It shouldn’t be surprising that the first several minutes I spend speaking by phone with Majical Cloudz’ mastermind Devon Welsh, we don’t talk about his music or his excellent new album, Are You Alone? Instead, he approaches an interview the same way he approaches his art: he tries to connect.
In conversation, this takes the form of Welsh interviewing me, enjoying getting outside of the normal process fielding questions about his process and instead asking me about growing up in Orange County. Welsh shares his impressions of the area’s beaches, how they harken back to the most stereotypical, idealized version of beaches taught to us by old movies and the music of Southern California, offering insight that might only come from someone that grew up in Canada, where these kinds of scenes were only able to be experienced through the television set or the radio.
Later when discussing the beginning of Majical Cloudz, Welsh hits the nail on the head when it comes to describing his own worldview as it comes through in his music, saying, “Music is always emotional; it just depends on what emotion it is getting out of you.”
“I’m interested in making music that puts the focus on emotions,” Welsh says. “Especially performing live, putting a focus on emotional aspects of the situation and a focus on people’s emotional relationships, directing attention to that aspect of experience. There might be this conception that means that it is sad and that you are supposed to cry or something, but that’s not it at all for me. I just intend for the music and the performances to direct attention toward emotional vulnerabilities.”
In August of 2013, that idea was on display when Majical Cloudz performed at Santa Ana’s Constellation Room. The show was noteworthy by the complete lack of turnout, despite buzz for the project that included doing a tour diary of the stretch for Noisey, rave reviews for the recent album Impersonator, and sold-out performances including the very next day in Los Angeles.
“I remember showing up to the venue,” Welsh recalls, “and seeing a huge line outside and knowing that it couldn’t be for us.” Since the space actually holds two performance spaces, Majical Cloudz were playing the smaller room, while the line of kids had come to see G-Eazy, whom Welsh admits to having first heard of that night.
“For me, I enjoy playing in circumstances that don’t automatically make you feel great,” Welsh says. He got that chance on that evening, as less than 30 people had shown up for his concert. Welsh asked that everyone get in a circle, including on the stage so that they stood behind him, and then performed with his bandmate Matthew Otto in the round, slowly turning in a circle so he could look each person in the eye. When the show concluded, Welsh thanked every person individually for coming. The performance was, in a word, moving.
“It’s a challenge to take the circumstances and make something that is fun for everyone,” Welsh says. “It’s easy to do that when it is a packed room and everyone is really excited. Then, you don’t really have to do anything, you just have to be there. But when you are in situations that are not like that, as a performer, it’s more exciting and interesting, because you have to get creative with making sure everyone has a good time.”
By the next year, Welsh was ready to begin a whole new set of uncomfortable, challenging live experiences when Majical Cloudz opened for Lorde at amphitheaters across America. For Welsh, it was a once-in-a-lifetime, wild chance to see how his music could translate in giant spaces.
“It wasn’t some sort of orchestrated plan where we had a record coming out and a well-oiled machine, where a tour with Lorde was a step on our ascent to some other level of the record industry,” he says. “It just came out of the blue, and at a point where we weren’t really doing much of anything besides recording this new album. We were playing in front of thousands of people at these sold out shows, where everyone was there to see the headliner, and no one knew who we were, but they were still really enthusiastic. It ended up being a lot of fun.”
But while Majical Cloudz thrive on pushing themselves in live environments, the recording of Are You Alone? was interestingly seeped in comfort, Welsh trying to use as much of the same recording equipment and studio space as he had on his previous album. That said, the album is anything but a retread, with the risks coming in both lyrical themes and in subtle sonic nuances.
“The melody of the vocals and the lyrics is what is most important to me,” Welsh says of his work. “When the band started, the aesthetic of the music was trying to make it as gray as possible, almost as a reaction against music that was really expansive and all about the sounds. We wanted to make something completely different, that was all about the vocals and the words and the emotions that were in those things, with the music itself intentionally gray and modest-sounding.”
Still if anything, Are You Alone? sees some walls coming down. Early in the album, “Control” finds the duo going unexpectedly mid-tempo, with the distant percussion propelling the vocal melody and lyrics, rather than just existing in service to it. Later, it’s “Silver Car Crash” that finds the backing music jarring listeners out of their comfort zone as Welsh pays lyrical homage to Morrissey, singing about lovers dying together in a car crash.
But the album still highlights what Welsh does best, which is delivering very honest and direct sentiments in a brave manner, seemingly unafraid of being too forthright or corny, putting himself out there for his audience in a very complete way. “I have a certain amount of confidence about being able to speak my mind and say what I want to say,” he says, “and I’m grateful for that.”
Because through his lyrics, his concerts, and even his conversations, it all comes down to connecting. “You don’t have to be all alone,” he sings on the album track “If You’re Lonely,” and the entity of Majical Cloudz often acts as his own lyrics’ supporting argument. Seeing someone sing as Welsh does, with his eyes open and his sentiments unguarded, can be a very empowering thing for the audience, something that Welsh does not take lightly.
“I have the platform of my own self-confidence,” he says, “and it’s a platform of music and communication. I hope that rubs off on people. I hope that music can give confidence to someone that otherwise doesn’t have it. I think that’s what’s fun about playing shows, trying to transform this space, because people can go into a show feeling a certain way about themselves, and about how they are relating to other people, and you can make it different and make it fun. If you can get someone feeling unconfident to feel more confident about themselves, then that is a success point for the music and the performance.”