Owen Pallett’s one-man symphony

From the archives: An interview with the violinist who toured with Arcade Fire, and newly announced Oscar nominee

Owen Pallett’s a one-man symphony

On January 16 Owen Pallett was named as one of 2014’s Academy Awards nominees, along with Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, for best original score. The nomination stemmed from their work on the soundtrack for the film Her. In 2010, Maclean’s caught up with Pallett to discuss his then-new album, Heartland.

Owen Pallett enjoys tempting fate. It’s why he combines original classical music and pop songs, using only a solo violin, his voice and live electronics to painstakingly construct symphonies onstage. And it’s why he initially named his recording project Final Fantasy, after the role-playing video game—a contentious copyright issue that finally caught up to him last month, when the video game’s makers forced a name change; his new album, Heartland (released this week), is credited to Owen Pallett, and not Final Fantasy.

When he performed at the Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ont., last summer, Pallett stared down Mother Nature herself. While he was playing a then-unreleased new song, a torrential thunderstorm mirrored the growing intensity of the performance. While stagehands covered his equipment and signalled furiously for Pallett to cut his set short, the solo violinist pressed on. Watching the YouTube clip, you can hear the audience become more ecstatic with each defiant chorus of “I’m never going to give it to you!”—no doubt wondering if the song might just climax with Pallett being electrocuted.

The irony is that the soundtrack to that near-fatal performance—Lewis Takes Off His Shirt, from Heartland—is about a fictional character rising up to kill off his narrator. The entire album is a meta-narrative about Lewis, a 14th-century farmer who realizes he lives in a panopticon commanded by an all-powerful narrator—named Owen. It’s not the type of tale often told by Pallett’s former employer, Stuart McLean of The Vinyl Cafe, who first introduced mainstream Canada to Pallett’s music even before the Arcade Fire took him on tour in 2005 as their opening act and violinist. But it is a story befitting an artist whose last album was a concept record based on Dungeons & Dragons.

Pallett himself admits that the idea behind Heartland is “preposterous: I wanted to have this contained narrative that has the breadth of a Paul Auster short story.” The lyrics raise all sorts of theological questions about believers’ relationship with a deity and the nature of fate, but the construct is just a blank canvas: “Really, it’s just all about me,” he laughs. “All records are about their singer. I was trying to play with that.” But straightforward confessionals are out of the question for this singer-songwriter: “If I was going to write an autobiographical song, I’d probably be writing about red wine reduction and all the different ways you can spoon with somebody.”

Pallett fancies the fantastical instead, and has the musical vision to match it. Though he can and does write simple pop songs—like 2004’s This is the Dream of Win and Regine, written about the Arcade Fire—Pallett’s writing is becoming increasingly ornate and complex. Previously, he wrote for string quartet; Heartland—recorded in Reykjavik, Prague and Toronto—features full symphonic arrangements, as well as polyphonic electronic elements that aren’t merely grafted on for gimmicky effect. He’s put his University of Toronto degree in classical composition to good use, and not just on his own records: he’s written commissions for the CBC Radio Orchestra and American avant-garde collective Bang on a Can, and is finishing a score for a new Nicole Kidman movie, Rabbit Hole, directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus).

As Pallett’s own profile has grown—this month, he was photographed in a tuxedo for Vogue—he says he feels more like a character than someone in control of his own destiny, which inspired the lyrical construct of Heartland. “In 2005, when I went on tour with Arcade Fire, I entered this other stage of my life when I stopped being a musician who was living in Toronto and making music for my friends. Suddenly my music was being appreciated—or not appreciated—by people I didn’t know in other countries. I’m not going to pretend that I’m Lady Gaga or anything; I was now making records for strangers, and I wasn’t really comfortable with it. It took a while to arrive at a point where I felt that I could make a record that I would feel would be watertight and put it across the ocean and have some Hungarian listen to it and appreciate it.”

And now that he’s ditched the Final Fantasy name and started using his own, he feels even greater responsibility. Rather than just being a cosmetic change, Pallett says the new moniker is “blowing my mind a little bit. I’ve always felt that Final Fantasy is this thing that is storytelling and violin-playing, and Owen Pallett is someone who folds sheets and goes jogging.”

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