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Owen Pallett: The hipster's hipster

Pallett says his formal studies in classical music were at times as frustrating as inspiring.

Ryan Pfluger

If you were a robot scanning this paragraph for keywords, I would want to include the following: Owen Pallett, Final Fantasy and poo. Definitely poo, because Pallett, an indie musician who till recently recorded as Final Fantasy, broke into many people's awareness when he won the inaugural Polaris Prize in 2006 with He Poos Clouds, an album whose title seemed to appeal equally to hipsters and preschoolers.

Now that we're in the second paragraph, I'm going to drop the Final Fantasy part, because Pallett recently decided it's no longer fun to share a name with a massively popular video game populated by elves and robots. Role-playing and fantasy, however, remains a big part of his third solo album, Heartland, in which he mostly plays the part of offstage hero.

"I wanted to write songs in an environment not based on our world," he said, during a phone interview in advance of his current 16-show Canadian tour, which reaches Fredericton tomorrow night. Heartland is a place of romance and conquest, where adventurers spur their horses on to places with Gothic-sounding names (Avenroe, the Fortress of Alpentine), and where 14th-century conquerors boast about "red soil for the taking / ruddy women for your brides."

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"I got interested in the nature of colonization, and was absorbing a lot of exploratory stuff, like Magellan's journals and Darwin's writings from Gallapagos, as well as Moby-Dick and stuff like that," Pallett said. "I'm writing as creator of a fictional world, but also as a colonizer. All the figures in this world do what I tell them."

Sometimes he tells them to thwart him, to push him away, even to stab him in the face. "I drove the iron spike in Owen's eyes," the protagonist sings in Lewis Takes Off His Shirt, after musing on the "the odds of an adolescent standing up to Owen's wrath."

"Lewis is sort of an archetype of people I know and like, former lovers and family members who I don't harbour any feelings of sexual affection for," Pallett says. It goes almost without saying that in Heartland, every image of worldly conquest is also about love, sex and personal relationships.

Pallett wrote about himself in the third person partly because he's intrigued by the pronouns and terms of endearment thrown around in so many pop songs. "I do think a lot about the way the Beatles use 'I' and 'you,' or about who R. Kelly sings his songs to," he said. "I wanted Lewis to be my 'baby.'"

When he's performing, Pallett's baby is probably his violin, which he has played since childhood (his father is a church organist). He pursued his classical studies through to a bachelor's degree at the University of Toronto, which probably did a lot for his writing and arranging skills (he has done string arrangements for Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Mountain Goats and many others), though his days in academe were not particularly happy.

"I studied composition with Gary Kulesha [the long-time composer adviser of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra] and he and I butted heads a lot of the time," Pallett said. "I was having a post-adolescent obsession with post-modern theory, and was having trouble identifying role models in the compositional community. It was a really interesting development, but I emerged a little disillusioned."

He wrote a short opera, based on a Eugène Ionesco play, that was produced in Toronto after his graduation in 2002, and the piece remains his proudest memory of that time - sort of.

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"I played it for my friend Nico Muhly about six months ago and was shocked by how juvenile it sounded," he said.

It seemed natural to Pallett to bring sounds and textures absorbed during his classical studies into his pop songs, as he joined and left three other bands before emerging with his first Final Fantasy album in 2005. It was his good fortune to come on the scene just as pop's fascination with classical was heating up.

Much of Heartland has a spacious, orchestral feeling - Pallett recorded the string tracks with an orchestra in Prague - though the scoring usually sounds (intentionally, I think) like an acoustic translation of something written on a synthesizer. Pallett's high, cool voice floats over the chunky surface of the instrumental rhythms like an elfin creature flying over the sea, and he often has a good melodic zephyr to carry him along. The man has a flair for distinctive tunes - not a common thing in pop these days. The rules of classic song-writing have left their mark on Pallett, who in most other ways seems like a hipster's hipster.

"This decade has turned all of us into hipsters," he said. "We all know everything about what everyone else is doing." And now you know just a little bit more.

Owen Pallett plays the McCain Hall Theatre in Fredericton tomorrow before touring to Halifax (Feb. 10 and 11), St. John's (Feb. 12), Kingston (Feb. 17), Wakefield, Que. (Feb. 18 and 19), Montreal (Feb. 20), Quebec City (Feb. 21), London, Ont. (Feb. 25), Brantford, Ont. (Feb. 26), Hamilton (Feb 27). He performs in Toronto April 8, in Vancouver May 9 and in Victoria May 10.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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