I Am Not Afraid: An Interview with Owen Pallett

When not doing strings for the likes of Grizzly Bear or Arcade Fire, Owen Pallett is putting out his own gorgeous string- and synth-laced pop, like his latest, In Conflict, which he gives PopMatters a guided tour of.
Owen Pallett
In Conflict

From his work with renowned acts like Grizzly Bear and the Arcade Fire to his numerous solo projects (first as Final Fantasy and later using his own name) Owen Pallett has become one of the most wondrous working musicians. His multilayered compositions combine baroque instruments with lush, romantic arrangements that would be majestic enough without featuring his unique voice. When he sings, he oozes sexy melancholy with a hint of darkness. Just listen to “I Am Not Afraid”, the opening track in his new album In Conflict, a sweeping anthem in which he states who he is and announces the path he’ll take us down in the record.

“I am no longer afraid, the truth doesn’t terrify us,” he tells PopMatters, before continuing on to say “my salvation is found in discipline.” Any other artist would make this the closing track in their album, for how do you follow the intensity of such an opener? Not Pallett, he dives straight into the synth-pop-y title track in which he repeatedly says “there is nothing to lose.” Recorded by Mark Lawson and featuring collaborations from Brian Eno, the album is meant to “approach ‘insanity’ in a positive way,” according to the statement released by Pallett.

We spoke to Owen the week after the Academy Awards, where he was nominated for Best Original Score, along with Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, for their music to Spike Jonze’s romance film Her. He went into detail on how he created some of the most affecting songs in In Conflict, discussed the “affectation” he uses to be a more efficient producer and talked about why the Oscars should take note from the spirit of Canadian award shows …

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Can you talk about the Oscar experience? I mean the last thing you’re thinking of when you make music is being nominated for an Oscar. Right?

It was interesting. There was a night when the scores were performed by an orchestra and that was very exciting and it was exciting to conduct my score from the same stage as John Williams and Alexandre Desplat. The ceremony had amazing things and weird things. Amazing like the best hors d’oeuvres I’ve ever tasted in my life and talking to Ethan Hawke … but there was also a reinforcement of the notion of hierarchy within the entertainment industry which as a Canadian I found to be strange. In our awards ceremonies we have a feeling of celebration, but in Hollywood, it was like, you can’t sit with Pharrell unless you’re the Smiths; not those Smiths, but Jada and Will.

When you talk about scoring and composing with other people in interviews, you always seem to have a more business like tone than when you discuss your own albums. Do you approach these creative processes differently?

To be honest it’s an affectation. [laughs] I started doing this about ten years ago, when I work for my friends I call them clients, when I work on albums I call them products, it is a reflection of how I feel about making music, and actually allows quicker access to discussion. I used to work in a restaurant and we had open mics Monday and there was a lot of conflation of artist and product where people would sing things because that’s how they felt, they saw these songs as extensions of their own lives. The problem — and I have no problem with cathartic songwriting — is that it doesn’t leave songs open to interpretation, so when I work with others I want to be able to say “let’s take that song off the record” or “let’s change the chorus” without that boundary.

Listening to some of the songs from In Conflict I couldn’t help but feel like there was a more cinematic sense to them. I kept thinking, these are songs that would fit in an Alfred Hitchcock movie … and then there’s that great line in the title track when you say “we all will live again in the eyes of an actor.”

Not at all, in fact although I appreciate what you called me and I know it comes from a good place, I work hard to make my songs not cinematic. Movie music is functional, it sets action that goes on in the screen, when I work with film directors I seek to make a good movie with them, not a good score independent of the movie. I have always felt that cinematic music is incomplete, when people use those words to describe instrumental music, it’s disrespectful. I also say this coming from a new music background so it’s a lame insult, because film music is great. [laughs]

The album is filled with amazing lines like when you sing “silver is nothing more than the displacement of water.” I read once that you usually build songs around particular lines you loved writing. Is this still your writing process?

Yeah, when I need lyrics I don’t write every day because it takes a lot of time out of my day. So when I need new lyrics I go through periods where I write and stock up on what I’ll need later. It’s a lot more focused than automatic writing, it’s not stream of consciousness, but it’s free association. I write these “jokes,” not a funny joke precisely … but for example when in “In Conflict” I say “I have no statement for your benefit young man” — to me that’s funny and that line would have existed independently of the rest of the song. In Conflict is not describing a specific event, but each song is like a patchwork made out of many different sources, not one specific writing session.

“Song for Five and Six” is like listening to Giorgio Moroder write music for Woody Allen lyrics. It’s beautiful and existentialist, but there’s also a sense of space travel in it. Were you influenced by any specific sci-fi authors when you were working on this album or is this something I came up with?

You came up with it. [laughs] You see, I’m a really picky reader and reading books takes me a long time because it requires a certain level of engagement. So let’s say I’ll pick up a sci-fi book, and I will find myself saying “I can’t deal with this, nope, not today.”

The album is populated with sweeping love songs, some of which have these epic sounding moments, like in “Chorale” which has all these Biblical-sounding references that can be quite terrifying …

Yeah, they’re all love songs, songs about love at its most terrifying. In “Riverbed” for example it’s about love is at its strongest when it’s most conventional, it has a “love is all you need” message. What you say about “Chorale” … well any sort of discrepancies between your concept of love and mine, they are just rooted within different experiences. I hope no one will listen to this and think I’m into S&M or anything [laughs], but I think that love includes a certain element of sacrifice.

Your compositions keep becoming more elaborate. In “Chorale” for example you keep adding layer after layer and I just wondered, how do you know exactly when the song has accomplished what you wanted.

In the case of “Chorale”, it existed as a song I’d sit at the piano and play and sing. I wanted the song to be more industrious, to have a more mechanical sounding beat, so I married it with eight horn players, a full brass section. Once i got the horns down — which gives a nice human feeling to it — I took the horns and wrote the drumbeat to go over the top of it. I like writing the drumbeats, I’ll dial up different kits and put in different sounds. I’ll turn on my synth and I will isolate each individual element and recreate the sound in my Arp. The density of that song, why it sounds so full and lush, is because I have this amazing spring reverb, when I send impulses to it from my Arp, it sounded like people throwing rocks, rock on rock kind of feel; a sound I got into.

“Infernal Fantasy” is so freaking sexy. It certainly feels like you encapsulated something like a summer romance. How did you end up writing that song?

Originally, this song was one of the first I wrote for the record. I wrote it with the theme of conflict, the theme of crazy, I was interested in having elements medically that would not gel with the harmony, some people call them blue notes, I call them black notes, I didn’t want them to be bluesy, I wanted them to come from the darkness. I did an experiment of how many black notes I could put into the song, the melody doesn’t match at all with what’s going on. Lyrically, all the songs are stuff that’s happened in my life, in this case, I was having a summer fling and there was a fire, we burned the house down.

How was it to work with Brian Eno?

He was fabulous, incredibly fastidious in this way I loved. Brian has this meticulous, active method which was pretty inspiring. I sent him the entire album, I gave him free reign to do whatever he wanted and he was returning on average two songs a day, which was impressive!