An interview with openly gay singer Owen Pallett
by Gregg Shapiro
Already being hailed as one of the best albums of 2010, Heartland (Domino) by Owen Pallett (formerly Final Fantasy) is deserving of the accolades it has received. As lush and symphonic as it is percussive and poppy, the dozen tracks on Heartland, on which Pallett “revisits the realm of Spectrum” through a cycle of songs about a “young, ultra-violent farmer named Lewis and a supreme deity named Owen,” are fantastic. From the Beach Boys wave of “Lewis Takes Action” to the futuristic soundtrack of “The Great Elsewhere” to the Blue Nile beat of “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” and the super sexy “Tryst with Mephistopheles,” you probably won’t hear anything as wondrous as Heartland this year. I spoke with Owen shortly before he embarked on the first leg of his tour.
Gregg Shapiro: Owen, this probably isn’t the first or last time you will be asked this, but can you please say something about why you decided to drop the Final Fantasy moniker in favor of your own name?
Owen Pallett: It was essentially legally motivated. I haven’t run into any problems with it, but problems would arise if I had stayed with it, considering the level of publicity that the label [Domino] was doing. It was advised by my lawyer that this was the time to drop it.
On your new album Heartland, it’s possible to detect the influences of opera and classical music, as well as a sort of Broadway show tunes influence . . .
You feel that? I hear that a few times, but I’m not at all [laughs] a Broadway guy.
I can definitely hear it. What is involved in the process of incorporating your various influences into your compositions?
Well, regarding all the things that you just described—classical and operatic—I can’t deny that my music is going to come from that perspective, seeing that I’m working with the symphony as my tool, and because of the very particular characteristics of my voice.
But I was really inspired the most for this record by synth-pop. You’ll notice every song on the record is very metronomic. There are very few moments where you actually feel the orchestra is the living, breathing organic instrument that it is in classical music and opera. It’s all very metronomic. All the structures of the songs are much more verse/chorus/verse/chorus [laughs] as opposed to having these developmental sections in between. I was listening to a lot of ’70s and early ’80s synth-pop and realizing how much I love these records. I was also getting into analog synthesis. I have these synthesizers that a couple of gigs I’ve taken on have allowed me to afford. Working with them has been amazing and inspiring.
Would you say that your classical and operatic influences have anything to do with Heartland and He Poos Clouds being “song cycles”?
I don’t know where that really comes from. I would say that that’s more of a literary influence than anything. With Heartland, the primary influence, conceptually at least, comes from my friend Steven Kado who founded the Blocks Recording Club in Toronto and also has several conceptually oriented bands of his own. He’s an incredible influence on my life. Everything he does he approaches with a conceptual bent and it’s really seeped into my own work.
Also [H.P.] Lovecraft, because I got fascinated with the way that he created these stories that fit into this large thing, which was the Cthulhu mythos. There’s a running string throughout the latter half of Lovecraft’s career. All of his stories are completely independent, concern completely different characters, but have the same sort of representations of horror. It could be something about this beast that lives underground of this alien specter that appears in this farm field, or it could be about travelers going to Antarctica. Extremely disparate storylines, but the thing that unites them all is this mythology that typically it always concerns these same creatures—the
Shoggoths or the old ones—and there are all the signifiers that run through the stories.
With Heartland, it wasn’t so much that I wanted to create a concept record or a song cycle or any of these things. I wanted to create independent songs that each had these signifiers that alluded to a larger mythology.
So for a concert, do you perform Heartland in its entirety, in order from start to finish, or does being in a club setting allow you to take liberties?
I want Heartland to be very strong as an album, but also, in the live context, to be segmented and presented as pop hits. I hesitate to really describe Heartland as a concept album, although Pitchfork[.com] latched onto that term early on and it stuck. When you do look historically at concept albums, such as [David Bowie’s] Ziggy Stardust, for example, you can pull “Moonage Daydream” or “Starman” . . . well, “Starman” is a really good example, because that song is pretty explicitly about what’s going on in the realm of the album. But it makes total sense outside of it.
We talked about influences earlier, and I detected Brian Wilson/Beach Boys on “Lewis Takes Action” and Van Dyke Parks on “Flare Gun.” Do you count either or both among your influences?
Absolutely! Totally! It’s really interesting to me because music writers love to throw around Brian Wilson all the time. Whenever they hear layered vocals, they tend to mention Brian Wilson, which is kind of cool, because it does kind of sound like Brian Wilson. But does [the band] Animal Collective really sound like Brian Wilson? No, it doesn’t at all. It sounds like Animal Collective.
But there were some moments on this record where I needed to layer my vocals and I would think about how I wanted to do that. When I was getting ready to sing the record, I think I listened to “Pet Sounds” a cappella, which is all the vocals from “Pet Sounds” taken on their own.
The thing that’s so striking about it is what a genius vocal arranger Brian Wilson was, and yet what kind of a plain singer he was. It’s been a perennial criticism of my records that I’m not Maria Callas. [Laughs]
I disagree! I love your voice!
I, myself, am quite fond of it. [Laughs] Granted, if you are going to make an orchestral record and you have this thin, reedy-sounding voice, it is a bit of a tall order. I grew up listening to Robert Wyatt and Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson and Harry Nilsson, as well as my really good singers [such as] Annie Lennox. Music takes all kinds, basically. [Laughs]
Earlier you mentioned the influence of synth-pop, and I have to tell you that I think “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” sounds like it’s perfect for Tea Dance in Provincetown in August.
Are there remixes in the works?
Yeah. We’ve only had two come back, so far. But we have been soliciting some remixes.
Is that one of the songs that will be remixed?
Yes, actually I think we have a few people remixing that song. There are actually so many that I can’t keep track. I don’t want to make a remix album. I wrote a lot more songs for Heartland that didn’t make it on the record. But at this point I’ve decided to send them out, with the exception of four others. We were thinking about B-sides or stuff like that.
I hope I’m not reading too much into it, but I think I detected a homoeroticism in lyrics to songs such as “The Great Elsewhere” and “Tryst With Mephistopheles.” Am I correct?
Yes! I tend not to think about what [kind of an effect] gay language is going to have on the ears of the listeners, just because I tend not to think about that in my day-to-day life. [Laughs] I don’t go around giving out explicit details of my sex life. [But] talking about some man being attractive is not something I would ever censor myself from talking about in any situation, even if it’s [in front of] my grandmother. I don’t think most gay men would censor themselves in front of their grandmothers in that regard. But it is interesting when the song is written and recorded and you come back to it, and you’re like, “Whoa! This is a pretty gay thing!”
Would you say that being gay influences your work?
I’ve been asked this countless times, and I really don’t have a good answer for it. I think that it’s just going to influence it subconsciously. I think there is so much music geared towards actually actively accessing this uniquely gay idea. I think some people flirt with it some, so do it wholeheartedly. With me, it’s very subconscious. [Laughs]
There is a community of gay artists within your musical and creative circle, including Pet Shop Boys and Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear. Do you see a place for yourself in that realm or do you feel outside of it?
It’s interesting. I think the term “gay mafia” gets swung around. [Laughs] And certainly there are times when I look around a room and I think, “Wow! I’m in this room with a lot of famous gay musicians.” [Laughs] But I don’t think there’s any real clear associations that you can make. There’s really no similarity between the way I’m living my life and the way the Pet Shop Boys are living their lives. We certainly have a mutual appreciation for each other, but I’m not at the stage where I’d ever be photographed on the red carpet with Lady Gaga. [Laughs] Whereas they probably have, more than once.
Owen Pallett performs in Austin at The Mohawk (mohawkaustin.com) on April 30.