Music from the heart | Owen Pallett discusses the influences behind his critically acclaimed album ‘Heartland’

Gregg Shapiro, Staff writer

‘Heartland,” by out musician Owen Pallett (formerly Final Fantasy), is already being hailed as one of the best albums of 2010. As lush and symphonic as it is percussive and poppy, “Heartland” (from Domino) contains a cycle of a dozen songs that are essentially monologues by a fictitious character named Lewis. He’s described as a “young, ultra-violent farmer” in a world called Spectrum, and he’s struggling to come to grips with his creator – “a supreme deity named Owen.”

From the Beach Boys-style “Lewis Takes Action” to the futuristic soundtrack of “The Great Elsewhere” to the Blue Nile beat of “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” and the super sexy “Tryst With Mephistopheles,” “Heartland” is as wondrous as anything you’re likely to hear this year.

I spoke with Pallett shortly before he embarked on the first leg of a tour that will bring him to Milwaukee April 12.

Gregg Shapiro: On “Heartland,” it’s possible to detect the influences of opera and classical music, as well as a sort of Broadway musical influence.

OP: You feel that? I hear that a few times, but I’m not at all (laughs) a Broadway guy.

GS: What is involved in the process of incorporating your various influences into your compositions?

OP: Well, regarding all the things that you just described – classical and operatic – I can’t deny that my music is going to come from that perspective, seeing that I’m working with the symphony as my tool.

But I was really inspired the most for this record by synth-pop. You’ll notice every song on the record is very metronomic. There are very few moments where you actually feel the orchestra is the living, breathing organic instrument that it is in classical music and opera. … All the structures of the songs are much more verse/chorus/verse/chorus (laughs) as opposed to having these developmental sections in between.

GS: Do your classical and operatic influences have anything to do with “Heartland” and “He Poos Clouds” being “song cycles”?

OP: I don’t know where that really comes from. I would say that that’s more of a literary influence than anything. …With “Heartland,” it wasn’t so much that I wanted to create a concept record or a song cycle or any of these things. I wanted to create independent songs that each had these signifiers that alluded to a larger mythology.

GS: So for a concert, do you perform “Heartland” in its entirety, in order from start to finish?

OP: I want “Heartland” to be very strong as an album, but also, in the live context, to be segmented and presented as pop hits. I hesitate to really describe “Heartland” as a concept album. …When you do look historically at concept albums, such as (David Bowie’s) “Ziggy Stardust,” for example, you can pull “Moonage Daydream” or Starman”…well “Starman” is a really good example, because that song is pretty explicitly about what’s going on in the realm of the album. But it makes total sense outside of it.

GS: I detected a Brian Wilson/Beach Boys influence on “Lewis Takes Action” and Van Dyke Parks on “Flare Gun.” Do you count either or both among your influences?

OP: Absolutely! Totally! It’s really interesting to me because music writers love to throw around Brian Wilson all the time. Whenever they hear layered vocals, they tend to mention Brian Wilson, which is kind of cool, because it does kind of sound like Brian Wilson.

GS: I think I detected some homoeroticism in lyrics to songs such as “The Great Elsewhere” and “Tryst With Mephistopheles.” Am I correct?

OP: Yes! I tend not to think about what (kind of an effect) gay language is going to have on the ears of the listeners, just because I tend not to think about that in my day-to-day life (laughs). I don’t go around giving out explicit details of my sex life. (But) talking about some man being attractive is not something I would ever censor myself from talking about in any situation, even if it’s (in front of) my grandmother.

I don’t think most gay men would censor themselves in front of their grandmothers in that regard. But it is interesting when the song is written and recorded and you come back to it, and you’re like, “Whoa! This is a pretty gay thing!”

GS: Would you say that being gay influences your work?

OP: I’ve been asked this countless times and I really don’t have a good answer for it. I think that it’s just going to influence it subconsciously. With me, it’s very subconscious (laughs).

GS: There is a community of gay artists within your musical and creative circle, including Pet Shop Boys and Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear. Do you see a place for yourself in that realm or do you feel outside of it?

OP: It’s interesting. I think the term “gay mafia” gets swung around (laughs). And certainly there are times when I look around a room and I think, “Wow! I’m in this room with a lot of famous gay musicians.” But I don’t think there’s any real clear associations that you can make. There’s really no similarity between the way I’m living my life and the way the Pet Shop Boys are living their lives. We certainly have a mutual appreciation for each other, but I’m not at the stage where I’d ever be photographed on the red carpet with Lady Gaga, whereas they probably have – more than once.