ABOVE: OWEN PALLETT. PHOTO COURTESY OF PETER JUHL
Don't mistake the themes of displacement on Owen Pallett's lush, aching fourth solo album, In Conflict, for an indictment of his hometown. "It's a dysphoria of place—which is more complicated than, ‘I hate where I'm living,' because I love Toronto," the 34-year-old chamber-pop multi-instrumentalist and singer explains. "It's more about the urge towards expatriatism." The alienated impulse finds beautiful, deeply considered expression on In Conflict, which marries variously war-torn, uncanny, or barren narrative landscapes with full, engaging musical ones. Thanks to the vast array of sonic textures at Pallett's disposal—swirling, eerie synths; lyrics crooned or chanted; violin lines that move in both romantic swells and propulsive gallops—listening to In Conflict feels like exploring a world, scene by scene, just barely not our own.
When we phoned Pallett to discuss the album, he was in a hotel room in Mexico City. Initially, we had some trouble connecting, because his reservation was under the name "Michael Plowright."
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: I'm sorry for the delay—they had some trouble at the front desk with me spelling out "Plowright." How did you choose that pseudonym?
OWEN PALLETT: It's not a pseudonym. It's my name.
SYMONDS: Oh! I didn't know that. I'm sorry. That's a weird note to start on, then.
PALLETT: No, it's really a boring explanation as to why I continue to keep my legal name as Michael Plowright instead of Owen Pallett.
SYMONDS: I thought maybe there were really rabid fans in Mexico City...
PALLETT: Oh no, not at all. My mother gave me the hyphenated last name "Plowright" from when I was very young and I had passports all in that documentation and then as a teenager, for many different reasons, I just eased into using Pallett because hyphenated last names are the worst. I started using Owen because Michael was such a common name. It was just very natural and normal and nobody gave me a hard time about it, except for my mom, with Owen—she still calls me Michael. Then, when I was an adult, I had all of my stuff stolen, when I was maybe 23, and in the process of getting all of my gear replaced, I realized that my name had never been Pallett and that my mother had never properly changed my name.
SYMONDS: Oh, wow.
PALLETT: So, basically all of my degrees, my credit cards—all this stuff was in a name that wasn't actually mine.
SYMONDS: For the record, Pallett-Plowright is very beautiful; it has a sort of patter to it. It's a very musical name.
PALLETT: If you have a hyphenated last name, one of the names is pronounceable or acceptable, like Smith, and then the other one is difficult and questionable in the pronunciation. I think it works, but both Pallett and Plowright: people have problems with pronouncing them. I just can't deal with it.
SYMONDS: We can get away from the identity politics of your name. I wanted to ask about The Dispossessed, which you mention on the record.
SYMONDS: That book is concerned with linguistic relativism—that the structure of a language influences how people think. You write in such different voices—when you have multiple characters on a record, they don't all just sound like you. Does that come unconsciously, or are you mapping out who those different people are?
PALLETT: I've never actually thought about it, to be honest. I kind of write intuitively, but what you're pointing out is something that other people have noticed in my writing—my tone is very inconsistent. [laughs]
SYMONDS: I guess a broader and maybe less probing question: it feels like a very dystopic album, and obviously that's a dystopian novel, and we seem to be in this cultural moment where every movie that comes out is teenagers fighting their way out of dystopia. I prefer a '60s or '70s version, like Le Guin. What do you think is missing from contemporary ideas of dystopia, if anything?
PALLETT: Wow! That's your idea of a less probing question? [laughs]
SYMONDS: [laughs] Okay: "What were you listening to when you were writing this album?"
PALLETT: [In a mocking voice] "What was your childhood like? Where did you grow up?" [laughs] No, that's interesting and I kind of have to mull it over for a few seconds. Firstly, I kind of get what you're saying about a dystopia, but I myself am not frustrated with it. I feel as if dystopian and utopian representations are historically the most effective way of criticizing modern society.
SYMONDS: Sure, absolutely.
PALLETT: You know, because you don't have to be factually accurate. [both laugh] You can kind of construct some awesome strawman arguments in your fictional world.
SYMONDS: I never thought about it that way, but absolutely. In that same song, there's the line, "You stand in a city that you don't know anymore."
SYMONDS: I'm curious how your relationship to Toronto has changed since it has become the butt of a lot of jokes in the English-speaking world. Is there a sense of vindication, like, "I've been telling you guys this about Rob Ford from the beginning!" or is it embarrassing?
