Devon Welsh on “Dream Songs”

The Champion of Heart Returns

Sep 18, 2018 Web Exclusive
Bookmark and Share


There's a sort of unspoken line one can cross with an emotive vocal style. On one side of it, healthy reflection is accessible, encouraged even. On the other, a reaction of mild cringing is not uncalled for. Where that line falls is different for every listener. It's funny how unabashed expressions of love, devotion, and deep despair considered too weighted to receive ordinarilyare all greenlit in the lanes of song. Even still, there's this whole contingent of avid music fans who will never let you see them swaying back and forth with their eyes closed, mouthing the words to their favorite ballad. Put them in a dark room with "Birth Ritual" by Soundgarden playing, however, and the emotion starts spilling out.

The accusations of too transparent, too sincere, too heavy, the very same that tormented my awkward forays into early romance, just bounce off of Montreal singer Devon Welsh. The raconteur of the now closed book of Majical Cloudz is all about pouring his heart out, yet never sounds sappy doing it. One resonant thought aloud of his brings this idea home, delivered in the most popular, and affecting Majical Coudz song. On "Downtown," which very neatly wraps up the euphoria of falling for someone, Welsh belts out, "Is it really this cool to be in your life?" I ask you, is there a more plain-spoken way of letting someone know you're into them? I've felt that before, sure, but saying it out loud?...risky. Welsh hides nothing and behind nothing, which forms the connective tissue to his work. Out in front on every song of his dating back to the debatably underrated Majical Cloudz albums Impersonator and Are You Alone?, every heartfelt lyric is perfectly clear and exposed, as if sung to a packed assembly hall of silent, cynical onlookers. Each one uttered leaving him more vulnerable.

"It's a great place to be," confides Welsh over tea at the Williamsburg, Brooklyn mainstay Enid's before his first performance of new material in close to two years. The writing on his new solo album, Dream Songs, he unveils that evening within the electric-purple lit cathedral of Park Church Co-op a few blocks away, is as heartfelt as anything written for Majical Cloudz, but thanks to a new production pallet the songs drift with the breezy weightlessness of a sparkling day in the country. "Maybe that's something that has hooked me about music. It has [afforded me] a place to be melodramatic," Welsh says. "It's a license for me to go there. Sometimes you can't give yourself space [to locate] the emotion that's right under your skin and needs to come out. Since I've made music, it's been a chance to talk about things that I'm not letting myself feel or articulate."

But giving himself over completely to the art of confession necessarily meant Welsh's guard was left down. And it almost got the better of him. A significant chasm formed between the safe space of artistic disclosure he had carefully outlined for himself and the coarser edges of the world that awaited him off stage and out of studio. Occasions were mounting where the boundaries lay uncomfortably close. So much so that Welsh had to retreat.

"I think I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life in general," he admits. "For all kinds of reasons. I had to work out some knots and needed to step away.... It's pretty complicated. I would say maybe I'm more flappable than the average person. That's a mode I can easily go into and that colors everything.... So my experiences with doing music professionally became very stressful. Objectively, the music industry is not a life-affirming place. One would be hard pressed to find a person who disagrees with that. You're taking something that's about heart and soul and that moment when you're listening to someone play their song or you're playing yours.... Listening to music on your headphones or whatever it is. It's valuable because it's an experience. People do it, or I hope they do, because they just have to. Then [you're putting it] into a context that's almost an antagonist of all that. It's like here's your sensitive creation and now go play it at this weird show for money with all these people involved. I think everyone struggles with that to some degree and I guess I had my own struggles. It's something that I walked away from feeling complicated about because I had great opportunities to make a living doing music and that's rare. But then on the other hand, as I got wrapped up in it there were a lot of negative aspects."

The irony is that Welsh and musical partner Matthew Otto decided to call it quits right when their moody, minimal synth-pop was reaching its height of exposure. When the aforementioned "Downtown" was used for the HBO series Togetherness, it not only swept up and carried the emotional tenor of the narrative, it signified a breakthrough to a grander audience for what began modestly with Welsh in Halifax, Nova Scotia six years earlier. "For some reason, I don't investigate [those things]," confesses Welsh. "I don't really want to know, but I'm really happy that it was used and trust that it was good.... [Honestly] it was a song that I thought to not have on that album. I don't know why and I was certain that I was wrong. On the first Majical Cloudz album one of the more popular songs was 'Childhood's End' and that was another one where I was like, 'It's not going on the album.'"

A lot of fans with big hearts and bumbling overtures are so very happy "Downtown" stayed in, as it stood as an anthem for the hopelessly romantic. Welsh's absence the last two years, however, then left them without their spokesperson.

But while he was out of scene, Welsh didn't stop writing songs. It's in his nature. "That's how I feel good. Making music," he says. His return officially got on track when he sent friend and drummer-producer Austin Tufts of fellow Montreal band Braids some demos he had been playing around with. To Welsh's surprise, Tufts gladly offered to help produce the new material and thus the lane to a new beginning was opened by a friend who had long been an inspiration. "In the summer of 2009, Braids came to Montreal and started playing shows around the city," remembers Welsh. "They were kind of the first band in my subjective recollection that was doing it for real. They were serious about it. Me and the people I knew were experimenting and we loved to play music but had no concept of what it meant to be ambitious. They came in and sounded so practiced. Their songs were so amazing.... Me and my friend Kyle just started following them around that summer to see them play.... We really looked up to them."

