Image by Peter Juhl
There’s a scene in the Spike Jonze film Her in which Joaquin Phoenix is running on a pier at night, eyes closed, with his OS (Scarlett Johansson) held out in front of him. It’s one of the few times we see him happy. In a film heavy with sorrow, regret, and emptiness—all the more emphasized by Arcade Fire’s meditative score—the scene soars on a genuinely bright spark cued by the music’s undertones. While it’s easy to picture the composing band’s Win Butler and Régine Chassagne writing the minimalist soundtrack themselves, fellow Canadian Owen Pallett was busy adding to the sound, too.
“I thought, ‘If I win this [an Oscar], I’ll be one Tony away from being the lamest EGOT ever; the first without a number one hit or even a charting single,’’’ Pallett says in a generously candid interview with DigBoston. With an Emmy and Grammy already perched on his mantle and the Her soundtrack nominated for an Academy Award, Owen was close to winning all four major prizes, a showbiz grand slam only a dozen people have ever achieved. All this while his solo material, a romantic buildup of sweeping baroque art-pop, has only won the Polaris Music Prize (under the moniker Final Fantasy back in 2006) and landed mid-sized touring gigs like Pallett’s show at Brighton Music Hall this Saturday.
Not that his achievements are anything to sneeze at. At 34 years old, Pallett’s played in arenas with Arcade Fire, arranged string sections for Taylor Swift and Linkin Park, and hypnotized crowds abound with his violin and loop pedal performances. He’s an arranger, a singer-songwriter, a violinist, a composer. He’s collaborated with The Mountain Goats. He lunches with Brian Eno. He’s published viral music theory essays on Slate. He won an Emmy for composing the T Magazine‘s “Fourteen Actors Acting” project for the New York Times. Owen Pallett is, short and simple, mainstream music’s best kept secret. Well, until now.
HOW MUSIC WORKS
When asked how early he started writing, Pallett needs clarification: “Professionally? Or commissioned?” He began studying classical violin at age three, brought his pen to paper at age five, and received his first paycheck in exchange for music, written for a video game, at age 12. His two brothers are cellists. His father is an organist. As such, his family grew up actively listening to classical music, a habit no doubt influential in his understanding of music.
“Owen consistently works his ass off,” says Jessie Stein, the frontwoman for The Luyas with whom Pallett finessed 2011’s Too Beautiful to Work. “There’s who you are and what you give to something, and then there’s also what the world gives you back and how that feeds you. He’s been on a pretty beautiful cycle of giving to the world and getting something back.”
That cycle of giving and receiving has brought Pallett to work with innumerable top musicians. Over the past decade, he’s written for R.E.M, Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, and indie kings The National, Beirut, and Franz Ferdinand. Even when collaborating close to home, though, Pallett is a proud independent soul. “Arcade Fire are my perennial favorite clients,” he says, having done the arrangements for Funeral, Neon Bible, The Suburbs, and Reflektor. Still, despite touring and songwriting with Arcade Fire—their budget allows him to use a full orchestra and their long leash to score as he pleases—he’s not a part of the band. Says Pallett of their fruitful but unique arrangement: “I love working with Régine. She’s usually the one that has the most complicated and difficult-to-communicate ideas. Her taste and my taste are very similar; we both listen to more classical music than pop music.”
In creating music on his own, Pallett experienced things a bit differently. Usually he plugs his violin into a loop pedal and creates dizzying layers on his own; think Andrew Bird, not Miri Ben-Ari. For his upcoming fourth album, In Conflict, he says he let ideas run rampant as normal, but was also forced to figure out how to play with a band in a solo capacity.“It seems like the most natural thing in the world to anyone else,” he says, “but I wanted to find a medium that would maintain the same sort of drill of having the processed bass performance factor with the looped violin but also create a rhythm section … Essentially what that meant is not only did Matt [Smith] and Rob [Gordon] have to teach themselves how to accompany me, but we had to pin down the language that we were going to use to write new songs. Every step represented a new challenge.”
Listen up for Brian Eno singing alongside him. After cracking a new set of backing vocals reminiscent of The Talking Heads’ “The Great Curve,” Pallett had to bring him on board. “I knew, as an Eno fan, that he loves backing vocals,” he says. “He loves hearing them on other people’s records, putting them on records he’s working on, and specifically he loves to sing them. He takes pride in the way his voice sounds when he stacks it up.”
It was while working on Jim Guthrie’s Morning Noon Night in 2002 that Pallett decided to take composition work more seriously. At the time, he was playing in The Hidden Cameras, showing up with his violin and sawing away. “I wasn’t really taking into account the sound of the set or how the parts were fitting into the larger construct of the song, let alone the album or pop music in general,” he says.
