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Among modern singer-songwriters, few can match Majical Cloudz for intimacy. On the last album, 'Impersonator', Devon Welsh and collaborator Matthew Otto expanded on Welsh's early lo-fi recordings into an arresting body of work that draws listeners inexorably into their work. Their glacial synthpop lyrical converged on love songs about death, death songs about love, and along with Welsh's intense live shows, created an armament that characterised them as discomforting, vulnerable or both. When Majical Cloudz gets intimate with you, they want to break down the barriers of your identity and give you the tools to build yourself back up again.
With their upcoming album, 'Are You Alone?', Welsh's stark lyrics sits alongside elements that create moments of enlightenment and transcendence. With his commanding voice, the songs need no significant embellishment other than the nuanced, sculpted strokes that Otto provides on via "cheap organ." Welsh wrote the album during a two-month retreat last winter at a friend's home in Detroit, developing what he and Otto had done prior to their 2014 tour supporting Lorde. Contrary to earlier reports, Welsh tells me that the recordings made before the tour were not scrapped, but merely revised. Exposed to a different audience and environment that their minimal romanticism hadn't been revealed to before, Welsh and Otto's experience lead them back to the drawing board to review Majical Cloudz phase I.
When I call Devon Welsh at his home in Montreal, it's early evening local time, and he's just finished shooting a video, but he remains tight-lipped when I ask for what song it is [Since writing, Majical Cloudz has shared Downtown, which can be watched below]. Austerity is part of Majical Cloudz's appeal, but right now, Welsh is more guarded I expected. When he's a little more forthcoming and explains he wants to leave it as a surprise, with methodical care, he talks to me about his most assured work yet.
Have you spoken about the album much?
Majical Cloudz: "Not really; not to the extent I did with 'Impersonator'."
Was that a conscious decision?
Majical Cloudz: "Yes, a little bit. I think when we put out 'Impersonator' I was interested in exposing our music to as many people as possible. At this point, I feel like I've done that once, and now I want to do less. I don't like to repeat myself too much."
Are you scared of being misrepresented?
Majical Cloudz: "Yeah. There's some weird feedback that happens [when an artist is misrepresented]. It attracts people that want to see you that way, and so you start to see yourself through these people's eyes, and I think the person that you are inside can be neglected over time."
I feel that Impersonator was a little tentative with its lyrical and subject matter, but you sound more direct on 'Are You Alone?'
Majical Cloudz: "For this record, I guess when writing the songs I was projecting more melodramatic energy. 'Impersonator' is very inward, and this album is more about generating positive energy. For some reason, I've been going back to the Smashing Pumpkins as an example of music that inspires me and has that mood to it. It's turned outward, and there's a lot of naive energy that goes into the songs. I was hoping for that kind of power."
What does 'Impersonator' mean or say to you now?
Majical Cloudz: "I think both of the albums have these center points where you can create a mind map around them because all the songs have something to do with their title in some way. 'Impersonator's songs were about identity and discovering your identity. The title strung the distance between how people see you and how you see yourself; how an individual in the present can relate to who you were in the past, and how you relate to your aspirations in the future. There's always a certain amount of distance between all of those things, and so the title was an apt poetic metaphor."
So if 'Impersonator' is an album that asks "who are you", maybe 'Are You Alone?' is an album that is asking "how do you feel?"
Majical Cloudz: "Yeah, that's a good take on it. I think the songs on 'Are You Alone?' are about relations with other people, relating to the world, and relating to yourself. I guess it's about the dynamics of being with other people and with being with something other than yourself. I haven't spoken to anyone about the album means yet."
Did the tour with Lorde have any effect on your approach to the album?
Majical Cloudz: "I don't know if consciously it did, but I'm sure it did. At the end of that tour, there were certain impulses that I had that went away. I think when we put out 'Impersonator', and we were touring, we were trying to achieve this abstract notion of success. After I realised that isn't where, my desires are. Now that I've seen it, it was a veiled side of what I want out of my music. A lot of ideas died after that tour; I had to go back to the drawing board and find out what I wanted to get from being a performer."
"I don't think we were trying to reinvent ourselves with this album. We have a gear that is comfortable for us, and the two albums are connected because of that. I think that 'Are You Alone?' has more answers within it that 'Impersonator' did. There's more of a conscious attempt to make music that can inspire, whereas a lot of songs on Impersonator were a little more open-ended."
Did you feel any greater expectations because of the tour?
Majical Cloudz: "Yeah and I think that was a natural possibility too. I think for a different band in the same position it would have been an entirely different story. I don't believe that we're the type of people to use that exposure as a stepping stone, and it doesn't match our ambitions. Our approach to the tour was to have fun with it and be bewildered by a new situation. "
On the title-track, it seems as though you're speaking to your audience, in the same way, a therapist would to a patient.
Majical Cloudz: "Yeah, I think that's a good read on the whole thing. Just in the sense that the album is a set of songs that are geared towards relating to other people and the emotional basis of that. I think that's the subject matter of a therapist as well."
And Owen Pallett played on some of the tracks too?
Majical Cloudz: "Yeah, he came over a couple of times to listen to what we were working on and give us his thoughts. We incorporated some of the ideas that he suggested, and he played violin on So Blue. He was one of a handful of people that gave us some feedback as we were working on them."
I noticed that you played a solo show the other day. Tell me a little more about that.
Majical Cloudz: "Yeah, I've played a couple of shows on my own. It's an experience that I feel that I need to have at this point just to do something that is challenging and puts me in an uncomfortable position. Those shows definitely did."
Majical Cloudz release 'Are You Alone?' on October 16th through Matador Records (pre-order).