Owen Pallett himself admits his new album, Heartland, is “preposterous”: a concept album involving a meta-narrative involving a dialogue between a 14th century farmer and the author of his story, that culminates in the farmer defying his fate by rising up and killing the narrator of the story—think Paul Auster meets J.R.R. Tolkien. This is set to symphonic arrangements that combine operatic ambition with pop song brevity and polyphonous electronic embellishment—all of which is meant to be able to be reconstructed live on stage with only two people.
Ridiculous, right? Not one bit. As anyone who has ever witnessed Pallet live will know—until very recently, using the stage name Final Fantasy—the Toronto violinist makes the ridiculously unattainable very tangible and real.
Until now, his studio recordings (2005's Has a Good Home, 2006's He Poos Clouds)—despite their many strengths—haven’t inspired the jaw-dropping wonder that his live set does. But Heartland amazes and astounds with every swelling of the symphony strings and every electronic flutter, because Pallett is not just an arranger who knows how to drape a string section over something simple. He’s a composer first and foremost, who pays precise attention to every tiny detail.
This is why dissonance lingers over the otherwise classically beautiful mournful melody of “E is For Estranged”; it’s why stuttering electronic percussion perfectly punctuates the broad strokes of an orchestra on “The Great Elsewhere”; it’s why “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” (the song that Pallett persisted in performing during last summer’s torrential thunderstorm at Hillside) always threatens to turn into a triumphant techno number, but the tension achieved by restraint makes it all the more powerful as he repeats the chorus: “I’m never going to give it to you!” Heartland never goes for the visceral thrill, but it doesn’t have to. It’s rich and layered and full of dense delights that never overwhelm.
And that’s just the music. The lyrics take a back seat during the listening experience, but on paper they raise all sorts of theological questions about meeting one’s maker, Kafkaesque/Matrix-like musings on being part of someone else’s master plan, and an artist’s fallibility when it comes to control over their work and how it is perceived. He does this, miraculously, without sounding like he’s trying to cram his English lit doctorate into a four-minute pop song—he can even wrap his tongue around a word like “concatenation” (more than once, even) without drawing attention to the vocabulary.
I’ve known Owen for about eight years, when I first saw him playing with the Hidden Cameras, Gentleman Reg and Jim Guthrie. (I wrote this cover story for Exclaim when He Poos Clouds came out; full interview from that time here; I checked his references here). And along with being a charming conversationalist and someone whose talent astounds me regularly, I also know him to be famously neurotic—a trait that comes out in the interview below, where he details how he tortured himself into a twist making Heartland, at times considering abandoning it entirely. Hopefully he’s sleeping better now that he’s made his masterpiece.
This is the first of three parts of our conversation, parts of which will be distilled into a Pallett-for-beginners article in Maclean’s tomorrow.
December 31, 2009
Locale: phone conversation from Jessie Stein’s Montreal apartment
Having only listened to the proper running order for the first time yesterday, it sounds much more coherent. Was it composed as a linear work, not to be consumed on shuffle?
It was meant to be linear. The first song, “Midnight Directives,” was supposed to be later in the record, but I was so into the energy of it that I changed the lyrics to it and put it first.
On the last track of your last album, “The Pooka Sings,” from He Poos Clouds, the Pooka posed the lyrical question to you, Owen Pallett, the author: why are all your songs about the things that don't exist? And soon enough that was followed by an EP and an album about a fictional world where you are the creator of all things facing a mutiny by your central character.
Is Heartland a concept album about atheism, creation and destruction of gods? Or is it merely a meta-narrative wank?
(Laughs) It’s probably closer to the meta-narrative wank—just because I get off on that kind of wanking. It isn’t about atheism or god. There are hints of that, and hints of religious zealotry. But it’s meant to be a romance album. Even though it’s in a fictional world, it’s really just all about me (laughs). But who wants to write a record about me? All records are about their singer. I was trying to play with that.
At one point the character of Lewis says he fell in love with Owen after hearing Psalm 21—and all psalms are really about love for the creator and honoring the creator for giving the author life. The whole album, to me, is about the relationship between a character and its narrative creator, or about a real person and their spiritual creator.
After Lewis kills Owen, in the song “What Do You Think Will Happen Now,” he comes off like a spiritual anarchist, lashing out against “overzealous obscurantism” and established rules of hierarchy; in its place, he prefers to toast to the brotherhood of the man, who alone must shape their own destiny:
“I reaffirm my endless devotion to the belief that we’re all of value. We’re all of virtue … and though I listen to the arguments that most divergent systems employ to debilitate, delineate us, repackage our words, demystify us—I unceasingly affirm my love cannot be measured, cannot be altered.”
