On December 7, Oscar-nominated multi-instrumentalist, composer and songwriter Owen Pallett is premiering the video for “Paragon of Order.” This song is particularly significant, Pallett says, because it was the first one written for the album Island, which came out in May (via Domino Records). “I wrote it when I was on a trip to Australia in March 2015,” Pallett says. “All the music came first – that always is like that with me. I wanted to have this melody that works like a jump rope that just went up and down. This is one of my favorite sounds in music: a simple repeated chord. There’s no better sound, to my mind, than the sound of a pulse resonating, so it’s oftentimes been a basis for a number of my songs.”
Another unusual aspect of “Paragon of Order” that Pallett incorporated is ambiguity in terms of the key center. For example, Pallett says, this song initially implies that it will be in D flat major, but then the melody is in A flat major. “The same is true for most of the songs on Island,” they say (Pallett identifies with the pronouns they/them). “I really love the idea that at times the melodies and the chords are kind of incongruent. It creates this kind of intangibility. To me, I like it – and I also think of it as like an accurate musical representation of queerness and/or neurodivergence.”
The video for “Paragon of Order,” directed and illustrated by Eric Kostiuk Williams, is also an important part of getting across Pallett’s artistic vision. “He’s an amazing artist,” they say of Williams. “I’m proud of the work he did and thrilled with the fruits of that collaboration.” It turned out so well, in fact, that Pallett has tapped Williams again for the next video – and, hopefully, for an even more ambitious project for Island overall. “I’ve even talked with Eric about the possibility of having him do a full album collaboration,” they say, envisioning it as an “entire record as kind of a video graphic novel.” They are in the process of applying for grants to make this financially feasible.
Pallett says that releasing Island has helped them make it through this difficult year. “I spent most of the first months [of the pandemic] in a bit of a state of domestic high functionality. Cooking and cleaning and stuff like that – getting into this new kind of homesteading thing between doom-scrolling through COVID-19 [stories],” they say wryly. Fortunately, their record label suggested that they release Island a few months earlier than originally planned. “I was really into the idea. It was actually good to have something to focus on.”
Things have also seemed better, Pallett says, since they implemented some lifestyle changes recently. “What I’ve actually been doing is getting back to basically the only thing that saves me, which is a highly structured, disciplined daily routine – a very regimented practice of an instrument,” they say. “I’ve actually been practicing viola rigorously, like an hour of scales and studies first thing in the morning followed by one to two hours of learning rep. That’s been really steadying and helpful for me.”
This isn’t the first time that Pallett has used music to help ease a particularly unsettled time in their life. “This record was written during a period when I was going through some personal upheaval,” they say, though they add, “This upheaval did not inform the lyrical content of the record. But what it did do was it changed the functional way that it was being written and recorded.” They explain that they were undergoing major moves, from Montreal to L.A., then on to Toronto (where they are calling from today), all while continuing to work on the album.
“In Toronto, I was struggling to find a permanent residence. So as a result, most of the record was recorded in various living rooms – wherever I could set stuff up,” Pallett says. “I was moving around with two suitcases. One was filled with my clothes, and the other was filled with my microphones and speakers. So that’s basically how the record was made. Every single track has a different piano that I recorded at a different city. The winds and brass were recorded in a shitty Airbnb – God, it was awful. But I actually picked it because I knew I had to record [in] a place that was quiet and had a nice tall ceiling so I could get a good sound.”
Fortunately, the album was finished under much nicer circumstances: the final recording session, which was for the strings (with the London Contemporary Orchestra) was done in one day at the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London. “We had Andrew Dudman conducting,” Pallett says. “And Oliver Coates, the famous cellist, was actually a principal cellist in the orchestra. It was really awesome to have him there because I love all his music. He’s a really, really great guy and an amazing performer.”
Pallett, who is also known for incredible performance skills, first discovered their unusual talent for music when they began taking classical violin lessons as a small child growing up in Milton, Ontario. They really began taking the craft seriously once they started studying music theory when they were fifteen years old and realized they had a real knack for composing. “I took to it very, very quickly,” they say. This skill led to a scholarship at the University of Toronto, where they majored in Composition.
From there, Pallett has gone on to a highly successful and multifaceted career, releasing a debut album, Has a Good Home, in 2005. They received the prestigious Polaris Music Prize for their 2006 follow-up, He Poos Clouds. (Both of those albums were released under the moniker Final Fantasy.) Heartland (2010) and In Conflict (2014) came next, with Island as their fifth solo effort.
Meanwhile, Pallett has also pursued a highly successful career as film composer, earning an Oscar nomination for their score for Her (2014). That work was done with Arcade Fire frontman Will Butler, and Pallett has also collaborated with that band on albums and tours. They have additionally worked as a performer, arranger, and/or producer with such varied acts as Grizzly Bear, Beirut, Pet Shop Boys, Taylor Swift, The Mountain Goats, Mika, Duran Duran, Linkin Park, and dozens more.
“I’ve always taken projects as they come along,” Pallett says. “I’ve been rather indiscriminate. It isn’t because I’m not picky; it’s just that I tend to really see a lot of beauty in pretty much anything that anybody throws my way.” In keeping with that open-minded approach, Pallett’s work has encompassed everything from classical to indie rock to electronica.
When deciding which project to work on at any given time, Pallett says it often simply comes down to scheduling. “I’m scoring a film right now, and I will be scoring it until the end of the month because it’s supposed to go to Sundance,” they say, “so I can guarantee you I won’t write a song this month. It’s just not on the docket.”
Fans shouldn’t fret, though, because Pallett promises that there will be another solo album in the works. For that future project, they say, “I have an end goal. I know where I’m going – and I’m really excited to get there!”