"I pretty much had a meltdown," Owen Pallett admits, laughing ruefully. "This record took a lot out of me." The 30-year-old violin genius didn't name his third full-length album Heartland for nothing. It's all blood, guts, emotion, and his own money that Pallett's poured into the epic, orchestral release, a project that was four years in the making, and according to some anxious and critical fans, long overdue.
"It might seem like I did nothing for, like, four years," Pallett admits. "I made the mistake of going to the message boards yesterday and it was like, 'Heartland coming out!' and someone was like, 'Two years too late!' I'm like, 'You fuckin' loser. I've been so busy!'" Pallett laughs again, but the stress in his voice is evident. He has been busy, and, frankly, probably far more in demand than Pallett himself could have imagined when he began releasing violin-based indie-pop as Final Fantasy in 2005.
His debut, Has a Good Home, and the geeky, fan-boy name earned him plenty of attention, but it was his live performances that proved electric and entrancing. Just a young man and his instrument, usually, Pallett would record his violin into a loop and craft large, textured songs live, with layers of sounds that defied the conventional boundaries of solo artists. His 2006 follow-up, He Poos Clouds, cemented his reputation as a cheeky avant-garde and netted him the first $25,000 Polaris Prize.
His virtuoso skills also made Pallett the go-to person for indie rock's string arrangement and violin needs. By Pallett's own estimation, he's collaborated with about 30 musicians and bands since 2006, including Beirut, Fucked Up, the Mountain Goats, Arcade Fire, and Mark Ronson. He also began scoring films, writing the music for 2009's The Box (starring Cameron Diaz), and working on John Cameron Mitchell's new feature, Rabbit Hole.
All along, though, Heartland was eking out in fits and spurts.
"In early 2007, I sketched out this idea that I was gonna put out on Spectrum [14th Century], which is sort of the prequel EP, and it kind of bummed me out because Spectrum ended up taking a lot longer than I thought," Pallett says. "That was sort of the first time I knew the record was going to be set in this fictional world and I wanted to create it, not by making a map, but by making an EP."
That map helped lay the foundation for Heartland's lyrics, which tell the story of Lewis, an "ultra-violent" farmer that Pallett conceived in a burst of creativity, writing 20 pages of lyrics on vacation in Lisbon, half of which would make up the album. The other half were posted online, Pallett says, so that people could laugh at him. In addition to lyrics, Pallett was still wrestling with crafting Heartland's sound. He knew he wanted something dense and full, and ultimately decided to record the orchestral elements with the Czech Symphony in Prague. It just also happened to coincide with another work commitment: composing the orchestrations for the London-based band, the Rumble Strips, album, Welcome to Walk Alone, with famed producer Mark Ronson.
Pallett holed up in a hotel room and quickly finished the Rumble Strips' orchestral music, resulting in an extra ten days of free time to work on finishing Heartland's arrangements before Ronson arrived. With both albums set to record with the Czech Symphony within days, the pressure was on Pallett to nail Heartland's sound perfectly. But, the role of disciplined taskmaster quickly devolved, and he found himself teetering on the brink of a breakdown.
"[It was] probably the lowest point of my life," Pallett says. "I'd only finished about half of the orchestral arrangements and the other half was all scraps flying around. So I spent ten days where I didn't get out of my bed in this hotel and I'd just order room service and occasionally I'd get up and do push ups or sit ups or something so that my body wasn't turning into a bag of shit. My sleeping patterns got really fucked up, because I'd eat a meal and then sleep for a couple hours and then work and then doze off and sleep for another couple hours, so I was really just working with these little naps all the time and it was really, really hard on me.
"Finally the day came and all the scores were done and Mark was arriving the next day, I printed them off, recorded the session [with the orchestra for Heartland], and that night I was so, like verklempt from the crazy experience of not leaving the hotel room for ten days. My brain was polluted with thoughts of self-doubt, like maybe the session didn't go so well. I was kind of listening to it, but I couldn't really hear it because none of it was mixed, and I was like, 'Oh no, this was a big mistake.' And this was a lot of money for me to sink into a record to get an orchestra to play on it. The next day, I was like, on the verge of tears all day, but had to put on a bright and sunny face to work with Mark. So, he'd be there and we'd be doing these Rumble Strips arrangements and he'd leave the room to talk to D'Angelo or whatever, and I'd be crying and crying and crying and he'd come back in and I'd wipe my eyes, and be like, 'Okay! Time to work!'" Pallett recalls, laughing. "It was such a gruelling experience, and I walked away from it thinking, 'Okay, I'm never going to make another orchestral record again.'"
The breakdown, it seems, was worth it. Heartland is Pallett's most ambitious record yet. Lewis's story weaves every song together lyrically, but the orchestral elements tell an auditory story as well. It's unlike any album you've ever owned. The opening bars of the sprightly "Midnight Detectives" introduce us to Lewis's world, and the music evokes discovery, immersing the listener into a new world where one's as likely to hear flutes and trumpets as synthesizers and violins.
