective of a farmer named Lewis who was directly addressing his creator - Owen Pallett. Imagine. More recently, Pallett has removed the meta-narrative layers and has begun to finally reveal himself, addressing issues of anxiety and gender dysphoria in In Conflict (2014).
The scope of his work reaches far and wide. Arcade Fire have called upon Pallett for string arrangements since Funeral, and he continues to tour with the band regularly. As a hired-gun collaborator, he has worked with artists ranging from The National to Robbie Williams to Linkin Park, and everything in between. Somehow he has also found the time to score films (he and Win Butler received an Oscar nomination for their work scoring Spike Jonze’s Her) and pen essays analyzing pop songs from a music theory perspective.
While in town for his 19 December gig at Salon, Pallett graciously answered questions for Bant.
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Hi, Owen. To begin with, you’re wrapping up a very busy 2014 with a show in Istanbul. What are your hopes and expectations for 2015?
Mostly I’m hoping to get right into new songs. I finished In Conflict over a year and a half ago, and I can’t wait to start on the next one; I have some specific ideas I want to work out, mostly with a pile of Baroque instruments.
A lot has been made of the lyrical shift of speaking through characters in your songs to the more “personal” perspective of In Conflict. Was this a conscious choice? What attracted you to that device in the past, and why have you decided (at least for the time being) to abandon it?
I don’t think it’s autobiography of myself so much as an autobiography of the liminal experience. If I were to autobiographize myself truthfully, there’d be a lot of songs about cooking, typing e-mails, and talking on the phone to friends. Not that interesting. I deliberately selected a series of experiences I’d had that defined my queer existence, my crazy existence. Moments of sexual passion, of gender dysphoria, of change of place, of acceptance of self, et cetera. All the cool, meaty stuff that makes for (I hope) good songs.
You spent a great deal of 2014 playing with Arcade Fire; does this leave you with the time and energy that you would like to dedicate to your own material? How does the experience of playing stadiums with Arcade Fire differ from playing more intimate headlining shows for you?
It was a useful experience because it so clearly put into relief the positives and negatives of large-business models. Arcade Fire are big business; they began as a small burger joint, but now they’re Burger King. They feed many people and make product that make many people very happy, including myself. There are sacrifices one must make to one’s artistic practice to achieve that kind of ubiquity. I believe that band has weighed the options and decided to go big, and I think the decision looks good on them.
Me, however, my business model is small. Every one of my favourite shows of all time has been small, less than 100 people. I personally don’t go to any shows larger than 400 people. I’ve never paid money to see a band in an arena. I make music that reflects this. Grouper means more to me than Bruce Springsteen. When people say my music is underrated, I disagree; I think it is perfectly rated. My music is small-room music, but I hope it’s very nutritious.
Especially considering your live show, the two key components are the violin (classical, analog) and looping pedals (modern, digital). What are your thoughts on the intersection of these musical technologies? What limitations do you find working with each individually, and what opportunities are afforded by using them in conjunction?
I don’t think of there being a division between analog and digital, as you’ve described. Looping technology seems designed for strings, which historically work so well layered up and written polyphonically. I feel that live looping is just a natural extension of the instrument. I don’t feel particularly limited by either instrument, except for the fact that it’s hard to sing with the violin on your chin, and you can’t really travel the stage when you have to keep your feet on the looping pedals.
Your CV of collaborations runs incredibly deep, from Fucked Up to Taylor Swift. Are there any genres you especially like or dislike working with?
None, really. I do prefer working on music that allows me to write more “difficult,” like Slim Twig or Jennifer Castle. My own listening-at-home tastes veer toward the heavily modern, so it’s nice when a client wants something more challenging.
Is there any artist in particular that you’re waiting to get a phone call from?
I did get a call from Rick Rubin to do work on the Frank Ocean record, but nothing came of it. I was pretty disappointed, to be honest; I love Frank’s music and would've loved to work on that. Other than that, I’m hoping to work on music with Ben Frost, Xiu Xiu and Buffy Sainte-Marie. But these days, I’m valuing days off more than work days; it’s been a very active couple years, and I need a vacation really badly.