Not long after, The Hidden Cameras signed to legendary British imprint Rough Trade and received a free copy of Adam Green’s Friends of Mine, which featured cellist Jane Scarpantoni who had also done arrangements for Lou Reed, the Beastie Boys, and Swans. “Hearing Jane’s arrangements take up the entirety of the record and transform a songwriter like Adam Green, who I was fairly ambivalent about, into something fairly magnetic made me turn to [Hidden Cameras bandmate] Joel and say, ‘This is what I want to do. I can do this, and I want to.’”
Much of Pallett’s arranging is rooted in his natural language. Each session begins with an in-depth discussion about the client’s favorite records and goals for their own project. “It’s been kind of funny because every year there’s another record people want to sound like,” he says. One year it’s Nick Drake’s “River Man” (repetitive catalogue arrangements), sometimes it’s Dillard & Clark (high-registered strings), another year it’s Scott Walker’s It’s Raining Today (microtunnel stuff). “You’re seeing, very physically, people’s tastes and music taking this mass turn of events,” he explains.
“Owen created a new role for himself and crushed it so hard that he will never be dethroned from that role until he’s dead or retired,” says Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles, a satisfied Pallett client. “Hearing [his work on Local Business] for the first time was like taking a fucking dump and somebody drips gold all over it. It was a bronze turd that Owen gave me on those tracks. I just loved it.”
Not every session goes smoothly. There are times he never meets the band he’s working with and has to hash out ideas with producers. Other times, his arrangements are mixed too low to truly resonate. He’s been fired from a session twice, both times because the artist wanted more control. “You’ll have a better idea of what you want instead of having me sit here and try to read your mind,” he says, recalling a 2007 session with Spoon in which the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Britt Daniels, decided to take the reins. In his eyes, that’s a job well done.
In rare instances, Pallett is hesitant to touch a band’s work at all. Years ago, Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste sent him 10 songs from a nearly-completed version of the 2006 album Yellow House asking for strings, but Pallett felt everything should just be left alone. “Not only was it so nicely recorded, but I was hesitant to do anything because I felt even a really talented string quartet playing a classic part would be a smudge on this beauty,” he says. Nevertheless, after some back and forth discussion, Pallett wound up adding strings to two tracks, “Marla” and “Little Brother.”
“‘Marla’ felt very sparse and needed something different, a different texture,” says Ed Droste, thinking back to the mixing sessions for Yellow House. “We had a lot of other instruments and all agreed we would appreciate a string presence … We weren’t sure, and [Pallett] was right—maybe we didn’t need it. But I’m so glad we pushed it, because his string contribution was really invaluable.”
In March of this year, longtime jazz critic and historian Ted Gioia published an essay on the Daily Beast titled “Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting” that set the blogosphere ablaze. In response, Pallett’s friends challenged him to explain a pop song using music theory in a “not boring” way—a highbrow rebuttal of sorts to Gioia’s harsh polemic—and within an hour he posted an analysis of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” to Facebook. As these things go, Pallett’s thoughts were later published on Slate, prompting two more essays—one on Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” another on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”—plus the requisite harsh comments and misunderstanding. “I wasn’t trying to stake a claim on pop music criticism nor alienate anybody,” he says of the negative feedback. “It was meant to be an absurd exercise.”
His writing, much of which was tongue-in-cheek, was clear: “The title of the song is rhythmically weighted two ways,” he wrote in “Skin Tight Jeans and Syncopation,” his Perry piece. “It’s like a flank attack … You WILL remember the name of this song.” Depending on who you ask, he may or may not have proven his point: “The part that makes my skin crawl whenever I do read theory pieces about pop music online is the level of patronizing that people feel needs to be had,” says Pallett. “As soon as a writer starts breaking out theory, it seems more for the underlining of their own authority as opposed to actually connecting with a pop audience.”
Offline, Pallett is accustomed to sharing knowledge and being appreciated for it. “I’m always texting him like, ‘Oh, I noticed this other little concept,’ trying to get a pat on the head like the teacher’s pet,” laughs Stickles of Titus Andronicus. “Last night I was blowing up his phone because I don’t know how to arrange a 12-note chord, so he took the time to help me figure out a couple different ways. He gave me what I often wanted and rarely received in my life without even realizing it; he was the older, wiser brother.”
His unassuming role as teacher takes root in his fearlessness of contradicting the norm and pushing others to try doing the same. “I love how compassionate he is and contrary at the same time,” says Grizzly Bear’s Droste. “He’s got a very strong, exciting opinion and will really challenge you. That’s cool.”
Others are continuing to take notice, or at least Pallett is becoming more comfortable around his industry’s top names. At the Oscars, he watched closely as John Legend serenaded the black tie crowd—“I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and focused on what an incredible pianist he is,” he says—and dined with legendary maestros like John Williams, Alexandre Desplat, Randy Newman, and Charles Fox. Pallett is accustomed to being in the company of great. Still, he likes “being in spaces where [he is] either the center of attention or equal parts an important person in the room.” As he quickly matures from a liner note mention to a household name in his own right, that may be the case by the next time award season rolls around.