Composer, arranger and solo artist Owen Pallett recently released his best album yet with In Conflict. He just got off tour with Arcade Fire and is about to embark on a solo tour. We spoke to him about the genius of pop songs, writing for Taylor Swift and the ego needs of an artist.
You’ve done string arrangements for Fucked Up, Arcade Fire, Taylor Swift and many, many others. Do you try to keep the best stuff for yourself?
It’s not a question of saving anything…’cause it’s not stuff that can be used up. I have a constant stream of ideas but I’m just happy to—like I mean, for example, what I’ve really been about for the last three years especially has been extremely high frequencies and writing in the highest possible upper registries of the violin’s range. That just goes across everything I do on Taylor Swift. I do that on Robbie Williams. I do that on my own music. It’s just an idea. It’s not about using up material.
Where’d that theme of high frequencies come from?
I think a large part of it has to do with it’s a functional concern, because I’m trying to find a place in the frequency range for strings to sit where they’re not going to be fucking with guitars or vocals and up in that high range, which is where a lot of brilliance—you can really make the string just cut through the mix and I’ve had so many mixers who, when confronted with the sounds of a string section or a violin, just naturally while listening to the string on their own, tend to kind of roll off the highs, like make the sound darker because the sound is more attractive to their ears, but in fact what they should be doing is making it even more high pitched and then just bring down the volume so it sits in the mix more. They’re kind of like—strings are like the hi-hats of the orchestra in terms of the frequencies they occupy.
Is that going to be something that’s easy to convey live? Some of these songs seem like they would be difficult to pull off in a live setting, “Infernal Fantasy” comes to mind.
(Laughs) “Infernal Fantasy” is actually the easiest one!
Well it’s easiest for me—it’s hard for my rhythm section. ‘Cause that’s the one where Matt’s [Smith] got to play a bass line and sing a syncopated vocal line and it’s just insane massive proggy whatever. But that’s the one song on the record that we play live where there’s no looping, where it’s entirely just me playing a synth and singing.
As compared to the title track or “I Am Not Afraid.”
Well the title track, “In Conflict,” is based on a 30-second loop. That’s a lot of long loops on this record ‘cause I wanted to kind of create the impression that these songs were more strophic, that they weren’t just based on short little repeated four-bar phrases or whatever. That’s why the record is considerably sparser than previous records, ‘cause I wanted to make every second count. But “I Am Not Afraid” is one where there’s no looping but…it’s more atmospheric. Talking about all the ins and outs of the looping process on a song-to-song basis is about maybe 10% as interesting as seeing it.
In terms of looping, and using looping with a violin, you’re part of a rise in artists that use the instrument in that way. Artists like Kishi Bashi, Andrew Bird and so on. Why do you think that style of playing violin has become more popular?
Well, I think a large part of it has to do with what violins are good at. And what they’re good at, and what violinists are good at, is layering. You can do the same thing with guitars, but it doesn’t have quite the same sort of flexibility. That’s really it; I think it’s a good instrument for it. Also the violin is not a very intuitive instrument to play while singing and so looping is kind of a good crutch for people who want to play the violin but sing. In fact you’ll notice that on all the songs on my first record I’m never singing and playing at the same time. I’ll loop a part then sing and then I’ll loop some more and sing on top of it. It’s only with the second record that I got more into doing both at the same time.
I wanted to ask about the narrative difference between In Conflict and your last album Heartland. On Heartland the dialogue between a character named Lewis and God, who is named Owen. In Conflict doesn’t seem to have a direct focus on a story, but there’s dialogue and characters here, but I can’t quite nail it down while listening…
I feel like it’s pretty direct and straightforward, was there something in particular that confused you?
I was confused by “Infernal Fantasy” until I read up in an old interview with you that it was about taking LSD.
Yeah that’s what that song’s about. Specifically—that song’s meant to be a bit of a slice of life from a period of teenage experimentation. Shit you get up to when parents are away, like doing LSD and starting fires and having sex inside.
That helps. “Slice of Life” works really well; I didn’t think of it that way. It does feel like these songs are all certain moments or events captured. Like one of my favorite lyrics on the album is “You’ll say you never go home, but the truth is you never left it/ At the top of the canyon we look down at what can be created.” It was a very evocative moment, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it was evoking.
