This year is shaping up to be a big one for Owen Pallett, a.k.a. The Artist Formerly Known As Final Fantasy. The indie violinist has just released his debut album for Domino Records, Heartland, and as we reported previously, it’s an epic orchestral pop record with a homoerotic narrative about a super hot religious zealot named Lewis. He’s also featured in the January issue of Vogue and he just finished working on the score for John Cameron Mitchell’s new film, Rabbit Hole.
In his words: “There’s a part of me that knows that this is a year when I can send out for sushi or a year when I’m going to have to keep cooking at home.”
Pallett is also a big pop music fan. In addition to composing string arrangements for pop and indie acts such as Arcade Fire, Pet Shop Boys, The Last Shadow Puppets and Mika, he also likes to discuss and argue about the latest trends in Top 40 and R&B. We rang him up in New York after he wrapped work on Rabbit Hole to chat about Heartland, the time he got tanked in a club with the Pet Shop Boys, and his thoughts on Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.Read the full Q&A after the jump!
Do you pay attention to what critics say about your albums?
I do pay attention. I read reviews ⎯ my publicist sends them to me ⎯ and I like reading them because I don’t take it personally. Also, I’m pretty active on message boards. I was just on the Radiohead message board today and somebody was saying ‘Oh I haven’t listened to the new Owen Pallett record because after the disaster that was He Fucks Clouds I didn’t really have the desire to ever hear him again.’
Did you respond to the post?
Of course not. It’s a completely valid opinion. If that anonymous Internet dude had made a record then it’s entirely possible that I’d be online trash-talking his record. [laughs]
Do you take anything away from these types of opinions and reviews or is it just a vicarious interest?
No, I like music writing in general. I don’t take it personally when people like or dislike any of my records. Certainly I like it when I feel as if a record that I’ve made has inspired some good music writing ⎯ it’s a really awesome thing. One of my favorite things or product of He Poos Clouds was actually a negative review that was so well written; it saw right to the heart of the music and described it so perfectly. This person basically didn’t like the record but talked so beautifully about it. It was somebody who really went in and absorbed it and paid attention to the concept ⎯ didn’t just dismiss it.
Some music writers have been referring to Heartland as a concept album but you prefer to call it a “romance”. Can you tell me about this “romance”?
I don’t consider it to be a concept album. I think it’s a loaded term ⎯ I would say that it’s fantasy, I would say it’s a romance. But when you’re talking about a concept album, you’re talking about any album. I know it’s a cop out to say this, but an absence of a concept is, in and of it self, a concept. The record does have a narrative to it so I understand why people would jump to latch on to the “it’s a concept album” statement ⎯ certainly Pitchfork did, almost immediately ⎯ but like, I wasn’t writing it thinking about the narrative. Of course I was but I was primarily thinking this is an album that you can put on and enjoy. I can take any one of these songs, take it out of the confines of this narrative and have it stand on its own. I just wanted to make an album and the fact that there’s a narrative is just a feature of my process. Music-making usually has some sort of extra-musical ideas going on.
Are you a romantic person?
Me?! Um, yeah…. Yeah. Definitely.
Definitely. I would like to say that I’m not but I think while making this record it really kind of came out that I was because it is in a way a bit of a love letter to a lot of things. It’s a love letter to this kind of unnecessary form of recording. It was a really long process and the nine months that I was working on it, I was thinking why am I making this? What is the purpose. I even kind of sing a bit on the record about why that album exists… NO! NO KITTY! NO! NO! NO! NO! ABSOLUTELY NOT! Sorry, new kitten. The one rule I have is don’t walk on the stove. [laughs]
You need a water gun.
Yeah I have one I just didn’t have one nearby so I just swatted her. Alert the ASPCA: I swat my cat.
Um, what where were we talking about? How you’re a romantic person…
Yeah, well, I don’t know what you mean by romantic. When I say ‘romantic’ I think the opposite of misogyny: this desire to believe in the good of other people and believe in traditional forms of brotherhood of man and camaraderie and love are all realities.
How does that reflect on the record?
Well, the record is essentially both about the object that I desire. In a sense what Lewis is meant to be is this archetype of the things I’m interested in. Take, like, an R. Kelly song, “Number One” for example, where R. Kelly is singing as much about himself as he is about the woman but it’s more like he’s singing about the experience: “Sex with you is like making records”. Then he turns it around there’s that verse where the woman [Keri Hilson] is singing back to him, you know what I’m saying? It’s a romance.
The music video for “Number One” by R. Kelly feat. Keri Hilson.
