Toronto’s Owen Pallett honoured by Oscar nod

Owen Pallett, pictured in March 2013. Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail / The Canadian Press

TORONTO – The morning Owen Pallett woke up to find out he was an Academy Award nominee, he felt thousands of miles away from the rigorous glamour of Hollywood’s biggest night.

In one sense it was literal — the Toronto native was across the world in New Zealand on tour with Arcade Fire, whose Will Butler earned the nomination alongside Pallett for their work on the chilly, elliptical score to Spike Jonze’s Her. But also — after a convivial evening of drinks with the band — Pallett sure didn’t feel spotlight-ready.

“I kind of woke up with a touch of a hangover,” he said with a laugh in a recent telephone interview. “So I wound up just lying in bed Facebook chatting everybody.”

And bleary-eyed though he was, how was the response?

“It was definitely my most-liked Facebook post in my Facebook account’s history,” he replied. “I’ll tell you that.”

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Pallett says the honour feels “really good” — and, surprisingly for the eloquent composer, he struggles to go much further than that. It’s a “complicated feeling,” he says.

Perhaps that’s because he wasn’t supposed to work on the score in the first place. Pallett says that Arcade Fire — the Montreal Grammy winners whose string arrangements Pallett has handled since their groundbreaking first record, Funeral — had been labouring over a score for about a year without his involvement.

Jonze’s film is a sleekly forward-thinking fable about a sad-eyed man in the near future who rebounds from a divorce by falling for an operating system oriented to meet his every emotional need. Arcade Fire, Pallett says, had been working on a highly electronic-leaning score to match the film’s smooth-edged esthetic, but it wasn’t satisfying the movie’s exacting, multiple Oscar-nominated director.

“It seemed that Spike was not feeling the sort of futuristic approach to the score and wanted something that was a little bit more emotional,” Pallett said.

That’s where he came in, “to close the deal, so to speak.” His exclusion had been simply situational — he was in Toronto while the rest of the band was in Montreal. So when he came to Quebec to help the band craft its chart-topping fourth album Reflektor, he got involved in the music for Her as well.

He prepared string arrangements and helped add piano to deepen the music’s emotional impact, contributing only a couple months work after the score’s “year-long gestation period.”

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“But it was a very intense couple of months,” pointed out Pallett.

It helped that Pallett had a little more experience with film scoring than the rest of the band, having composed music for 2009’s The Box and last year’s The Wait. (“The key adjective in that sense is ‘a little more,'” added Pallett in a modest aside).

READ MORE: Full coverage of the Academy Awards

In trying to close out work on the score — which has yet to see commercial release, with Pallett saying that there’s a “rumour” it might be out when the movie hits DVD — he said his role was parsing the visions of two separate creative forces.

“A lot of my job working with Arcade Fire is taking these abstract ideas given to me by Regine (Chassagne) and Win (Butler) and other members of the band and turning them into orchestral music — basically working as an interpreter,” he said.

In this case, Jonze was also closely involved in the process.

“A lot of it was interpreting what Spike wanted and translating it into music,” he said. “I can’t really stress enough just how collaborative the whole process was.

“I kind of have a bit more of a bigger mouth than the people in the band, throwing a lot of ideas around and letting my opinion be known for better or worse. But it’s good to have good ideas and bad ideas.”

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The Polaris Music Prize winner — who will release his fourth solo album, In Conflict, in May — now turns his attention to the Academy Awards, which he’ll attend on March 2.

Being an Oscar nominee has been more work than Pallett anticipated.

“It’s so involving,” he said with a sighing laugh. “I think most Oscar nominees must live in L.A. because the number of dinners and receptions and stuff like that — it’s pretty intense.”

Among his obligations? A concert featuring an 80-piece orchestra that’s going to feature music from each of the nominated films (Her is competing in the best original score category against Alexandre Desplat’s Philomena, John Williams’ The Book Thief, Thomas Newman’s Saving Mr. Banks and Steven Price’s Gravity.)

Since the Her score actually uses orchestras quite sparingly — most of it was created in studio — Pallett had to “basically write 10 minutes of new music,” based on what was used in the film. (It sounds like a lot of work, but Pallett laughs that he “just did it on a flight.”)

Pallett will conduct the orchestra alongside the others in his category — who, between them, possess 68 career Oscar nominations.

“It’s really exciting,” he said. “Our score is really kind of brutal. It’s really stark compared to the other nominees. I think it’s going to be really interesting having it sit amongst these concert pieces.”

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Pallett will attend the show with his boyfriend. Still, though the decorated multi-instrumentalist is now an Oscar nominee, he lacks the necessary pull to broaden his entourage much beyond that.

“Everyone was asking my mom at work if she was going,” he said. “I was like, ‘Mom, do you know how many people are in Arcade Fire? We’re going to be lucky if we get enough tickets to cover all the members, let alone bring moms.'”

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