I see. Well the real important part of “Infernal Fantasy”—before I start talking about “On a Path”—is the last line, “The mind is merciful in its ignorance/ For if we correlated all its contents.” That’s like a Lovecraftian idea that’s from either “The Call of Cthulhu” or “Dagon,” I don’t remember which one, I think it’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” He says that all the evidence of the old ones and the old gods’ existence is right in front of us, and it’s sanity that allows us to not put these things together and realize the unspeakable horror we exist within. And similarly this song is singing about these specific events of setting a house on fire, doing LSD and having sex inside, and suggesting that all this destructive behavior comes from the root of happiness, which is not in achieving, but is in desiring and feeling that one has the decency to act on those desires. And that itself is incredibly scary (laughs), to me anyway.
With “On a Path,” the “You’ll say you never go home, but the truth is you never left it” is just suggesting that there’s a lot of people who think about “Oh, you’re going to Vienna. That must be so fucking fantastic,” but the truth is that my body is my vessel and as I travel I’m not really going anywhere (laughs). You see what I’m saying? And the dysphoria I’m singing about in “On a Path” cannot be really changed by a changing of place, by moving from one place to another. At least that’s what I’m suggesting in the song, I don’t actually believe that; I moved to Montréal and my mood shifted radically.
There was another line in “On a Path” that really jumped out at me. “I was a kid without a heart, my chest an empty cavity.” Is that as straightforward as I’m thinking it is?
Yeah. I mean, it’s difficult to really talk about “On a Path” because in a way I feel it’s one of the weaker, less complete songs—it doesn’t stand up to as heavy scrutiny as like, say, “Secret Seven.”
Really? It’s one of my favorites, I love that song.
Yeah, in fact I kind of think that its inscrutability kind of contributes to why it’s one of my favorites on the record too. But dissecting the lyrics, it’s a little more difficult because it’s kind of like a bunch of different ideas string together instead of all the points contributing to the whole. Yeah, “I was a kid without a heart, my chest an empty cavity” is just the incredible lack of ego that I have. It’s something I sing about a great deal on Heartland—this need to be made real by the actions of others. You know, it’s a pathetic thing to have to exist because to admit that it is sad, it’s as it would be described on the internet, it’s not a good look. You see it all the time, you hear it when people are having a gathering and you forget to call somebody and they get upset about it (laughs). It’s just like this way that certain people have of defining themselves by the way that other people talk to them and act to them, and it’s certainly very true of creators.
That verse is just—I’ve described to people who have asked me what I’m trying to do with this record that it’s meant to be a hand outstretched, an admission of the way I feel you might see some identification in that. And certainly every musician I know—from the ones that you’ve never heard of and have 10 people going to their shows to the most famous musician you could ever think of—are in this constant need of reinforcement. And an extension of that is why I tried to tie that to the idea of the body being a vessel to your mind in the first pre-chorus, “You’ll say you never go home, but the truth is you never left it.” It’s comparing body dysphoria and lack of ego with being in a city that you don’t understand, that you feel you’ve out grown.
I feel that one of the reasons it jumped out at me, and now that you’ve explained it more, is that, I think many artists would tiptoe around a statement like that, preferring to be less direct. It’s not fluffy or extravagant; it’s very much to the point.
Yeah, there’s an entire kind of dialogue of insulting artists who ever seem like they have ego needs or might feel insecure. It’s very difficult too for artists especially at my level, when you’re not part of the canon; you’re just some fucking asshole whose coming to town to play some songs to, if he’s lucky, 200 people…it’s like an insult to say that someone’s Googling themselves. Or when somebody gets upset about a bad review online, it looks so shitty, but why would it? Why should it? I have compassion when you tell me when you’ve lost your job. If you’re a music writer and suddenly Spin eliminates its reviews column, I feel bad for you, or when you tell me you’ve got tenure at a journalism school I feel good for you.
I don’t understand why the creative class has to suffer slings and arrows by tying their ego to the reception of their work…so that’s something I’ve always tried to be kind of upfront about. Yeah, I fucking Google myself on twitter every morning and usually I feel really good about what I see (laughs). Google me on twitter! There’s some girl in Finland I read this morning who just like “Oh! I’m just listening to In Conflict for the first time. I love this,” and I’m like “I’m so happy!” It makes me feel so good to know that there’s some girl in Finland listening to my album right now and it makes her feel good, honestly.
