After releasing two albums as Final Fantasy, Owen Pallett recently began performing under his own name in support of his newest album, Heartland. The lush, complex record exists in an imagined world called Spectrum and explores the relationship between one of its inhabitants, Lewis, and his creator, Pallett. The album further develops Pallett’s increasingly classical orchestration, which augments his perennially impressive lyrical abilities.
As an interview subject, Pallett caught me a bit off guard. Onstage his words are few but tend to be very funny and somewhat bashful. Offstage, before his show in San Francisco on January 14, he spoke quite amply and pointedly. He touched on the progression and purpose of his music as he sees it and his experience watching others judge his work in ways he finds difficult to understand.
You’ve released a lot as a solo project, but you also have contributed orchestration to many albums by other artists. Is there a relationship between your processes for those two aspects of your work?
They’re so different that I try not to even think of them with the same part of my brain. Working for other bands is more an act of service – I feel like a mom baking cookies for her kids. I very much set myself aside and try to get into the heads of the musicians I’m working for. I listen to the record all the way through and think of how my arrangements can complement the music and make a good use of their money.
Did Has A Good Home [the first Final Fantasy record] come before you started working with other bands?
I recorded that album because I was set to go on tour with Arcade Fire but didn’t have anything to sell. Final Fantasy was doing well as a live act in Toronto, but my attempts at recording never got anywhere. So I met up with Leon [Taheny, a multi-instrumentalist and the other half of Pallett’s live act] and we recorded the cover of [Joanna Newsom’s] “Peach, Plum, Pear” and it went so well that when I started the tour we’d already recorded the album. By that time I’d done work on [The Arcade Fire’s] Funeral, two Jim Guthrie albums and a Hidden Cameras record. I’d done a lot of work but it was mostly with bands I was already involved in. With Final Fantasy we had to figure out how to turn a live act into a recording.
Do you think it was translated well?
I think we did the best we could. It was the first time I’d “produced” a record, and I don’t really listen to it now. I’m not ashamed by it but I’m weirded out that people are attracted to it. It just sounds terribly performed to me. I like the songs but we were on a schedule, so we did what we could. At the time I’d wanted to go into the studio and make a record with 20 or 30 songs on it, something like [Guided By Voices’] Alien Lanes, but I didn’t have that many songs and most were over 2 minutes, so it didn’t work out. I was surprised when people did take it seriously.
Is there a continuity between the EPs you released recently and the world and story of Heartland? In particular, Spectrum, 14th Century seems to have things in common both lyrically and musically with the record.
I don’t think of it as a story, some epic told over songs, but more songs that exist within the same setting. Spectrum was dipping my toe into the water, seeing if writing songs in a fictional environment was something I could do and sell to people with a straight face.
I read in an interview sometime after He Poos Clouds came out, when you were just starting to work on the album that became Heartland, that this record would have a story where halfway through the album Lewis kills his god – you – and takes over for the rest of it.
[Laughs] If I ever said that, I was probably intoxicated, though I have said ridiculous things. That is sort of what happens, I suppose, but it’s more complicated than that. My relationship with Lewis is very hard to define, just as it’s difficult to define any one human relationship. I can’t simplify it to god versus worshipper or lover versus love. I think of it as there being a self – me – writing the songs and singing them, and then there’s Lewis – the Other, what I’m not – who is doing and saying things I put in his mouth.
So he’s an instrument of your thoughts rather than a self-directed entity.
He’s an obsession as well as an instrument. There’s a very symbiotic relationship there, but whether it’s positive or negative depends on what you think of the record.
“I think it’s really good and likeable, but sometimes after hearing these things I’ve been confused as to whether I should have made this record.”
How did this relationship develop?
I’ve been sketching it out for a while. When I write songs I start by thinking of jokes. Not necessarily “ha-ha” funny jokes, more like “Am I actually going to sing this ridiculous thing?” I started doing that in March 2008 for this record. I wrote down 20 pages of lyrics that were clever or funny or interesting, things I was looking forward to singing. I fleshed them out and they became songs bit by bit. There were things that didn’t take shape until almost a year later, though I worked constantly on the record. I threw away almost twice as many lyrics as I ended up with.
