Owen Pallett

Toronto through the eyes of Owen Pallett

Owen Pallett immediately brings to mind Toronto's reputation as an indie music stronghold. Formerly the force behind Final Fantasy, winner of the first ever Polaris Prize in 2006, the composer and violinist is now a solo artist and a remarkably busy musician, touring and collaborating with the likes of Arcade Fire, The Mountain Goats, The National, and even Taylor Swift and Duran Duran.

It's less likely that Pallett's name would bring to mind ballet, but that's exactly what he's set his hands on this fall. The National Ballet of Canada's new series Innovation will present the words of four Canadian choreographers starting next week, including Toronto choreographer Robert Binet's Unearth, a half hour long dance which features an original score by Pallett.

While chatting about his work on Unearth, and his take on Toronto, Pallett also dropped some news on us about his upcoming 2014 album, and some interesting opinions about Toronto's burgeoning music festival scene. While the condo-jaded (and who isn't) musician has been living in Montreal for about a year, Pallett's love of the city (especially Kensington Market) and his ties to the Toronto music scene will always remain undeniable.

Owen Pallett

What can you tell us about Unearth, the ballet you scored for Innovation?

It began as a lark. Robert and I were giddily throwing ideas at each other. Harpsichord drones, sci-fi soprano, Star Trek costuming! It's Robert's first large-form work and I'm still what is considered a "young composer" so we're flushed with excitement - lots of action, lots of info. It is already looking so good. I went to the piano rehearsal and immediately called all my cousins and was all "get down here".

What was it like scoring a ballet? Had you ever done it before?

I haven't written dance music before, no. My first time! I listen to a lot of ballet, though, have many ballet scores. I know the drill. I e-mailed Nico Muhly about it and he said "ballet is easy, ballet is fun, just make sure you're always changing the tempi so the dancers don't get comfy". I sent Robert a bunch of rhythmic ideas, like, 15 of them or so, with the intention of expanding the ones he liked into full statements. He liked all of them, so I went from there.

How is scoring a ballet different than scoring a film?

Scoring a ballet is a jog in the woods. Scoring a film is running around hideous tourists in a rickshaw and then bickering about the fee.

Thinking back, what are some of the most meaningful collaborations you've done over the years?

Arcade Fire have been the most meaningful collaborators... they argue with me, challenge me and support me. I grew up with a solid idea of music-as-art, they introduced me to music-as-industry; a very necessary lesson for anybody trying to make music, for any purpose. More recently I worked with Brian Eno on my new record, he was singing backing vocals and doing treatments and synth work, and that was thrilling. I also have to shout-out my long-time collaborators, Matt Smith and Robbie Gordon, my partners in Les Mouches and the foundation of my current solo music.

What is an average day like for you?

Typically I spend the morning with coffee and oatmeal, writing lyrics and enjoying the internet. I visit the gym every day at 10:30 am, not for the guns, but to keep the crazy away. I write and/or record all afternoon but stop around 6 or 7pm and cook dinner while listening to records. In the evening I'll have cocktails with friends or see a concert or stay in and play video games. I do not take days off, except once a month to go shopping, and in the winter, when I might take a few days of skiing.

You've lived in Toronto your whole life, right? What do you think has changed for the better about the city over the last 10 years?

I moved to Montreal last year after 15 years of living in Toronto. In Toronto, not so much has changed for the better in the past 10 years. Condos, man, those condos? They're selling young adults and new Canadians into fiscal slavery.

Why did you finally make the move?

Lots of reasons, the biggest one was simply that I'd lived in Toronto for 15 years and felt that it was no longer showing me anything new. I tried out Montreal for a few months and immediately fell in love with the amount of space that my modest budget afforded me, the music scene, and the winter weather - cold and snowy and dry, as opposed to Toronto's medium-cold and slushy and wet.

What do you miss most about Toronto?

Chinese Traditional Buns in Kensington Market.

How could Toronto be more supportive of the artists living here?

I don't know! That is such a complicated question! Fundamentally, the biggest issues facing artists in Toronto have less to do with arts funding, and more to do with the quality of life and living space that is offered.

What Toronto neighbourhood still feels most like home to you, what are some of your favourite spots?

My favourite neighbourhood is Kensington. I became an adult there - or, at least, I prolonged my adolescence there for many years. My favourite meal in the city is the soup and salad plate at Hibiscus. I like Xe Lua and Chinese Traditional Buns. I like the Mexican and Colombian food. I love every coffee place, even that place with all the Jimmies on the walls.

I love Paul's Boutique, I love Urban Herbivore, I love Sneaky Dee's. I love walking up Major St. from College to Bloor late at night to go to see Ryan Driver play at the Tranzac. I love Double Double Land, I love Rainbow Palace, I love Kinton, I love Konnichiwa, I love the Grange Park, I love swimming for free at Harrison Pool.

What are some Toronto places that hold the strongest memories for you?

Too many to mention. I would walk around Toronto and feel burdened by the weight of nostalgia. Mostly dark dance parties at 56 Kensington and Thymeless.

Owen Pallett

What was the last really great show you saw in Toronto, and what was memorable about it?

Alex Lukashevsky and Thom Gill at the Holy Oak. I have seen both men perform dozens of times but I remember every show, every detail. In my opinion, they're the two greatest musicians in the city.

What's the best live setting to see a band or musician you love? Can you name some venues around Toronto that are your favourites?

A lot of people would disagree with me on this, but I like The Horseshoe. It's a great sounding room and the staff are fantastic and it's the right mix of comfy and filthy. I like the new Koerner Hall, and of course Massey Hall is the greatest concert hall in North America.

How do you think Toronto's music scene stacks up against other major cities?

There was a wonderful period from 2002-'06 when the indie music scene in Toronto was the best in the world, but that period is nearly 10 years past. The classical and new music scene in Toronto is excellent and I am constantly seeing world-class chamber and symphonic performances. I am also a big fan of the COC.

Did you go to any Toronto music festivals this summer? If yes, which were the best and why?

I generally don't like Toronto music festivals. What is this "Urban Roots" festival that features only straight white men? I like Caribana and I liked ALL CAPS!

Your Twitter account is a riot. Who are some of your favourite people to follow or banter with?

Thank you! I have fun with it, but I've been taking it easy until the new record is out. Twitter hibernation. The best Twitter account of all time was of course @UtilityLimb, but also I like @rare_basement. I follow a lot of music writers because I like to see them bicker: Maura Johnston and Alex MacPherson. I really love @joshbupkes but I'm not gonna tell you why.

What else are you working on right now?

I am touring as a member of Arcade Fire, that is occupying most of my time these days. I have finished my fourth solo album and it's really good! It will be out in 2014 on Secret City Records. I am doing some work with two other ex-Torontonians, Dan Snaith and Warren Hildebrand. That's about it!

The National Ballet of Canada's Innovation featuring Unearth as scored by Owen Pallett runs from November 22-28.

Lead photo by by Ryan Pfluger courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada. Live photos by Dylan Leeder and Staciaann Photography

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