not from new york: owen pallett
Like the lost boy of indie, Final Fantasy made music that wandered listlessly on layered strings. With a boyish falsetto, and violin in hand, the musical waif returns with his most accomplished work yet, this time ditching the video game nickname that's followed him throughout his career. Owen Pallett's third studio album Heartland follows the story of rough, religious rural-worked Lewis - a far cry from his articulate, atheist creator. The singer/violinist/composer admits that his feelings are of despondence towards what he considers a collection of his most personal songs yet, but there's one inescapable song on the album that still 'freaks him out' to play in front of an audience. Zac Bayly caught up with the talented Pallett to find out what effect all those video games have had on the mild-mannered composer.
"I am thinking of several of the nastiest words that I would ever use," Pallett begins. "I was very happy to take their money and redistribute it." While he's no Robin Hood (though a photo from early in his career saw him costumed in medieval garb, and he assures us he's been in at least one fight), the musician gave away a small fortune in prize money to poor, struggling bands of potentially merry men in 2006. His second full-length album He Poos Clouds won Final Fantasy the inaugural Polaris Music Prize in Canada, though the violinist, vocalist and composer behind the act couldn't bare the thought of using the sponsor's dirty money to pay his phone bills. His latest album Heartland is perhaps more auspicious than its award-winning predecessor, but it didn't come easily. "It was a weird experience making it," he describes. "I feel a little cold towards it- unfriendly in a way. It just seemed like a realistic goal that somebody who arranges orchestras for other people could turn around and make his own orchestral album." And by all accounts, it should seem that way. Since the success of his last record, Pallett's worked on everything from Arcade Fire's Neon Bible and Mika's The Boy Who Knew Too Much to The Last Shadow Puppets' Age of the Understatement and Pet Shop Boys' Yes, but creating something that truly encompassed the breadth of his orchestral ability was more of a challenge than he'd thought. "The reality of it was that there was just such an incredible amount of work involved that around the halfway point it stopped being the 'pleasant, fun activity' that I was excited about. I'm proud of it, but also a little horrified by it."
As we talk over the phone, Pallett keeps Oyster on our toes as he walks between terminals, readying himself to board a flight to London. Focused, and with a keen intellect, he takes off on tangents, though patience each time reveals a method to the madness. We ask him about the conception of Heartland. "Alicia Keys' song that you're hearing everywhere right now 'New York State of Mind' sounds so different when you hear it in Detroit or Toronto," he begins, and we find ourselves feeling the way a mouse might as it's being batted helplessly between feline paws. "Nobody plays it in L.A., but in New York it has this triumphant quality to it. But then you hear it in Toronto and it has almost a self-deprecating kind of tone. You're singing about this place that is somewhere that you are not." We allow him to explain. Heartland was inspired by intense, personal relationships that Pallett has had with friends, family-members and lovers. It's about that moment when you put your heart on the line, and "you're hoping that your affection will be returned, but it's often quite the opposite reaction. The songs are set within a world that's fictional just because I'd rather say it there than in Toronto. That makes things too dicey. Can you imagine?" Although he's tried to maintain his distance with the album that he calls his "Frankenstein's monster," one track comes from a place a little too close to home. "I think the odd one out on that album maybe is 'E is for Estranged'. It's a more of a personal song for me, and I don't know how comfortable I am with it on the record. It's weird when you hear a bunch of personal sentiment within all these songs that are essentially fiction," the artist confesses, and says that while it freaks him out to play that song live, he doesn't "feel too attached to any of [the other songs], because it feels like they're being sung by somebody else."
We ask Pallett if that somebody else, Lewis, is a fictional representation of his creator, and wonder, with tongue in cheek, if the character's "ultra-violence" might be the result of the artist having spent his formative years playing too many video games. He assures that it's actually the opposite. "I am completely non-violent. Lewis represents, and even the title 'Heartland' itself is meant to represent, this 'otherness' that, being a Canadian fag, I don't ever have to appreciate," he explains, and adds: "The concept of being repressed by sexuality or your appearance doesn't happen, and I read about it, and I hear about it, and I have sympathy for it, but I just can't even imagine what it must be like." While Lewis is theist, heterosexual, and a laborer, the themes in Heartland are not rooted in derision, but rather, respect and attraction, and the album's concept came from the artist's reflection on the fundamental differences between heterosexual and homosexual attraction. In the latter, chemistry occurs between two physically similar beings, and he explains that the 'otherness' of men that are "engaging in activities like smoking and fixing bikes, when you yourself are playing the piano and going to the theatre," is "beautiful, attractive and worth investigating."
Before the interview comes to an end, we discuss with Pallett whether fantasy, in the form of video games or religion, is necessary to deal with the world around us, and he stops to think for a moment. "Well? I feel that theism is rooted in trying to impose order on what is essentially, completely chaotic, but in the case of Dungeons and Dragons, you're taking the pursuit of something, and attributing the result to a series of dice roles. But, video games have endings where you're crowned or ascend to heaven or live happily ever after, right? Well, I think life is probably more like a game of Tetris. It gets harder and harder and harder, and then you die." While he questions whether he'd tackle another solo orchestral album in the same way he did this one, Pallett's career shows no signs of reaching 'game over' yet. His touring schedule is hectic, big names are begging for the addition of his compositions to their albums, and his own songs are stronger than ever. Even if they don't realise it, there'll be plenty of people on the streets of New York and elsewhere humming Owen Pallett's tunes.