Tufts was asked to take demo songs first approached on guitar and find a loftier space for them to breathe. The guitar roots are still intact in some places on Dream Songs but Tufts called upon his familiarity with various instruments to conjure halcyon clouds for Welsh to climb upon. "It was a great way to finish something that was unfinishable for me," says Welsh of Tufts' input. As for the transition from one creative partner to another and the new sonic territory to inhabit, it appears that he hadn't really analyzed it before I ask him: "I don't really trust my memories of how I was feeling in the past but my relationship with Matt was more complex. There were so many elements involved. I was learning how to make complete pieces of music at the same time he was...having the same sense of discovery together. It was sort of all-encompassing.... With Austin, it was like hey, a friend. Let's work on this project. I [already] had this full set of experiences and he had his own and we approached it in a more methodical way. We thought it would be cool to try this kind of approach for a whole album where we stick with organic sounds instead of continuing what I had done in the past electronically."

Album opener "By the Daylight" is the introduction to this more pastoral atmosphere and comes closest to the tonality of the more recent Braids production. It might have made for a stimulating duet with their radiant frontwoman Raphaelle Standell Preston. "I am a body/stuck in a story," sings Welsh in his straight talk manner that has never wavered. And his presence is as striking as ever on these elevated peaks. He is the ever-steady silver surfer agilely completing a gliding slalom run of cello and violin, around the gates of clean harp plucks and grand piano chords. The instrumentation becomes the architecture for the album and points to an appreciation Welsh has always had for string elements in contemporary genres.

"Radiohead's 'Motion Picture Soundtrack.' I really love that song and was always really inspired by it," he says. "Things from [Radiohead's] In Rainbows.... Leonard Cohen's albums. Like that song 'Avalanche' where it starts out with guitar and then the strings come in. That template of folk albums in the '60s and '70s where there are singer/songwriter guitar songs and then these swelling strings come in and almost breathe excessive emotion into songs. I really like that.... I was also inspired by Talk Talk albums. I was listening to those a lot when I started writing and realized that there wasn't electronic stuff going on."

On "Dreams Have Pushed You Around" violin and cello soar once more atop grand piano as Welsh assumes the role of the romantic lead in a musical, passionately exposing to an audience what he couldn't manage to find the right words for in the previous scene. Close your eyes and you can picture him pacing with careful steps in the spotlight meant to come from the moon, through violet darkness, with the deep sounds welling up from the chamber below to carry his wishes off into the imaginary evening. This practically describes the scene later that evening at Park Church, where Welsh effortlessly reclaimed his vocal prowess. It was a warm welcome back.

This picture of the sensitive, yearning, and openly conflicted protagonist is a helpful reference to understand Welsh and his artistic disposition. More vacillant than he'd like to be in the narrow alleys of societal navigation, hispardon the new age termstrength of being emerges when alone at the front of the stage. In the most vulnerable place one can be, he is at his most convincing.

"I'll Be Your Ladder" rings emphatically of this. It's the first new song of Welsh's I heard after his hiatus and kind of brought back the Majical Cloudz feeling in a way that made me miss that act, but also feel very content that its essence lives on. The powerful ballad is a bridge between the two projects. "I guess it's kind of like when you love somebody and you want them to reach the skies," says Welsh of the song that is perhaps the most significant on the album. "There was all of this stuff happening [when I wrote that]. It was a really insane period in retrospect. The conversations about whether [Majical Cloudz] would continue or not had begun. I didn't know what was happening next. Someone close to me passed away and there was this crazy forest fire that happened in this place I had spent time as a kid. It was a really weird period and I was pretty confused about everything.... Whatever it was, I felt it really strongly in the moments [of writing the song] and it felt like it was coming from somewhere really genuine. A place that was free from the confusion I was feeling. It kind of represented to me a calm place in the future. I couldn't wait to play it for people and I wanted to make more music that made me feel like that. [That song] was a cornerstone to doing things in the future beyond Majical Cloudz. It was the basis for the rest of the songs."

It was somehow comforting to hear Welsh mention a future in music. We need artists like Devon Welsh. We really do. Because face value is invaluable. When you know where someone stands without any suspicion of ulterior motive, you can receive their art purely. Welsh represents the friend you can tell anything to and hear anything from and know that it's safe. And when you're alone and confused and feeling misunderstood and out of place, you can press the play arrow and know that there's someone right there with you, just trying to figure shit out honestly. We all have emotions to work through, and Welsh's music opens up the channels to do so. I think I speak for many in characterizing his return as reassuring. Really, Devonwelcome back. 

"This has felt crazy the entire time," relates Welsh, steadying himself aloud on the way out of Enid's to go help his new band load in gear for the show that evening. "Getting the band together and practicing and coming here with them and meeting up with you, it's like ok, I'm starting to do it again. I have no idea how long I will be able to keep doing it...as long as I can continue to sustain it, I'll give it a shot because there are parts about it I like...and I like the idea that people can have a positive moment because my music helps them do that."

www.devonwelsh.bandcamp.com

Support Under the Radar on Patreon.



Comments

Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published

URL

Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

There are no comments for this entry yet.