That is interesting to think about it. I don’t think there’s much shame in the music journalism side of things to Google yourself. That’s really hypocritical…
You’ve got to think as a music critic. You know who has Google alerts set up for me? My fucking family (laughs). My mom reads all my reviews. So you got to think about that when you’re about to write your scathing take down of someone like fucking FKA twigs for example. You think like, “Oh FKA twigs, I’m gonna really shine a light on what bullshit this is.” And there’s a Mrs. FKA twigs who’s reading that stuff and fucking hates your guts for it.
Did you like the FKA twigs album?
I feel the same way about it as I feel about all pop music. I think it’s really wonderful and lovely, and I will not buy a copy or listen to it in my home. (Interviewer bursts out laughing) What do you want? The last record I bought was like Charles Cohen and I’m buying an Untold mix thing. I don’t listen to annoying instrumental music…it’s what I listen to. I really like it. Yeah, I listen to [FKA twigs] more for research. I want to see what people are listening to, and I think it’s very awesome and she’s obviously very beautiful. If you want me to get a little critical about it, it’s like one of those things where I always wonder whenever I see a beautiful woman succeeding, I wonder how much her beauty allows agency. I can’t help but see someone like Kate Bush get up and do her artsy-fartsy thing and remember that it was her youth and beauty that gave her a lot of agency within a male-centric, basically heterosexual male audience. I can’t help but feel that a little bit with FKA twigs. It allows her agency in ways that does not allow homely fags like me or less attractive women.
On the topic of pop music, you’ve done some pieces over deconstructing hit singles. What was the catalyst for that?
I did it because I felt like it was getting more traction for drawing attention to myself, and that hopefully people would buy my record. I did that so maybe some people might be reminded that I exist and buy tickets to my shows and buy my record. But initially I wrote it as a Facebook post for the entertainment of my friends and, you know, publishing it in Slate, that was the part where it became promo, or something viewed as promo because ultimately I don’t think that it worked. I think it kind made me seem more like a prat than someone you wanted to spend money on attending their concert.
Initially, I wrote them because there was article written by Ted Gioia—he was basically saying the musical comprehension of like pop critics now was at an all-time low and blaming the journalistic community and their lack of formal training for what he perceived to be a nadir of musical quality. I don’t think he’s wrong, but I don’t think he’s right. You know, as someone with formal training, there is a part of me that wishes that more people would be able hear what I’m doing and see the interesting little features that are ingrained there on the compositional level. But I don’t resent anyone for it, and then when, in those infrequent times when somebody does notice and points it out, it makes it all the more gratifying. But I think that saying that pop music is without any craft and that there’s some sort of relationship between it and a lack of musical knowledge is idiotic.
Because in my opinion, all of the songwriters who I isolated, I feel they are equals. And I mean this, Schumann and Schubert, all the great old songwriters, the equals of Burt Bacharach and Cole Porter and whoever. I firmly, firmly believe that. And people want to tell me that I’m not allowed to throw around the word “genius”… they’re wrong because if you call Schubert a genius you have to call Max Martin a genius. And so that’s why I was kind of interested in doing and talking about it…these pieces were meant to be somewhat ironic, you know what I mean? I don’t agree with Ted Gioia that this is the case, and I kind of wanted to both give him the criticism that he wanted, but target insanely disposable pop music and point out how great it is, you see what I’m saying? So it’s both giving him what he wanted and rebutting him.
Then I got offered to do the same for Buzzfeed and then the same for The Guardian. And both times I was hesitant to do so because I—it feels like I’m kind of telling the same joke again, and I wasn’t paid for either of them. But in both cases I was just like, “Ah fuck it, I might as well.” So I did it.
It’s a good “joke” for the record.
It is how I actually listen to music. It’s not that I’m not emotionally moved by what I’m hearing, but you know, it’s like the same way you can watch a movie and tell the difference between a stationary shot and a tracking shot, and other people can hear a beat and know exactly what tempo it is immediately, which I can’t do. I can hear a piece of music and hear what the melody’s doing what the chords are doing and know what flavors and mix are making me feel the way I feel.
