Owen Pallett rejects assumptions, embraces sass

By JJ Brewis, Columnist

Say what you want about Owen Pallett's music, and he is likely to tell you the opposite. The 31-year-old Toronto native has gained much exposure in recent years, with a career that is gaining momentum that even indie sites like Pitchfork have trouble keeping up with. From appearing last fall on Saturday Night Live with Arcade Fire following his appearance on their album The Suburbs, to scoring a short set of films for the New York Times, as well as guest spots and scoring strings on big releases with albums from Pet Shop Boys to Grizzly Bear, Pallett stays extremely busy. But the ambitious singer-violinist excels no matter how many pots he has his hands in, not that he wants to talk about any of those other things specifically.

Sitting in the green room of Vancouver's famous Vogue Theater, Pallett casually trades discussion with me, coming off as genuine yet sparse. When I inquire about his pursuits aside from his album, he clearly seems uninspired, remarking "I just want to make music for now."

In the past year, Pallett has given up his former recording moniker of Final Fantasy, reverting to his legal name to avoid mix-ups and easily web-proofing himself. "The only reason why I didn't change it for so long was cause it is a great name," he says. "It accurately describes what I'm doing, if I may be so bold to make that statement." This element may be somewhat true, given that many of Pallett's songs tend to include the element of searching and quest-finding that the video games relate to. He adds by asking "How many people sit down say 'I have a really good band name?’ There are definitely problems with having that band name, with confusion and trouble on the internet. I recognized it was going to be a legal problem, with [Heartland coming out] in the U.S. and Japan. We reached out to holders of Final Fantasy copyright, and said 'We're going to change our name, can you please not sue us?' and they said 'Sure.'"

Pallett started playing violin at the ripe old age of three. "It didn't really progress; it's not really a development," he explains. "It's interesting that people want to see a development in a person's life as opposed to a series of episodes. It was a way that Final Fantasy started to exist, a series of episodes. I never tried to make music as a violin soloist until i started Final Fantasy, I was 24. Before that, it was all guitar-keyboard based, electronic based."

One of my first questions in the interview is to ask Pallett about what seems to be a valid thread in the core of his material: the aspect of storytelling, and creating near ballads or fables with many of his tracks. "I don't really see my songs as storytelling so much," he says. "This is a terrible way to describe an artistic practice, but I try to avoid anything that can be easily described." Yet, onstage during his performance mere hours after the interview, Pallett goes on to cover the Simon Bookish track “Interview”, preceding it by saying the song is important to him because of its story-like narrative. Sitting in the crowd, I scratched my head at that and realized that really is just Pallett's nature – to defy ideas made about him, and quietly re-use them in his own little way.

Though coming off well-read, with a vocabulary other artists in his league would dream of, Pallett finds is hard to list what has shaped him. When I inquire about non-musical sources, he seems unsure about how to answer. "People ask me that and the next day I think 'Why didn't I give the opportunity to give massive props to give to Filmmaker A or Author B?' I listen to a lot of music, and not movies or books." Though, when I get more direct to ask which musicians he sees himself shaped by he says "I can't point to one specific influence." This is just Pallett though.

Those familiar with Pallett's on-stage setup are aware that he's cut a niche for himself, being able to fill a concert hall with a mere violin, microphone, and loop pedal. With his earlier albums, despite their layered nature, this combination worked well, and impressed crowds without fail. But with Heartland’s multi-instrumentation unheard on his previous efforts, Pallett felt the need to finally mix it up, adding in musician Thomas Gill. "It's totally awesome, he's the best," he says. "We get along, he's an amazing musician, and yeah it's wonderful."