The story, the repeating orchestral elements, and Pallett's soft voice combine to make the connective tissue between each song palpable, while still allowing for easy distinction between tracks. A few songs even sound as though they could find a home on a progressive radio station, such as the dark but whimsical "Lewis Takes Action," with its light-hearted '70s soundscape, or even the delicately propulsive and impossibly catchy "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt."
Whether Heartland actually makes the jump to mainstream remains to be seen, but a few high-profile friends and frequent collaborators have nothing but praise for Pallett's particular genius. Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara had worked with Pallett on Arcade Fire albums, but never on any of Pallett's solo material, and was eager to play on Heartland. But even he admits he didn't quite get it at first.
"I heard Heartland from demo, through recording, past overdubs, and during mixes," Gara says. "I'll be totally honest, I got lost in it at some point... didn't know how it would all work itself out. When I parted ways with the project, it was a bunch of great music. Since then, Owen's turned it into a great album."
John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats agrees. Pallett wrote the string arrangements for the Goats' last album, The Life of the World to Come, and Darnielle's admiration for Heartland goes beyond being a Final Fantasy fan.
"I think Owen's ear for a certain kind of wistful mood is pretty peerless," Darnielle says. "Kinda hate to compare him to John Cale, since the string-instrument parallel is so obvious, but I remember listening to the classic John Cale albums when I was a teenager and thinking, well, this is weird ― he's not angry, or mourning something, or possessed by teenage lust; he's somewhere knottier and more grown-up. Songs like 'Red Sun No. 5' from Heartland give me that same thornier-problems, deeper-waters feel, which you don't run across in pop music often outside of a few Pet Shop Boys songs here and there."
Accolades like this might provide a bit of hope that all of Pallett's efforts have paid off. Beyond the record's grandiose sounds, it also marks some major firsts for Pallett: His legendary live show is evolving with a new looping system and he's added another body to what has historically been a very solitary effort. Thomas Gill, who had also recorded with Pallett's co-producer Leon Taheny, has been touring with Pallett for the last year throughout Canada and the U.S.
"I was lonely on stage by myself so I wanted somebody else up there with me," Pallett says. "I'm hoping to integrate him into the creative process, but for now, he's just singing backups, playing some percussion and playing a mean guitar. He is a guitar virtuoso and I'm seriously under-utilizing him."
He's also releasing Heartland under his own name, having decided to ditch the Final Fantasy moniker after years of dancing around Square Enix's copyright (the company develops the Final Fantasy video games). Plus, Pallett confesses, it's the first record he's actually made for other people.
"I've always been a little surprised that people are kinda into my music," he laughs. "Up until Heartland, I haven't really felt like I was making records for people. I'm really proud of it. I don't think I've heard anything like it before. I'm nervous about it coming out though... there's a lot of hubris involved in this. I even kind of sing about it on the last song, 'What Do You Think Will Happen Now?' This is meant to be a love letter, it creates this thing that ought not to exist, 'cause I get it. This record might have been able to sell a million records in 1973, but it's not in that position by any stretch of the imagination. I was kind of aware I was leaving myself open, but I fuckin' love albums that make these grand statements. Maybe next year I'll make pop singles, but this is kinda what I want to do."
Pallett's decision to make an orchestral pop album might flout mainstream conventions, but it's actually in keeping with Canada's recent biggest musical export. Arcade Fire, with whom Pallett collaborates frequently, are considered one of the biggest bands in the world, and are often classified as orchestral pop or baroque rock. Over the last decade, they've helped lift the curtain on Canada's music scene, shining a giant spotlight on acts like Feist, Broken Social Scene, and Pallett himself. But bring up the topic of increasing international acclaim for Canadian musicians, and Pallett can't help but get his back up.
"I don't know. I like me some Broken Social Scene, but fuck that. International acclaim? Carey Mercer still has to work for a living and Black Out Beach has the best fucking record ever produced, and Hank and Deep Dark United, I don't see any international acclaim for those guys, so good for Stars and Broken Social Scene and Land of Talk, because I love those bands, but I think Canada really needs to start boosting some of these real fucking talents that are just being criminally overlooked by everyone." He's quiet for a moment, and then bursts into laughter, admitting that this is a touchy subject. "That was such a harsh response!"
Pallett admits he's already mentally moved on to the next album, aching to perform new songs he hasn't even recorded yet. He's not one to linger in any one moment for too long, and after spending much of the last four years of helping other people add flesh to the bones of their projects, he's ready to focus on himself and a post-Heartland world.
"I'm a little bit sick of collaborating with people," Pallett says. "Last year, I realized I wanted much more time with my own album. I'm 30 years old and I've got ten years of touring before it starts getting back breaking. I can do film scoring, I can do collaborative work at anytime in my life. I want to make albums."