Because I start with lyrics I wind up with things I can’t sing because I just can’t find the melody for them. There was one really good song with beautiful lyrics that I had to release as an instrumental with lyrics posted separately, and say “This is what the song was supposed to be, but I couldn’t make it work!”
Do you ever hope to revisit those sorts of songs later?
Yes, there are two in particular I was able to make happen many years later. One I wrote with Les Mouches took me 2 years to work out. There was another where I was distraught over performing it – the lyrics were too personal for me to feel comfortable singing them – and it took me 4 years to be able to do it. Some take forever to work out, and others come together just like that [snaps]! “Lewis Takes Action” was written almost immediately – I wrote the loops and did the programming in one go and wrote lyrics the next week.
You mentioned programming – I know you use Max/MSP frequently. Do you use it performing live?
I only use it when I’m performing, actually. I came to the program as someone who needed a job done, not someone interested in Max. I only learned it enough to get that job done, and because the early versions of the program were so roundabout and rudimentary they worked perfectly for a beginner. I’ve revisited it sometimes for visual cues, but all it’s doing currently is reinterpreting MIDI commands so that when I step on my keyboard, Max does fades and the keyboard doesn’t just sound like an awful digital thing when I stop.
Max is amazing, but I must confess I’m not so into how it processes audio. Initially I tried using some patches, but I try to keep my music as analog as possible and patches don’t fit into that. Max 4 has some cool ampisonic ones that I used to do fun stuff. I’d set loops and then have them travel around the room in an interesting way, so one violin line would scroll within a boundary of four speakers and then others would join in and move in different directions. It was beautiful and elegant to listen to, but it wasn’t musical enough. It seemed too demanding on the audience to have a guy constructing loops from scratch and then on top of that have those loops wander around the room. I didn’t think I could ask people to stretch that far for a show. It’s a pretty tough sell.
Your music is focusing increasingly on larger orchestrated pieces. Have you ever thought about or done instrumental music without vocals for your solo work?
It’s interesting you ask about that because as I’m reading reviews of Heartland I’ve noticed that people are suggesting I do it. I don’t particularly have an ear for it. I like it when it’s 100 years old or really crazy, but I think vocally.
As you said earlier about writing lyrics first.
Yeah. It’s interesting how people hear my voice, what they make of it. I think I’m somewhat of a better singer than most, and I get surprised when people really don’t like my voice. Maybe they were listening to a lot of Nina Simone that week, I don’t know.
People’s reception seems to depend so much on how willing they are to engage with the record. The only occasion on which I read music writing is when it’s about me or my friends. Initially I was frustrated with the inaccuracies but I’ve grown more Zen about it. I put a lot of myself into Heartland, and whether or not you believe me I felt I did it for altruistic reasons. I really wanted to make something people would enjoy, connect with. So it’s been a shock to me to have some people dismiss it because the concept seems pretentious. It’s not like music critics have to produce things the way musicians do, no offense.
None taken. I don’t write reviews, just interview! Every time I’ve tried to write about records I love I feel like I never do them justice.
I’ve written a fair amount of reviews and I always came at it as figuring out what the artist was trying to achieve, and rather than be judgmental about that — the motivation — I tried to evaluate how they went about achieving it and how well it was communicated. The politics of music writing are so unforgiving, how people will complain about a certain aspect and then never give the record another listen.
It’s so strange sometimes to know Arcade Fire, who spend their time making records — like I do — but have devoted their hearts and minds completely to Haiti and Partners in Health. The recent events there tore them apart, tore me apart, and I’m left thinking about how I spent the last year working on this record when I could have been building a hospital somewhere. So when people are so dismissive about this huge part of my life I feel like I’m working in an industry where there’s no right and wrong, where no one recognizes the importance of the act of even making a record. It’s bizarre when I’ve put so much into this that reviewers can’t even spell my name right, aren’t bothering to check even the most basic facts. I don’t think that’s what music writing should be about.
I think it’s really good and likeable, but sometimes after hearing these things I’ve been confused as to whether I should have made this record.