Despite the well-themed aspect of his albums, Pallett leaves it there in terms of creating a package. What you see is what you get, in terms of on-stage visuals. Where other like-minded artists like Bjork or Patrick Wolf become quite eccentric with their wardrobe, Pallett sees no need. "I certainly wear the same clothes onstage that I would backstage," he says. "I decided early on that I didn't want to be a musician who wore costumes onstage or had fireworks, just because it seemed like a lot of shows turned me off in that regard. I have seen so many shows where it seemed like someone had just wandered in off the street: that turned me on." In terms of album art and printed visuals, Pallett's albums always seem well-produced, something he focuses more on. "The choice to make a record without a concept is in itself still a concept. I feel that there are a ton of bands who don't put a lot of thought into say the conceptual elements of what they’re doing or the musical elements or the performative elements."

On the topic of Pallett's infamous win of the inaugural Polaris Music Prize in 2006, (a Canadian award given entirely on artistic merit, as opposed to sales), it must be noted that Pallett was public about the fact that he gave the cash prize away to smaller label bands. On a similar note, one of the tracks off Pallett's earlier albums was mistakenly licensed to a French telecommunications ad campaign, following which he donated any earnings from this to Doctors Without Borders. It seems then that Pallett likes to earn his keep artistically, but he sees both cases as part of a much bigger scale. "I think people are gonna want to make some political assumptions based on those facts," he says. "The thing is, I basically don't want to take money from cell phone companies." (Rogers Wireless was a previous sponsor for the Polaris Prize.) "I love money," he says, "I love to get it and love to spend it, but I don't wanna get money from cell phone companies." It is then and only then, that Pallett gets visceral, letting out his inner narrative. "If it were illegal to do so, I would detail my primal fantasies. I want [cell phone companies] to disappear. Actually, I want the Canadian government to socialize them. I want everyone in Canada to receive free cell phone access. Vote for me!"

As classic sounding as his music often is, Pallett is very informed with his tools at hand, making himself a big Internet presence when he needs to. His self-released fall release Export was re-tweeted by music magazines moments after he announced it. He sees this type of tool a great opportunity for creating a completely open airline. "I lived in New York for a while, and I found there's actually a thing that exists there, and in LA and London as well, called social hierarchy. You have more famous artists hanging out, there's sort of a velvet rope of information. I'm sure you've all felt it at some point," he laments.

He sees the new social media as an open airline. "That nasty behaviour is deeply linked into drive to comment anonymously on message boards and trash talk people. Since Twitter came in, people have to take more responsibility for the things they say. Breaking down anonymity is good. And now people take responsibility for the things they say. When someone wants to get in touch with me and do an interview, a person in between is my press agent, the line of communication doesn't need to be stopped."

Going back to the concept of songwriting, Pallett admits "If a song's getting too confessional, I scrap it or rewrite it. I don't know where that impulse comes from." And as for standing out Heartland was unlike any other album from 2010, and despite its “indie” genre classification, it has far too much going on for it to be in the likes of his peers. But this uniqueness is Pallett's specialty, both self aware, and self admitted. "It's a weird sort of back and fourth," he says. "When I hear a record, I like to hear what's going on with it, and avoid doing those things on my record. Then I hear the radio, and I think 'Damn! Maybe I should have made my songs song like those other songs.'"

Yet on top of his carefully planned calculations, Pallett falls somewhere closer to modest than patting himself on the back. "I wasn't really sure how to make a record," he says. "I'm still not really sure. I don't play with a drummer, or a bassist or anything. It's almost like, and I hate to say it, but I'm performance artist. But I don't want to make records that sound like that. I'm still trying to get my head around how to make a record." If any of his releases say anything, (aside from their disputable narrative qualities), it's that Pallett indeed does know how to put out an album. Heartland landed on many year-end top tens, not that he would be phased. Just as casual as he is about his wardrobe, Pallett would be just as happy elsewhere as he is on stage. "Well, it's interesting," he says, "When you look at it really, one will divide years of ones life into pre-teen, teens, 20s, 30s: stuff like that. There's an invisible phase in someone’s life between 25-31, as an adult you deal with the fact your body has gone from getting better to going to a new stage where it's actually getting worse. I guess it surprised me how much I care about that. Comparatively how little I care for touring, I'd rather just stay at home."

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