In the garbage existence that is 2018, it’s tough to be earnest, but Devon Welsh makes a case that might be our only way to survive. The former frontman of critically acclaimed indie pop group Majical Cloudz—who disbanded in 2016 but whose second album Impersonator was nominated for the 2013 Mercury Prize—has pulled together his debut solo album, a record called Dream Songs. It’s streaming below in full ahead of its release tomorrow.
On Dream Songs, which is, simply put, a very good record, Welsh showcases his progressive skill as a songwriter—tapping into the intimate sound that helped Majical Cloudz resonate with introverted weirdos everywhere—while still feeling like a step forward. Songs like “Vision” and “Chances” have his heavy voice soaring over strings, channeling that feeling of standing at the end of the ocean, shouting, trying to make some sort of sense of… well, everything.
The operatic approach lines up with the album’s themes of time, separations, love, and the immense pressure of being alive. “When you see an insect, don’t try to squash it,” he sings on album opener “By the Daylight.” “Things more powerful than you control the actions in your life.” The bleeding heart lyricism acts as a thesis statement for the record—how can we challenge ourselves to find beauty in such a bleak world?
Earlier this week, I caught up with Welsh on the phone from Montreal, where he recorded the record. We talked about what went into making Dream Songs, but quickly, our conversation evolved into existential wonderings about streaming music, corporations, and the future of the artist.
Noisey: What was it like working in a more solo capacity, and how is that reflected in the product?
Devon Welsh: That question has come up in a few different interviews for this album, and I feel like it’s kind of hard to answer because I was a completely different person when I was making Majical Cloudz. I was younger. It’s kind of like apples and oranges. It’s hard for me to know what factors lead to it being different. The first Majical Cloudz album was figuring out how to make music that was a final product. Sitting down, making music, and the thing that I had to prove was making music that someone actually wants to listen to. When making the second Majical Cloudz album, I had to prove that I could make music operating within that environment of having an audience. It’s like, people liked what you did, and they want to hear the next thing. That comes with its own set of anxieties. And then when I was making this stuff, I just had completely stopped caring about that. I no longer was really aware one way or the other that anybody would want to hear it. I don’t know, maybe because I was older when I started and had a different set of emotions that were relative to my life at the time. In general, I feel pretty strongly that music evolves as people evolve. I don’t really have a ton of control over what it ends up sounding like. I’m not a very well trained musician; I just kind of do what I’m capable of doing, try my best, and write songs from the perspective of what’s going on.
It’s weird when people like the things you do creatively, you know? Regardless if you’re a musician or a writer or whatever, if you’re a creative person, you’re inherently putting something of yourself out there and it can be a terrifying experience.
For sure. I’m definitely excited to put out music and I’m happy that there are people interested in it. When people like your stuff—and you’re unsure about how you feel about your stuff—you can be like, oh, now I need to think about what they’ll like going forward. I had that experience for a bit, and then I was like, ugh. You can’t really worry about whether or not people are going to like something or not. It’s probably important if you want to continue a career as an artist, but it’s ultimately something that’s out of your control. I’m excited about the music I’m making now, and I’m always surprised and delighted when other people like it, too. I imagine and I hope that there is something to be gained from this music for other people, but, you know, if there was nothing to be gained by anyone from it, that would also be sort of funny. [ Laughs.] Everyone agrees…there is nothing here for us. [Laughs.]
"I feel pretty strongly that music evolves as people evolve. I don’t really have a ton of control over what it ends up sounding like." —Devon Welsh
What do you hope that people take away from the record?
I hope that when listening to this my music it’s kind of like a mood. Certain albums can put me into an emotional place that I think is a nice place to be. It’s a good emotional place to be. Off the top of my head, I think of someone like Arthur Russell and The World of Echo. His music is really vulnerable and it puts you into this emotionally vulnerable place that is open hearted and empathetic. Those are the feelings his music gives me. So I hope listening to my music—there’s a positive place that it can put people in. They could listen to it and it would make them feel more connected to themselves or other people, to feel more capable of feeling love or whatever. Those are the feelings that go into making music for me. If the same goes for when people listen to it, that would be good.
The way music is consumed has changed drastically over the course of your career.
The idea of music versus celebrity—there’s this whole separate component that has to do with celebrity through social media, turning artists into these cultural figures that kind of transcend being an artist. That’s a pretty overwhelming concept as well. Personally, I’m comfortable being a musician making music for a small community of people, and continuing to exist in that territory.
How is it operating as an independent artist in this era that makes it harder and harder to sell music unless you’re famous?
It’s turned me off from a lot of pop culture because I’m like, oh yeah, there are these really big artists, but whenever you spend five minutes looking at them, it becomes evident that they’re completely tied into this corporate world with these huge tech companies and media companies. It’s kind of a depressing thing for me because I can’t really feel very fulfilled rooting for Apple or Spotify or whatever other huge companies are out there while I’m consuming music and feed myself through music. The majority of artists are on this way lower level, and it might be a cliché, but artists are sensitive people. They need to be protected at all costs. In order to make a living doing what they do, their choice is to enter this increasingly harsh world of clicks and traffic and corporate tie-ins and it’s a much more competitive space that’s about taking attention and holding attention. It’s a weird ocean that’s filled with many predators, and artists are these little fish that are trying to do something that is intimate and can’t really sell a piece of technology. It’s more about trying to connect with people. But then finding your audience—getting the audience to listen to what you’re doing—involves shaking hands with these really unsavory organizations and companies, and it’s kind of bleak.
"To make interesting art and be making something that isn’t taking the marketplace into account, you need to be something other than that. You need to not be that personality." —Devon Welsh
Yeah, we’re all playing this game—weighted streaming numbers, social media dominance, Drake’s face always showing up on your streaming service, whatever—and it’s all kind of twisted.
There’s a feeling that we are being manipulated by very powerful companies to listen to certain music and have our attentions exposed to certain things. Drake, for example, is this perfect example of today. He’s a CEO, this alpha dominant businessman that has succeeded by virtue of his will and willingness to occupy that position of operating as an artist in that way. There are so many degrees of that today. In order to succeed, you have to be willing to agree to be this entrepreneurial business person in addition to making your art. And so many artists, that’s not who they are. To make interesting art and be making something that isn’t taking the marketplace into account, you need to be something other than that. You need to not be that personality. You need to be a creative person and someone who isn’t looking at the bottom line and how to scale your business. For people who don’t have those skills or inclinations, it seems like a shrinking world.
Being weird for the sake of being weird is a lot harder these days.
Yes. But making the choice to engage with something that isn’t being sold to you by Apple is great. I wonder and I hope that there will be some kind of cultural backlash at some point and people will be like, oh, for the last three years, I’ve only listened to music that a corporate algorithm has suggested for me, and I want to break out of that scenario. There's hope. I think.
Eric Sundermann is the editor of Noisey and you can follow him on Twitter.