I wanted to talk about how video game music has influenced your work. Your original artist name was Final Fantasy. You wrote the score to Traffic Department 2192 and some of your older music borrows from Super Mario Bros. Why has that factored in?
I think that there was maybe little bit of a punk attitude towards it in wanting just give the middle finger to people who don’t give video games the same sort of like cultural legitimacy as they give other art forms. ‘Cause, ultimately, to say my music is influenced by video games is—it’s just as influenced by books and, you know, shit (laughs). I process all mediums, all media. But when I was growing up the thing I guess I liked about video game music was just the technical aspects of it that it was this electronic music that was really, really catchy. I loved a lot of this pop-oriented but electro-acoustically informed music. Eurhythmics were my favorite band.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were my favorite band. And I think video game music was just kind of an extension of that. To be honest, I’m not much of a huge gamer. The games that I like are so specific and I’m really less focused on narrative aspects of the game and more focused on the way the algorithmic ways of the game behaves. Like if it touches my brain and causes me to think and causes my brain to react. I’m more of a Tetris guy than a Final Fantasy guy.
Despite your old name.
I chose that name to be evocative of nerd culture and the sort of obsessive quality that one has to have when playing an RPG. As well as a little bit of an inversion of an old punk theme of naming yourself after things you’re not, such as the Queers being a bunch of straight dudes calling themselves “The Queers,” or “The Homosexuals,” for example. I might have called myself “NFL” and gotten some bros angry at me (laughs).
I wanted to thank you for writing “I Am Not Afraid.” If I’m having a bad day, all I need to do is turn it on and I feel better.
Yeah, man. I had a period of depression where—this wasn’t even something anybody recommended to me, I just had the idea to do this one day. I put a sign on my wall that said “I am not afraid,” so that when I woke up—because it was usually the first thing when I woke up and my eyes opened that I’d be really anxious and I’d have a hard time—that was the first thing I’d see…this sign saying “I am not afraid.” And it would just be like magic. Like BOOM I’m out of bed and life is great! And so I kind of wanted to start this record—which is difficult and has a lot of blood on it—I just wanted to start it off with “no we’re going to work through this.”
And on ‘I Am Not Afraid’ you have a lyric that I wanted to shine a light on: “What is better is to punch a wall/ Burn up in the boxes of your old love letters.”
The line is “I haven’t had a smoke in years but I will catch a drag if you are smoking/ They told me to chew on a toothpick/ They told me to take a deep breath/ What is better is to punch a wall/ To burn the boxes of your old love letters/ To be impassive to the words that could save you/ To need to see the world as ash.” I’m trying to say a whole lot of fucking stuff. I’m really proud of that lyric because I think it can be interpreted in many, many, many different ways. Ultimately, it’s meant to be about any sort of frustration with one’s gender, race, sexuality—anything—and the desire to be something else or the denial of another thing. In my case, I have a real struggle with maleness, to the point that I would even say I don’t identify as male because I don’t feel male. I don’t feel female either. At the same time, I can’t deny the privileges my maleness awards me, you know what I’m saying? And this is what that’s meant to say: “I haven’t had a smoke in years but I will catch a drag if you are smoking” (laughs) You know? You identify yourself as a nonsmoker, but yet still you’ll have a drag. To me that’s a perfect metaphor for a lot of the privilege they take in life. You see it all the time with bands making an effort to be anti-capitalist while still being capitalist, taking a pose here or there or any sort of attempt of male feminism online. You see this, they don’t want to identify, but at the same time they benefit.
Fuck! It’s like the whole American bullshit! You’re always sticking up for the little guy, but it’s an entire economy based on systemic economic oppression of others. Anyway, that’s what it’s about (laughs), or that line. And what I’m recommending, even though it’s meant to be metaphorical—these methods of quitting smoking—is just that, often it’s that act of “to burn the boxes of your old love letters” to want to see the world destroyed it’s like this is the genesis of a lot of desires towards transgressive work and protest. And the music I make, too, is still cut of raging frustration that you can’t necessarily be the change you want to see all the time. Does that make sense? But I also wanted it to sound like forgiveness at the same time too. People point out the hypocrisy of Radiohead being like “Oh, we don’t want to fly” and “We try to keep this at carbon neutral territory,” and they’re like “Oh, that’s so stupid” for this reason and that reason. And it’s just like fucking cut people a break! Cut yourself a break!