an interview with Owen Pallet (on songwriting, music press, why he hates Beyonce & Rihanna… JUST KIDDING!)
This month will see the follow up to Owen Pallett‘s Heartland, the 2010 release that saw the artist formerly known as Final Fantasy forming a gorgeous and curiously unnerving collection of songs pairing lush orchestration against lyrical themes of mental isolation and self-doubt. For In Conflict (Domino/Secret City), Pallett’s compositions are no less complex but now find the experimental composer giving focus to the benefit of dissonance and the abrasion of sound. For a songwriter whose music and exploration with sound already has the proclivity for expansion in the auditory space, Pallett is at his absolute best within those deliberately muted and subdued moments just before the eruption. Brooklyn Vegan reached out to Pallett to discuss the new record, his recent pop music commentaries, and his thoughts on music criticism in 2014. Owen Pallett is touring with Doldrums this month, two NYC shows included.
My first question just concerns your relationship with music and where you were when music first found you, Owen. When was that moment for you when you knew that creating music was something you absolutely had to do?
Owen: There’s kind of two answers to that. My entire life, it’s been me realizing over and over again that I’m much more comfortable working with musical material than I am with verbal information. [Laughs] I just feel much more at home in dealing with sound than with text or with speech, but I certainly from age three or whatever, I was jamming Bach and Pachelbel and in an obsessive way. But the sort of second moment was the real moment when there was the transition from being a music appreciator into being a professional musician, and that happened much later when I was twenty-four, I guess. That’s when I was working for a radio program, and I had been offered these tours that I didn’t want to do because I was committed to my job working for the radio, and I didn’t want to take these tours, but they effectively, when they heard about it, told me to go do it. They were thinking with more clarity than I was about what was best for me, but also it was kind of a vote of confidence in what I was doing having my boss say, “No, take the time off work. You should really go do this tour.”
How much have you seen yourself progress or evolve as an artist since those initial moments to where you are now? Is there a fluidity to that creative source for you?
I would say that yeah there’s been evolution, but evolution kind of has a whole lot of positive connotations. And I don’t think it’s been either a positive or a negative thing. I think what’s happened to me as I’ve gotten older is that I’ve become wiser as a musician, and there’s a lot of positives and negatives to that. I always tell my friends who are making music but not at a professional level, some who are in bands that are playing for a hundred people in hometown shows, I always tell those bands that they’re actually in the sweet spot. [Laughs] It’s where it’s still a hobby. Amateur musicianship is a far more pleasurable and rewarding relationship that you can have with music than a professional musician can have, especially when it comes to music rooted in performance, which is increasingly becoming a dated and old-fashioned way of making music.
Just in talking about the idea of music that’s deemed archaic or methodologies that are viewed as old-fashioned, how do you see the impetus for creation when it comes to popular music? Is there genuine value being placed on songwriters, or is that sense of creation viewed more as a novelty or rarity now in the context of popular music?
I think things are changing so quickly that any statement that I might make which would probably require an afternoon of thought would probably be incorrect in a year’s time. [Laughs] I definitely think that there’s less of a place for the traditional middle class version of songwriter now. I think that the language has become on one hand subtler and on the other hand more rooted in word play and a kind of easier to grasp vocabulary. It’s a more universal language. I think that some people could not hear the complexity of a contemporary pop song or be blind to it just because they’re craving some literary, more Leonard Cohen style older version of songwriting, but I don’t think that means that songwriters are less respected. I just think that the tone of songwriting and the angle in the audience has shifted imperceptibly over time to the point that now people might say that songwriting is dead but actually it’s just changed.
There’s certainly a kind of critical dismissiveness that sometimes exists when it comes to what’s viewed as vacuous pop-music compared to the perception of music deemed “complex”. You obviously pour an incredible amount of effort into these lush orchestrations and intricately composed songs, but it doesn’t necessarily present a disparity between effort and end-result and the relationship the listener has with it.
I don’t equate any performer who writes his or her own songs as being any more or less authentic than an artist who doesn’t, but there’s a special place in my heart for performers who do write their own songs because it kind of suggests they have superpowers or something. But also speaking as a more cynical insider, too, the whole concept of authorship has become arbitrary at this point. Madonna and Rihanna are credited with writing their own songs, and Mariah, but oftentimes those decisions for authorship have been made from a sort of legal buy-in perspective, so that the performing artists will see publishing royalties from the songs that they attach their names to. There’s not necessarily any actual creative input going on here. It’s not actually Beyonce and Sia jamming in the studio, and I’m not saying that it isn’t, I’m saying it’s not necessarily the case when you see Beyonce’s name on the song. Now it’s like any sort of legitimacy from songwriting claims comes just from seeing a performing artist’s name on the song that he or she is performing. It doesn’t mean anything anymore, and I think that’s awesome. I think that whole concept of authenticity behind whether so and so wrote a song or not is such a dated and kind of weirdly classist way of putting down a performer.
Does social media and the constant information surge present a potential problem for you with regards to how we experience art and music?
It’s honestly something that I don’t devote a lot of mental capacity towards – thinking about the vectors of change with regards to creativity because I’m mostly just trying to stay on top of the thing. I’m just trying to stay on top of the present. I might align myself with the statement that the world is better than it was or the world is worse than it was, but I don’t really feel either way. I just think things have changed. Things have changed so much in the last thirteen years. It was only thirteen years ago that I was paying thirty dollars for import CDs of stuff that now I can turn on YouTube and hear in a second. I can’t really comment on how it’s changed for some writers and musicians with regards to information saturation because I think things have just changed so much more for music writers that are way more cataclysmic. [Laughs] And certainly things have changed more for journalism, and that makes the toils of songwriters seem kind of like comparatively very small.
