The Red Bulletin

How to score with Owen Pallett

The Canadian on his new album, making hits for Robbie Williams and scoring films with Arcade Fire.
Canadian composer, violinist, keyboardist and vocalist Owen Pallett.
Owen Pallett © Peter Juhl
By Florian Obkircher

Over the past ten years, Owen Pallett has earned a reputation as the Paganini of pop. In 2004, he signed up to play violin for Arcade Fire and has written all the string arrangements for their music. Now, other musicians, including Robbie Williams and The National, let him give their songs the symphonic once-over. But Pallett’s solo work is closest to his own heart. His emotional and melodically complex indie pop songs sound like Brian Eno accompanying the young David Bowie on a Stradivarius. In January, the 34-year-old Canadian’s score for the Spike Jonze movie Her (feat. Arcade Fire) was nominated for an Oscar and his fourth album, In Conflict, is out now.

When you’re not working on your own material you frequently write string arrangements for acts such as Arcade Fire, Linkin Park and Robbie Williams.
When I work for the client I’m concentrating on what they want and trying to figure out how I can best achieve the arrangement that they would write themselves, had they the knowledge of how to use a scoring software.

What’s your goal when you write arrangements for them?
My goal is the client’s goal. The important thing is just to set goals like, is there a venue you want to play? Is there a number of records you want to sell? Do you want a song to become a hit? If you do want the song to become a radio hit, you would arrange completely different than if you want to make something that you want people to listen to and digest steadily over a 20-year period for example.

© Peter Juhl

Can you give an example?
Often times when I’m hired, just because of the nature of the way that pop musicians view orchestral arrangements, they’re sending me their most broken tracks on the record. They send me the songs that they don’t know what to do with and hope that an orchestral arrangement would sort it out. Which is fine. But there’s times too, when they’d given me a song where it’s like, we want this song to be a hit single. That was the case with Robbie Williams’ Candy, for example, where the assignment was: hit single. And we did it, it was a hit! Yay!

How is it with your other sideline, writing film scores?
Typically when I’m writing scores on my own I’m often employed at very early stages, prior even to shooting. Where the music is going to play a pivotal role I’ll have already done some sketches that can be played to assist the director or the actors in interpreting what the final product is going to be.

© Warner Bros. Pictures

Does that mean Joaquin Phoenix had heard your Oscar-nominated score for Her before he even started filming?
In the case with Her, the film had not yet arrived at final cut when we were scoring but was shot and largely complete and that's often where I'd say 75 per cent of the work in scoring a film is done. So you can track a nice arc of how the music exists within the work.

You composed the score with your long-time collaborators Arcade Fire. How is it working with them?
Scoring Her was wonderful because there was such a level of trust there. I would be writing something and the director would hear it and provide comments to somebody else, and then somebody else would track something different and send it back to me and I would score strings over it. Or like, there was a piano piece that was tracked by one person, and then I would go back and track it again. The pieces were just kind of developing. There was a lot of passing the ball.

Read more about the songs that had an impact on Owen Pallett’s new album in the July 2014 issue of The Red Bulletin out now. For access to the international issue, download the free app for iOS or Android now.

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