Yeah, but who’s actually singing that song, right?
No, the entire record has been Lewis’s voice, but who’s singing the last song? I wanted all these songs to be sung by Lewis, but I wanted there to be moments when it was unclear as to whether it was Lewis or me singing.
Or an omniscient narrator, independent of both.
Exactly. That song is meant to be the moment where the two voices come together. The situation that Lewis is put into is a panopticon, especially on “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt.” I was proud of those lyrics, because it’s a successful dialogue between someone who is being pornographed and rejecting it—is pornographed a word?! Anyway, he’s being exploited. Essentially, I was feeling that Lewis becomes implicitly aware of the fact that people are listening to this record and he has no control over it; he is the subject of a story.
There is an acknowledgment in the last song that the situation is identical to my own situation as a musician. You have to understand, Michael, that I’ve been through a lot of psychological changes in the last three years.
What, are you going to distance yourself from your earlier work?
No, I’m going to be very honest. In 2005, when I went on tour with Arcade Fire [mere weeks after completing Has A Good Home], I entered this other stage of my life when I stopped being a musician who was living in Toronto and playing shows with Toronto musicians and making music for my friends. Suddenly my music was being appreciated—or not appreciated—by people I didn’t know in other countries. I went through all these stages of having to deal with this. I’m not going to pretend that I’m Lady Gaga or anything.
Having He Poos Clouds come out and thinking that it was a record that I wrote for Canadian friends and then having it be put out in this broader context and be the subject of Pitchforking and of mainstream music press—it all made me realize that something had changed in my life and I was now making records for strangers. I wasn’t really comfortable with it. It took a while to arrive at a point where I felt that I could really assume the role of producer and make a record that I would feel would be watertight and put it across the ocean and send it to Hungary and have some Hungarian listen to it and appreciate it. And I think part of what people liked about Has a Good Home is that it was such a slapdash affair, it was me responding to my own experiences.
I don’t think anyone liked it because it was slapdash. I don’t think most people know, or care, how it was made. They like the songs, and if they find out later that it was done in a week and recorded just before you went on the Arcade Fire and it was written after your Vinyl Café experiences [Owen worked on the massively popular mainstream CBC radio show]—the story only enhances people’s appreciation of what they already liked about the music.
Right, but I don’t like that record and neither does [boyfriend/manager] Patrick [for whom it was written]—ironically. I feel like every single thing I’ve recorded since then is miles better than anything on that record. I know people are still really drawn to the songs on it, and I am too: I think there are some very nice songs on it. But I find the recording to be not at all interesting in terms of what I want to create—for better or worse. It took a lot of practice and arranging for other people before I could arrive at a point where I felt able to record an album that would be considered by the same evaluative tools as records like Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom. I only bring up those names because those are the comparisons I’m going to get, other than, say, Wolfmother. I’m not claiming alliance to either of those people.
Oddly enough, I didn’t think of Wolfmother once while listening to this record.
Really! Strange, that. But that [Joanna Newsom] Ys album blew open a lot of doors. It was the first massively successful, independently produced orchestral album in a long time, that I can think of. Not only that, but it fully took advantage of the changes in recording technology. Even though it’s entirely analog, it sounds way better than any ’60s or ’70s recording. It sounds amazing! I couldn’t afford to do the Steve Albini/ Jim O’Rourke/ Van Dyke Parks thing [Newsom's collaborators on Ys], and furthermore it’s not in my interest. I like getting my hands on the mics and putting the staccatos in myself. But I wanted to create something that would function in the same universe. This was the worm in my head: that I’m not making a record for my friends, I’m making a record for…
Van Dyke Parks?
Ha! No, not this one. I’ve already made records for Van Dyke Parks. That’s what [2008 EP] Plays to Please was.
Is this your most elaborately arranged album?
Yes and no. It’s just different writing for string quartet and writing for orchestra. Both pose separate problems. With an orchestra you can use broader strokes. With a quartet you have to be very refined. With He Poos Clouds we ran two sessions before we ran the session. It had to be perfect because every note has to be perfect. With an orchestra you can pack 50 people into a room and press play and it’s done. It’s a different beast.
Are there more electronics on this album?
There was not much or any up until now, other than a few Juno [synth] drones.