You have said that digital media “offers an opportunity for non-capital based method of art production.” Weighing the diminished income from album sales with the increased exposure from the internet, what effects has digital media had on the greater ‘indie’ scene in the post-Napster world? And how do you think this might affect the development of the next generation of artists?
The idea of a "professional musician” is somewhat of an aberration. Historically, it’s linked to the imbalance of power found in clergies and monarchies. Recently, it’s been a blip, the exploitation of recorded media as something worth spending money on “owning.” These days are over. Now, music has entered more of a hobbyist realm, inhabited by amateurs. Musicians sharing their tracks instantly within an extended digital social network. It is beautiful, and it is cheap, and it is accessible to more and more people, and it’s a good thing.
If it sounds like I’m calling for an elimination of my job description, I’m not, exactly. My own career, like many other genres of art production (classical music, dance, film, theatre) is dependent upon modern patronage systems like grants and government funding. This is the way forward for pop musicians, in my opinion.
The New Queer Cinema of the early- to mid-‘90s was invested in possible existence and manifestation of a ‘queer aesthetic.’ Most of the queercore bands of the ‘90s didn’t strive to distinguish themselves in their sound but in their lyrical content, visual representation, and outspoken politics. What are your thoughts on a ‘queer sound’?
The act of coming out as queer is fundamentally based on an inversion of values. One has to decide to put the needs of their mind and their body over the traditional norms of society. My mouth around your dick is more important than my family’s legacy, for example. Having the ability to make that decision suggests that the queer person will naturally favour the needs of body and mind over the needs of traditional societal norms.
I believe this will absolutely factor into art production, regardless of lyrical or textual subject matter. I don’t think it’s a universal truth— I don’t think there is anything particularly subversive about Sam Smith, for example. Nor do I wish to imply that “straight” people are incapable of creating subversive work. But I do think that transgression and subversion come very naturally to queer people, and our music will naturally be the sound of a middle-finger extended, a fist in the air, a fire started, a door opened.
You wrote some fascinating and illuminating pieces this year which dissected the music theory DNA of some of the year’s biggest pop hits. At the same time, you said that music theory is “a beautiful and amazing thing that has absolutely no function whatsoever.” For someone who can understand and appreciate both the technical art and a great chorus, what qualities do you look for in music, and how has this informed your own songwriting?
The qualities I look for changes from year to year. When I was working on In Conflict, I wanted to create a sterile, synthetic environment to really allow my lyrics and singing to stand alone, sit on top of. I was listening to a lot of modular-synth music: Stockhausen, Dan Lopatin, Keith Fullerton Whitman, and Laurie Spiegel.
For the past year, I’ve been much more interested in zero-melody style music, specifically on new music from Untold, Xiu Xiu and Mica Levi. I thought for a while that my fifth album would be entirely in this realm, but I’ve backed away from that idea.
This past summer I got thirsty for more overtly political music and have gone back to listening to ‘60s protest songs, especially Buffy Sainte-Marie. I am very intensely interested in pursuing this as a songwriter at the moment. I feel as if music has been increasingly apolitical for the past fifteen years, preferring to imply feminism, blackness, and queerness rather than actually sing about feminism, blackness, and queerness. I think musicians are afraid of coming across as too earnest or something. To listen to 20th Century political music, it’s pretty jarring, makes current songwriters sound complacent and toothless. I’m hoping that I can be strong enough and smart enough to write songs that will be useful to people who might desire that political edge.
But yeah, this year it’s been all about politics. I don’t care what you think about Perfect Pussy’s music; Meredith’s lyrics are fire and her message is righteous, and that’s all I want. Shabazz Palaces make songs about transcendence and emancipation. Total Freedom and Terre Thaimlitz make crushingly political music about queerness, with a post-modern process. These are musicians I look up to and hope to achieve the same level of clarity.
With regards to music theory, I don’t believe it serves any function in pop criticism, no. I do think musicologically as a listener, but so do you; the only difference is that I have learned the words to describe what is happening, functionally. Pop critics don’t need to be able to tell the difference between an 808 and a DMX, an add9 or an add13. They need to be able to listen well, live well, and write well, and that’s more important to me as a reader of music criticism and creator of music. Not a traditional education.
If you hadn’t picked up the violin at a young age, what do you think you would be doing now?
I switched to music from pre-med, so maybe some kind of doctor? Could you imagine?