Published May 23, 2013We catch up with Devon Welsh moments after his arrival at Toronto's Great Hall. Navigating through labyrinthine doors, corridors and stairways, Devon settles down in an appropriately stark, stripped side-hall that could scarcely be further from the front room stage where Majical Cloudz will later support Youth Lagoon. During the interview, the young singer, zipped up in a plain grey hoodie, frequently frowns and glances out the window mid-question, perhaps to relieve us of the severe gaze that can't help but evoke the captivating Majical Cloudz live show. The band's most curious physical trademark, however, requires a closer look: in moments of deep concentration, Devon's cerebral veins, bulging with intensity, form a crooked, forehead-spanning 'M.'
Raised by his parents in a religious Californian community (Twin Peaks fans will recognise his father, Canadian actor Kenneth Welsh, as the villainous Windom Earle), Devon studied religion at McGill where he met Claire Boucher, alias Grimes. She ultimately became his link to Doldrums, Sean Nicholas Savage, Mac De Marco, TOPS, Blue Hawaii and the Arbutus label that connects them. Chatty yet distantly nervous, Devon, as on record, seems less scatty than some of his Montreal peers. We took the advantage to burrow into his thoughts on the nature of performance, what distinguishes Elliott Smith from the Postal Service, and the strange artistic crossroads where Majical Cloudz meet with Andy Kaufman.
So the Montreal loft scene has pretty much died out?
Yeah, a lot of venues got shut down. It definitely had a lot to do with the police. Before, venues would cease to exist and they'd just find a new place somewhere, but it got too much, the rent got too high. It became a forbidden business venture.
That seems kind of sad.
Yeah. I think that was good for the city for a long time — having lots of DIY spaces, spaces that were not based on selling liquor and the business of music touring. It's more based on local networks of friends. I think that allows for more creative experiments to happen, because anybody can start a band and play a show and fall flat on their face, or be really good — usually one comes before the other. And when you have opportunities where there's a built-in audience of people who are willing to listen to anything, open-minded fans of experimental music, those are really good conditions for people to be... in the laboratory, and figuring out what they want to do and say with music.
In an interview, you said you like to make yourself vulnerable when you play live. Do you have to cultivate an air of vulnerability, or do you genuinely feel naked onstage?
I mean vulnerable in the sense of not going in with a calculated persona to easily dictate the flow of the performance. I like to go into it reading how enthusiastically the crowd responds to certain things. How it seems like they're feeling — if the crowd is more morose or more into partying. I'm not bound to a certain emotion in my own performance. I feel like playing intimate music that, for some people, could seem sad, could confine someone to feeling they need to channel some sadness onstage, and I don't subscribe to that. By the same token, someone who's making happy music could easily feel confined to happiness onstage, like they need to project that, they need to be this persona, a happy party person that plays, like, happy dance music. Being contradictory onstage or emotionally ambiguous doesn't fit into that, but that's where I find excitement in performing. To be able to make people feel two different things, to have it go both ways.
I was watching this Andy Kaufman HBO special. His comedy does a similar thing: mixes feelings and doesn't give the audience a straightforward emotion to feel. At the beginning of this HBO performance he starts saying a few jokes that are intentionally really bad and don't have an comfortable punch line. And people aren't laughing at them, and then he starts to get awkward. And because people expect him to use that as a device, they start laughing. And he takes it so far that he is nearly crying, and he runs offstage, and then he runs back, and he takes that ambiguity where they're laughing, like "Oh it's funny because he's putting on a routine," and he's saying, "Oh, I should go, these jokes aren't working, it's not working." So the audience expects it to be artificial, but then it goes so far that it becomes almost uncomfortable for them to laugh, because it seems like he's genuinely suffering onstage, and maybe he is.
Do you use any kind of exaggeration when you perform?
The music itself, I don't exaggerate. I just try to make something that speaks my emotions as clearly as possible. When I'm singing, I just try to feel that in that moment as much as possible. And feel the engagement I'm having with the people that are watching — that's amazing. To share these feelings that I have in the music. So it's not exaggerating — just trying to get to as real as place as possible. But I think "emotional" authenticity or confessional music is always achieved through literary devices. True honesty in literature is a very literate game, d'you know what I mean? So a poem that seems to be incredibly raw, the rawness is achieved through [literary devices]. So the lyrics could come across as slightly exaggerated because they seem melodramatic. But they're melodramatic because I want to convey an emotion as much as possible.
That's how they feel, right? If you write a teen love song — not that that's what you do — it'd be dishonest to take a completely logical approach.
Yeah yeah, exactly. I hope I do write teen songs! Maybe that's just what the emotions are like at the time. Plus it's still music, it's still entertainment, you want people to get into it easily.
While onstage have you ever been... totally overcome with emotion?
Um... I've never actually shed tears onstage. I was thinking about that the other day. I think on some level, being onstage demands a certain type of composure that you have to really get through to be doing something like that. If I'm feeling really excited then I'll scream into the microphone sometimes.
I've spoken to musicians before who, when starting out — before mastering that composure — had broken down, but I guess they learned to channel that into performance. If somebody was crying onstage it wouldn't feel like a performance. It'd feel rude that you were watching.
