Owen Pallett has slept in his own bed only four nights this year. The rest of the time, he’s been on tour with Arcade Fire, the runaway train from Montreal that released its fourth album, Reflektor, late last year. Pallett, who wrote the album’s string arrangements, is one of that band’s secret weapons, a musical polyglot who can translate a loose musical idea into a full-fledged composition. Richard Reed Parry, AF’s multi-instrumentalist, said that Pallett “can hear orchestrated ideas fleshed out in their entirety more immediately than anyone in our band can.” Unfortunately, Parry admitted, many of those ideas end up on the cutting-room floor.
Nevertheless, their collaborative relationship is rich enough to extend beyond AF’s recorded albums. Arcade Fire’s William Butler and Pallett were nominated this year for an Oscar for their score for Her, Spike Jonze’s dystopic romance. Pallett was mainly involved at the end of the writing process, when the score, initially heavy on futuristic synths, was rewritten at the director’s request to emphasize the story’s humanistic qualities. For Pallett, who wrote the score for Richard Kelly’s The Box, starting from scratch is a familiar but grueling routine.
For his flourishing solo career, Pallett has only his own vision to honor. Like the Mississauga, Ontario, native’s previous work, including the early albums he recorded as Final Fantasy, his latest outing In Conflict is rooted in the unpredictable. Pallett’s tremulous tenor cuts through a collection of songs that often eschew sturdy pop structures in favor of claiming their own wildspaces. In Conflict feels struck upon as much as written, whirling every which way but the already known. Forging new paths requires trust in your fellow players: Robbie Gordon and Matt Smith, Pallett’s former bandmates in Les Mouches, supplied the rhythm section and kindred spirit Brian Eno also contributes background vocals and piano.
Jim Guthrie, who enlisted Pallett to supply string arrangements for his 2003 Juno-nominated album, Now, More Than Ever, has seen his friend grow over the years, but still struggle. “He’s a very passionate guy, he’s all or nothing, but that’s what makes him a great artist.”
In an interview with Wondering Sound, Pallett delved into some of those up and downs — the challenges of work for hire in the film world, and how to musically capture a fractured sense of self — and how he’ll be using feedback from the internet to shape his next album
Tell me about In Conflict. What sort of feeling or concept were you going for with this record?
I wanted to write something that was a documentation of events in my life. I wanted to turn inconsequential events into very meaningful ones. When I first started writing the songs, I noticed something strange about where they were coming from — they seemed to be coming from different people. I became aware that the person I was at 16 was a very different from the person at 18 even.
Had you ever noticed this split in yourself before?
If I’m ever having an anxiety attack, I’ll sit and write down my feelings. The next morning or a week later, I’ll open that document and find the ravings of a complete stranger. That’s the basis of the album: recognizing this dual state within myself where my brain was never functioning the same way at any given time.
Is that where the title comes from?
Exactly. And then I extended sympathy for this state to different times of my life, when I was suffering from addiction or depression, and also to the lives of my loved ones when they’ve been going through these things.
How do you represent a liminal state musically?
Right off the top in “I Am Not Afraid,” there’s a dialog which consists of two figures: One is an extended string chord held for two minutes, and the other one is piano and this simple drum beat, which is supposed to be the most brutal and boring sound imaginable. Juxtaposing these two different voices was meant to create that kind of dialog around liminality. I also decided very early on that every single song would have a wrong note in it. I don’t think of them as wrong notes but of black notes; it’s like a step further than a blue note. It’s something that’s completely out of place.
Where do you hear those black notes?
In “I Am Not Afraid,” you can hear the F chord juxtaposed against the D major chord. There’s a lot of rubbing going on. You can hear it in “Infernal Fantasy” in the vocal melodies — they’re just completely singing the wrong notes. It’s just all over the place. I was trying to give each melody a tail that doesn’t belong.
So it’s meant to sound purposefully messy and erroneous.
Yes, and in terms of the artwork too, and the track listing. Every single regional version of the album has a different cover, and a different track listing. There’s no format that has all the songs on it. It’s meant to capture this kind of liminal state. The cover of the album is the liner notes, but then it’s obscured with a bit of phosphorous paint. The blob covers up different parts of the text, depending on which region you’re in. There’s no version that has the complete story. No matter what version you get, there’s going to be some aspect that’s obscured.
Brian Eno contributes on a few of the songs. How did that come about? How was it to work with him?
