Owen Pallett is a breath of fresh air, if you like air full of opinions expressed in a bewitchingly confident manner. A direct guy with a fluency in academese, I had a morning phone call with the Canadian violinist, composer, and solo artist while he was in Chicago. We talked about his latest record, In Conflict (which came out earlier this year in May), the heteronormative monoculture, and incentives to collaborate with people (hint: cuteness is a factor).
Vancouver Weekly: In your new album, In Conflict, words like “personal” and “autobiographical” have come up, which you’ve had a problem with because it implies your previous albums weren’t personal. You have also said you think “self-expression makes bad music.” What turns you off about the idea of an artist using his life without filter for his art?
Owen Pallett: Well, it doesn’t turn me off. I think it’s impossible to not do that. My problem is not with musicians who make cathartic work. My problem is that in describing a piece of music as autobiographical or cathartic, it removes the possibility or, at least, implies that there is no possibility of expression of universal feeling and thought.
As a queer dude who feels at home with heterosexual monoculture but at the same time seeks to queer it, I feel I have a lot to say to people who aren’t the beautiful misfits that come to my shows. With this record, because I was getting a little more specific about some queer stuff, people were talking about how it was autobiographical. I was like, “Well I’m reading your history too. This is human history, not just Owen’s history.”
VW: It’s a problematic label that doesn’t get the full picture.
OP: It’s tricky. I try not to talk about it too much because it makes me sound ungrateful, and I am so grateful. It is sometimes discouraging that there are so few queer and gay artists in the mainstream that are out. In fact, the most popular queer artists are not out. There is a different way people engage with music made by queers and music made by straight people. You can’t hear [Tegan and Sara] singing a love song and apply it to your own, [but] that’s what queers have to do all the time.
VW: That’s an interesting point you made about how comfortable you feel in the monoculture because this year has been eventful with your work with different creative types doing very different things. Do you find yourself inspired or distracted easily?
OP: I said I felt comfortable and I was lying [laughs].
A lot of it has to do with the fact that I have low self-confidence, which I don’t consider a negative thing, but a fundamental sign of a good artist – somebody who is never really self-satisfied. I would rather do a string arrangement for a friend’s record because I’ll have positive reinforcement.
When it comes to Academy Awards or whatever – I’m a young guy. I feel like my career is made younger by the fact that it’s diverse. I’ve been all over the place and changing gears. l’m still figuring shit out, and it can be exhausting. But the one thing that I’ve noticed is there is definitely a future for me in film-scoring.
VW: What makes you decide to work on a collaboration with a person or group?
OP: It depends. There’s been records I’ve worked on because I think the person is cute. More often than not, it’s whoever asks. I have an open-door policy, and I’ve done a lot of work with bands who have had no money to pay me and have just gone for it. I have a pay-what-you-can policy. Sometimes I don’t even look at the cheque. I just put it in the bank account. I live on good faith. A statement of trust.
VW: You are careful to avoid subscribing to binary views. What concerns you the most when you make music for yourself that is for sale?
OP: I try not to pander. I was just saying earlier that one of the ugliest sounds in the world is when a band that has made something beautiful makes adjustments to make it more saleable. Oftentimes this is when a band has their critical breakthrough, like when Grizzly Bear made “Two Weeks”. That does not sound [as] beautiful as Yellow House. These are bands that have created unquestionably brilliant material. You can’t fault Grizzly Bear as a band. They are fabulous musicians who made amazing products, but there is an interesting shift that happens when they are critically acclaimed, and they’re widely known.
There is a kind of ugliness that is making that move towards saleability. I’ve always tried to resist it. I’ve always had people telling me, “Mix your vocals higher.” And also, there’s this incompleteness – “Owen’s finally going to have his moment this time!” I feel like every record, I have no interest in achieving a greater success than I’ve already had because I don’t think financial success is beauty. I’m interested in staying beautiful.
VW: It makes sense in regards to your attitude to being nominated for an Academy Award for scoring Spike Jonze’s Her… If not awards, where do you get fulfillment and success?
OP: Googling myself. It’s a taboo thing to talk about, but every morning I type in “Owen Pallett” to see what people are saying. I’m a human being who cares what people think of me. Go fuck yourself if you have a problem with that.
It’s not doing me any favours, in terms of coolness, to talk about it, but people who are creative need positive feedback. We need it all the time. I’m doing it because I’m trying to make something beautiful, and I’ve been inspired by beautiful music my entire life, and I hope to inspire people in the same way.