Yeah, that'd be a really uncomfortable situation. But I would like to see that. I think if anything, that would be more possible for me now than when I first started performance. It depends. The first time we play a new song, there'll be a time where I won't actually cry, but I will feel like crying, because it's like showing a bunch of people a diary entry — all of them at the same time. And you're kind of insecure about it. So that's a really special feeling. That's when I probably feel most vulnerable — playing new music.
Do you remember the first time you played songs? Say, "Bugs Don't Buzz"?
Oh yeah, of course. The first time in front of an audience was in Toronto, one of the first shows that me and Matt ever played. The feeling was... not as exciting as you might think. That was not the song I was focussing on at the time. The first time where it felt really good was later on in the summer of 2012. We played a show in a loft-like apartment space that my friends were renting for the summer, with really bad PA speakers. And when we played it that time, the bass note distorted the PA to the point where it washed everything out. It has an effect like the low-budget equivalent of a huge bass boom, where you don't get the bass, you just get the speakers peaking. It was cool to peak the speakers. When we were playing that show, everything was pretty overdriven, so there was a lot of things distorting against the peak level of the speakers. And it felt like we were going harder; like the music was distorting because we were putting so much into it. Sometimes shows just have this magic feeling.
I might be wrong, but I think you've admitted to finding art that reveals vulnerability inherently more valuable. Listening to the Postal Service for work recently, I came around to the fact I don't like it. The way Ben Gibbard presents himself, he seems to fetishize his weaknesses — he comes off as smug. As an artist operating in a vaguely similar emotional territory, can you pinpoint what separates all that from the vulnerable stuff you admire?
Yeah, well first off I didn't mean to essentialize vulnerable art. It's just a quality that something will have — a lot of the time it can just be based on the time and place it comes out. For example, political art. The vulnerability of someone making an artistic political gesture in a time and place where that gesture is completely forbidden, where that statement being made is a spark that creates a fire — that notion would be included in the vulnerable art I was talking about. I like art that goes out on a limb for some reason or another. It's not about flashiness or aesthetics or coolness. Whether it's personal or in a political sense, it's about going out on a limb.
Another angle on this emotional, bare-all style of music: do you think it's unfair or dangerous for us to expect artists to be role models — even if they present themselves that way?
I think to expect any artist to be a role model is a mistake. Any public figure makes a choice along the way whether or not they structure their public identity as someone that actively wants to be seen as a role model or not; anyone that puts themselves out there in the public should expect that to happen at some point, but some people more than others.
Elliott Smith is an example of an artist that didn't try to be a role model, didn't push "the answers" or any smug self-actualization narrative. I think his way of putting these redeeming qualities into his music was more subtle. By using wordplay, technical brilliance, powerful metaphors, he showed a kind of joy in the creative process while allowing the content to remain quite dark. Do you think about that balance, the possibility you could make music that was too much, that there could be too much sadness without some redeeming quality?
I... I've never really thought about it before. My experience with Elliott Smith was one of being totally sucked into his music — he's one of my favourite musicians — but being sucked in like that pulled me down emotionally, and kept me in a state of negativity, romanticizing my own sadness, which is self-perpetuating. So it's a good question, whether I'd be afraid of making music that had a similar kind of function. I would hope that the music we're making is not so one-sided in its emotions.
You say you hope, but do you feel that way?
I can't really say what another person would think about it. For me, the lyrics are really personal. And what's going on in them is very psychologically complex — for me, I mean. I can probably read many more things into it than are actually happening. So I don't know how... unambiguously depressing the album is. [Laughs.] I hope it's not. I feel like there's something important about sad music, but there should be something to pull you out. I don't necessarily subscribe to the idea that an artist is responsible for what happens to their art and music when it goes out to people. Because how far do you extend that into the realms of someone having major problems of their own. And your music enters their life at some point. And is it the music, or is it something that has nothing to do with that? Coming back to a media cliché, the vilification of Marilyn Manson in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings — I just don't think that was valid at all. I don't think you can blame an artist for something that's so open-ended and can be related to in so many different ways. An artist can't control that, and I guess you can't really think about it.
I mean, you can listen to Elliott Smith and it'll make you sad but I don't think you can blame Elliott Smith for making that music. When I started listening to Elliott Smith it was also a consoling activity, because the reason I connected with it so strongly was that I felt so much akin to the emotions he was carrying across in his music. So maybe in another sense his music provided me with a framework for understanding what sadness is and what it means. Self-expression's not always valuable, but it's always valid. To use the Postal Service, I wouldn't burn all the copies of that album, or consider anyone who uses it a mutant or anything. But you can say, even though he's being honest, that it sucks. It's personal, it's seemingly intimate — although you could argue otherwise, in terms of the lyrics — it's stylistically of its time, a strange move to make. But that's all water under the bridge if you don't actually enjoy the music.
We've talked about the way you reveal yourself, but how does that manifest on a daily basis? Like when you meet new people, is the fact in the back of your mind that they know something about you, or have the upper hand through your songs?
