The Rumpus Interview with Owen Pallett

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Owen Pallett didn’t start his career in the limelight. For years, despite releasing two albums under the name Final Fantasy, Pallett was best known for his a violin and arrangement work with other musicians, including Arcade Fire. Finally, in 2010, Pallett released Heartland under his own name to avoid a trademark dispute.
Still, he avoided revealing himself in his own work. He was there behind the looped violin and cleverly evasive lyrics, but he still avoided being open and transparent in his writing. Then Pallett began taking cues from more confessional musicians like Tori Amos and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. Through that process he became more direct and bare about his emotions as a way to prevent misinterpretation. As he told Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen, “I wanted to preemptively make myself as available as possible, so it would be impossible for anyone to form the wrong impression and make me uncomfortable with the way they were digesting my music.”

The product of Pallett’s new approach is his latest album, In Conflict, which was released earlier this year to wide acclaim. On the record, the old Owen Pallett is still there, performing violin and loop wizardry at every turn. But in the lyrics, the production, and the arrangement, Pallett is more direct and revealing than ever.

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The Rumpus: I was reading some of your other interviews about the new album—you’ve said that you started writing those songs back in 2009, but that a lot of early songs didn’t necessarily make the final album.

Owen Pallett: None of them, basically. “Soldier’s Rock” is really the only one that was kind of from that early run. Everything else was made much later, after I threw everything out.

Rumpus: Did that song change a lot or keep its original form?

Pallett: It changed a lot, yeah. But it just—like a lot of the writing that I do—is just pages and pages and pages of lyrics. And maybe one percent is any good. So with the pages of lyrics that I was writing in 2009, where I was kind of trying to mine my own personal experience for songwriting stuff, the ratio of good to bad was very, very low. It took me a little longer to kind of get into that world of knowing how to write songs like that. Do you know what I mean?

Rumpus: Do you feel like you had to write the bad stuff to get to the good stuff?

Pallett: No, I think part of me is really picky. I mean, I typically don’t finish a song in one swoop. I’ll finish a song in like, two weeks. Where every morning I’ll take a look at what I did the day before and be like, oh, it’s so bad. It’s terrible! I wish I was with you, because I could just show you some of the pages. It’s really reminiscent of The Shining. The all work, no play situation. It’s pretty fucked up.

Rumpus: When you’re writing, do you keep your violin within reach?

Pallett: Oh, no. Never. No, I put everything together separately. I’ll write a bunch of songs just at piano, and a bunch on a looping rig. But then the lyrics are being written entirely in a different mental space, with no instruments around. I usually have a pot of coffee and no Internet connection.

Rumpus: That’s a good idea, the no Internet connection. I also heard that you have, like, 30 songs for In Conflict. Do you plan to ever release all of them?

op_inconflict_cover_1Pallett: Oh, no, I don’t tend to finish songs that I was working on but think are bullshit. There are two songs that are actually not on the record that I could just release right now. And then there are four more that I’d have to finish the lyrics to—that are recorded. And then three more beyond that that are written, but I’d have to record. Like, this steeling down process—it’s not because I didn’t record them. More often than not, I did record them, but I wasn’t happy with how they sounded. It’s kind of the tricky thing with sort of genre-free music. It’s also a great thing. But when you’re kind of making music with—the real freedom of genre is you don’t have a list of criteria you need to fulfill. You can’t really listen to something and say: This is a good piece of minimal techno music. You’ve got to spitball it, really. And just be like, oh, is this working? Because the music I’m making has no inherent function.

Rumpus: How do you think the writing of this set of songs changed you?

Pallett: Well, I don’t know. That’s hard for me to tell. A lot of these songs have to do with investigating the forms of—and I use lots of quotes here—craziness. Within myself and within others. And the last two years have been really tough, mentally, for me. And a lot of the times I—kind of scary, but a lot of the times, what happens to me when I’m having some sort of an attack is I black out. My brain stops recording information. So what’s interesting—this is why I’m writing a lot. Because that way I have a record of who I was and what I was thinking at any given time. Because it’s very difficult for me to look back and take stock of events honestly. It’s like I kind of look back, and I’m just like, what the hell happened last week? And then I read my writing and I’m like, oh. That was a great week.

Rumpus: I’m a huge Tori Amos fan, so I was excited to see you mention her early work being inspiring to you. And just out of curiosity, I wondered if there are any songs in particular that stand out to you of hers.

Pallett: I’m kind of a whole catalog sort of guy. The first four albums and attendant B-sides, parts of To Venus and Back, all really destroy me. If I had to nail it down to one, I don’t know. I can’t really do that. I think in general, my favorite of hers is just Boys for Pele.

Rumpus: Yeah, me too.

Pallett: Because it’s so bad in places. It’s so scarred and strange, do you know what I mean? I remember the first time I heard “In the Springtime Of His Voodoo,” like, in the first minute of it, I was like, “give me a fucking break.” And now it’s just like: I love it. It’s a refreshment. It’s just a real crazy record. It’s funny, too. Because I mean, I’ve always been, yay Tori, boo Kate [Bush]. Like, not actually Kate, but, boo Kate.

But I really, like—I mean, I really, really jive with Tori’s stuff. And it’s funny to me, because even though she [Kate] is the one that establishes being the mad genius, Tori is the one who seems to be pretty crazy. She’s one who seems to me to be actually tapping into the crazy on those records. But yeah, I don’t know. If had to pick one song, I would pick “Pretty Good Year.”

Rumpus: I requested that at a concert once. It’s one of my favorites.

