Three Great Things: Owen Pallett

The multi-hyphenate on butter, practice, and an incredible Japanese musician.

In Three Great Things, we ask our favorite artists to share three things — anything! — that are improving their lives at the moment. In the midst of one of their many recording projects, Owen Pallett gave us a funny array of choices to brighten the day. 

—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

1. Practice

I was originally thinking of some jokey answers. I almost said “shitting while standing up.” It’s easy on your colon, and it’s fun! I recommend everyone try it at least once. But practice is more important. My songwriting friends and I have been bemoaning how difficult it is to be creative during this pandemic. It’s very hard to find things to write about. I read this New York Times article a few months ago; they were talking about, “Hey, you know all those friends you lost touch with over the pandemic? Those are not your real friends!” As if the pandemic was doing this culling of inessential social connections. But I miss acquaintances and strangers. I had taken for granted that so many of my friends were people that I’d meet at an art opening or on the street or at a party or concert. Some of them I’d only maybe see once a year, but these are people that I consider good friends, close friends, old friends. There’s so much stimulus in that casual social activity that when you’re deprived of it, it has devastating effects on my creative mind. And when I say creative mind, I mean specifically the part of me that has something to say via song. 

Two or three months into the pandemic, I got really serious about practicing. I’m not an A-level violinist by any means. But I have some fundamental technical issues that are as much of a hindrance to my performance as, say, not having an ass. If you’re one of those people who’s just not born with an ass, you have to do years of not just squats, but very specific ass-building exercises. And it’s a huge undertaking if you want that ass. And similarly I have issues on the violin, where I need to set aside months and months to re-form certain aspects of my technique. And I just haven’t ever done it because there’s been gigging and distractions. I started taking it really seriously. I actually moved from violin to viola and I started practicing that a huge amount — bought all this new repertoire, started rehearsing with a pianist, and it’s been awesome. What I’m getting at is that this act of practicing is like making lemonade out of lemons. When you have all this time in isolation and you don’t feel your creative juices flowing because you don’t have any stimulus, it gives you a moment to really focus on activities that are entirely solitary, such as really getting intimate with your musical instrument. It’s so therapeutic. 

2. Butter

There are standard household items that you never think would benefit from an upgrade, but then when you do it, it’s… wow. I grew up in a margarine household. My family was really into Imperial Margarine. I think it was a money-saving thing, because I’m pretty sure butter is more expensive than those giant tubs of margarine. I remember at one point a fancy cousin, Peter, was coming by, and saw the margarine, and said, “Is there any butter?” And I remember thinking to myself, “Ooh, fancy pants! Real butter!” But I have gotten so into butter. I have four kinds of butter in my fridge right now, two salted, two unsalted. Cooking butter, table butter, special butter that’s just for bread. Certain butters I’ll buy in larger quantities, others I’ll buy in smaller quantities. It’s really been clogging my pores recently. I’m not a baker. I’m a reasonably brilliant chef, no, I’m fine. But I can’t bake bread to save my life. I can’t even bake cookies. But nice bread from the store with really good butter—there’s nothing better.

3. Ichiko Aoba

I’ve never been so blindsided by a musician as I was by Ichiko Aoba in 2017, when I flew over to Asia to play a number of shows and saw her. She was just on stage, no amplification, just microphones, no pickups. She was playing a nylon stringed classical guitar and singing. You must have at one point put on Burt Bachrach’s greatest hits. You know how they have those compilations, just all the hits from the ‘60s that he had a hand in writing? You’re shocked at the breadth of his material, and there’s a familiarity even with songs you might not have heard before. The experience of watching Ichiko play triggered the same kind of memory, where you’re just shocked at how classic every song sounds, and it feels like a song that has existed in the ether of your memory for as long as you’ve been sentient. I was completely devastated by her show, it was so lovely.

She’s got lots of albums, and they’re all amazing. She’s worked with Ryuichi Sakamoto. There’s a video of her doing something with Ryuichi and Jim O’Rourke and one other guy. She’s kind of cornered that sound in the Tokyo music scene. There’s a video from her last year, when she did a concert for about 50 people on a rock, on the side of a mountain. No amplification, so quiet, it’s like the breeze is as much a part of the recording as the music. It’s absolutely haunting.

Island is out now, including a limited edition double vinyl LP with demos.

Island is the latest album from Oscar-nominated composer and songwriter Owen Pallett. Almost entirely acoustic, Island begins with 13 darkened chords, and was recorded live at Abbey Road Studios with the London Contemporary Orchestra. The introduction is sound of waking up alone, and on the shore of a strange land. What follows is a shimmering and luscious orchestral album that draws across the full breadth of Pallett’s discography, from Heartland’s Technicolor to the glittering, fingerpicked guitar that marked Pallett’s first records with their trio, Les Mouches.