He was a fan of Heartland, and I met him at a festival he was curating. We hit it off and I asked him to record backing vocals and he said yes. Then he ended up doing a lot of stuff: backing vocals, guitar parts, piano stuff, all sorts of things. We ended up using him on six songs. Everything he added was very transformative and changed the track to a considerable degree. I was only willing to go halfway most of the time, but maybe on the next record, we’ll go full hog. Everything he contributed was completely brilliant; he was an honor and pleasure to work with.
So that’s your real number in “The Secret Seven.” I take it you’re OK with fielding phone calls from your boldest fans?
I was trying to come up with a new chorus for the end, but the song was so depressing that I thought, “I should just sing my phone number in case anyone has any worries or questions.” I wasn’t planning on keeping it in there but then I just went with it.
Are you going to pick up the phone when you see a strange number calling?
Who’s going to phone me? No one’s going to call me unless they have something that they really need to say. I don’t want people to phone me unless they really need to.
You’ve been writing pieces for Slate on the music theory at play in current hit songs, such as Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” You’re obviously a highly trained musician yourself but how important do you think theory is to know for a musician? How about for a critic?
For a musician, it’s important. But there’s also a value to not knowing it as a musician. My whole point with those pieces is that it’s not necessary for critics to know it. When I was in my late teens, I would get frustrated when I would read these writers and they’d get it wrong. They’d say something was flat when it was actually sharp or whatever. But then I got over it because I think it’s actually really important that music writers are able to have these opinions that are closer to the conventions of music consumers. The Slate pieces were meant to be an absurd reflection on what music writing would be like if the writers were preoccupied with music theory. They weren’t meant to be ironic or sarcastic but lovingly absurd.
What do you want from music criticism, if not music theory?
I want a description, a human response to what is happening. It’s really easy for composers and songwriters to get their heads around the nuts and bolts of what they’re doing but I think it’s really important that there’s an echo chamber back to the untrained ear. Music writers are supposed to be good writers, first and foremost. Some writers that I know who have an exhaustive knowledge of music or theory, it’s frustrating to read them. What’s the point of encyclopedic knowledge if you can’t follow the writing?
You’re very active online, and you’ve said that feedback to your work helps you shape the next one. Are you waiting to see the reaction to In Conflict?
Absolutely. I have a Google alert set up. I read all the interviews and every review. I’m not ashamed or afraid to admit that. I think it’s important. I started becoming a public musician around 2004-05. I think now people are much more responsible but in 2004, there was a lot of indiscriminate haterade and trolling. People were using the internet as a venting mechanism. Around that time, I retired from posting anonymously and would always sign my name to everything I posted. I wanted to really stand behind what I said, and I wanted people who were communicating with me online to be aware that they were communicating with a real person and not a sprite hiding in a computer.
You were nominated this year for an Oscar, along with Arcade Fire, for the film score to Her. In 2010 you told Pitchfork: “I do film score stuff and it’s secretly the hardest, most demanding, and non-artistic job in the world.” Do you still feel that way?
My favorite quote I ever spitballed was in the Grid, when they asked me what the difference was between writing my own music and film composing. I said writing my own music is like jogging in the park; and film composing is like taking the idiot tourist around the city in a rickshaw. Film composing is shitty work. I don’t enjoy it. I’m very privileged and grateful to have the opportunities I’ve had because it’s good money for sure, and I do enjoy watching movies with my music in them. In fact, every single score, I look back on with fondness, but when you’re actually working on it, it can be really hard and not very rewarding work.
What kind of direction did you typically get from Spike Jonze?
The big challenge with Her was that the score had changed 100 percent from its initial version, the one that Arcade Fire had come up with before I came along. That version they had initially conceived of was much closer to Blade Runner, much more synthy and futuristic. But then as the movie was coming together it was clear that Spike felt like it’d be better served with a less futuristic score, something that hinted more at the humanity and emotion of the story. So we had to replace all the synthy cues with cues that were more organic. This is what I’m talking about with hard work. As the musician, you’re scoring it two to three times as the film changes. At the same time, you’re having to deal with your — there’s no other way to say it — egotistical feelings. You’re not only having to work to make a new film score, you’re actively killing the one that you worked so hard to create.
Which director would you most like to work with?
I want to do a Nicole Holefcener film next. I think really simple baroque stuff would go really well with her work. She’s my favorite director right now. That would be my dream.