Consider the quote Owen Pallett gave me about his new album, "I think that the desire for music making is in itself an aberration, a form of insanity": for something shooting at such a controversial target, Pallett's plotting has a lot of nuance. Now, consider the quote Kurt Vonnegut gave the London Times, "When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth." There's a certain panic that comes with creating something irrespective of its form, and a certain level of self-doubt needed to kick start that process. Heartwarming stuff, isn't it? The topic of mental sanity in relation to creating art can make us feel like we're drowning in a sea of all things PC, but for Pallett he goes straight from the head to the gut, never bypassing the heart.
There's a sense of searing sorrow during his fourth solo album In Conflict, that at times I had to remind myself to actually breathe. I suppose once you dive into personal internal conflict; you have to come up for air at some point. In Pallett's high sea of hyperbole, the idea of an album so wondrous, that it might shut down my entire nervous system, of course seems more concerning than desirable. Truth is, it is no casual thing to swallow a song by Owen Pallett for he is, whether he intends to be or not, a maker of cinematic music, a palette cleanser for our various mental states.
Songs that feel cinematic can affect our imagination, just think of the times when you listen to music and it gives you that little extra space to let the mind wiggle free, collect its friends and create full-streams of consciousness. If you don't submerge yourself fully into his sound, it's like watching a 3D movie without the 3D glasses. I vividly remember his album He Poos Clouds: it felt like a conversion experience, as if you could feel all the layers and loops moving simultaneously making the itchy parts of his brain feel good. On his latest album its backdrop stretches all the more poignantly.
He proves a phenomenal interviewee: funny, articulate and excruciatingly intelligent. This Oscar-nominated composer, Arcade Fire member, producer and pop-theory writer talks about the ego, his reaction to the Oscar nomination, and how he believes self-doubt and self-examination shape the music he makes.
This album really feels relatable and also fantastical. I seems like a particularly ripe moment in your career too, what with the Oscar nomination and the new album - is there any security in that?
Well the decision to work with Arcade Fire wasn't really so much about financial security, because I'm doing fine with the solo career, but it was that there was a particular kind of difficulty that comes with the one-to-one connection with ones own songwriting, and paying one's rent. I'm not going to pretend to be a self-assured person you know? I'm constantly filled with self-examination and self-doubt and I'm not ashamed about things, I think that shapes the music that I make. It can be challenging for me too especially when it took about two years to write the record, there was a large part of me that was like, 'I really believe in this record, but it is really stressing me out for me to be working on it!' I was thinking, this has to pay my bills for the next two years and the next two years - it was kind of, hot water you know?
Especially because the style of your music warrants a certain level of energy too...
I kind of painted myself into a bit of a difficult spot because I do tend to take a lot on. From the production side, to arrangement, to performing everything on the record, aside from the rhythm section, and I just don't tend to delegate a lot of the tasks. That can stress me out.
But do you not feel that when you write, compose or play instrumentals that part of your authorship has gone into it and a part of it is yours as well? Irrespective if it's your solo work or on someone else's record?
Absolutely! Authorship is really an important part of a specific transaction that goes into cultural creation and I see it when working with Arcade Fire. I see a part of a song for example, where Richie wrote the saxophone part you always see him turn around and watch the saxophones play it and you see this look on his face that he doesn't express when the saxophones are playing parts somebody else has written. Ultimately, that is a transaction that takes place in ones ego you know? So many musicians I know have an incredible relationship with 50-100 people in their hometown, but then you have this ego driven desire to tour? They're like 'I wanna go to Europe there's this promoter in Switzerland!' But looking at the numbers there's no tenable model here and there's no way you can fly to Switzerland and play a show and have it be anything other than an expensive vacation.
I'm no musician but I can only imagine it being a sort of singular experience making music, I want to use the word selfish but the connotations of that word seem overpowering.
Yes I think music consumers often give musicians a bit of a raw deal in that regard. I feel like a lot of consumers don't see the incredible submissive act that it is to spend a summer, or a week, or a year creating a record specifically to fire up this group of consumers, who don't even need to pay for it. I think that because there is less of a direct financial transaction going on it's caused music consumers these days to view this act with skepticism. [Laughs] Like, 'why you spending time making music for me except to pat yourself on the back?'
People don't understand... Oh, wait just one second...