PALLETT: To be honest with you, Rob Ford is the least of my problems. The grand total of things that Rob Ford has done in office that personally get my goat—well, number one is that the spectacle of his tenure has distracted away from actual political concerns.
SYMONDS: We kind of went through that with Sarah Palin.
PALLETT: Canada is the worst polluter in the world right now. There's absolutely no sign on a federal level that there's going to be any alleviation of the polluting that's going on. Even the Parti Québécois in Québec, which is historically a party that has been leftist and environmental—they are trying to give $450 million subsidies to polluting enterprises in Gaspé. These, to me are my problems. Way, way, way, way, way low beyond Rob Ford's municipal politics distracting away from real Canadian politics problems is like, "Yeah, some of my friends got fired because he's been cutting services and cutting down the public job sector in Toronto." That's horrifying to me, and also the way that he totally fucked up public works.
I don't give a shit about if he smokes crack or not—I'm typically on the side of people who smoke crack, so historically I think I probably have more friends who would smoke crack than would have a problem with people who smoke crack. I understand that Americans, like any country, have a myopic view of the rest of the world. I wouldn't even advise you guys to investigate Canadian politics, because honestly it's really not that interesting. Far more interesting to me is Icelandic politics. [laughs]
SYMONDS: Do you think the Auroracoin is for real? I can't seem to wrap my head around this—it's a Bitcoin-style digital currency that just got introduced out of nowhere and every citizen of Iceland is entitled to roughly $400 worth of it. All you have to do is provide your Icelandic ID. Apparently this vigilante, do-gooder economic organization attempting to, instead of fixing the Icelandic economy, just completely replace it, which is insane. The fact that something like that is actually happening on a largish—it's a country of 300,000—scale.
PALLETT: That's the thing; it's such a small country, the fact that they continue to just be like, "We're going to try something crazy and progressive! If we fuck up... it doesn't matter!" When you talk about, "Oh my god. The Icelandic debt is how much per person?," it's maybe pretty crazy, but the dollar value is like, "A million dollars...oh no!" Right? It is kind of its own little, isolated economic utopia. It is hilarious to kind of see that this is a country where everyone has geothermal heating and everyone owns an SUV...
SYMONDS: And the literacy rate is 100 percent.
PALLETT: But most of that is kind of a result of criminal behavior. [laughs] And yet the Icelanders are kind of succumbing to—despite their progressive attitudes—they're putting themselves first and being like, "We're not returning the money!" It's kind of like its own little Lord of the Flies with wonderful, new progressive politics and stuff like that. To me, that is far more interesting. Canadian politics is like... I can't be arsed to pay attention to even what's going on at a provincial level. I've just stopped paying attention to Ontario provincial politics because it was so full of shit. [laughs] I was kind of like, "I only have enough time in the world and enough countries and governments to pay attention to."
SYMONDS: You were talking before about presenting a dystopian landscape as a critique of the actual landscape you stand in—is that not the case on your album? Are you not writing through your feelings about Toronto and about Canada?
PALLETT: No, because ultimately that song doesn't have anything to do with Toronto. That song is about me and about other people that feel the same way. It's more about the urge towards expatriatism that's based in an emotional state as opposed to, "Yes! I got a job in Argentina," or something. So that's really what the song is about. Even though it kind of makes me sad that I had to leave Toronto—sad that anybody has to leave Toronto, and everyone is leaving Toronto—Toronto is kind of going through a similar scene as New York, where everyone is just getting priced out of being able to live there. But aside from that, it's more about the feeling and trying to examine that dysphoria and talking about the sensations of the characters in The Dispossessed or someone who might be reading that novel because—how can I put this in a way that's going to make good copy? Let me think.
SYMONDS: That's so nice of you. Oh my goodness, thank you.
PALLETT: Every time I start waffling, I'm just kind of like, "This doesn't translate to..."
SYMONDS: Give me 25 words.
PALLETT: Yeah, 25 words. I can just hear you being like, "No... I'm going to have to edit this answer out." That song isn't specifically about Toronto, it's more about that transition period from when you have left your hometown and you're not sure if where you're settling is where you're going to be. That period, even with people my age, in their 30s, especially if they're working in a creative class, means that your living situations are often extremely...
PALLETT: Tenuous, but I was also trying to find a word that hinted at liminality.
