Strings theory: it’s busy in Owen Pallett’s multiverse

Owen Pallett has always stood apart from the musical crowd, both as a virtuoso solo artist and a perfect-foil collaborator with Arcade Fire, Beirut, Mountain Goats, Grizzly Bear etc. He’s also out on his own when it comes to straight talking


These are the days of plenty for Owen Pallett. Currently a member of Arcade Fire’s band as their Reflektor world tour winds its way around the world, the Canadian musician is also playing solo shows when the schedule allows.

But being busy in this manner is Pallett’s default setting. His work slate has involved one project or another with Arcade Fire, Mountain Goats, Beirut, Last Shadow Puppets, Grizzly Bear and others, as well as a 2014 Oscar nomination for the score for Spike Jonze’s Her, which he wrote with Win Butler. If you want someone who can add baroque strings and looped mystique to your arty indie tunes, get your people to call Pallett’s people.

This morning, we find Pallett in Berlin on a rare day off where he is catching up on two weeks of emails, calling his family and talking some more about In Conflict, his finely turned out album released earlier this year.

Musically, In Conflict is a piece of work as fluid and intriguing as anything he’s released – a stirring blend of pop, classical and electronics orchestrated with nimble skill by the multi- instrumentalist.

Lyrically, though, In Conflict is a slightly different beast to previous Pallett-penned works. Featuring meditations on memory, loss, love, ageing, drugs and sex, it does appear to be the artist exploring somewhat more directly autobiographical themes than before, though he doesn’t necessarily agree with the broad scope of that summation.

“The songs are really no more or less autobiographical than the stuff which has come before. This time, though, I haven’t quite obscured the characters. When I wrote the songs, I thought I was making the right decision. I thought people would be interested in me alluding to personal events in my life.

“But there was a moment when I did pause. When Brian Wilson was making Smile, he walked away from it at one stage. When he was asked why he did that, he said there was no place in the world for that music.

“I’m not comparing myself to that genius, but I had that very same experience. As I was doing the album, I realised it was a tall order to ask listeners to hear stuff that is framed as autobiography and see themselves in it. It’s one of the reasons why people gravitate towards bands with very lightweight lyrical material because your own experience fills in the blanks. So basically, people were only going to enjoy this record as much as they enjoyed looking at my face.”

Such thoughts gave Pallett a rare fear about the reception In Conflict might receive in the big bad world. “It was the first time that has happened. Every other record, I just wanted to rush it out in the world. With this one, I was very scared. I thought about how I’d feel if people ignored it or got the wrong impression or read too much into it as some sort of confessional or cathartic release. I was really, really trying to make something for people and not for myself.

“A friend of mine is autistic and he wrote this beautiful essay three years ago about how the difficulty with being autistic is when people try to communicate with you, you’re just getting a completely different set of information than is coming out of their mouth. Or you’re speaking what is total sense to you, but when it reaches other people, they don’t understand.

“There’s a similar thing between artist and audience, whether people are going to get the connection or go ‘who is this fucking ugly homo and what is this asshole trying to do here?’”

While Pallett is quite open about talking about this fear of failure, he recognises it’s unusual for musicians to express such doubts. “Everybody has this view of musicians as super-creative and positive. Historically, musicians are taught to be positive. You go offstage and you’re taught to go ‘that was the best, that was awesome’. You’re taught to only allow your audiences form positive opinions about your music.

“Artists are trained to be cool and unflappable and self-assured and not egotistical. But that’s not possible. I’m an egotistical black hole and need to be told every day that I’m doing good or I cry myself to sleep at night – and most artists are the same. Even with this interview, I want people to see me in a certain way.”

In spite of the success of his work to date, Pallett finds his own creative impulses are still very much about proving things to himself and others. “There was no time that I was more productive as a songwriter than when I had no time to write songs and I was working as a cook and living in a squat,” he says.

“The creative impulse is intrinsicarlly linked to some egotistical mechanism and is rooted in hunger, sometimes real hunger. As soon as you’re feeling comfy or that you’ve nothing to prove, that’s when things start to flag.”

Nevertheless, he still has the bug to keep creating music and, as he points out, there’s not really a lot else he could do at this stage, though he does believe he has one potential fallback.

“With every record that I make, I’m hoping this will be the one which catches the zeitgeist and flies up into the air and is named record of the year and has a 33 1/3 book written about it and is a bestseller for evermore. But of course, it doesn’t work like that and it will increasingly seem less likely as I approach the age of 40.

“I don’t have any back-up plan, which is a little depressing, but I’m good at typing and have a steady enough focus that I could always get into academia at some point instead of pop music.”

Owen Pallett supports The National at the Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, on July 19th, and his plays own shows at Dublin’s Whelan’s on July 20th and Galway’s Róisín Dubh on July 21th.