Owen Pallett

Not Afraid:
Owen Pallett Gets Personal with In Conflict

Edmond de Goncourt, French author, diarist, essayist and art critic of the 19th century, once wrote, “A poet is a man who puts up a ladder to a star and climbs it while playing a violin.” Had he been living in the present day, it would be Michael James Owen Pallett he’d see ascending the rungs into the empyreal heavens, violin and bow in hand, to remind us that classical music is not, after all, as snooty or as boring as we might have thought. Pallett’s boyish good looks, modest disposition and erudite intellect belie a randy homoerotic streak that you won’t soon find at your local string quartet’s next rendezvous with Mendelssohn or Vivaldi. He also stages a brilliant one-man show, more often than not in his stocking feet and a newsboy cap, rocking bridge, block, bout and board with mirthful spirit and stunning finesse. You will rarely, if ever, hear Pallett hit a wrong note and if you do, his exquisite technique will obscure it entirely. He has, after all, had plenty of time to perfect his skill, as he began violin study at age three. Such a challenging endeavor requires epic discipline, but Pallett maintains that it’s not his customary state.

“I think that I’m by nature actually a very lazy person,” he reveals. “If I weren’t to kick myself to get out of bed, then I wouldn’t get any exercise. I would just lie in bed and read the Internet and play video games.”

Forced or not, Pallett’s motivation has led him to compose for the Barbican and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, write pieces for the CBC Radio Orchestra and the National Ballet of Canada, and pen the score for the New York Times-sponsored production Fourteen Actors Acting, which won him an Emmy. Pallett’s last Final Fantasy album, 2006’s He Poos Clouds, was awarded the first Polaris Music Prize in his native Canada, and it’s hard to believe the honor wasn’t created especially for him. As an unofficial seventh member of Arcade Fire, Pallett created string arrangements for all four of their albums and paid loving tribute to its principals on “This Is The Dream Of Win & Regine.” Pallett and Will Butler were co-nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score for their work on Spike Jonze movie Her, which premiered last year and starred Joaquin Phoenix.  (Pallett attended the ceremony bow-tied and dapper, but insists that “there really isn’t anything to say about it.”) Oh – and he’s thirty-fucking-four.

It’s during that life stage that a troubling fretfulness, a disquieting ennui unique to your thirties, takes hold of you from out of nowhere. You thought you’d have figured everything out but you haven’t, everyone but you is coupled, married, and/or babied, and the happiness that seems to come so easily to the rest of civilization dodges you as if on purpose. Such are the themes at the heart of Pallett’s fourth album, In Conflict (Domino): the defeatism that overtakes you as you’re “spending every year bent over from the weight of the year before.” Dating? Forget it. Every guy you meet is the wrong guy and the pickings are too pathetic to sift through. When you do, you end up in the kind of botched encounter depicted on “The Passions” (“You put on The Queen is Dead/I just want to talk instead.”).

Until now, Pallett has steered clear of such personal matters: On his first post-Final Fantasy album, 2010’s Heartland, he assumed dual roles of artist and narrator as he chronicled the exploits of a maladjusted farmer named Lewis. The 1970 teen-romance film A Swedish Love Story, meanwhile, inspired Pallett’s EP of the same name.  In Conflict is a far more soul-baring effort, one that finds him at his most introspective and his most candid. “It was nice to be able to draw from my own life and my own experiences in a more explicit way than I had in the past,” he confides.

Childlessness is a boon if you want it and a curse if you don’t, and for Pallett it’s an anguishing prospect, one explored in painful detail on “I Am Not Afraid.” “The threat of childlessness is something that I’m thinking about quite often, despite my nieces and nephews and godchildren. It can be a bit of tough tit to have to suck.” He sighs, dejectedly. “I just get along with kids really well.”

Living unattached frees you to enjoy any and all manner of adult-oriented pastimes, and all are fun as long as they don’t get out of hand. But they often can and they often do, as Pallett details on the devastating track “The Riverbed,” “when you wake for the sixth straight day with the Tanqueray.” You can very nearly feel the disoriented fumblings and the sickening bedspins, and taste the bitter acid that sears your throat at the end of one bad night too many as the strings rise, fall and lacerate.

“There was a couple of moments on the record that I get a little emotional when I listen to them, because of how exposed I’ve allowed myself to be,” admits Pallett. “But only a couple of moments.”

Brian Eno personally handpicked Pallett to play the Punkt festival in Norway when he curated it in 2012, and it’s his voice that soars with boisterous force on the chorus of “On a Path.” A rhapsody in blue etched with clever lyrical wordplay (“the rising tide of intellect/ your room a holy mess”), the piece sails in on a heartbreakingly beautiful prelude and ends with a mournful aubade.

Pallett’s Norwegian sojourn also aligned him with DJ and producer Todd Terry, who introduced him to the ARP 2600 synthesizer, which Pallett used extensively for sound generation on In Conflict. It marked the beginning of an ambitious international effort:  The Czech FILMharmonic Orchestra performed for the record in Prague, and, midway through the record’s production, Pallett relocated from Toronto to Montreal. “The world has changed as quickly as I’ve changed,” he muses. “I don’t think that I could make (2005’s) Has a Good Home or He Poos Clouds today. I feel as if the global attitude towards some of the instrumental choices on those records has changed.”

With every pizzicato, every col legno and every legato, Pallett sings the body electric; for him, bow and violin may as well be additional limbs, so intrinsic is their connection. His impact on popular music is deepening by the minute, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more brilliant or a more auspicious talent. “There is a hunger that I’ve seen, (that) travels all the way up to the top,” he observes. “You’ll hear Radiohead expressing frustration that they’re not selling as many tickets as this band or that band or that Grizzly Bear is not number one but is number two on this year-end poll. I feel very comfortable and happy with my comparatively small audience, my comparatively small successes.

“I was touring Heartland and I was just playing to 400 people here or 200 people, specifically a show in Fremantle, which is in Australia,” Pallett remembers. “I realized that I really couldn’t ask for anything more, to be this homely gay man in my 30s playing violin, that I could travel all the way to the other side of the world and have 200 people come to my show. It would be a little bit proud of me to ask for anything more.”

Photo by Peter Juhl.