’There’s really nothing more beautiful than seeing someone fail,” Owen Pallett says, coiled up on a new black leather couch in his cluttered warehouse loft, which doubles as a recording studio, in Toronto’s west end. He’s talking about notorious flameouts like film director Richard Kelly (specifically his box-office bomb Southland Tales), Scarlett Johansson (her Tom Waits cover record), and Myra Breckinridge (the much-maligned, Rex Reed–starring camp classic). Mostly, though, he’s talking about himself.
It’s not that Pallet is failing. In fact, the 28-year-old Canadian, who performs as the one-man chamber-pop band Final Fantasy, has worked with Arcade Fire and the Pet Shop Boys, and he’s co-writing the score to Richard Kelly’s next film, The Box, starring Cameron Diaz. This fall, he unveils two new EPs, Spectrum, 14th Century and Plays to Please. But he’s not exactly looking to broaden his fan base either. One EP is a set of fictional field recordings from an imaginary country (whose deity is named Owen); the other is a suite of covers in a big-band mode. His last record was called He Poos Clouds, a title that is at once unbearably twee and confrontational enough to almost guarantee a niche audience. “I just want to make interesting music,” he says, taking a sip of blueberry tea, “not music that sounds good coming out of a jukebox at a bar”—as though the two are obviously mutually exclusive.
Obsessing over artistic integrity is the all-too-common province of youth, but for Pallett, it’s practically ontological—how you negotiate your career means nothing less than negotiating how you exist in the world. When He Poos Clouds won Canada’s inaugural Polaris prize to encourage independent music, Pallet gave away the whole $20,000 purse, some to lesser-known musicians and some to his boyfriend-manager. He was appalled, he said, that the prize was sponsored by a cell-phone conglomerate. After an Austrian company knocked off one of his songs for a commercial, Pallett decided that rather than sue, he’d let the company bankroll a music festival that he helped curate last February. For him, even an indie-world imprimatur from such supposedly unimpeachable sources as Pitchfork feels vaguely abhorrent. “I’m going to be really happy if these records are hugely successful,” he says, “but I’d also be happy if they’re total failures. Anything that will keep them from being a new Spoon or Okkervil River record.”
When Pallett says there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing people fail, he means there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing people risk failure and leap into the artistic void. He does this every time he records. For one thing, he plays the violin, an instrument as rare in rock as the harp Joanna Newsom strums. He further complicates things by using looping devices to create fluid and eccentric layers of melody and rhythm (re-created live by playing the violin into a loop pedal). Then he sings over the music, crafting dramatic and wryly romantic pop songs about Dungeons & Dragons, Yukio Mishima, and semi-evil condo developers. On record, the effect is both symphonic and intimate, sinister and whimsical, with shades of John Cale and avant-garde disco producer Arthur Russell.
But watching him replicate this onstage can be unbearably tense (even when he’s covering Mariah Carey, which he likes to do)—like watching a magician saw himself in half. At a recent fund-raiser in Toronto, Pallett bemoaned the inadequacy of the sound system, complained about a sinus cold, and confided to the crowd that he “secretly” thought the new songs he was playing were no good. He’s a strenuously perfectionist control freak, but it works: His shows are also mesmerizing and oddly enjoyable. “It’s not a case of enjoying it.” He sighs. “The amount of work you put into preparing this music and then have it turn out as … ‘enjoyable.’ ” He says enjoyable the way most people would say Ebola.
Pallett’s route to Toronto was circuitous: small-town Ontario upbringing, church-organist father, classical-music composition studies at the University of Toronto. (His wrote his first compositions at 13 for the video game Traffic Department 2192, designed by an equally precocious older brother; Owen has 10 siblings and half siblings.) Final Fantasy was born in 2003—as “a crazy brain fart,” he says—in the same vibrant and experimental indie rock scene that nurtured artists like Broken Social Scene and Feist. The local music scene offered him a kind of protective insularity—at least until many of the bands succeeded dramatically, startlingly, beyond the city’s borders. “If I didn’t have to worry about what blogs all over the world were going to say about my new record, it would have been done by now,” he says. In other words, it’s not that Pallett doesn’t care what people think—it’s that he’s acutely aware of their expectations.
In spending time with Pallett, you come to realize that all this talk about the seduction of failure is really just a magician’s misdirection: Despite his half-joking about dropping out of music altogether and following his younger brother to med school, he isn’t going anywhere. And he’s as interested as any artist in producing work that will be heard. He pulls out his MacBook to play a few songs from the suddenly appropriately titled Plays to Please. One of the songs has a jaunty Tin Pan Alley style quite unlike anything Final Fantasy has produced before. Pallet leans forward. “Doesn’t that sound great?”
Owen Pallett’s “band” is named after the video game series Final Fantasy, in which legendary characters are summoned to fight epic battles. Pallett likes his video games, but that one isn’t even in the pantheon: “I play a lot of Final Fantasy, but it’s not in my top twenty games of all time,” he told the blog You Ain’t No Picasso. Rather, he does what he can to live in a fantasy world: “I allow my disbelief to be suspended so I can experience things.” A self-declared nerd, Pallett is also openly gay, which informs his music, though he wouldn’t classify it as queer. “It comes from the fact that I’m gay,” he’s said, “but that doesn’t mean I’m making music about it.”
Spectrum, 14th Century
Blocks Recording Club. September.
Plays to Please.
Slender Means Society and States Rights Records. October.