You might not know it from listening to the baroque synth-pop of his latest album, In Conflict, but Owen Pallett, orchestral arranger for Arcade Fire, loves Alanis Morissette. On tour recently, he was given the opportunity to sing “You Oughta Know,” the lead single from Morissette’s best-selling Jagged Little Pill. Each night on the tour, Arcade Fire played a song it deemed relevant to the city it was in; Seattle got “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and in Ottawa, Morissette’s hometown, the band suggested he sing her breakthrough hit. Pallett (also Canadian) was thrilled.
Once the group started soundchecking, however, it became clear that each party had a different attitude about the song. “They were telling me it was too reverential,” he recalled recently during a phone call from his Montreal home. He then remembers replying, “I am not singing this song from any point of irony! She’s a brilliant songwriter; she’s sold more records than you guys, and has more radio hits than you guys. So it’s reverence or it’s nothing!” In the end it was nothing: The band scrapped the idea entirely.
The story illuminates the heart of Pallett’s appeal: He makes the music he wants to without worrying about its cool factor—an approach that worked in his favor when he and Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler were nominated for an Oscar for the score for Her. Pallett is the underdog you want to root for, one who willfully resists pressure to fit in. “People have all sorts of biases,” he says about conformity in hip-hop, metal, and other genres. “This is why I’m very content with pop music. We take all kinds.”
Pallett grew up a musical outsider, the product of an early interest in classical music that started at age 3 when he picked up the violin. Growing up in Mississauga, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, Pallett didn’t regularly attend concerts or fit in with a music scene. “It didn’t feel like I could participate in the fundamental currency of how music works,” he says. But being an outsider had its advantages, and Pallett learned to seek new paths toward a relationship with music.
While studying music composition at the University of Toronto, things came into focus. He began to combine his love of the violin with his passion for pop, taking on arrangement projects that eventually led him to orchestration work for bands like Arcade Fire, R.E.M., and The National. He released his first album, Has a Good Home, in 2005 under the name Final Fantasy, and the next year won Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize for He Poos Clouds, a heavy tome about confronting death that includes thematic references to Dungeons & Dragons, The Legend of Zelda, and The Chronicles of Narnia. In other words, not exactly your average pop album.
In May, under his own name, Pallett released his fourth full-length, In Conflict, which Rolling Stone dubbed “a pop treasure”—and which, for the first time, finds Pallett laying himself bare, no longer keeping himself at arm’s length from his song’s protagonists. “I’ll never have any children,” he confesses on “I Am Not Afraid,” the album’s cinematic opener. “I would bear them and confuse them, my children/My salvation is found in discipline, discipline.”
That discipline has kept Pallett an in-demand arranger, finding work filling in the gaps when less formally trained musicians can’t deliver. Though he doesn’t see it that way. Pallett says an intuitive approach to songwriting is just as valuable as his ability to read and score music. “I got into [arranging] because I had a real aptitude for it,” he says. “It was the thing that clearly I was good at, in the same way that I was clearly not a good soccer player.”
Well, who can be good at everything? Owen Pallett With Avi Buffalo, Foxes in Fiction. Neumos, 925 E. Pike St., 709-9442, neumos.com. $17 adv./$20 DOS. All ages. 9 p.m. Mon., Sept. 8.