11:51 AM EDT, August 8, 2013
Majical Cloudz singer Devon Welsh has a performance style that really isn't about "performance" or "style" at all. There's nothing choreographed about it. Welsh and keyboardist Matthew Otto deliver minimalist music that is all about leaving the singer as vulnerable and in the moment as possible, an extension of the beautiful if tumultuous songs on their latest album, "Impersonator" (Matador).
A recent video for La Blogotheque's "Take Away Show" in Paris captures what Welsh tries to do in his concerts. It shows the singer boarding a subway train and singing "What That Was." Welsh's evident anxiety gives way to a full-hearted reading of the song as the train rattles along, its impassive passengers trying desperately not to engage him.
In a recent interview, the Montreal artist discussed the video and how he found the courage to leave himself so exposed in his music:
Q: Was the subway scene staged or did it happen that way in real time?
A: It was real. It was definitely a strange experience being in Paris; I’d never been there before. I didn’t know anything about it. We started shooting me singing that song on a side street, walking by all these people, and this old priest running a little bookstore. I just had to decide to disregard my anxieties about singing a cappella in the street in Paris. In the subway, I was super on the edge. It was an extension of what I like to do in a show. Even though I was incredibly afraid, I was into it and wanted to try it. The first time on the subway, I couldn’t do it. I turned around before I got on a subway car, because I was so unnerved by whole thing. I like the video in retrospect, because I’m really shaken up in it. It doesn’t feel rehearsed or emotionally guarded at all.
Q: What was the reaction when you started singing?
A: On the subway, people were as cold as ice. On the platform before I got on the train, people were more inquisitive, they would look at me from across the tracks. But there was no reaction in the subway. Someone gave me a coin at some point, but that was sort of a pity thing. People in America and Canada would react a lot differently I think. Maybe I’m being naïve about Paris, but there are different expectations about how you behave in a public space. It wasn’t disappointing -- I wasn’t doing it to please the people on the subway car. I try to please people when they see us perform live. But to force yourself on people in that environment, I had different expectations.
Q: What were you trying to accomplish or show in that video?
A: I knew that the more precarious the position I put myself in the video, the better the video would be. It’s just busking -- people do it all the time, but I don’t have much experience doing it. I don’t speak the (French) language, and that added to the anxiety. But I knew that it would make for interesting footage. I knew it would accomplish what I wanted to show … footage of someone who is not completely comfortable in their activity.
Q: Did you always have an affinity for singing, for making yourself that vulnerable on stage?
A: I always played in bands and did some theater stuff in high school and university. But in terms of wanting to be a performer, there is an approach to being a performer that is about mastering the stage, and having that confidence, that you project outward and you override everything. It’s like a bravado that people search for as a performer. I try not to do that. I try to continuously stay vulnerable to the crowd and the environment, and contingencies of what’s going on. It’s more interesting that way. I’m not interested in perpetuating some kind of one-way street, macho, bravado performance that happens in a lot of music. I’m just too aware of the routines and the scripts of how music performance is supposed to go, and what kind of attitude you’re supposed to have. I find it more interesting when a performer comes from who they really are, rather than stepping into a fearless leader pose, and directing energy in an aggressive, violent way. I’d rather feel kind of nervous, or feel like I’m not taking that hard-line stance. If I don’t feel completely confident, I feel I’m doing something right.
Q: Who were your role models for performing that way?
A: It wasn’t musical heroes so much, but just seeing the possibilities for how music shows could go. I looked for examples for how I could be a music performer in other fields. I like when comedians are on mike, telling jokes, and looking for a reaction. And you could bomb, but it’s just you and your material and it doesn’t always go as planned. Some comics have that stylized professional tone. But for others, the basis of the routine is their real humanity comes through. They can go down trains of thoughts they didn’t expect. They feel more real. They’re not an “entertainer,” but someone they’re entertaining by demonstrating their humanity. I’ve been listening to this live album of the Doors playing a show at Madison Square Garden, and the album is so interesting, because there are so many long stretches without music, and Jim Morrison is just talking, responding to the audience. He gets impatient with them for drowning him out, and he gets the band to quiet down and stop playing. The performance is so unpolished, but his personality carries it. He was so much more than a singer, he was leading things in a way that is not just song after song. He’s not staged at all. He’s admitting his insecurities. It’s inspiring. He’s conducted himself in what you could call an “unprofessional” manner, not with unflinching confidence, but by being himself.
Q: Were your previous bands like that?
A: The bands I had been in before, it was more standard. It was just play songs, but my perspective flipped. What was engaging to me about music is the way it could be presented, and the impact the content would have on an audience,
Q: Was there a lightbulb moment when your perspective on that changed?
A: The lightbulb moment was probably -- it’s hard to say this without sounding completely cliché -- but it was a moment of despair, where I realized I wasn’t communicating what I wanted in music, it felt like a completely empty gesture. I was dissatisfied with music in general. The whole thing: The bands on stage, and what’s it all for, what’s the point, and why am I doing this? I just clarified a lot of things for me about what I think is meaningful about music performances and recordings. I just wanted to follow what is meaningful. Up till then, my priorities were vague, and then I suddenly realized what they were. By becoming disenchanted, I discovered what I needed to do.
Q: Which is how Majical Cloudz came to be?
A: Yes, that’s when I started working with Matt. I had known him for couple years, he had produced an old band of mine. It was an easy fit. I wanted to play live, and asked him to play a couple of shows. I sent him the songs by email and asked him for suggestions. I don’t have a very developed production skills. I asked him for some tips, and we started playing together. We spent a lot of time listening to music, thinking about music, what I had done till then, what was happening in music. I embrace a lot of music now, but back then (in 2010) I was so thoroughly sick, nauseous at the thought of music. I would be listening to something and saying, “I hate this.” I wanted to make something that I actually liked. What do I want to hear? While thinking of that, we were making songs. “This is Magic” I wrote definitely in reaction to something I had heard. I was so lost about the meaning of music, and so my reaction to that was to make a song that was as simple as possible about what was happening in my head. It ends up being a song about dying in my room. A few weeks after I wrote a bunch more, and they were the basis for a type of performance that I could enjoy doing.
Q: Are you ever concerned that you’re too transparent in your lyrics?
A: I don’t think about that. There is a limit to what people can understand about me through my music. It’s a small portion of who I am -- anyone who knows me well would know that. I’m not worried about reviewing myself. My friend tweeted this quote from Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, where he was talking about the “Pinkerton” album and he described “Pinkerton” as this nightmare he can’t wake up from. He felt he had said too much in that album, that it’s this embarrassment he has to live with forever. But I think it’s an amazing record. It’s a scary prospect to think you admit too much in your lyrics. But everything on my record is true. It’s exactly how I felt at the time, and maybe I spoke too honestly about myself. But I don’t think that’s something I would ever be ashamed about.
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ-FM 91.5.
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