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Owen Pallett Discusses Working on the Oscar-Nominated ‘Her’ Score with Arcade Fire and Spike Jonze

The New Now
February 27, 2014

It's been a surreal week for Owen Pallett. The Canadian composer, string arranger, and pop artist went from performing with Arcade Fire in Haiti to having dinner in Los Angeles with some of the world's most renowned composers, including John Williams, Burt Bacharach, and Randy Newman, in the span of just a few days.

Such is the life of a multi-talented musician who was nominated for his very first Academy Award this year, for his work on the score for the Spike Jonze film, Her.

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"It's been amazing to be in Oscar land and hang out with these incredible film composers," says Pallett from Los Angeles, where he's attending several Oscar week events. "We all had dinner last night in the back room of a bar on Wilshire. Just the composers and some of the executives from the music branch of the Academy. The guy who wrote 'Killing Me Softly' was there, and Randy Newman and Burt Bacharach. They're both Academy members and huge inspirations to me as a songwriter. They were all amazing. I felt like the redheaded stepchild in the room."

The 34-year-old is the go-to string arranger and composer for several notable indie bands, not the least of which is Arcade Fire, whose unique brand of orchestral pop won them a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2011. After meeting through mutual friends in the Canadian music scene and playing on the same bill several times in the early 2000s, Arcade Fire asked Pallett to contribute to their 2004 debut album, Funeral.

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"It was immediately clear that this was an important and serious record being made," Pallett says. "I've been on an unspoken retainer with them since that date and I can tell they're working on a different plane than other bands."

Pallett had worked with Arcade Fire's Win Butler and Regine Chassagne on the score for the 2009 thriller The Box. The band tapped him once again to help them with the string arrangements and overall composition of the Her score. "They know what my strengths are and what I bring to the table," Pallett says. "They needed a clear connection between the band and Spike. Some elements needed to be scored so they brought me in to score them. It was about a six-week process."

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Although Pallett and Arcade Fire's Will Butler are the only ones nominated for the Oscar because of Academy rules that limit the number of nominees, Pallett emphasizes that it was a truly collaborative effort, and that director Jonze played a huge part in shaping the score. "With so many scores I've worked on there was a chain of command," he explains. "But there was no such thing with Spike – it was just about making him happy. It was very much a director's score. He had such a hand in the creation of it and he was there in the studio when it was being made."

The haunting Her score underpins the story of a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his computer's operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Primarily made up of eerie synths and warm pianos augmented by emotional string arrangements, it provides the perfect backdrop for Jonze's futuristic vision of Los Angeles, where the movie takes place.

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In addition to navigating the Oscar madness, Pallett is gearing up to release his fourth solo album, In Conflict, in May, but for now he's focusing on the Academy Awards. He'll attend the ceremony on March 2, and perform at the Academy Awards Concert February 27 at UCLA's Royce Hall, alongside this year's other Oscar-nominated composers including Williams (The Book Thief) and Alexandre Desplat (Philomena).

Although Pallett is excited and honored to take part in these prestigious events and to be recognized for his work, he emphasizes that it's not what motivates him as an artist. "I have strange internal feelings about awards, nominations and competitions in general," he says. "I didn't get into the industry to win awards. I feel happy about it, but with a small 'h.'"