It's tricky keeping a bead on Owen Pallett, the prolific composer who, until last month, recorded and performed solo as Final Fantasy. (He has since reverted to his own name out of deference to the videogame franchise of the same title.) Initially best-known to U.S. audiences as a string arranger for the Hidden Cameras and the Arcade Fire, the Toronto multihyphenate released the solo debut Has a Good Home in 2005 and He Poos Clouds in 2006. He has since worked with Grizzly Bear, Beirut, the Mountain Goats, and Pet Shop Boys, and is about to release Heartland, an ambitious third album that proves he hasn't spread himself too thinly over the past few years.
"Definitely that was a worry," he admits. "I got involved in so much collaborative work. I was hoping to start Heartland earlier, but I just kept getting [offered] more projects." He began work on the album in August 2008, and finished a year later. He notes with a laugh, "That's not that long, considering it's a self-produced orchestral record."
Pallett doesn't mention that he labored on it in four different countries. Those include the Czech Republic, where he was working with producer Mark Ronson on the next Rumble Strips album; and Iceland, where he played a festival and wound up recording the bulk of Heartland. But when he says orchestral, he isn't kidding. In addition to a core cast of guests that includes Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara, there are full string and horn sections. Widely known as a violinist, Pallett turns instead to piano, synths, bass, and electronic programming on much of the album.
He says he was primarily concerned with conveying the energy of the live shows, which use looped violin and put greater emphasis on drums. The latter move was a big step, mainly because he dislikes the sound of drums on most recordings. "I feel like [drums] put the music inside the box of a genre," he adds. "It's really the sound of the drums that distinguish dance music and rock and pop."
In terms of genre, Heartland is best described as orchestral pop. It's bustling and large in scope, but has a throughline in Pallett's airy vocals and narrative lyrics. Uniting the 45-minute album is the story of a young farmer named Lewis, a character who is unusually self-aware. "It's sung from the perspective of someone who's very conscious of the fact that they're a character in a song and the object of the singer's affection," Pallett explains. The album is a series of love songs, but the unique angle he has chosen gives them added depth. Between the story and the complexity of the music, it takes several studied listens to even begin digesting the album.
That's not to say Pallett views this as his magnum opus. "I really try and approach every album, and even song, from a fresh perspective," he says. "I can't think of them as being better or worse, because they're so different." Has a Good Home was built almost exclusively around his violin and voice, while the Polaris Music Prize–winning He Poos Clouds was, as he puts it, "a string quartet album recorded entirely outside." As his disparate choice of collaborations make clear, he is always eager for something new. Fresh off working on the upcoming third Arcade Fire album, he's currently touring behind Heartland with his usual looped instrumentation, as well as a recent recruit in guitarist Thomas Gill. "I just try to keep it different every time," Pallett demurs.