It’s hard not to love Owen Pallett.
It’s the music that gets you first. There is a fiercely compelling quality to the songs penned by the Toronto violinist. And once drawn in, small tastes of Pallett’s personality — during live performances or radio broadcasts — has most listeners hooked. Deeply personable and amusingly self-effacing, the young musician is quite willing to spill his guts on all the biggies — whether music, sex, religion, cooking, pop culture and social theories.
Pallett’s solo project Final Fantasy (a tribute to the Japanese videogame series of which he is a fan) eases in and out of melodramatic baroque pop. Amidst the swells of evocative strings, the lyrics are intimate, sometimes confessional and always part of a bigger concept.
Still, to dissect Pallett’s music is hardly to do it justice. What it comes down to is this — somehow, despite the melodrama of the songs and Pallett’s quavering voice, the music is touchingly beautiful.
It may seem a crazy idea to take a fantasy role-playing video-game and translate it into compositions for a string quartet but that’s exactly what Pallett did in 2006. He even managed to come up with an unforgettable and seemingly unrelated album name, He Poos Clouds (yes, you’re allowed to laugh. Pallett certainly did.)
“I came up with the title one night when I was being drunk and cute. A couple of my friends take credit for the title, too, which is possible. When I get wasted I like to write down my incoherent ramblings before I go to sleep. Then, when I wake up, it’s fun to read them. So, one morning I woke up, opened my notebook and it said, “The name of the second album is He Poos Clouds.”
Pallett believes that, like it or not, he is defined by his sexuality. The Final Fantasy sound, which is his appeal, has everything to do with being gay.
“I do have a theory,” he says. “I think that the gayness of the artist is reflected in the art, whether or not it’s political or sexy or has anything to do with gay sex. There will always be that whiff of anti-traditionalism.”
Still, as many have said, being gay is not enough. But virtuostic ability plus the creativity of an untraditional life — is the key to Pallett’s music.
Pallett’s own music is the farthest thing from traditional and he likes it that way. And having toured internationally, Pallett is grateful that he lives in a country where his offbeat art really stands out.
“Canada is very privileged in the gay culture scheme of things. We’re both accepting of homos and yet still pretty conservative, which, for gays and lesbians, is the perfect mix. I have this theory that one of the main goals of homosexuals is to be in constant opposition to the mainstream — to always remain counter-cultural. Right? So, Canada has it good for gays. We’re accepted here and can marry. But at the same time, the culture is pretty conservative, with our try-hard-to-be-cutting-edge architecture and our pedestrian film scene.”
The upcoming album promises to be no less unique than the last. Another concept album, this time with the simple title of Heartland, Pallett calls it an “epic, fantasy novel.” The story takes place in a fictitious kingdom of Spectrum and revolves around conversations between Pallett as the deity of the land and Lewis, a young religious zealot.
But if far-fetched fantasy just isn’t your thing, not to worry. Pallett layers string melodies through his electronic effects-pedal which results in a deeply lush sound with soaring violin melodies. Deities, kingdoms and zealots are only obvious if they are sought out.
As much as you may now be smitten by the lovely Pallett between his neat ideas and unique sound, the violinist is no longer easily swayed by the batting eyelashes of pretty boys in the crowd. Pallett and his long-term partner, Patrick Borjal recently exchanged engagement pants. No, that wasn’t a typo. The two stylish boys thought making a personal commitment to each other would be the perfect excuse to buy some new trousers.
“We’re both monogamous at heart. We did some cheating but eventually we had to stop. See, when you’re on tour, there are more opportunities for hooking up than when you’re at home. So it was unfair to Patrick. These days we’re faithful.”
Pants off and aside, perhaps an even bigger sign of commitment was Borjal becoming Pallett’s manager and publicist. And since then, things have gone swimmingly. Only problem is, Pallett’s sometimes too busy with gooey-ness to focus on writing for Heartland. Still, that domestic bliss has an upside.
“Patrick books all my flights for me, which is nice. But most of my ‘writing time’ is now spent going for walks, cooking for each other and watching Ugly Betty. So I’m writing less. At the same time, if I look back on the songs I was writing before I met Patrick, they were all so sad! Like, so sad!”
Incredibly, the 2006 album, which took the eight schools of magic in Dungeons & Dragons and translated them into lyrical day to day phenomena, managed to win the 2006 Polaris prize. Many were not surprised. Pallet apparently was.
Chosen by music journalists the Polaris Music Prize is an award annually given to the best full-length Canadian album based on artistic merit, regardless of genre, sales, or record label. Pallett is still not reconciled to his win. “I don’t think I really deserved to win and so I harbour strange, bipolar feelings about the experience. I’m not being self-effacing. I just can’t believe that a roomful of people thought He Poos Clouds was better than Destroyer’s Rubies.”
Despite the what some might consider an alienating concept and a sweetly silly album title, He Poos Clouds was voted Best Album of 2006 and Pallett received a $20 000 cheque as his prize. Not bad for a couch-surfing, gay artist.
What this win suggests is that Pallett could write about just about anything. His talent and blatant fringe creativity would likely shine through regardless. He doesn’t even come from necessarily gifted musical genes.