...My boyfriend always comes in when I'm doing interviews and makes crazy symbols whenever I'm talking about something that's more complicated than [goes higher pitched] 'a yeah no, I love it!' Then he makes crazy gestures at me - I'm in an abusive relationship! ... He's left the room I can stop talking shit about him. [Laughs]
Ha! I find this so fascinating because everyone has a different version of making music because it's how you speak. People often think of art and psychology or art and science as polar opposites - people don't think what emotional effect it has on them - I think that this album In Conflict, is the merging of the two.
That's interesting, I've never thought about it like that to be honest.
Well the traditional portrait of your work is one of conflict and tension in how you push sonic boundaries too - but what is the relevance of the inkblot on the album artwork? Is it a Rorschach test?
It's not meant to be a Rorschach at all in fact we tried to make the blots inconsistent and non symmetrical to suggest rather a sinister obstruction like something that was keeping us from each other. It's tough for me to really explain how the artwork relates to the lyrical material, without negating or belittling the work. A lot of what is happening on the record is a dialogue between a sane state and an insane state - the feeling that these two states are an "either/or" situation, and that they're fighting each other. Hopefully this artwork conveys the same sort of futility between having a completely transparent attitude and also a creative one. The text is meant to represent a very strict communication where as the inkblot is meant to be the creativity obscuring it.
So then is making music the best way to get out of your head, or...
No, I think it's the opposite I think that the desire for music making is in itself an aberration, a form of insanity. There have been studies published in the last three years that suggest that there is a link, on a neurological level, between being in a creative state and bipolar disorder. As somebody who spends a lot of time in the creative state, I can tell you this was not a surprise to read! The act of having to create something new itself can be very beautiful, it's exciting, but it's not a state of sanity. Even getting back to what we were talking about earlier about why a consumer would view an artist with skepticism, because they don't actually understand that the act of songwriting is an undesirable manic state and people think that its rooted in ego, but it actually could be viewed as a sickness - certainly I kind of view it as a sickness.
My boyfriend likes to say if I'm acting crazy or saying something that's not entirely sane he says, "we like the crazy coz the crazy makes the songs and the songs make the money."
I can see where his heart is!
It sounds hand-wring-y to be talking about it this way, I assure you it's not, it's just I'm constantly talking to people and bands where the musicians have this resentment toward the lead singer and they don't understand why he is such an egotist or has these mental breakdowns or on medication and I'm just like well, unless you start writing songs professionally and know what a crazy making feeling it is, then you've got to be sympathetic to it.
Don't you ever worry though, for example on the track 'I'm Not Afraid' which is very sincere - that it lands up being mislabeled by people reading into your lyrics as cynical or self-loathing?
I mean I've become accustomed to such a low level of reading comprehension from pop music critics. Which isn't at all meant to be disparaging, it's just that the people that consume pop music criticism aren't looking for academic articles, so it's gonna be written at the level of Buzzfeed which is fine. I'm used to people missing the point or being reflective about the material and it doesn't bother me that much, but I will say that when people do get the point it gives me great pleasure, it really makes me feel fulfilled.
With 'I'm Not Afraid', whether it's leaving my violin somewhere, punching a wall or burning love letters they're meant to be these hollow gestures towards pre-identification. The idea that you can't actually burn away your own identity without making actual rash decisions and I'm speaking about specifically my own experience with gender and being someone who doesn't suffer from gender-dysphoria. Rather, just kind of hates men and hates maleness. Much of my life and similarly identified people, which I can vaguely call gender-queerism, is often that there is a self-loathing in it, hypocrisy in it - a person like me who's unable to transfer my identity onto those of my children. Much of my life is about this desire towards something but unable to fully commit towards it. I mean I think the best metaphor I have described to you earlier is in this interview: music making as being something that's crazy. But, why don't I just give it up? Why don't I just cook for a living? I mean here I am in the song saying I'm too weak to actually sell my violin and quit. It's that kind of relationship I feel a simile to a lot of gender-queer people who are unable to let go the privileges of their male-ness and just kind of exist as sort of this beta-male!
And if that isn't in conflict itself...
It's this sense of transient identity and how some of us have a more mercurial identity.
