An audience with the new soul man that might just steal 2013.
“You’ve got mad eyebrows.” A friendly, if somewhat over-familiar, drunk guy observes to Devon Welsh, aka Majical Cloudz, as we perch on a bench in the park near Embankment, London. He’s quite right, Welsh does have mad eyebrows: thick and dark, archly framing his shaved head. “How’s it going?” Welsh says with a laugh. “I’m waiting for Jesus to turn this water into wine,” slurs our new friend, holding up a bottle of spring water. “Damn, he’s late?” retorts Welsh with a twinkle in his eye. It’s funny not just ‘cause it’s funny but because we’ve spent the last twenty minutes getting into a deep one on religion, which Welsh studied at university in Montreal. The same university, in fact, that he met good friend and sometime collaborator Claire Boucher, now better know as Grimes, who he is over here supporting on tour.
“I started getting into the idea that it should be just as simple as possible – down to just the emotions and lyrics.” Majical Cloudz
While Boucher spent this year dragging pop into the 21st century, Welsh’s 2012 has been one of quiet transformation that, I’ll wager, will take some beating in 2013 if his jaw-dropping performance at Heaven the night before is anything to go by. It was nothing, and I mean nothing, like what I was expecting. On the basis of ‘II’, his previous album released earlier this year, I’d been expecting a shadowy figure cloaked in layer upon layer of – whisper it – over-played reverb. ‘II’ was perfectly pleasant and there was definitely something in there but it was buried deep. What I, and those who’d been smart enough to get to Heaven early enough, found instead was an entirely different, entirely self-possessed man up there on stage. Dressed in James Dean-esque white t-shirt and black jeans (“I wear the same clothes every time I perform.”), Welsh hit us with a voice so rich, so powerful and so present that it was impossible to move your eyes from him. He sang of love, of death and friendship; stories as old as the hills but told with tenderness, delivered with a deep understanding.
Welsh has had more than his fair share of life experience to draw on. Having grown up in rural Canada, he spent a couple of years in a religious community in California with his mother when he was four after his parents divorced. After moving back to Canada to live with his father he attended a Montessori school, which encourages independent learning. “Most people that I know who went to that school with me are more creative because it sort of allows you to think on your own about things – but the drawback is that you’re not really as properly socialised. Everyone I knew from that school is kind of more awkward or something,” he smiles.
Turns, Turns, Turns is the lead single from Majical Cloudz new EP, out now on Merok/Arbutus.
His musical education was just as varied. There was the Sarah McLachlan that his dad listened to, swiftly followed by “a mix of new metal stuff that was on the radio.” He got into the hardcore scene, playing in a couple of local bands. “They were really bad. I was singing – or screaming,” he laughs. He started writing pop-rock influenced songs on the guitar when he was 14 – “I was really into Pearl Jam at the time.” – and around a similar time got into making techno with a friend and Fruity Loops and selling the CDs at school to his friends. “It’s funny because the music that we made when we mixed the guitar songs with the techno stuff, it was really bad and really cheesy but it ended up being the format for all the music that I made after that. Now I feel like I’ve come completely full circle and am making this melodramatic music that uses these loops and I’m singing over it and it sounds so similar to the music I was making then but less cheesy. The kinks are worked out.”
“I feel like The Doors are such a cheesy band but what is redeeming about them is Jim Morrison and the fact that he’s a character that transcends the music.” Majical Cloudz
That’s strikingly apparent on new EP ‘Turns, Turns, Turns’, comprised of four soulfully sideways cuts released this week on Merok/Arbutus. What sparked the change in direction this year? “I started getting into the idea that [it should be] just as simple as possible – down to just the emotions and lyrics – it should all be direct and it should all be facilitating the energy of it. So all the songs are recorded with all these simple loops and vocals on top.” In addition, in February this year his friend Matthew Otto came on board for live performances which also helped shape the transformation: “Working with Matt definitely helped me get that aesthetic clear. Playing a bunch of shows with those songs before we recorded it – that was what led to the vocals being more foregrounded.”
There’s an actorly quality to Welsh’s performance, not just in the clarity and reach of his voice, but in the poised control and deliberateness of his movements. His father, it turns out, is Kenneth Welsh, best know for playing arch-villan Windom Earle in cult television series Twin Peaks. “Anything I got from having a strong voice probably comes from learning from him,” says Welsh. “If you grow up with an actor, actors always speak with these huge, booming voices.” Like, yelling DINNER TIME? “Completely! Completely.”
He goes on to talk about how his father also taught him the importance of a show: “Good actors do that but also someone like Jim Morrison. I feel like The Doors are such a cheesy band but what is redeeming about them is Jim Morrison and the fact that he’s a character that transcends the music and becomes somebody that’s on stage – [hushed voice] That’s him, what’s he going to do next? You just want to hear him sing because he brings something more to the stage than just the music.” Coming to that realisation has been the making of Majical Cloudz: “That’s definitely what I work on constantly – just getting better at being present on stage. Not just doing the songs to get them right. It doesn’t really matter if I’m pitch perfect, what’s more important is that the energy is right. That’s what I’m focusing on: get in the zone and just be able to do something that people can connect to that’s not just the music. A feeling or something.” That’s Majical Cloudz: a feeling or something.