Owen Pallett: The Consummate Musician, In Conflict Last year, Owen Pallett played on Arcade Fire's Reflektor and picked up an Oscar nomination for his score for Her. The songwriter explains the tensions at work on his highly personal new solo album.

Owen Pallett: The Consummate Musician, In Conflict

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Now, an Oscar-nominated composer, his brief dalliance as a music critic and his brand-new record. This spring, music critics were bickering about the state of their industry. The conversation was kicked off by this Daily Beast headline - music criticism has degenerated into lifestyle reporting. The article said, these days, music reporting is more about gossip and clothes than talent and song structure. Amid all the debate, here's a voice that stood out - composer Owen Pallett. He says he could relate to the frustration with music industry media coverage.

OWEN PALLETT: I do feel like it's a little bit frustrating when you read a review, and nobody picks up on, you know, how great I placed that mic on that snare drum. You know what I'm saying?

CORNISH: So Owen Pallett, fresh off his nomination for scoring the soundtrack to the movie, "Her," decided to write his own pop music criticism. He did three reviews for Slate from a musician's point of view. He dissected the chord structure of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and the chorus of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream." Now, Pallett is out with his own new album.


PALLETT: (Singing) Charity think no evil, and charity never fail. Let me feed you with a song. I'm out on the street with an open case and a mandolin. With every coin, I'm born again.

CORNISH: The music is called "In Conflict," so we invited Owen Pallett to chat about music-writing and about writing music. And we started with his article about Lady Gaga.

PALLETT: The thing is about Gaga that - a lot of people, I think, wondered what was a big deal about her. What distinguished her from other artists. And the charge that was constantly laid at her, especially in the "Fame" era, was just that all of her singles sounded the same.


LADY GAGA: (Singing) Let's play a love game, play a love game. Do you want love or you want fame?...


LADY GAGA: (Singing) Luck and intuition. Play the cards with spades to start...


LADY GAGA: (Singing) I'm your biggest fan. I'll follow you until you love me. Papa-paparazzi...

PALLETT: And I think that that was exactly what was so effective about Gaga and the way that she came out and why she had some new number one singles - was that all of the songs did sound the same. All in a minor key. They were all rooted around this insistence of one. They were all, like, that is the one chord that the song is in. They were all similar tempo. They were all were not reliant about a ton of syncopation. All these things kind of created this almost inescapable monolith of musical language, if that makes any sense to you.

CORNISH: It does, it does. Which of those songs do you think exemplifies a Gaga song, in terms of music theory?

PALLETT: Well, for me, the top of the heap was really "Bad Romance."


LADY GAGA: (Singing) Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh...

PALLETT: "Bad Romance," in fact, kind of broke a bunch of the rules. But because we were so used to "Paparazzi" and "Love Game" and "Poker Face" and this sort of, like - this particular way that a Gaga song functions. When she broke those rules on "Bad Romance," it just created a much more effective and powerful song. And I think it will be regarded as the peak of her catalog 20 years from now.


LADY GAGA: (Singing) Want your bad romance. Ra-ra, ah-ah-ah-ah. Ro-ma, ro-ma-ma. Gaga, oo-la-la. Want your bad romance...

CORNISH: How hard was this? I don't know what it was like actually trying to sit down and write about these songs in this way and dissect them in this way.

PALLETT: The hard part about writing these articles was finding the right language that was going to be both examining the songs in a way that was going to be interesting on a music theoretical level, but also going to be readable by anybody. And it took a lot out of me. I'll be honest. Like, the Gaga piece was kind of two days of just, like, complete mental focus. And so I knew I couldn't get much further than just doing three of them. And also, I think, too, in order to really write effectively about these songs, you kind of have to pick songs that are so ingrained in people's consciousness that, A, they're interested and, B, they know what you're talking about.

CORNISH: Were talking with Owen Pallett. His new album is called "In Conflict." I want to get back to some of your music. For instance, the song "The Riverbed."


PALLETT: (Singing) Heart, heart in your mouth. Hand on the paper, with the new work that you found. The gift of your depression weighs you down, down, down...

CORNISH: So, Owen Pallett, help us understand this song, "The Riverbed," through music theory.

PALLETT: With this song, "The Riverbed," I wanted to have this insistent E-flat five chord - just this E-flat and B-flat, repeated over and over again. To be so insistent of this. To create this almost monomaniacal quality, that the song was not really going to go anywhere. And then, as the song goes on, then the bass descends and violins go up. And then, eventually, the orchestra comes in at the end, to kind of create this starting from one point and the verging outward in both directions.


PALLETT: It was meant to sound almost as if, like, you were seeing curtains open up very, very slowly.

CORNISH: Now talk a little bit about this song, "On A Path."


PALLETT: (Singing) You stand in a city that you don't know anymore, spending every year bent over the from the weight of the year before.

CORNISH: In a way, it's sort of a heavy song, when you think about those lyrics. About - bent over from the weight of the year before.

PALLETT: Lyrically, that song was inspired by existing for 15 years in the city of Toronto, where I had just really spent the best years of my life and come into myself as a human being. And was entered into this beautiful music scene that would, in retrospect, be referred to Torontopia. But then, as I approach my thirties, I saw the scene kind of dissolve, and it just felt as if my entire collection of memories had made it unable for me to really form new experiences in the same city. I was drawing upon my own sort of dysphoria of place, but referring to anyone who kind of feels like they've spent too long in one place.


PALLETT: (Singing) So why didn't you say, why didn't you say so when you could see? We got to call the whole thing off, get out before the drop.

CORNISH: I read that you have been writing music since you were a little kid - like, under 10. Is a true?

PALLETT: Yeah. I mean, nothing you'd want to hear.


PALLETT: I have a memory of being six years old and composing little things coming out of my PC internal speaker using Basic, you know. And kind of speeding up the sample rate using this thing called VMware or something to get three-voice chords coming out of the computer. I don't know. It's, like, really elementary stuff, looking back on it.

CORNISH: No, but this is interesting, 'cause I thought you'd bring up the violin, but instead you're talking about computer programs...

PALLETT: Computers.

CORNISH: ...Which kind of gives me some context about old you are.

PALLETT: Yeah, that's the thing about, you know, there's a story you tell about growing up the country - that, you know, you milk cows or something like that. But actually, no, you just use a computer a lot. (Laughing).

CORNISH: Owen Pallett - his new album is called "In Conflict." Owen Pallett, thanks so much for talking with us.

PALLETT: It was such a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.


PALLETT: (Singing) Sorceress, valkyrie, you let, you let yourself believe.

CORNISH: Owen Pallett drew up a playlist for us - songs he was listening to while he was composing his new album. You'll find it on Spotify. Just search for NPR ATC.


PALLETT: (Singing) There is nothing to lose. There is nothing to lose. There is nothing to lose. Hey, hey, hey. Remember when you told me all about your father-ghost?

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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