So you’re featured in Vogue this month…
Yeah man, go pick it up… It’s part of a feature about up-and-comers, for whatever it’s worth. ‘Up and coming’, man I’ve been working for f*cking years! It was this shoot they were doing about new contenders so they put Raquel Zimmerman in a tree and I’m at the base in a Tom Ford tuxedo with Swarovski crystal buttons and I’m playing my violin for her… I don’t look so good in the photo but the photo itself is really beautiful. Compositionally it’s really very nice. The whole series of photos is less about the faces of the people, and more about these scenes. It’s more like an art shoot. It’s f*cking awesome. I want to be in Vogue every month.
This year you worked with Pet Shop Boys and Mika. What was that like?
Yeah, I did two arrangements for the Pet Shop Boys record… I was working on Heartland so I think it must’ve been in 2008. It was cool because it was real pro ⎯ like real professional. I was in Toronto and they sent me songs and I sent them back arrangements and I got them in touch with my guy over there and he tracked it all for them. It was real hands off ⎯ it was awesome. I didn’t even meet them until later. We hung out a few times. Actually I got WASTED with them. [laughs] I don’t know if they were wasted. They were probably pretty wasted ⎯ it was after their New York show.
We went out drinking and I got really drunk. At one point they were complaining about this music the DJ was playing⎯ It was so bad⎯ and we were like ‘why don’t they play something with vocals?’ You know when you read those DJ mags and they’re talking about ‘head music’? It was like that ⎯ what you always imagined head music would sound like. I’m not coming down on music with no vocals but like, this guy is DJing this night and there are no vocals.
So what did you guys do about it?
Well they didn’t do anything but I did! I mean, I won’t say I was trashed ⎯ I was not trashed ⎯ but I was definitely aggressively drunk. I went up to the guy and I said, ‘Can you play some music with like, vocals on it and stuff? Not to shit on your parade or anything but it’s like the Pet Shop Boys after party and this doesn’t make sense.’ I was nice about it and the guy said ‘Yeah man, no sweat!’ And then he didn’t and 20 minutes later I was like, ‘hey man, what’s up?!’ and he’s like, “DUDE! YOU CAN WAIT ALL F*CKING NIGHT I’M NOT PLAYING ANY VOCAL MUSIC!!!’ I was like, well then we’re leaving!
That’s always my move when I’m DJing: just placate them by telling them what they want to hear and then play whatever you want. Haha.
F*CK YOU!!! If I’m DJing and I have a connection to iTunes and someone says they want to hear La Roux or something and I don’t have it, then I’m going to download it and I’m doing to play it. [laughs]
Actually last time I DJed a bunch of people came up and wanted to hear Mariah and Toni Braxton over and over again so I just kept playing it. It was 10 o’clock and they were the only people dancing so I was like who the hell am I kidding?
Oh yeah? [laughs]
You had the idea for this album a long time ago and it took a while to make. You’ve said it was a very stressful process. Why was it so stressful?
I had a title for it early on and the idea came over time. I didn’t actually start working on it until August 2008. I just kept getting more and more projects and gigs and that film score was a really awesome opportunity because I was like ‘man I can make money off this and make this record happen’. I just knew that I wanted to make a record that was self-produced and have an orchestra on it. Those two facts meant that I had to do two things: learn how to really write for orchestra and not just like, do an arrangement for somebody else but actually implement it and make it function as an album.
That Spectrum, 14th Century EP I put out in October 2008 ⎯ I don’t want to call it a warm-up exercise because I think it’s an awesome EP ⎯ but I was thinking I really need to do this before I can do Heartland because I need to get my toes wet and there’s no better way to do so than working with somebody else’s songs.
I had written all these lyrics and for a while I had just been collecting them ⎯ not actual complete songs ⎯ I was envisioning it being like this is how the narrative is going to work and when I started compiling these all and turning them into songs and getting demos together it was a really positive process and I felt optimistic about it.
But then by the time January rolled around and I was tracking the strings ⎯ my morale dipped really low and it stayed low. I felt like a zombie working on the record. I’d finished the creative part of it and was working on all the logistical stuff. It was driving me crazy. The only moment was and I remember writing in my journal at the time that I didn’t feel like I was engaging in a creative activity anymore. I felt that this record had become a parasite. I know it sounds really melodramatic to talk about it like that but it’s actually how I was feeling. It made me realize that I’d bitten off more than I can chew.
Now I’ve softened on that and now I feel like it was the first time I’d done it and if I do another record using an orchestra, I’d be able to take care of it fine.
In the past you’ve avoided writing autobiographical lyrics? Why?
I guess it’s just kind of the way I think. I don’t want it to sound like I’m arguing against autobiographical songs because I might be turning a little more to it.
In the past would you have argued against it?
Probably after a couple of drinks. There one was one interview I did after a show, so I was really kind of messed up, and I think I said, ‘catharsis is not something I was interested in songwriting’ but it’s really not true.
What’s the biggest blow out argument you’ve ever had about music and with whom?
