Q&A: Majical Cloudz Frontman Devon Welsh On The Weird Joy Of Making Very Personal Music And Sharing It With The World
It’s hard to imagine that anyone will release an album this year as lovely — or as harrowingly intimate — as Majical Cloudz’s soon-to-be-released debut, Impersonator. Building on the successes of last year’s Turns Turns Turns EP, the duo — vocalist Devon Welsh and musician Matthew Otto — have perfected their very own style of what might be best described as confessional balladry: sparsely arranged, incredibly restrained piano- and synth-based tracks that play up Welsh’s powerhouse voice and capacity to write songs that are equal parts heart-wrenching and deeply unnerving. “I wanted to make music that seemed like it was barely there because it felt like a natural reaction to my environment,” says Welsh of his musical motivations. This inclination toward minimalism is a big part of what makes Impersonator such a walloping listen. Rarely does music this sparse manage to sound so fantastically huge.
STEREOGUM: The new record seems to be generating a lot of excitement.
WELSH: Yeah. It’s awesome that people are getting to hear it at this point. Most of the people that are listening to the record right now are press people, but everyone seems really enthusiastic about it. I’m excited for it to actually come out and have everybody be able to listen.
STEREOGUM: Was it a difficult record to make?
WELSH: No. Matt and me decided that we were going to make recordings together basically just as soon as we started playing shows together, but it just didn’t really happen for a long time. The idea to record an album came at the beginning of the band because I had all of these songs. We were like, okay, we’ll start by doing an EP with five or six songs and we’ll record them really fast, basically just do really quick takes, have everything running through this old analog mixing desk that Max has and we’ll just mix it on the fly and whatever we come up with, that’ll be the track. And then we just didn’t really get around to doing it very quickly. In the meantime I wrote a bunch more songs and then it got rolling slowly. And then by the time we actually got down to recording something, it was sort of more thought-out, and we realized we wanted to spend more time actually making the songs sound the way we wanted them to sound. We would work on these songs and a month later we’d work on a few more. At the end of that process we sat down with all of them and mixed them all together so that they would have a similar feel.
STEREOGUM: There seems to be a progression — a keener sense of focus, perhaps — to the songs that appear on Impersonator in comparison to the EP and earlier singles.
WELSH: I think that the songs that we did for the EP were all of the songs that were kind of peripheral to the idea of the band that we had. We were playing set lists, we were playing some songs live, and those were the songs that we were more intent on working on, as recordings, and having them all sit together as a record. The songs that ended up on the Turns Turns Turns EP were mostly things that didn’t fit 100% into that concept that we had. So if there’s a sense of progression from one to the other, it’s not really a temporal progression, it’s not really a timeline, it’s more that the EP was comprised of songs that didn’t fit into this idea for a record that we had. So the songs on the record are all more focused and represent a picture of what the band has been for us over the past year.
STEREOGUM: I love the directness of your music. It is remarkably restrained, which is a really rare quality in most music that I encounter on a daily basis as a music writer. One of the prevailing aesthetics in music right now seems to be about having more more more. The songs on Impersonator are kind of the opposite of that.
WELSH: I think for some people having access to all the possibilities in the world can really work out nicely. Since recording technology has been so easily accessible to so many people over the past decade, there’s been whole style of music that’s resulted from that. You know, people can easily mix genres and influences, can have a million different things happening in a single track. There’s an entire style of music that represents this freedom that people were given. But yeah, it can be overwhelming and if it goes the wrong way, you can lose a sense of purpose. And I guess when I started making the songs that are on the record, it was … I can’t say that it was a stylistic decision, it was more … Sometimes a person can react to the world — or to the feeling that the world is overwhelming them — by sort of lashing out at it or making something loud and aggressive, but for me it was more a personal thing. I wanted to make music that seemed like it was barely there because it felt like a natural reaction to my environment.
STEREOGUM: That makes sense.
WELSH: I wanted to make music where I can use the music — the words — to describe my psychological circumstances, and then have the instrumental aspect of the music be as non-invasive as possible. Like, the song is not attacking you. I want to hear music like that when I listen to music, so I found myself naturally making decisions with regard to writing songs where the music wasn’t attacking me when I was making it.
STEREOGUM: The songs appear to be so strikingly personal. A song like “Childhood’s End,” for example, is so intimate that it almost feels uncomfortable. Was it a hard thing to share these songs, to have them now be out in the world?
