Hometown: Montreal, Canada
Members: Devon Welsh, Matthew Otto
Current Release: Impersonator
For Fans of: Grimes, The National, The Smiths
“What’s the point in a sad song?”
It’s a rhetorical question vocalist Devon Welsh posed earlier this month on Twitter—and the Majical Cloudz frontman emphasizes this when I direct the question at him, brushing it off as simply a line from a new song he’s working on. A line he just put out there to the Internet.
“It kind of works in the context of the story of the song,” Welsh says plainly as we wrap up the interview. But as was customary for the duration of our talk, Welsh pauses, selecting his words carefully before clarifying: “My answer to the question is that I’m not entirely sure. I think that music has a lot of values, and I don’t think I could insert the values of anything like that.”
For Welsh at least, maybe the point of a sad song seems up in the air. But there’s no question to its function. To him, a sad song is a necessary release, a way to gather his emotions over time and spit them out on record. But learning to emote as delicately and precisely as he does on Impersonator, the second release from Majical Cloudz, takes time.
Majical Cloudz as a duo formed in Welsh’s time at McGill University, where he was completing a degree in religious studies. “I don’t know how much of it comes through in the music,” he says. “Studying religion is like studying people’s hopes and fears and dreams. I’m into expressing that myself in music, but I’m not sure how much it directly has to do with.”
But in creating music in his time studying those hopes, fears and dreams, Welsh found a like-minded collaborator in Montreal’s music community through a friend of a friend. Enter Matthew Otto, or as Welsh puts it simply when defining his right-hand man, “a better producer than I am. He has a better ear for the details in music that I don’t have. He complements my approach to music.”
Fast forward to 2013, and the duo has released Impersonator. The album is refreshing; an 11-track, 43-minute chunk of honesty, fear, depression, hope, acceptance, defiance and plenty of questions, all defined by the minimal, nuanced production of Otto. It’s a morose block of tracks, one that gives Morrissey a healthy dose of competition without feeling derivative or exaggerated. The frustration, the emotion is there, but Welsh is mum on the source material, instead pointing toward the more-universal, relatable art on display rather than the events that formed it.
“What inspired the album are just personal experiences that I’ve had and investigating my feelings about those things,” Welsh says. “I don’t really think it’s necessary for me to explain the backstories behind the songs. I feel like it’s not really a relevant concern. Not that I’m saying the songs are general, they’re quite specific in terms of what they’re about. But there are things I’m willing to share in public and things I’m not willing to share. Explaining in detail on what the songs are about—that feels unnecessary.”
But that’s only half of what Majical Cloudz brings to the table, the other side being Otto’s charming, sparse synths, beats and effects. And what might sound overly bare-bones in a world where Arcade Fire’s army of musicians blows out festival speakers and DJs are gravitating toward an everything-and-the-kitchen sink production philosophy, Impersonator is like breaking the surface after too long under water. And like that first breath of air, Welsh’s honesty, Otto’s careful juggling of thoughtful structure between pushing Welsh’s lofty baritone completely up-front, it’s an experience that will leave you clear-headed and revitalized after a time of personal distress. At least that’s how audiences have been perceiving the Montreal act.
Crowds are hushed when the two-piece takes the stage, and Welsh has reportedly summoned tears from audience members around the country with his straightforward, intense performances. Welsh—an unmistakable character whose Bic-short hair and white shirt/black jeans combo form an easy visual distinction to Majical Cloudz—often stares onlookers in the whites of their eyes as he leans into every syllable live. Whether it’s dedicating a song to a baby at a performance in San Diego (“It seemed special to play to a baby,” he laughs) or snarling once-docile lines from Impersonator, Welsh is striving for connection and does everything in his power to stay in the moment.
“I like to stretch before I play. It just helps me focus,” he says. “I don’t need to have my phone in my pocket while I’m playing. It seems like such a half-assed thing to be doing while you’re playing. I stretch and focus on the fact that I’m doing a performance, and it’s not casual.”
And before returning home to work on another serving of minimalist, emotive music, the duo’s hitting the road again one more time behind Impersonator. And with material that’s so emotionally dense, it’s got to be something to rehash it evening after evening in a busy 2013, right?
“It’s interesting,” Welsh reflects. “I don’t really think of it that much, but when I do, it’s definitely new to me that someone would want to get up on stage and sing songs that are really personal.
“I don’t know,” he adds with a laugh. “It seems like something that I’ll probably work out in psychotherapy years from now.”