SYMONDS: I actually wanted to talk about liminality, because there are a lot of gaps on the record—lyrically, anyway. In various songs, you talk about the space between being asleep and being awake; and there's a song that repeats the idea of the gap between what a man wants and what he will receive; and there's a line about the sunrise: "Does it fill your gaps in like it fills in mine?" To me, this doesn't feel like an album between two things at all; it feels like a very big, defiant statement of an album; so to find all of these little cracks in it was very interesting for me.
PALLETT: This is something that I was recognizing as I was writing these lyrics, on an unconscious level and then reading them back to myself. I was able to notice in a very early stage, there were discrepancies between the people who are writing these songs and discrepancies about the self that I was writing about. I was feeling that there were all these different people, both writing the record and having the record being written about them, even though ostensibly it was me sitting down and documenting a series of life experiences.
Part of that, when I recognized this unconscious thing I was doing, was about these spaces, about these gaps. Once I became consciously aware of it, I tried to start to play with it and make it a thread that ran through the record: every song has some kind of mention of division or reparation. The album itself, while I was working on it, I was hoping that it would activate some kind of drawing together of all these different states of mind that I have going in my head; and hopefully create some kind of—fuck, what's the word? Like a vertex or something. I'm gesturing with my hand—I can gesture with my hand and it makes so much sense!
SYMONDS: Tell me what your hand is doing.
PALLETT: Like a grasping together—a confluence of these states of mind.
SYMONDS: I think I've taken about 25 minutes. Do you need to be somewhere?
PALLETT: Oh, to be honest with you, when I was told this interview was starting at 11:15, I thought that meant 11:15 my time.
SYMONDS: Oh, my gosh.
PALLETT: So no, I have all the time in the world. I actually have nothing to do right now.
SYMONDS: I'm sorry—did I wake you up?
PALLETT: You didn't wake me up, but you got me out of bed. I just posted... I have this column on Slate, it seems, now, so I just was posting the second column.
SYMONDS: Something else besides the Katy Perry thing?
PALLETT: Yeah, Daft Punk.
SYMONDS: Are you just doing that regularly now?
PALLETT: As long as people are saying, "Could you do this?"
SYMONDS: That's amazing. Oh my god.
PALLETT: The thing is, when you're kind of creatively self-employed, your brain just kind of chooses the path of least resistance, so if you really exhausted and you've had a long day, then that's typically when you might respond to emails or if you're on a plane and have nothing else to do, then you might listen to music and write these satirical pieces trying to explain the charts with music theory. [laughs]
SYMONDS: I wish people would do that more. You know Nico Muhly, right? I don't know if you saw—he did a song-by-song analysis of the Beyoncé album when it came out.
PALLETT: Yeah, it was on Talkhouse.
SYMONDS: I feel like people who actually know how music works on a technical level need to explain it to the rest of us a little more often.
PALLETT: I suppose so, but I actually disagreed with a lot of Nico's review of that.
SYMONDS: Do you want to get into it?
PALLETT: He knows! I've actually had it out with a famous Canadian violinist, Lara St. John, on his Facebook wall.
PALLETT: Yeah, and she called me names! [laughs] She's this violinist who was saying that she had a problem with Game of Thrones because she couldn't bear to listen to the theme music, which was played by synth strings as opposed to real strings. Then she made this version of Game of Thrones featuring a cellist friend of hers. Now, on a fundamental level, the performance by the cellist was missing the point of the piece; it was way, way, way too dramatic. But on a deeper, more sociopolitical level, I was taking issue with why MIDI strings and real strings can't get along and [people don't] understand that they both have their place. I look at MIDI strings as being like, "Finally, people have these options available to them as a budgetary concern."
I understand that in her eyes, it's kind of a lost and dying art, but in my eyes, it's like, "Oh, the musical language, which has been, in the past, only available to a scarce few at the top of the tower, is now wide open." Now people's ears are becoming more amenable to fake strings—I think this is great! All my freakin' records—I use real players; I use them all over the place because that's my taste and because I have the knowledge to do so. My argument was fundamentally that Game of Thrones—that theme was not written for real strings, it was written for MIDI strings, and MIDI strings are just as legitimate an instrument as real string players. Added to this is the fact that if you go on YouTube, there are already a zillion excellent covers of the Game of Thrones soundtrack played with real instruments. Sorry, you've got me on my soapbox...
SYMONDS: I'm all the way down the rabbit hole with you.
