Owen Pallett on angels, the country and Czech orchestras

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the music of Toronto’s Owen Pallett — classical violinist, composer, founder of Final Fantasy (a name under which he no longer performs) and occasional member of Arcade Fire — is its embrace of dichotomous tensions. Take, for example, his latest album Heartland, which Pallett describes as a “pop album that [has] a narrative.”

This narrative focuses on a farmer named Lewis and his “changing opinions and relationships with the setting and characters, and also with myself as the singer,” according to Pallett. “[Lewis] is basically the opposite of everything I am. [ . . . ] He has a very strong physical disposition, but mostly he’s a theist, where I am not.”  

This tension in Heartland has a parallel in Pallett himself, who has a complex relationship with the idea of theism. “It’s horrible and it’s wonderful,” he said. “As an atheist, I feel an incredible attraction to theism. [ . . . ] I had a few drinks last night. There was a moment when I was just sitting there just thinking about how wonderful it would be to believe that we are going to be angels, that we will have wings and be flying around in the sky, and I was just overcome with emotion.”

According to Pallett, Heartland also addresses another contrast: “The difference between actual America and our perception of rural America.”

“Most people who aren’t from the red states kind of get the red states wrong,” he said. “That’s my impression of it.” Pallett feels a significant connection to the country. “The house that I grew up in was decidedly out in the country,” he said. “Although I am living in the city, I don’t think I’m ever going to be completely divorced from the country.”

Yet Heartland’s somewhat pastoral subject matter belies its cosmopolitan production. The album was produced with the aid of the Czech Symphony Orchestra and Greenhouse, Valgeir Siggurdsson’s studio in Iceland, though Pallett did not begin writing with either necessarily in mind. “My problem with Heartland is that I had written material, but I had kind of shirked on the preproduction,” he said, “which is to say that I had all the songs demoed, but I didn’t really know for sure how I was going to record it.”

Rather counterintuitively, Pallett enlisted the services of an orchestra in an attempt to match his live solo performances. “The majority of songs on Heartland began their lives in concert, as songs that I was playing live, just by myself with looped violin and Thomas [Gill], my guitarist,” he said. “The orchestra was the tool that was going to allow me to take these live performances, but on a wider spectrum of sonic information, and hopefully recreate some of the intensity of the live performances.”

That the orchestra was in the Czech Republic was mere necessity, said Pallett. “I can afford an orchestra in the Czech Republic, whereas I cannot actually afford to hire my friends in Toronto,” he said. “There’s simply no way of recording an orchestra in Toronto — or anywhere else in Canada, as far as I know — without either flying in the face of union regulations or paying through the nose.”

The circumstances that led to Heartland’s being recorded in Iceland were similarly accidental. “Initially, we were scheduled to do it with Chris Taylor in New York, in his studio,” said Pallett, but Taylor found himself overbooked and was unable to record Heartland. Pallett, still without a studio, played a show in Reykjavik and, afterward, visited “The Greenhouse,” where Siggurdsson lives and works. It was Pallett’s boyfriend who first suggested that he make Heartland there.

“My boyfriend, Patrick [Borjal], who was with us and who rarely has any sort of suggestions regarding the sort of aesthetics of recording or anything, he took me aside and said ‘Why don’t you record your record here? This is the most amazing space.’” Pallett took his advice. “It was so fantastic” he said. “I’d do it again.”

Owen Pallett plays at the Gas Station Theatre Oct. 28.