Even though I don't like to touch on lyrics, yours feel impressionistic in the way that they wind around a topic, but you also add real details as if to ground them. Like when you say "hooked your pinkies on my jeans" in 'The Passions' - did you struggle writing that?
It actually was pretty easy because it's somewhat a true event where I was forced to reconcile in a cross-generational relationship. I had affairs with people who were sometimes much older than me, but then this was just like an experience of being on the older end of that and dating someone much younger. The "hook your pinkies..." is meant to contrast "...my fingers locked behind your head" to show that there is this different kind of level of engagement here.
I really love the details you describe too, you know how a can transport you back to a time, is there anything on In Conflict that instantly triggers something for you?
Most of these images I sing about over the course of the record, I picked them because they have that pristine level of acute remembrance where I could describe every detail. The only reason why I haven't gone on to describe the texture of the draperies and the grain of the hardwood floor is because I'm just writing a song, I'm not writing a novel - right? I think that probably the song that's strongest in my mind was actually 'Soldiers Rock' which ironically was so specific in experience that I don't feel I was really able to describe it. It was a hallucinatory experience that I was having on maybe my third or fourth time drinking alcohol when I was a teenager. I was biking home from my then boyfriend's house and I was feeling romantically thrilled, and I started to hallucinate an environment where the rest of the world on the other side of the road had fallen away. I was in this strange relationship where I felt I was subservient to my boyfriend.
Sorry you were saying you don't like asking people about their lyrics and here I am giving fucking essays about them! But that's what you got!
The only reason I don't ask it as much is that someone with your level of talent, who writes deeply personal songs, well, it's nice to also let the reader create their own story.
Exactly! Of course, you want to highlight the more universal details in your own personal experience so that people can project their own life onto the song you've created.
Where does the music actually happen? When your fingers touch the piano? The listener? Is that a weird question?
No it's not a weird question it's actually something I think about sometimes. Pretty much any time I finish a demo is the high point of the 'act' and that's the stage when I'm most insufferable. I'm calling my friends and family trying to read lyrics over the phone or send demos on email and that's the period that's most thrilling. Beyond that there comes the period where you have to rehearse the songs and learn how to play them really well, then go into the recording studio, lay them down, then you're mixing, mastering, releasing and then doing interviews about them! There's this whole other backside to putting out the music that is from an ego-fulfillment perspective - very unfulfilling! It can be even depressing. This is why so many musicians hate interviews because it's so far removed from the part of the job that we love!
Does it feel like it dilutes it all?
My favourite quote when regards to this stuff is actually from Bono, where he says, of course he is sympathetic to people who find him insufferable and are sick of him, but he has to be around himself all the time - he has been feeling sick of himself way before anyone else. As a musician you have to deal with the truth of your language and it can be really exhausting. I wish you could see me when I'm just out with friends.
That would work especially because we're living in a voyeuristic age. I remember Tolstoy said that to say a work of art is good, but incomprehensible to the majority of men, is really similar to saying that here is this piece of food which is very good, but most people can't eat it.
I read a few months ago on a Wikipedia entry on Imposter Syndrome - when a person is unable to process or register positive feedback, specifically regarding the work they do which more often applies to women in the workplace. They'll think that the job they have has less to do with their competence and more to do with luck and circumstance. I think that this is par for the course for a lot of artists so when Tolstoy says that - you're describing Imposter Syndrome which to me is the root of a lot of extended artistic careers and can explain why people who don't suffer from Imposter Syndrome, like Interpol, where you make a couple of great records, and lose the drive to really work yourself.
I think that part and parcel of being able to continue to be a working artist is that you have an element of self-doubt.
How often do you think about your own success as a musician and what it means?
I think about it quite a bit to be honest. I process it in really weird ways, like I don't find myself absorbing of the applause of the audience or a good review as much as I would absorb a kind word from a friend, an email from a stranger, or like fuck - a retweet from a celebrity! The currency of one's legacy is really mercurial it just shifts you never really know. I think about it but it's not what you'd expect, the best example is the Oscar nomination, which everyone congratulated me on and asked me how it felt and to be honest it doesn't register nearly as much as you telling me in this interview that you liked my record for example, that to me has more of an affect on my ego than the Oscar nomination. It's weird and very personal in examining one's fame.
Owen Pallett's new album, In Conflict, is released on 26th May via Domino Records. You can listen to it by heading here.