After He Poos Clouds you started to play keyboards live.
When I went to tour with a synth I went through a bunch of different options. It’s a typical manoeuvre for a classically trained musician to go straight for a weighted keyboard that sounds like a piano. When you’re doing looping, digital piano—and a lot of digital sounds—don’t sound very good. That tour I did with Rollie [Cadence Weapon], I had an electroacoustic piano, a CP-70, which is the kind of thing Peter Gabriel would tour with. It was overzealous on my part. Experimenting with that stuff gave me a new appreciation for analog synthesizers and how electronic music is constructed, culminating in my purchase last year of a R2600, which is considered one of those synths that you just can’t afford. But I was doing a film score, so I could afford it.
"The Great Elsewhere" is the perfect marriage of classical orchestration, in the ornate way one would expect it to be, and the electronics, which don’t sound like a classical music person using electronics to just be another element in their classical orchestration. The electronics are composed in the same way somebody on Warp Records would use electronics. There are white noise bursts—not Great White Noise bursts—that clash alongside traditional orchestration.
Yeah. Well… (Laughs)
Am I wrong?
That song was meant to have the sound of the electronic element and the orchestral element wrestling with each other.
When I saw you do that song live in Washington, D.C., last fall, it was one where, at the beginning, a lot of things appear random when you’re constructing the loops. Whereas with all your earlier material, the build-up is very obvious in terms of where all the parts fall into place. With this song, not knowing where the parts will land is part of the thrill of watching it.
Good, I’m glad I pulled it off, because that song I can only pull off two out of three times. The other time the transition from 11/16 to 4/4 might not work. That song is reflective of the five-channel looping. I moved from mono to five-channel in early 2008. I made an effort to allow myself to move beyond the loop station. One of the byproducts of having a multi-channel looping station is that it leads you toward extreme polyphony. Certain songs like “Keep the Dog Quiet” is a product of combining lots of very different sounds, seeing how far you can take the violin sound. And “The Great Elsewhere” is finding out how densely I can write.
Why did you use the Czech Symphony Strings?
This is something I’m hesitant to talk about, because it’s a contentious issue. First I have to say that I’m a big fan of unions, but then I have to say that the way the musicians’ union is run makes it prohibitive for people to actually produce independent orchestral recordings. Even Disney will find ways around traditional union contracts, where they pay residuals to all the performers. These rules are completely dinosaur-age, applicable to people making orchestral Supertramp records and Hollywood movies. It does not apply now. So in order to get an orchestra recorded, you have to go off-contract. You can go off-contract in Toronto or New York, but it’s difficult. Whereas when you go to the Czech Republic, you just go there and give money to an orchestra and they play for you and then you take your recording home. It’s not a currency thing, it’s union regulation.
Boring answer, huh? You were expecting some kind of Moldau story.
No, that actually raises a whole other set of issues I wasn’t anticipating, like the limitations of classical music crossing over to new composers or smaller ensembles and people writing symphonically.
It’s interesting because there have been articles written by the head of the Toronto Musicians’ Union talking about how they have to do away with residuals. But the musicians’ union is not run by people like me. It’s run by working musicians who work in a totally different context. There are so many different attitudes at different orchestras. You would think that playing with the Brooklyn Philharmonic would be an experience that would be gorgeous and beautiful in terms of musicianship, but they’re just a bunch of union people who don’t care about the music. It was almost a surprise that they might be playing something by a young composer that they might enjoy. Whereas then you go to Halifax, and their people were excited and the performance was 20 times better. Even because they were able to devote a couple more hours of rehearsal time.
How often have you performed with symphonies now?
I’ve done it three times. The first two times was more stress than it was worth. I did the Brooklyn Philharmonic with Grizzly Bear, which was kind of an unmitigated disaster for both bands. Now, with distance, we can both admit that. I had an hour to rehearse a 45-minute set. When I was writing it, I thought it would be amazing. It was a terrible experience, to be honest. And I don’t know if it’s the orchestra or the venue, but they’re going through some financial crises and that might have something to do with it. After that was in Vienna, where I dropped the ball, because we weren’t sure if we could fit it into our schedule, and I did it on three hours sleep—which I got on a bus from Poland the night before—so the performance was kind of shady and I wasn’t paying close enough attention. But when I did it in Halifax it went so well, so I think I’ll do it again.
Tomorrow: Owen discusses John Darnielle, Ferdinand Magellan, Yukio Mishima and setting oneself up for failure.