Owen Pallett has come full circle. The acclaimed musician, who first gained popular appeal and critical praise performing under the musical moniker Final Fantasy, has reverted to using his given name in recent years. At the same time, he has become increasingly involved in the classical music world where he began. Despite this return to classical roots, one suspects that Owen Pallett will always be the poster child for avant-garde orchestral pop.
A bit of a child prodigy, Pallett began studying classical violin as a mere toddler and wrote his first composition when barely into his teens. He composed two operas while studying music at the University of Toronto and went on to score music for films and video games. Pallett's fascination with gaming comes through in both the use of Final Fantasy as a solo project moniker and in the general feel of his lush yet arcade-influenced music. As he was later to realize, however, sharing a name with a popular video game does present a certain set of challenges beyond the obvious issues with Googleability.
A subtext of gay culture threads its way through much of Pallett's music. Although he does not write specifically about his sexuality, the musician has stated that his sexuality influences his work insofar as it informs his reality.
Owen Pallett spent the early part of his musical career playing in a handful of bands in the Toronto area. Long a collaborator with other musicians, the list of bands upon whose albums he has played or has done string arrangements, is nothing short of mindboggling. Perhaps one of Canada's most connected musicians, he has contributed to albums by Arcade Fire, the National, the Hidden Cameras, Beirut, Grizzly Bear, Immaculate Machine, Stars, the Mountain Goats, Taylor Swift, Great Lake Swimmers, Jim Guthrie, Diamond Rings, Snow Patrol, R.E.M., etc, etc, etc.
Under the name Final Fantasy, Pallett released his debut album Has a Good Home in 2005 with the □□□□□□ (Blocks) Recording Club collective, where he is a founding member. Has a Good Home came out at a time when the integration of classical elements into pop music was just starting to pique a lot of interest. Pallett's virtuosity with violin, viola and keyboards, combined with his creative multi-phonic looping technique and his ethereal voice floating over strings and blips, made for a refreshingly compelling sound. In live performances, the strikingly handsome, eternally youthful performer mesmerized audiences.
Some of the tracks on Has a Good Home give a clever insiders' nod to the gaming world, borrowing video game sounds and imparting the general feel of life inside a sonic arcade. On the track “This is the Dream of Win and Regine,” Pallett pays homage to the Arcade Fire members for whose albums Pallett had arranged orchestral sections, and to an existing Dntel song.
Pallett continued his gaming theme with Final Fantasy's sophomore album He Poos Clouds, which was released in 2006. Eight of the ten songs on the album reference the school of magic described in Dungeons and Dragons.
When He Poos Clouds won the 2006 inaugural Polaris Music Prize, Pallett gave most of the $20,000 prize money to □□□□□□ Recording Club, in order to benefit other Canadian bands, citing discomfort with accepting money from a mobile phone multinational. The gesture was an early example of the musician's creative approach to resolving personal conflict by benefiting the greater good. When one of the songs from He Poos Clouds was unintentionally sold for ad purposes, Pallett donated the proceeds to Doctors Without Borders. When another of his songs was used without permission, rather than litigating, Pallett approached the offending company for sponsorship of a music festival. The result was the Maximum Black Festival, which played in Vienna, Berlin and London in 2007.
Pallett released three thematic Final Fantasy EPs over the next couple of years. The EP Spectrum, 14th Century, was a collaboration with several members of Beirut, andwas set in the same fictional land that would be the setting for the 2010 Heartland album.
Heartland was released under Owen Pallett's own name, following a prod from the makers of the Final Fantasy video game series. Prior to the album's release, Pallett issued a statement on his website stating voluntary retirement of the name under which he had garnered critical acclaim, as well as a large fan base. The move, if anything, only served to solidify Pallett's brand.
Heartland was met with critical acclaim, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Polaris Music Prize and nominated for alternative album in the 2011 Juno Awards. Set in the fictional territory of Spectrum, the album is constructed around the violent narrative surrounding a farmer named Lewis and his relationship with an omnipotent being named Owen. It is not the first time that Owen Pallett has injected himself into his songs. Notably, his debut album contains a track entitled “Learn to Keep Your Mouth Shut, Owen Pallett”.
In true Canadian fashion, Owen Pallett worked an extended stint as musical director for CBC Radio's Vinyl Cafe, a touring gig which introduced the musician to an entirely new demographic of listeners. A recent co-commission by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Barbican Theatre in London saw Pallett's Violin Concerto premiere in London, followed by a North American premiere at Toronto's New Creations Festival. Recently Pallett delighted his ravenous fanbase with the announcement that he is working on a new album, In Conflict, which is expected to be released this year.
With a foot solidly planted in both indie pop and classical music camps, Owen Pallett is fast becoming a national treasure. The madly gifted perfectionist with a penchant for slightly subversive songs has depths of talent that we are only just beginning to see.