WELSH: Yeah, there’s something weird about it. Strangely enough, it’s not a difficult process to play them and to have them out there; it just feels weird when I reflect on it. I’ve thought about this a lot. Because the songs are very personal, and then they are getting shared with all of these people that I don’t even know, and then most of the people who are aware — vaguely — of who I am probably just know about me because of those songs. So they don’t really have any concept of who I am as a person, they just know the lyrics, and I feel like, it’s not hard to share the songs because I think that the emotions and the experiences that are in the songs — the audience has become a surrogate for sharing those experiences with somebody who I know. It’s not a hard process to get up in front of an audience and sing the songs, it’s just in reflection I find it strange, because in some ways I am transferring the intimacy that I would have with someone who is close to me — I’m transferring that intimacy to my experiences engaging with crowds of people when I’m playing music. And so, it doesn’t feel hard. It almost feels natural. It feels like it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s like the natural outlet for the intimacy that’s contained in the music, because I’m transferring the feelings that I would otherwise be sharing in a personal setting. It’s strange, like you can’t have it both ways. It feels like that intimate life either is a personal one, or it becomes a public one, and even though it’s kind of a sad reflection, I feel like that intimate life in some sense ceases to exist as a personal thing when a musician makes the decision to put themselves out there in a public way.
STEREOGUM: How is it for you, being a front man? Were you always a singer? Did you always know that you could sing?
WELSH: I couldn’t always sing, but I still did it. I probably got better at it as I went along. When I was in bands, I was always the singer or the front-person. I don’t know why, I guess that was just the natural thing. Some people just gravitate toward that kind of role in a band or in any other kind of project. Being someone who’s up on stage and because I don’t have anything — I don’t play an instrument, and I don’t have a mic stand, I’m just holding a mic — it’s strange. I definitely like it. I definitely thrive on the exchange I can have with an audience that’s focused on what we’re doing. There’s that exchange of energy that takes place. It’s just intense, not in a good or a bad way.
STEREOGUM: I think it’s intense in a good way because seeing people having a really human, genuine response to something is always good.
WELSH: I would much rather people have genuine responses to our music, and I try to facilitate that as much as I can by structuring the way that we perform in order to make that happen. Rather than having people just clap, I’d rather them feel something. That makes performing a meaningful experience, and it makes you feel like you’re doing something real and you’re actually having a human moment with people. But then, by the same token, it’s easier to go through life not having those kinds of intense experiences. Like, the feeling of the cathartic conversation with somebody where all kinds of things that were under the surface come up. It feels good but you dread it at the same time, because you open up a part of yourself that you don’t do on an everyday basis because you’d just fall apart.
STEREOGUM: It will be interesting to see how the experience evolves for you.
WELSH: Yeah. I’ve always been a really big fan of music where the performer invites that sort of personal investment in what’s going on. Someone like Elliott Smith … I mean, I never saw him play, but from everything I’ve heard of his shows, they invited that kind of personal and emotional investment in the content of the music and obviously listening to the records does that in a big way. So, I think that’s my favorite kind of music, music that allows the listener to invest his or her own emotions and to really feel something. I’m happy that I’m able to attend to that and I’ll be even happier if that can be successful, that the music can offer people that opportunity. But I feel like there’s a big difference between being a fan of that music and someone who’s guiding that experience. I’m just learning what that involves and negotiating how to preserve some part of yourself while you’re leading that moment.
STEREOGUM: I’ve talked about this with a lot of musicians over the years. The more you do it the more you figure out for yourself what is a healthy way to go about it.
WELSH: Yeah, you ask yourself sometimes, why are you writing the song? What do you want the audience to do? How do you want them to react to the music? Also, it doesn’t really have to do with you as a person that someone has an emotional experience at your show. You know, sometimes people cry at the shows that we play, and at first it really threw me off because it feels like you have the power in that situation, but really it doesn’t have to do with you as a person. The music offers people the opportunity for people to feel those feelings. What they’re really interfacing with is the experience of the music, but it’s a hard distinction between that person singing and what they’re singing, and I try to just make clear as much as possible. I just make clear as much as possible that — I don’t know — I’m not a cool person or someone worthy of admiration in any sense. It’s like, if you like the music, great. And that’s the entire reason why I’m doing this — I’m not doing it so that people will like me, because they don’t know me, they just know the music. That’s part of who I am, but not all of who I am, and it would be a mistake to identify me with the feelings a person has when they listen to the music that I make.
Majical Cloudz’ Impersonator is out May 21 via Matador.