PALLETT: You're following me. Okay, good. Regarding Nico's critique of the Beyoncé record, it was always lamenting the fake strings, fake strings. There are times when the sound of fake classical music really grates on me; there's an operatic ballad at the end of the K. Michelle record, "Coochie," that really bugged the shit out of me. It felt like it was taking a piss; it felt like it was kind of the worst of everything. It was drawing the worst idea of what your impression of classical music and opera and what it is and marrying it with what the worst elements of recorded music are. In general, on a socioeconomic level, it's a very, very untenable position to have to be like, "Fake strings are bullshit." You're negating an entire 20 years of film score.
SYMONDS: If MIDI strings represent a more accessible mode of composition, do you ever think there's a downside to the democratization of every art form through its digital counterpart?
PALLETT: Only if people are dumb about it. [laughs] It's just like, "Is the art good?" There's going to be a lot of people my age that just are never going to get James Ferraro; that are just going to hear it as MIDI hackery. Just the same way that there's a lot of people that were historically going to listen to Public Enemy and never be able to get beyond that fact that it's based on famous funk samples, or fucking Dean Blunt. Dean Blunt basically just made a record, which is just him rapping over "The Rite of Spring" with almost no manipulation whatsoever, and it's amazing. It's totally great; it's the best record.
SYMONDS: You and Win Butler did beautiful work on Her, but you I think of as a musician and as a songwriter as being so particular with your characters that I would love to hear how the experience was different in writing the characters that Spike Jonze created instead of you.
PALLETT: Writing for film is so different; it's such an act of submission, both on a monetary and time level, because you basically kind of have to just set everything else aside—it's like suddenly getting a temp job that requires you to work 16-hour days. Also just aesthetically, you have to completely leave all of your ego out of it. On a very fundamental level, there's not a way in hell that there's going to be a ukulele on one of my records. Aesthetically? No. That instrument goes home. Put that instrument in the cab and send it away. But you're working with Spike, where the ukulele forms a very part of this movie and what this movie represents and also the aesthetic tone of the movie. You got to kind of allow yourself to be completely the bottom in this and like Spike tell you what he needs and do the job Spike offers you.
SYMONDS: The music in the film is not entirely non-diegetic, right? You, at least once or twice, are composing for this character—the songs that Samantha writes?
PALLETT: The soundtrack was so collaborative that if I were to break it down for you, it'd be like a biblical, "Such and such begat such and such."
SYMONDS: Right. [laughs]
PALLETT: Because everybody was throwing every cue around, and it was like an exquisite-corpse scenario. The photograph cue, the kind of fast piano one, was probably the one I had the most to do with. I was just trying to write something that sounded like mechanistic and romantic at the same time.
SYMONDS: On the very first song on In Conflict, you have a character saying, "My salvation is found in discipline," and from what we as listeners understand about this character, she is probably quite different from you. What does discipline mean in your life?
PALLETT: That song is kind of about approaching discipline in these two ways. The subject of this song is primarily about a gender-neutral friend of mine, but when I was writing it, I was also thinking about Genesis P-Orridge and Throbbing Gristle and the song "Discipline," when Genesis is talking about this thing that she wants. She wants discipline. And I had identified discipline as a really important part of my life, in maintaining my sanity. It's kind of interesting when people don't know me and then get to know me and see just how workaholic I am and how unhappy I am when I don't have something to work on, or if I am not provided with the tools to be able to accomplish those things, like touring without my looping rig or without a piano, I'm just kind of like, ‘Aahhh, what do I do with my day?' To me, that's just a large part of my sanity.
Discipline is not just about work, but about diet and about exercise and on a deeper level, about concentrating and making sure that my brain is staying in good places and the neurons are firing in positive ways as opposed to getting into anxiety, panic-attack states of mind. When I'm crazy. You know? I kind of feel a little bit like Bill Murray in What About Bob? right now, with the "baby steps" thing. For me, it's just been a very important part of my life, and there's just a sort of feeling of otherness when I see or hear Genesis screaming that she wants discipline and that this is a transgressive thing to state, and I'm incredibly attracted to it and hugely moved by it. Discipline is something that I require in my life, and my music is so far removed from Throbbing Gristle. I've always identified people's taste in music as being kind of hetero and/or homo—there's music people like because they feel like they have aesthetic similarity to it and the music they wish to create, and then there's music that represents the other, that they listen to because it represents an escape from the music that they have to make. For me, I listen to Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark when I want to think about the kind of music I want to make. And I listen to Throbbing Gristle and U.S. Maple when I want to escape from the kind of music that I want to make.
IN CONFLICT IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON OWEN PALLETT, PLEASE VISIT THE ARTIST'S WEBSITE.