Majical Cloudz is centered around Montreal songwriter Devon Welsh, who joined with Matthew Otto to collaboratively produce and perform his songs.
In May 2012, Majical Cloudz released II, an album of Welsh’s vocal melodies largely buried under impressionistic synths, loops, samples, and snippets. The album was followed in December by the Turns Turns Turns EP, an audacious distillation of Welsh’s ideas that brought his vocals to the fore. “Musically, I wanted to try saying ‘no’ to possibilities, and create negative space in the songs,” he says. “To put the emphasis on the voice and lyrics.”
Pitchfork said the EP “trusts in simple pop melodies and never feels a need to obscure the most enjoyable elements of these songs.” (The song “What That Was” was named Best New Track.)
Impersonator brings Welsh’s songs into even sharper focus; its expressive power and swagger belie the extremely minimal music. These are intensely lyrical songs about death, patience, family, friendship, and desire, with Welsh’s rich vocals atop quiet looped waves of white noise, filtered synths and sparse thuds.
Welsh expounds on how he came to his personal, minimal brand of electronic music:
In the last few years there’s been a massive explosion of amazing music made with computers, samplers and other electronic equipment. The possibilities became nearly endless and musicians indulged those possibilities. I love that kind of music but it also started to overwhelm me. I wasn’t cut out for the maximalist expressions of that style. So I took a break from music, and when I started again it was to make music that barely existed and felt like stillness more than movement. Where the songs could be more about humanness. I love all forms of electronic music, techno, house, rave, hip-hop, but I never want to feel like the music I’m making is just about stylistic play. The easiest way for me to do that is try to make something without obvious movement; where the music isn’t overstuffed sonically or referentially, it’s emptied out as much as possible. So the vision for Impersonator was to communicate a lot with as little as possible. It’s not meant to energize and turn you out to the world, it’s meant to do the opposite; it’s more like a cocoon.
Most of Impersonator was written at Welsh’s father’s house in rural Ontario, in the basement after he went to sleep. He says, “One day I realized I had 15-20 songs, and they made me feel like I had overcome the dead end I thought I was in. I started realizing that I could say anything I want in a song.”
Welsh cites Elliott Smith and Arthur Russell as the two biggest influences on his songwriting. While Impersonator sounds like neither, Smith’s lyricism is evident, as is Russell’s ability to distill a number of seemingly contradictory stylistic ideas into a single focussed statement. Other albums Welsh listened to while writing Impersonator point to the diversity embedded in Impersonator’s deceptively simple approach: Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, Drake’s Take Care, Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica, Grouper’s AIA, Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express, Paul Simon’s Paul Simon, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band.
While Welsh and Otto work collaboratively in the studio, live Welsh is front and center on the mic, as Otto creates the musical atmosphere. “I put forward songs and big ideas, and he pushes me to look at the little details,” says Welsh. “Live it’s a similar dynamic, he gives me the platform to stand on musically.” The songs are made with relatively low-tech means, allowing for spontaneity and experimentation, both live and in-studio.
“Turns Turns Turns”, the only song from the EP to appear on the album, illustrates Welsh and Otto’s working process: “I made a loop out of an older song I’d written on guitar, with vocals that were much less assured. Once we started playing it live it came together the way it is now. Matt did a lot with the atmosphere of the song, like the single synth note in the chorus.” Likewise, “Mister” - a song about “the struggle to be good to people when you don’t like yourself” - began as a quiet song with buried vocals, which only took life onstage: “It became clear that it could be much more powerful. I added the chorus after playing it live a few times, and Matt’s production turned it from something more mellow into a song with a lot of energy.”
For Welsh, the track “This Is Magic” works as a metaphor for the album as a whole: “That song functions with very minimal arrangements, very straightforward lyrics, it operates on a loop, and the message is that there is strength, rather than weakness, in being vulnerable.”
Though they stand stylistically apart from other artists in their Montreal scene - which includes Grimes, Doldrums, Blue Hawaii, Mac DeMarco, and others - Majical Cloudz are proud beneficiaries of its camaraderie. “The waves that are being made internationally by Montreal musicians really started in the fall of 2009, so the fact that it is finally happening is unbelievable and I’m euphoric about it,” says Welsh. “I don’t think I could find an art/music scene as rewarding to me anywhere else, because I think it takes a while to get comfortable being vulnerable in front of a whole community.”