Pallett: It was the first song I ever discovered of hers. And weirdly, I guess I was 14, and I was staying with my brother. And my brother had this roommate who was a big nerd. This was during the dot-com boom. My brother was living in Seattle and working for Microsoft. And so his roommate had this huge Bösendorfer grand piano with the extended octaves.

It’s the only time I’ve ever seen an extended octave in my life, actually. And so I kind of—I don’t know, the party [they were having] was not my vibe, because I was 14 and moody, or whatever. So I went and just [thought], I’m going to play the piano. So I just played a bunch of songs on the piano. And I looked at the piano bench and he had these Tori Amos books. And Under the Pink was the one that I pulled down and put on, and started playing “Pretty Good Year.” And when I got to the modulation—you know, the crazy louder part?

Rumpus: Mm-hmm.

Pallett: I was just like, what the fuck is this?! I have to get this album!

Rumpus: And are there any poets or authors that you feel a similar affinity for, in terms of their ability to be that transparent and honest?

Pallett: Not really. When it comes to books, I prefer the opposite. I really prefer the ornate, kind of baroque-style writing.

Rumpus: Like who?

Pallett: Well, like Anne Carson, really, has been my huge influence on this record, because I had read Autobiography [of Red] a long time ago. And just kind of got into all her other works of poetry, and they’re just so diverse and so brilliant. I want to hang out with her.

Rumpus: Brian Eno appears on In Conflict. How did that happen?

op_heartland_cover_2Pallett: He was a fan of my last record. I remember reading in Mojo Magazine, he said it was the best album of the year, along with Anna Calvi. So I kind of was like, yay, I’m on Brian Eno’s radar. That’s awesome. And then he invited me to play his festival that he was curating, the Punkt Festival in Christiansen, Norway. And that’s when I met him. I knew he was into backing vocals, just from reading his books and listening to podcasts he’d done. But backing vocals were kind of like his real joy in life. So I took a chance and asked him, and he said yes. And he was really effusive, too. He was just like, yes, absolutely. So that was awesome. I don’t feature him as heavily as Damon Albarn does on his new track. But if you heard the tracks that he’s on without him on them, they sound way worse. He contributed a great deal, even if he’s kind of the binding agent instead of the bricks.

Rumpus: And what’s it like being in the studio with Brian Eno, or hanging out with him?

Pallett: Well, we didn’t record in the same studio. He sent me the tracks remotely. But hanging out with him, really, he had more of a rapport with my bassist, Matt Smith, who’s kind of a Toronto legend. He and I have been playing in bands for 12 years.

But he’s notable in Toronto for being a bike repairman and excellent cook, and a carpenter and a fantastic musician. Fantastic guitarist, a great DJ, a great engineer, producer. He runs a record label. Just kind of hilarious all the things that he does. But yeah, him and—and he’s got his head into esoteric conspiracy theory stuff, and he’s just filled with all kinds of information about politics, and just reads all the right blogs. But him and Brian, I think, hit it off. Because I was a little shy.

Rumpus: You recorded in Iceland at Valgeir Sigurðsson’s studio?

Pallett: Yep.

Rumpus: Did he have any input on the record or anything?

Pallett: No, we actually abandoned the recordings that we had done up there. Which wasn’t the fault of the studio. Valgeir wasn’t the one recording him, it was the other engineer in the studio. We recorded Heartland, my last album, there. It was such a natural place to go back to again. But when I got there, I was trying to figure out why I wasn’t happy with the way the recordings were sounding. I realized it was fundamentally that we just needed to record in a room that was specifically set up for the best possible drums because it’s such a drum-heavy record.

There are a lot of drums on it. The one thing that I’ve always been a little allergic to is cymbals—crash cymbals and ride cymbals. Just the weird hits of them. But I’ve come to realize recently that actually, I love cymbals. It’s just that I’ve been listening to them on too many recorded things. And I love the sound of cymbals on older recordings. So one of the things we did is we captured all of the drums directly to tape. This would have been at Hotel2Tango, which is originally the big Godspeed recording studio, but is now a freelance studio and where Consolation Records is. So yeah, there was a bunch of corrections.

It wasn’t at all [the engineer] or the fault of an amazing studio that I love recording at. But I needed a tape machine and I needed a good drum room.

Rumpus: Switching subjects, I read the pieces you’ve written for Slate, and I was wondering how that started and if you thought would be doing more pieces like those for the future.

Pallett: It started as a Facebook post. I was in a bizarre state because I had just gotten off a plane from Montreal. An overnight flight. I had 12 consecutive interviews in Berlin that I went right to from the airport. It was a fly-by-night situation, and my head space was really dark. But I had an hour off in the afternoon. I was supposed to go to sleep, but instead I typed this thing about Katy Perry from memory on a challenge from a friend on Facebook. Then, I went back and did the rest of the interviews. So it came from a bit of a crazy space.

But I think I’m friends with a couple of people who either write for Slate or know people who write for Slate. And they passed on that Slate asked if they could pick the post up and edit it. I said sure. By the time they had it posted, I had already written that punk one. When I saw the response to it, I knew I had to change my tone a little bit to firmly establish where I personally stood. I think some people thought I was taking a piss, and I wasn’t.

So I wrote the Lady Gaga one, but I don’t have a taste for music writing in all sorts of crowded fields, so I don’t think I’m going to be doing it anymore.


Erin Lyndal Martin is a creative writer, music journalist, and artist. Her work has recently appeared in Salon, No Depression, Gigantic Sequins, and Yalobusha Review. More from this author →