In between sound check and a late-night performance, the Canadian synth-pop virtuoso Owen Pallett is answering questions about his past and offering some insight into his future.
The Polaris Prize gala is approaching and his most recent album, In Conflict, is one of the 10 finalists. The Polaris is familiar territory for Pallett. This is his third appearance on the short list, and back in 2006 he won the inaugural Polaris for his album He Poos Clouds, recorded under the moniker Final Fantasy.
While he believes the intentions of the Polaris Prize – which will be awarded Monday night – are good, and says he has no mixed feelings about participating, Pallett remains in conflict, if you will, about the concept of such competitions in general.
"I'm having increasingly the opinion that any sort of pretense toward objective criticism only continues to support a patriarchal structure and a capitalist structure. I was happy to participate and I believe that being a part of it did bring more people to my music and bring more people to my fellow nominees. … But ultimately I think that it's kind of a bit of an affectatious sort of thing to have a competition for albums."
Pallett didn't accept the prize money in 2006 – he had "personal and political problems" with the sponsor that year (Rogers Wireless and Rogers Yahoo Hi-Speed Internet). But I wondered if the win provided a different kind of windfall – validation.
"When you put records in competition with each other then what you're actually doing is trying to find ways of putting them down," he says. "It's a very unnatural way of introducing people to music – to give them a list of records that they have to check out and evaluate. … The winnowing process that follows is essentially just a kind of popularity contest and only further marginalizes these people that this award was set out to not marginalize."
Then again, he adds, it puts money into artists' hands – and it's a great party. "Talking about Polaris kind of makes me feel like a … grump or something. And I'm not at all. I'm super positive about it. It's just different from the actual music-making."
Pallett, 35, grew up outside Toronto "obsessed" with Pachelbel and Purcell at 3 – the same age he started studying violin; then Bach's Double Concerto at 4 or 5 – he began piano lessons at 5; and by the time he was 6, he was getting into Bartok and atonal, "weirder" new music. At 9 or 10, rap became the new obsession, followed by "typical gay stuff" – Tori Amos, Bjork.
He brings a sophisticated yet accessible sort of genius to his records – complex orchestral/electronic alt-pop art music; innovative, deeply thought out and gorgeously conceived. He has collaborated with all kinds of musicians (Taylor Swift, the National, Arcade Fire – of course), has composed for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the National Ballet of Canada, and he co-wrote the soundtrack for Spike Jonze's film Her, for which he and Arcade Fire's Will Butler were nominated for an Oscar this year (he's conflicted about that nomination, too).
He has written thoughtful essays, published by Slate, applying musical theory to dissect pop hits by the likes of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Daft Punk.
Onstage, as in interviews, he is a fascinating mixture of musical brilliance and earnest intensity – his calm demeanour juxtaposed with his screaming violin as he plays to loops he creates live on stage. At a recent show in Vancouver, his first Canadian date on this tour, he interacted with the crowd and tore up the stage – even from a stationary position. It was 11:30 on a school night and the place was packed, the audience rapt.
It was another "real 10 out of 10" show that Pallett performed in Norway at a festival curated by Brian Eno (who invited Pallett on the strength of his previous album Heartland) that led to Eno's participation on In Conflict. After the gig, Pallett recalls, Eno told him "it was the best show he had seen in many, many years." They stayed in touch and Pallett asked if he would work on the record. Eno agreed, and sings backup vocals and plays synth on one track and guitar on another.
"After working on the record, he told me that he was currently in a bit of a dry spell with his lyrics and he found my lyrics very inspirational and it kind of loosened his brain a little bit," says Pallett (who, when I first asked about Eno, elected to speak glowingly instead about Mark Lawson, who recorded In Conflict in Montreal).
"Having [Eno] say he wanted to work on the record and then thank me afterwards and talk to me about what about the record inspired him – these are all things I will basically remember until I'm dead with a smile on my face."
Pallett, who moved to Montreal from Toronto about 18 months ago, has written a bunch of music for his next project – but very little in the way of lyrics, and he's unsure at this point whether it will be cloaked in the fantasy and metaphor of his earlier records or whether it will be more direct.
But we may never hear him explain it. Toward the end of our dressing-room conversation, he reveals that he's thinking of just not doing interviews for his next record. He says talking about his music is "absolutely agonizing."
And yet he does it so well.
"Part of the reason I wrote In Conflict was I was noticing a lot of similarities between bipolar disorder and the creative process," he explains at one point, citing neurological journals and bipolar friends.
"When you are first in the moment of creation, when you're actually writing the song, you get an incredible manic thrill. Part of the reason you have this manic thrill is you're able to see an indefinite number of futures ahead of you with how the song will turn out. … So when you're in that moment of creation, you're at the top of the world; you feel like this incredible manic state that's super, super positive. And basically every stage that follows as the record comes more and more together and you see more possible worlds closing, and you're at that final stage where you're putting out the record, and now this stage where I'm talking about it, you kind of get lower and lower and lower, and forget exactly why it is you made this music in the first place."
The 2014 Polaris Music Prize gala is at 8 p.m. on Sept. 22 at the Carlu in Toronto. It will be streamed live at Aux.tv and SiriusXM satellite radio.