Key Albums: Final Fantasy Has a Good Home (2005), He Poos Clouds (2006), Heartland (2010)
Owen Pallett is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and orchestral arranger from Toronto who, for much of the '00s, recorded under the name Final Fantasy. Pallett's solo shows find him looping numerous violin and keyboard parts into constructed songs. He's also well known for having arranged albums by Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, the Mountain Goats, and the Last Shadow Puppets.
Born Michael James Owen Pallett in Toronto to a church-organist father, Pallett began playing the piano when he was three, the grew up studying violin, in a childhood steeped in classical composition. "Modern classical music was always my major interest. I threw away a lot of regular childhood activities, such as playing outside, to stay inside and play modern music," Pallett recalled, in 2006. "It was totally degrading and awful for me, as a kid, to be obsessed with Bartók, when all my friends were listening to Def Leppard. I’m over it now, but it’s like growing up with polio."
Studying composition at the University of Toronto, Pallett stumbled into his first 'pop' foray, in the band Picastro. "I was reading an interview with Liz Hysen of Picastro," Pallett recounted, to You Ain't No Picasso, "talking about how she thought that the way post-rock bands use string instruments was a lot of s**t... It was totally amazing that she felt the same way [I did] so I joined the band and started playing music with them."
Pallett then fronted the band Les Mouches, who released one impressive LP (2004's You're Worth More to Me Than 1000 Christians). When Les Mouches' recordings started "costing a lot of money," Pallett began writing solo songs.
Pallett started writing songs via a loop pedal, layering many violin parts into big compositions. "It first started off as a bit of a lark, like: ‘let’s see what happens when I plug my violin into this!’" Pallett says.
Pallett called his new project Final Fantasy, after the popular video game series. "People criticize me for choosing Final Fantasy as a name," Pallett later defended, to Mocking Music. "I realize that it's kind of a stupid name but I chose it for very specific reasons. Changing a name would be a very spineless thing to do."
As Pallett was performing his first shows as Final Fantasy, he had begun working on Funeral, the debut album by Montréal rock outfit Arcade Fire. Funeral became a phenomenon on release, and the band took Pallett on tour, both as performing violinist and opening act. Selling home-made CDRs of his debut album, Final Fantasy Has a Good Home, Pallett's shows found internet favor, especially his unexpected cover of Mariah Carey's "Fantasy."
"I heard this recording of Ben Gibbard covering Avril Lavigne, and the whole time he's like: 'No guys, shut up, this is serious,' Pallett said to 'Sup Magazine in 2006. "It's like, 'no Ben, try harder'. If you think this is a good song then I want to believe you."
Has a Good Home came out officially on German label Tomlab in 2005, by when Pallett had started to reassess his musical place. "When I went on tour with Arcade Fire," he told Radio Free Canuckistan, "I stopped being a musician who was living in Toronto and playing shows with Toronto musicians and making music for my friends. Suddenly my music was being appreciated —or not appreciated— by people I didn’t know in other countries."
With Pallett having gained notoriety through working, as arranger, with Arcade Fire, the Hidden Cameras, Grizzly Bear, and Beirut, 2006's He Poos Clouds found a wider audience. The second Final Fantasy set was a concept album based on the schools of magic (abjuration, illusion, conjuration, necromancy, enchantment, divination, evocation and transmutation) in Dungeons and Dragons, which matched Pallett's voice to a string quartet.
"In an age where every instrument makes it onto every record, I wanted to make a string quartet record," Pallett said, to Slant. "I was trying to make the songs function as just a vocals and string quartet project, and each song is supposed to be about identifying each of the forms of Dungeons and Dragons in our day to day life," he offered, in an interview with You Ain't No Picasso.
After He Poos Clouds was "the subject of Pitchforking and of mainstream music press," Pallett endeavored to make this third album something that could stand entirely on its own. Soon, he got bogged down in labor (it "was a total fucking chore," Pallett told Clash), so, in 2008, he turned to two EPs to break the stalemate.
Plays to Please found Pallett covering songs by Alex Lukashevsky, frontman of Toronto's Deep Dark United, in a big-band style. "I thought it would be interesting to recontextualize his songs in this really glossy Frank Sinatra style, with these really big, fixed arrangements," he said.
Spectrum, 14th Century, a collection of "fake folksongs" recorded in the New York woods with members of Beirut, sought to introduce listeners to the fictional realm of Spectrum; the land in which Pallett's third album would take place.
In 2010, Pallett finally released his three-years-in-the-making, Czech-orchestra-boasting third album, Heartland. Due to "the laws of copyright," he issued the set under his own name, via Domino worldwide. The LP is an "entirely fictional high fantasy" in which a young farmer named Lewis dwelling in Spectrum sings psalms to the realm's sole deity, an interventionist God named Owen, before eventually slaying him. "It's about becoming aware of the boundaries of the album that he exists in and thinking about the way his surroundings are constructed," Pallett says, of his self-reflexive character study.
Later in 2010, Pallett released an EP, Swedish Love Story, and worked again with Arcade Fire on their third LP, The Suburbs. The record's huge success made him in even greater demand as an arranger, and his commissions started getting more pop and unexpected; Pallett working with everyone from Robbie Williams to Duran Duran, R.E.M., Snow Patrol, and The National. Pallett worked again with Arcade Fire on 2013's Reflektor, and on the band's score for Spike Jonze's movie Her, for which Pallett scored an Oscar nomination.
In 2014, Pallett returned with his fourth LP, In Conflict, in which he abandoned conceptual conceits for a more-personal set of songs about states of mental illness. "This was the first record that I was really trying to aim for some direct communication," Pallett said, in an interview with Stereogum. "Most of my other records have been more interested in examining, or writing a social satire in the form of fantasy or utopian sort of stuff... For this one I just felt, there was a desire that I wanted to create a real direct link between the listener and myself."