Owen Pallett makes art without easy answers
Owen Pallett’s <eM>Heartland</em> is a provocative statement, but he’s not eager to reveal what the album’s about
Almost 40 minutes into a fascinating and freewheeling telephone conversation with Owen Pallett, we can finally say one thing with complete confidence: we know what he likes to eat for breakfast.
“Order me something fun,” he calls out to his boyfriend, manager, and travelling companion, Patrick Borjal. “Like an omelette filled with vegetables!”
Pallett and Borjal are somewhere on the road between Atlanta, Georgia, and Dallas, Texas. They’re taking a couple of days off from Pallett’s tour—which is either the first under his own name or the last as Final Fantasy, depending on who you ask—to do some sightseeing in what the singer, songwriter, and violinist describes as “a beautiful part of the world”.
“I actually love it here,” Pallett reports. “I just wish that there was more of a forum for my music down here, because I would love to tour here all the time.”
He cites the “friendly, desperate, wonderful vibe” of the southern United States as being a welcome contrast to the WASP reserve of his native Ontario—although, truth be told, Pallett is fairly friendly himself. He’s just not all that eager to talk about his new record, Heartland.
“I really want to show and not tell with this record,” he says. “But at the same time, in order to promote it I have to do interviews, and then I have to answer questions. So I’m always trying not to get too, too much into the specific hows and whys of why the record exists, and I hope people will figure that out for themselves or something. You know what I’m saying?”
Fair enough. Heartland is a record that’s worth puzzling over: it’s dark and dense and multifaceted, and as far as this listener is concerned it’s just a Roger Dean cover—or an explanation—away from being a concept album. Loosely speaking, it’s a love story of sorts, between a horse-riding, beater-wearing redneck farmer called Lewis and a distant, godlike creator figure named Owen—or perhaps between a real-life musician named Owen and the mythical continent of the everyday that politicians, in particular, have taken to calling “the heartland”. Either way, it’s a love story that’s fraught with problems, not the least of which is that Lewis eventually murders Owen by ramming an iron spike through his eyes.
Or so it seems. Whoever’s actually narrating the album—and that itself is obscure—ends his tale with the lines, “The sun is up / My arms are wide / I am a good man, I am yours.” Love conquers all. Or perhaps art conquers all: Heartland could also be read as a love song to the craft of making music. Then again, as Pallett suggests later on in our chat, it might also be a meditation on homosexual desire.
“Maybe it’s just me being a pervert, but there’s this long-documented thing where one type of man is attracted to a very different type of man,” he says. “It could be a bookish academician who is attracted to thugs, or vice versa. I don’t think it’s about conquest so much as it is a fascination with interacting with people who have different ideas.”
Pallett steadfastly refuses to commit to a single interpretation, however, citing a surprising source of inspiration for his enigmatic approach.
“I was reading a lot of H. P. Lovecraft back in 2006, 2007, and I really appreciated the way that Lovecraft had created a whole backlog of short stories that were united by a mythology, but the mythology itself wasn’t very specific,” he explains. “A large part of Lovecraft’s, um, craft was that more often than not he would keep things as being indescribable or inexpressible. I mean, the words that appear so often from the narrator are ”˜And now I tremble to have to describe,’ or ”˜Things happened that were too terrible to describe.’ Then finally when he does end up describing it, he describes this woman who looks like she’s melted as the result of this alien invasion, and it gets really grody. But more often than not, it’s the aura of the inexpressible that makes Lovecraft so powerful. So I wanted to have some of that going on with this record, where there was a kind of loose narrative and you could piece it together and get some sort of messages out of it, because they do exist. But I didn’t want to walk around presenting people with the Necronomicon.”
Now there’s a thought—a musical rendition of Lovecraft’s fabled book of spells. In Pallett’s hands such a thing could easily become a cult hit, if not a Broadway smash. Given the 30-year-old’s penchant for fantasy literature, it’s not entirely far-fetched, but for now we’ll have to content ourselves with Heartland, which is spellbinding enough, with its combination of poetic lyrics, intricate string and horn arrangements, and angelic, Brian Wilson–inspired vocal harmonies. And, intriguingly, the record is marked by the near-total absence of anything resembling conventional rock or soul syncopation.
“Now, that’s really interesting to me,” he says. “You’ve touched upon something that was a conscious decision I made, but that I haven’t actually expressed to anybody, and nobody has asked me about, which was the exclusion of so-called African influence from my music. But it’s not just African influence: I also made an effort to exclude all classical influence. I really limited the scope of the music that I was listening to, and the music that I wanted to draw from in making this record—and, yeah, the Beach Boys were certainly something I listened to a great deal, specifically the a cappella version of Pet Sounds. Synth-pop records and Krautrock records were also a major, major influence as well. I really wanted this record to have the feeling of just this endless pulse—and there wasn’t going to be any syncopation, there weren’t going to be any blue notes. It was just going to be this very mechanical, orchestral version of a synth-pop record.”
On one count, at least, Pallett has failed. Heartland may feature various motorik rhythms—he says his music’s occasional resemblance to minimalism owes more to his use of computers than to the influence of Steve Reich and Philip Glass—but it’s hardly mechanical. Instead, it’s a lovely, human, and provocative statement from an artist whose rare and singular vision has never been so sharply expressed.
Owen Pallett plays the Vogue Theatre on Sunday (May 9).