Well I can’t tell you the biggest because it’s personal.
Hmmm, lemme think… I don’t typically have big blowouts. It’s not [about something] musical, usually it’s more political. Music is such a political thing, you know? Not like political like the Oscars are political, but you really see a lot of different ways of living ones life and doing business and a lot of ideas about the interconnectedness of music and the listener. At any rate I’ve really started to recognize some behaviors people get involved in are just an extension of capitalism ⎯ like an utlra-capitalist expansionist way of making music.
Can you give me an example?
No, of course not. I don’t want to point any fingers at anyone.
Can you speak generally about this capitalistic behavior?
Sure people in New York ⎯ and the bands of course that I’m not referring to, but am actually talking about, are my favorite bands. I love their music. But you know, there’s something to be said about the reasons why it was created this way. Did you create this record to make an end of year list? Did you create this record to soar up the Billboard charts? Typically pop music is made for commercial purposes. We’re in not in that age now ⎯ it’s become an artistic endeavor.
[Becoming more impassioned.] Can you even think about that whole Usher-Justin Bieber thing? The first time I saw that Justin Bieber video I was kind of disgusted. In fact, the second time I saw that video I was disgusted. Like, what is it? I don’t understand what this is. I’m not saying it is bad and what I am doing is good, I’m just saying ‘what is going on here?’ I have been listening to a lot of mainstream pop music, like Taylor Swift, who I’m really big fan of and I think is more talented a songwriter than anyone else. Period. And then just seeing on the same stage this Usher-Justin Bieber thing and it just reminded me that Taylor Swift is a brilliant songwriter, yes, but she’s also a brilliant songwriter because she’s making lots of money. [laughs] I don’t know how to put any other way. We’re all at this stage now where we just love Beyonce. We just looooove Beyonce! But then she puts out the Sasha Fierce record and you’re like ‘wow this record sucks’, but of course it’s her biggest selling record.
The music video for Justin Bieber feat. Usher, “One Time”.
Perhaps that’s because labels want to cross artists over to different audiences? Usher is older and comes from the urban market and Justin Bieber has the 12-year-old girl market cornered. That’s my impression. It’s the same reason why they put Lady Gaga on a Wale track: so he can get some pop cred and she can get to hip-hop fans.
There’s a difference. Justin Bieber, I don’t understand what his appeal is aside from the fact that he’s like, this somewhat talented heartthrob, basically. He’s a teen heartthrob ⎯ he looks like a pony. Or a puppy!
What is mainstream pop right now? I’ve read and heard so many times that Mariah Carey’s new album is a flop. Love that album, but is this like her B’day? Remember when B’day came out and it was not the biggest hit ever but critically it was a total grand slam? And then [Beyonce] turns around and makes Sasha Fierce and so maybe this Mariah Carey album is her own personal B’day where she’s making this record that when you listen to it critically it’s unbelievable but it doesn’t have any hit singles on it.
Can you explain why?
Not without getting really nerdy. I don’t want to start talking music theory right now.
What do you think of Lady Gaga?
I love her of course but I don’t think her music’s any good ⎯ it’s not my favorite. [laughs] That’s to say, I think her music is fantastic considering this is her first album and I think she’s really fabulous, she’s really pushing all my buttons in the right way.
I just read this interview with Gaga ⎯ actually it was with somebody else, I don’t remember who it was so don’t quote me on it. So I’ll just say it was La Roux [editor’s note: it was an interview with La Roux’s Elly Jackson from The Quietus]. She was talking to Gaga and Gaga said, ‘Now that you’re super famous, who’s going to produce your next record?’ And La Roux was like, ‘Oh well I have this partner and I work with him and he does all my production.’ And Gaga was like ‘Oh, but sweetie, you’re famous! You could work with anybody on your second record!” Then La Roux went away and said, ‘It’s really important to me to be loyal and stick with this kind of sound, etc., etc., etc. And the thing that I walked away from reading that interview was wow, Lady Gaga’s next record is going to be amazing!
This is the way pop records are made: they solicit countless numbers of songs from countless numbers of producers and they see which ones they like that best. I think that record is going to be awesome.
Do you ever have a desire to be part of that world and write songs for major label pop artists?
Um, no. I don’t have any desires in that regard. I mean that’s to say, I would love to do it sure. Sounds fun. But I don’t feel like my life is missing it.
Owen Pallett 2010 Heartland album launch shows:
Jan 14 – San Francisco @ Bottom of the Hill
Jan 16 – Chicago @ Schuba’s, Tomorrow Never Knows Festival
Jan 18 – New York @ Bowery Ballroom
Jan 22 – Hamburg @ Ubel & Gefaehrlich, SPEX LIVE Festival
Jan 24 – Paris @ La Maroquinerie
Jan 25 – London @ Union Chapel