Owen Pallett: 'When I first started playing...there was more sexism'

We caught up with the go-to composer for Arcade Fire and Taylor Swift

You’re known for your lush strings – are you bringing a 100-piece orchestra to China?
No – I’m not even having any keyboards. I’m throwing out the synthesiser and playing with acoustic guitar.

On your 2010 album Heartland you explored themes of religion. Are you religious?
I have a deep-rooted belief in what Jesus said about keeping one’s beliefs to oneself. Don’t pray on the street corner, pray in the closet.

But it’s a theme you like to explore, right?
I’ve been thinking about Christian thought in the wake of this rise of the 'Christian right' [in America]. It’s interesting because it does feel Biblical. It feels cut from mythological text, from scripture, and it’s really darkening – these are people who have the loudest voices within the Christian faith. But it’s like, 'Have you f***ing read what he [Jesus] had to say about this s**t? You don’t have the spirit of God running through you… read your own f***ing manual.'

Do you prefer collaborating or working solo?
It has to do with how well you get along with the client, but in terms of picking out favourites, I try not to do that because it’s not good business practice.

'Client', 'business practice'… this all sounds very corporate
People f***ing have a go at me all the time for this. I grew up around people who had this esoteric attitude towards art-making but I’ve never had that. I refer to my clients as clients because that’s what they are. I have an allergic reaction to people with esoteric approaches to artistic work… 'expressing oneself'. Express what? I’m writing music for you.

When did you first realise you were amazing at composing?
How can I answer this and not sound like a f***ing prick? When I was 16 my harmony teacher gave me an assignment: write a piano piece in the style of Bach. Later she played me hers then I played her mine, and it shocked us both because mine was so good. That was the moment.

How was working with Taylor Swift on 'The Last Time'?
I never worked directly with her, I was hired to work for her through the producer Jacknife Lee. When you’re working with a pop client they tend to have budget to throw at a really nice orchestra. It’s pretty sweet to show up and have a nice hotel room and go to the studio, stand at the podium and conduct an orchestra. As opposed to when I’m working with indie artists; often I’m overdubbing my violin at home because they can’t afford to pay me. I have a strict 'pay me what you can' policy.

Are Arcade Fire good 'clients'?
I always loved working with them in the studio. I toured with them on the Funeral tour back in ’05 and ’06 then I took a break from the next couple of album cycles because there was a lot of demand for my solo career. They didn’t like the fact that I was sometimes there at the gate and sometimes not.

But you did go back to touring with them later…
When it was time to tour Reflektor in 2013, Win [Butler, singer] asked if I wanted to rejoin. I might have lied about this before: I was in a period where I had lost confidence in my solo material. My boyfriend and I were going through troubling family stuff and I was stressed out, so when Win said, 'Hey, do you want to spend a year touring with Arcade Fire?', it suggested a nice safe way for me to spend a year not having to worry about being motivated. But ultimately, I don’t think that’s my place in the world either.

Your cover of Mariah Carey’s 'Fantasy' is big on YouTube – will you play it in China?
Probably not. My attitude towards playing covers changed five years ago. When I first started playing shows there was an antagonistic relationship between the indie community and the pop community… there was more sexism in the way people expressed themselves. It was misogynistic, [the idea that] the average straight male listener would have a hard time having an emotional experience with something that was created by a woman.

So, no covers at all?
Indie rock musicians who play music by pop musicians now… there’s a veneer of irony about it. This whiff of legitimising music that no longer needs legitimisation. The aesthetic pose of that has lost its charm.