That’s kind of what I mean with how we, the audience, perceive art and how much time is given to essentially discussing the discussion of art and music.
Absolutely. I feel the current state of pop music reporting, and you have to remember there’s been a four year gap between this record and my last record, so I’m very conscious of it, and I’m very able to comment on the incredible difference between doing a press cycle in 2010 and doing a press cycle in 2014. [Laughs] But the quality of music reporting is so much more in line with celebrity reporting at this point with absolutely zero requirements in terms of journalistic integrity. Thinking about the whole Warpaint comment thing – her comments were totally normal things somebody might say if they were spitballing for an hour in a tour bus, but here they’ve been pruned and curated by fucking Q Magazine into a character assassination as clickbait for their forthcoming Warpaint article. Good for them. Q and Warpaint probably made out better as a result of this. I can’t even criticize it. It’s just celebrity reporting. It’s not arts reporting.
With In Conflict, you mentioned the disparity between the press cycle for this release and your last full-length, Heartland. But from a compositional standpoint, was there a different approach with this album as opposed to the last?
Fundamentally I made In Conflict and Heartland the same way, which was I would wake up every morning and drink enough coffee that I was just exploding with bad breath and coffee poop, and just sit and write as many jokes as I could possible think of and as many sort of interesting verses as I could and just cobble them together into a record. I write lyrics always the same way. But with Heartland, the long term goal was to create a kind of extended allegory for the relationship musician and listener, and with In Conflict, it’s just completely, completely different. There’s nothing allegorical about it. In Conflict, and I’m just speaking of songwriting at this point, but it was initially born out of a touch of inspiration from John Darnielle of Mountain Goats to maybe look into mining some specifics of my own autobiography and just taking moments that were held very strong in my mind and memory banks and describing them with as much accuracy as possible in verse and lyric to see if it could be turned into good lyrics. And the result of the early songs that I wrote when I first had this idea, most of the songs were not particularly usable, but the exercise showed me something else, which was that all of the life events that I was drawing from and naturally gravitating towards writing songs about were moments where I was crazy or where I was in love with or close to somebody who was crazy. It was all about this having a dual state. It’s difficult for me to describe. It’s like I am, as autobiographer, feeling like I’m writing about somebody who I no longer am or never was just because I was in such a crazy state. That kind of became the basis for a lot of what I was interested in exploring with this record, this mercurial sense of self and the changing headspace that one is in. Lots of people have different names for this sort of stuff, and there’s certainly things that I’m singing about that I can’t accurately describe because it’s rooted less in gender dysphoria and more in somebody who’s both self destructive and educated in feminist texts. [Laughs] It’s more complicated than something that could be summed up in a single umbrella term.
When you think about your compositions and that balance between the detachment from process and sort of deliberate conscious effort, do you find yourself leaning more towards that unconscious reaction to your experiences while writing, or was it something more absolute and exacting for you?
I think there’s an inevitability in at least 50% of what I do lyrically or compositionally being an automatic response. I’ve talked elsewhere about how resentful I am of people who use words like “confessional” or “autobiographical” or “personal” when describing a songwriter’s process, specifically regarding female songwriters but also a little bit to myself because it suggests that there’s no intention there. It’s just that the automatic process is 100% functioning way better than the conscious efforts. As far as recording, all the beds were made with no click track – recorded live in a room to tape, which was an effort to get the drum sound that I like because I’ve never used drumkits on my records in a soloistic kind of way. I’ve used them as overdubs and stuff like that, but I’ve never actually had a drummer come in and do my bed tracks until this record, and part of the reason is just the fraught relationship I have with the sound of modern drumkits. All the melodies on this record, on many of the instrumental breaks, they feature the wrongest note. While writing the song, I’ll identify what note in the chromatic scale would be the wrongest note to add to the melody, and then I’ll stick it in there somehow. You can hear a bit of an exploration on “I Am Not Afraid” on the piano break. Not quite a mother chord, but implying a mother chord, and that’s just where all twelve notes in the chromatic scale are represented. You can hear it expanding outward like that and including some of those notes that sound really strange and weird. They’re just written, the wrong notes, right into the melody line. I was thinking as a kind of tip of the hat to the term “blue note.” I thought of these more like “black notes.” Black notes are somehow darker and more alien than the typically used blue note term which usually signifies a note that doesn’t belong in the scale. It’s meant to denote that displacement and dysphoria. I’m trying to have these moments that indicate the so-called craziness that the lyrics are meant to explore.
Owen Pallett – The Riverbed
Owen Pallett — 2014 Tour Dates
05-09 Montreal, PQ La Sala Rossa (with Doldrums)
05-10 Toronto, ON Danforth Music Hall (with Doldrums)
05-13 Brooklyn, NY Glasslands (with Doldrums)
05-14 New York, NY Bowery Ballroom (with Doldrums)
05-15 Philadelphia, PA Johnny Brenda’s (with Doldrums)
05-17 Boston, MA Brighton Music Hall (with Doldrums)
05-21 London, UK Oval Space (with Sean Nicholas Savage and Fairhorns)
05-23 Paris, FR La Maroquinerie (with Hauschka and Fairhorns)
05-25 Berlin, DE Volksbühne (with Xiu Xiu)
05-27 Lisbon, PT Lux (with Sean Nicholas Savage)