It’s a rainy day in Kansas City, and Owen Pallett has a nasty cold. The violinist, currently on the road with Arcade Fire, downplays his ailments, but it’s clear that the day is not panning out in his favor. Still, even at a moment when most might opt to take time off, he’s soldiering on, interspersing intelligent observations with the occasional cough and sniffle. Like one of his pieces of intricate orchestral pop, the conversation is dense, punctuated with both unexpected digressions and refreshing bouts of honesty. He’s not going to lie about the effect capitalism has on art (“I didn’t really have a goal beside making a record that would sell a billion copies,” he jokes darkly), downplay his distain for journalists who don’t accurately portray their subjects (“I beg your pardon in saying so,” he quickly adds) or sugarcoat his personal struggles.
“So many people that I know who are in creative positions, particularly in my field of songwriting, they’re crazy people,” he says. “They are nervous about receiving psychiatric treatment, because they found intuitively that there’s a link between their insanity and their creative output. This has been even backed up by recent studies that show that the creative act fires the same neurons in the brain as a bipolar episode. When I read an article about it, I was like, duh. I knew that. I haven’t even done any brain scans. But you get in the throws of writing a song and you feel it.”
Pallett claims that he really doesn’t care how people perceive his music. (“You don’t have any control over stuff, so you can’t get too bent out of shape about it,” he notes blithely.) But he has a very specific speech pattern, moving from the macro to micro, which implies that he is concerned with being fully understood in conversation.
“I do have a hard time,” he continues. “I’m not going to lie. I need help. But I’m trying different things to deal with it. Discipline is a big one. Making sure that I’m at the gym. Making sure I’m eating well. Going out with Arcade Fire is another. Removing the burden of bring home the bacon from the songwriting process and just being a guy in the band. That’s another way to alleviate some of the mental stress.”
That internal battle informs Pallett’s fourth album, In Conflict. The album shifts and changes, sweeps of electronics and orchestral passages topped with Pallett’s lithe falsetto, an instrument capable of suggesting both fanciful diversions and very real pain. Brian Eno offers an assist on album tracks “On a Path” and “The Riverbed,” while the Czech FILMharmonic Orchestra supplied the strings. But at heart, it’s a singular work, Pallett exploring the same themes of romantic control, emotional entanglement and depression that have been present since his 2005 debut, Has a Good Home.
While it is, above all, a piece of art, Pallett admits that the act of songwriting is about “85 percent truthful.” Among his narrative tales, he points to a line in opening track “I Am Not Afraid,” where he wonders what might happen if his violin was suddenly stolen or misplaced. But, as with most things the musician does, there’s more to it than the words might suggest.
“I have never had much success in therapy,” he begins. “One thing that was said to me by a therapist which was very effective and interesting and I think about, maybe daily, is that often, when you’re having an anxiety attack or entering a state of depression, you have these neurons in your brain which are being worn down from overuse. Your brain starts firing these neurons habitually, almost the way water pours down a mountain. The water will run down those rivulets. It’s like you’re underlining the same words over and over again. Which is to say that it’s just going to get worse as those synapses get more and more exercise. What you’re trying to do is break those patterns and do things differently. Often, when I’m coming out of a state of anxiety or a state of panic, it’s literally like the sun is coming up from behind the clouds as my neurons suddenly reset in a healthy way.”
He pauses, politely checking to make sure that his analogy is being followed.
“The reason why I’m mention all this is there have been times when I’m working or making music and I feel a sense of disappointment when I return to where a violin was left and it’s still there,” he continues. “I think to myself, ‘how interesting if it would be to my day to return and find out it had been stolen.’ It would change the rest of my day to suddenly be capering across the streets of wherever, what city I’m in and trying to track down who stole my violin. That is a true line. It’s getting back more to the anti-centralist idea of extending that to personal property. Thinking that many days, a negative state of mind could be cured by just throwing out something expensive that rules my life, like my violin.”