Friday, May 23, 2014

Let's Talk About Owen Pallett: Carl Wilson

When writing about Owen Pallett, as I do in this week’s issue of Maclean’s (on newsstands now), there’s only one other writer I would ever cite as a secondary source: Carl Wilson.

As a member of the Hidden Cameras in the early 2000s, Pallett played “Ban Marriage” at Wilson’s wedding; Wilson provided Pallett with his first major American press with a New York Times profile. Wilson invited Pallett to contribute an essay to the recent reprint of Wilson’s treatise about CĂ©line Dion and subjectivity in music, Let’s Talk About Love; Pallett performed “The Power of Love” at the book’s original launch party back in 2007. These are two of the only men I know who might discuss semiotic theory while scratching each other’s back.

My favourite quote from my recent conversation with Owen is his summation of what the Torontopia movement was all about: “Carl Wilson with his shirt off, like no fucking problem.”

I have a lot of my own theories about and passions for Pallett’s music, but Carl is clearly much smarter than I am. As is always the case with these kinds of profiles, I only used a sentence of this conversation in my Maclean’s piece. Here’s our full conversation.

Carl Wilson
April 23, 2014
Phone from his Toronto apartment

How do you know Owen?

I met Owen through the Hidden Cameras, through Maggie [MacDonald] and Joel [Gibb]. I didn’t talk to him that much. Through the first year or two we knew each other, we didn’t really have conversations. He seemed like a distant and removed kind of guy. Which I don’t think was true, but he does have that kind of guard when you first meet him. Only after I started seeing [Pallett’s first band as frontman] Les Mouches and was really enthusiastic about them, then I started talking to him directly. He briefly ran a series at the Monarch Tavern, and I wrote about that for the Globe, so that was when I first interviewed him. The way I got to know him mostly was by interviewing him.

Most Canadians, if they are aware of Owen at all, first heard of him when he won the inaugural Polaris Prize in 2006 for He Poos Clouds. For me, knowing who was on the jury—Torontonians and other jurors, like yourself, for whom Owen wasn’t a completely unknown entity—the win wasn’t that surprising, but it was treated as some kind of freak upset win by mainstream press. What do you remember about that time?

I think he was already kind of inured to that kind of exposure. We think of that Polaris moment as being pivotal, but probably what was more pivotal to his career was opening for Arcade Fire. That involvement gave him a fan base he wouldn’t have got any other way. By that point he was an old hand dealing with press and attention. I think he let that all roll out gracefully and had a good humour about the remarks about the album name. Obviously, the name is a perfect case of Owen’s balance of sarcastic whimsy and utter seriousness. His win was more interesting for what it meant for Polaris. In some ways, Polaris’s identity could have been established in any number of ways. I can’t talk about what happened in the jury room, but it wasn’t a surprising decision when we got to the end of the discussion. I think it established Polaris as a more adventurous kind of prize than it would have been if one of the other leading contenders had won.

Is an artist like Owen more easily understood today than in 2006, now that we’re 10 years into the dissolution of genre boundaries and what’s known as poptimism?

I think he’s a segment of a certain independent musician who once would have been more stubbornly avant-garde and now has a more eclectic approach. He’s a particular subset, bringing his classical training to that music. You see in indie music of the last 10 years the emergence of strings and of horns, often just for colouration, but in Owen’s case it’s really integral. That also informs his skepticism about indie orthodoxies. He’s already been through one set of ideologies that he has to resist in order to do what he does. So he’s unlikely to be swayed by a new set of ideologies. What he’s done, more than others, is to take the best of that kind of old-style indie thinking and continue to concern himself with having control over his own destiny and have some kind of loyalty to where he comes from, in terms of conducting his career. The fact that he continued working with Blocks [Recording Club record label] for so long after his initial success, I saw as a real sign of character.

Owen covered Mariah Carey and Jann Arden early in his career, as well as Joanna Newsom and John Cale. How does that play into the thesis of your book, about how we define ourselves by our taste in music?

One of the first things that made me sit up and take notice was with Les Mouches when they were covering “Close to You” by the Carpenters. Not that it was a unique indie rock move at the time, but there was an earnestness to their delivery, very tender but with an edge to it. That curatorial sense that he has was something I took notice of. His sensibility has always embraced vulnerability and truthfulness and professionalism—all of these things that were in some ways uncool. He was one of the first people I met who made me feel like the sensibility I was talking about in the book was at a twilight at the time. Young people growing up with a more eclectic listening experience and music-acquiring experience were forging new sensibilities. Seeing that made me aware of the contrasts in the way music has been talked about and the way it’s lived in their lives. He’s in sync with that. At the same time, he spends a lot of time in a reasonably snobby indie music scene. So he has a sense of those problems and struggles with himself, where one draws the lines in tastes, and plays with that in his own work.

What do you think being an Owen Pallett fan says about someone? What kind of cultural capital does that give them?

Quite a lot of cultural capital! If you think of it as adjacent to Arcade Fire, where most of his fans may come from, it’s the kind of fan who pays attention to a bands’ opening acts and liner notes. There’s an investment in being a connoisseur. I think a lot of his fans also have some involvement in classical music. I’ve never seen a fan message board more involved in talking about scores and arrangements.

How does In Conflict fit into the evolution of his work?

It’s an amazing album. It makes me look a little differently at the previous couple of records. It’s so much more emotionally direct, in the ways the first album was, but that was a very small-scale thing whereas this is grander. I had an immediate emotional connection with these songs in ways I didn’t with older songs. Heartland is transitional for me, and this record is a fulfillment of what he was going for there. I think it’s significant that he’s playing with [Les Mouches] Matt [Smith] and Rob [Gordon] again; there’s a personal touch in the lyrics and narratives that remind me of what Les Mouches were doing, and reminds me of how affecting I found that at the time: confessional in the literal sense, but with that careful line-walking he does so that it doesn’t become indulgent or mired in self-pity.

More than any other artist I know, he seems to be endless involved in detailed conversations with people online. I’m kind of fascinated with how he’s able to be so productive and yet so seemingly distracted at the same time.

He wants to be in the fray, but he also wants to be all by himself composing. He is a classic introvert/extrovert. Anybody who is productive in an information-dense form has to have some kind of compulsive tendencies. When he’s working, he gets a ton done very fast, because he’s moving very fast in his mind, and then he takes a break and has some soup and he’s bored and he’s on the Internet. It’s that crash-and-burn speed to him. He’s talked about that being one of the subjects of the new album.

Do you think his early success was only possible in a situation like Torontopia, an era of anything goes?

The milieu in which he started to make pop music was one where there was a conceptual approach to music-making in general; it was much more similar to an art-school or visual art aesthetic. I think the Hidden Cameras influenced a lot of people in that direction, in being the first breakout success. Also a band that many people passed through, so they were influenced by that working technique. The cluster of people around Blocks took that kind of conceptual framework and applied it to their own approaches. Stuff like Bad Bands was the most extreme end of that way of thinking, of saying these bands are more or less just ideas than they are music. They have to be enjoyed from that point of view. It’s hard to guess what Owen might have done if he hadn’t had that kind of apprenticeship, but it’s possible to imagine him making more conventional Sufjan-esque pop music in a way. It seemed clear that exposure through that music scene permanently sent him in that direction.

Up next: Nico Muhly

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