While previous years may have focused more on being family friendly, this year’s Hamilton Winterfest includes more adult events with musicians, comedians like Graham Chittenden, a show by the Hamilton Aerial Group and productions by the Hamilton Fringe, among other events.The festival that began the first weekend of February runs through February 17 with a marquee performance from Owen Pallett.
"When I was younger, typically when I was going out to socialize, I’d be going more to Burlington or Guelph — sometimes Mississauga or Toronto but more recently as an adult, I definitely feel more affinities with Hamilton, not only because of working with Sonic Unyon, mostly as distributors but also as friends,” offers Pallett on his early days. “Thomas Gill is a Hamilton native and he was in my band for a year and a half back in 2009. We’ve remained close and collaborate on a lot of different stuff.
“Hamilton has become a place that’s dear to my heart but in the early 2000s, it was the Hammer, the place you’d go to play shows and they may not be well attended,” laughs Pallett.
As a Milton native, Pallett would be a musical prodigy of sorts studying violin at the age of three years old and composing by the age of 13 years old. While his post–secondary study was in music, Pallett would make waves in the national indie rock work with his debut album, under the name of a popular video game that won the prestigious Polaris Music Prize some twelve years ago. Final Fantasy’s He Poos Clouds offered music that seemingly bridges the world of classical and indie rock, movie soundtracks and video games. The motif would continue for Pallett with four official albums of eclectic and extraordinary genre–defying art rock although his last official release was 2014’s In Conflict. While Pallett’s discography of official albums may seem a little scant, there are a wealth of collaborations and singles that are impossible to exhaustively list. His current work has focused on collaborations with other artists as arranger, remixer, producer and more but Pallett offers a rare live performance in Hamilton this weekend and there won’t be any worries on attendance.
“When I was in music school, I had my ears open to all manner of music — there was a dogma there but now it’s changed,” says Pallett on his earlier musical goals. “The academic world has opened its doors to recorded music less dogmatically but at the time there was this separation. I don’t think of what I do as a synthesis at all but I am trying to develop a language that best communicates what I want to communicate.
“I was a gamer in my teens — when you grow up in the country there aren’t a lot of social opportunities so I did play a lot of RPGs [Role Playing Games] including Final Fantasy,” adds Pallett. “I used the name because the making the music was very reminiscent of being in the basement and playing video games. It was less of a tribute then simply noticing the similarities in the process. But that said, I do have a lot of references to video games in my work, I guess I didn’t see any more value in driving literary or cinematic references over so called low brow forms of art. All of that has gone out the window in the last fifteen years and there is less distinction between high and low art.”
While making his own music, Pallett also has written string, brass and orchestral arrangements for artists as far ranging as Frank Ocean, Sigur Rós, Caribou, The National, Taylor Swift, R.E.M., Pet Shop Boys, Linkin Park, Franz Ferdinand, Duran Duran, Robbie Williams, and Arcade Fire. His latest work is less in the spotlight as producer for The Mountain Goats as well as scoring recent films such as The Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project and Illusions of Control both of which were premiered in the Toronto Hot Docs Festival in 2019.
“I do enjoy collaborating with other people,” says Pallett. “I think it helps me to have an interdisciplinary approach to my process. It’s not just arranging for other artists but I’m scoring films, writing chamber music. Psychologically, it’s nice to have my creative process diversified but I also have a hard time saying no. If I see a film that I’m really excited about then I want to score it. If a band I like wants me to do an arrangement for them, or if a band I don’t like is offering a lot of money to do an arrangement, it’s hard for me to say no. It’s probably why my album output is not as frequent as other full time bands just because of the amount of collaborative work that gets thrown my way.”
And the collaborations are not only offer profitable situations for Pallett but also more prestigious awards and nominations. He could be on his way to becoming one of the rare EGOT award winners with his Grammy for “Album Of The Year" work on Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, and his Emmy for his work on Sølve Sundsbø’s Fourteen Actors Acting. Heck, Pallett even has been nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the original score of Spike Jonze’s Her.
“I’m half way to an EGOT but I don’t have my fingers crossed,” confides Pallett. “Being nominated for an Oscar was definitely an honour, it wasn’t a win and I don’t think it’s likely another nomination will come my way. It’s a very institutional kind of award and it seems a bit of a fluke that we were even nominated.”
Awards aside, the in–demand arranger, scorer and producer remains creatively vibrant and with a concert effort to take more of his music to the stage, Pallett plans to bring his renown visually stunning violin and looper performance to Hamilton with a new approach.
“I’ve spent the last year or so off to do more work from home but I’m excited to get out more and touring this year,” says Pallett. “I last played Hamilton outside for Supercrawl back in 2018 so Hamilton has already seen the new live set up that I’ve built. I swapped out my synthesizer since I’ve been playing since 2007 for a guitar. When I was 21, I’d write songs for my old band Les Mouches on guitar and I distinguished that from the Final Fantasy project by how I wrote the songs. Final Fantasy were the songs I wrote on violin. Les Mouches has largely been inactive but I did feel like re–integrating guitar back into my performance aspect. So I’m playing a lot of guitar and violin and there is a lot of similarity to the older style of performance, with live looping pretty much on every song. but there’s a greater emphasis on the sonic architecture of what’s going on. Before, my show kind of felt like the thrill of watching it was kind of more showing off with technical virtuosity. Now, I’m focusing less on that and more on creating really beautiful sonic landscapes. When I look at recordings from ten years ago, it's amazing to watch but I felt I could do better with how it sounds.
“A few years ago, we had finished the In Conflict album, my drummer told me his wife most enjoyed the melodies and lyrics that I sung,” adds Pallett. “I was taken aback because I felt that people were coming to the shows because of certain aspects and to learn that she liked what I thought wasn’t my strongest suit, ie., my singing voice, kind of made me want to prioritize it with the new show. It’s focused on the quality of songs for the show. I’m using a new looper that no one else uses, it’s complicated and compact and it allows me to do a lot more. It’s very visible in the ocular and aural sense so that audiences can see how things are being built but at the same time it has the capacity to transport the audience.”
Hamilton Winterfest presents Owen Pallett at the Hamilton Waterfront Trust Centre ( 57 Discovery Way) on Saturday February 8 with Hamilton's Glass Eyelashes and DJ Smooth Transitions. Doors open at 8 pm and tickets are $30 available via eventbrite.ca. Click on owenpalletteternal.com