Paradoxically, I'm inclined towards not immediately trusting most people that I meet with the intimate details of my life. That's a whole other tangent in terms of why I would be uncomfortable with that, but would be comfortable with sharing it in a music setting. I feel like that's a common thread with performers that share aspects of themselves onstage, or even writers, actors, and comedians more than anybody. By making their life into a comedy routine, they're a) redeeming their disappointments and their failures and their frustrations by channelling it into something artistically interesting that makes people laugh. And it's also easier for them to explain those disappointments and failures and frustrations through that medium than by actually sitting down with somebody with someone you don't know very well. I'd feel totally uncomfortable doing that with someone who came to a show. But when you take those things, those private parts of your life, and you transmute them into songs, it makes it feel like I've turned those negative feelings into this thing that can be enjoyed and has positive value.
You mentioned that, with the touring lifestyle, your relationship with the audience has become a kind of surrogate for sharing with real people.
Yeah. It's not as extreme as that, but in that sense you take something you would've wanted to tell somebody and you turn it into something that gets played for audiences. Me and Matt have been touring since January. And when you're on tour all the time, you don't have that much opportunity to connect with your social circle. You drift away from some friends, and form new friendships based on the people you're able to spend time with on tour. But basically you don't have that much social contact, so playing the shows becomes that social contact. A person could be cynical about it and say, "Well, these people don't know you at all," and in one sense that's true. But those people are there to hear you perform and what people give back to me, just by meeting people and talking to them, it feels like you did have a conversation with them. You shared something.
Do you feel bottled up, operating that way?
Actually, since I've been touring I've felt happier than I have in a long time. It's emotionally satisfying, I don't know why. I could dig into this with some kind of psychoanalysis, but I think this probably isn't the right time for that.
Say you reached another level of fame, would you still feel comfortable revealing yourself in this way?
I mean, that's a hypothetical I probably couldn't feel until it happened. I'm pretty committed to my desire to make music that is and continues to be personal, and to be as forthcoming as possible on the internet, and to be able to share the feelings that I have as a human being.
Ever feel like the world has become your therapist?
Yeah, maybe. I dunno... I guess I feel like that's a pathological way to look at someone that writes and performs confessional music. I wouldn't look at it that way; I have a more hopeful vision of what it means for everyone. I'm not using music as therapy; I don't have a clinical relationship with the audience.
How important to you is the kind of intimacy that's shared with one other person?
I think that's probably one of the most important things in anybody's life.
So you don't think being an artist can substitute for it?
Not completely. Yeah, that's what I mean when I say [the audience-as-surrogate comment] was just an observation... I don't think I can ever fully substitute it. If a person tried to do that, there would be a tremendous hole in their life. If there's anything about our music that I would hope would be clear through the lyrics, it's that I do value my intimate relationships with friends and loved ones and lovers as one of my top priorities.
Is there any danger of that slipping away for you?
I don't think so. The people that mean a lot to me, and that I mean a lot to, stay in touch. It's just that when you have a normal life, staying in one place, you have a circle of friends. And when you're travelling around a lot you don't keep in touch with those loose friends. But it has made me appreciate the really strong and close friendships I do have.
It seems that one of the album's themes is a loss of identity. Where did that come from?
Yeah definitely. Did you come up with that independently?
I mean, the album's called Impersonator...
Yeah, you're actually the first person to have ever mentioned that. I'm currently editing some thoughts that I'm going to put on the internet about the theme of loss, or confusion, of identity. But yeah, without going into the unnecessary details of my life, that was definitely part of it. I was at a point where that was a relevant theme in my life.
Geographically? Psychologically? Socially?
All of it, yeah — the whole thing. I mean, I'm sure everyone has experienced that at one point or another, but I was between almost everything in my life, including my ability to write music, my geographical location, my psychological orientation, my various personal relationships. And I didn't think about that until relatively recently, actually.
You mean after you'd written the songs?
And after I'd titled the album. And then that all started to become clear to me: that there was a theme to the lyrics, and that the title encapsulated those themes.
Last thought following from that: you sing about loss of identity, but your voice is so distinctive, such a strong expression that it seems to negate the idea.
Yeah. Well, the technical version of that is that most of the songs, when I wrote them, I sang them in a much less vocally confident way. For example, that first song, "Impersonator," the difference between the way I sing that song on the record, and the way I originally sung it, is vastly different. The delivery in the original is probably more consistent with the themes of the music. But making music can sometimes be a way of helping a person rise above the things that they're writing about. So I don't think there's a contradiction of voicing loss of identity or fragility in a strong way.
I think that's what redeems those lyrical blues. The uncertainty in the lyrics is secondary to the power of the delivery. And you're saying that's actually what happened — the songs started out in uncertainty but you became powerful.
That's definitely true. The songs, most if not all, evolved towards being more strong from when they were first written.
And do you actually feel more confident about those things?
I feel more confident about those things as they exist in the context of the songs. But the things I write about are still feelings and real-life relationships and real-life problems that don't disappear just because you write a song about it. But it at least helps me get a grip; it's a helpful thought process to clarify something that I'm feeling.