Strength in Fragility
“I think I’m inspired by art that expresses something vulnerable. Vulnerable sentiments, vulnerable emotions… those are the things that come from surface-level engagement in everyday life, moments of vulnerability you have with another person are intimate moments when you sort of go past the surface of somebody and you see.”
Flavorwire is speaking to Welsh over the phone, the day before the Bell House show. Majical Cloudz are on the bus somewhere in Connecticut, making this the classic awkward on-tour phone interview — reception keeps cutting in and out, and questions need to get repeated several times. Welsh is a patient and thoughtful interviewee, though — he clearly thinks before he speaks, and gives the sort of well-considered answers that make journalists happy.
Impersonator is Majical Cloudz’s third release, although it’s their first for Matador; Welsh put out a full-length album entitled II under the name in 2011 on Montreal’s Arbutus Records, prior to getting together with Otto, and also the Turns Turns Turns EP last year. II was a whole lot busier than Impersonator — it’s full of loops and samples and dance-floor-oriented beats. It sounds, in short, a lot more like you might imagine an act called Majical Cloudz to sound. (It also features guest vocals from the band’s Montreal contemporary and long-time friend Grimes on three tracks.)
The new album finds Welsh stripping back his sounds — most tracks find him singing over simple, unadorned synth tracks, his voice at the forefront of the mix. “I started to get ideas about what music really meant to me,” he explains. “[I thought about] what music I liked, why I liked it, and why it was meaningful [to me]. Those ideas led me to want to make something that was more straightforward and clear about its intentions. It cleared out everything that was in the way, the obstacles between the content of the songs and somebody listening to it. Instead of trying to use different sounds and different musical ideas, and approaching music as a platform for innovating, technically speaking, I just wanted to approach it as a platform for generating intimacy.”
Impersonator certainly feels intimate, so much so that at times it feels like you’re intruding upon its creator’s private world. It’s clearly a deeply personal record, written entirely in the first person, with lyrics that touch on death, love, and… well, more, love and death, basically. What’s unique about Impersonator, though, is that while most confessional, emotionally revealing records tend to feel demonstrative, full of grand gestures of emotional release and catharsis, this album isn’t like that at all. If there’s a single word to describe it, it’s probably “earnest.” That’s a word that has acquired pejorative connotations over the years, but in this case, I’m using it in its most literal sense: this is art that feels honest and forthright, sometimes uncomfortably so.
Welsh says this ultimately comes back to the idea of having the courage to lay bare emotions and thoughts that would otherwise be hidden: “[It’s] showing something that has high stakes attached to revealing [it] — a secret or something that exposes you to criticism or that could be perceived as a weakness. In the context of art, that could take the form of making a statement that exposes [you] to criticism or potentially to censorship. That’s one side of the spectrum — the other is completely confessional music or poetry where a person is talking about things that are unusually revealing or potentially uncomfortable. I feel like an important function of art and music for people is to a) hear those kind of things because it’s hard to get those feelings, and then b) to have that art allow people to feel those things in themselves and to encourage [those things].”
There’s definitely a sense of vulnerability about Majical Cloudz, both live and on record. On stage, Welsh is a skittish, sometimes awkward presence, giving off and impression that he says is no accident: “People that have written reviews of our shows have commented that, ‘Oh, he seemed nervous or he seemed uncomfortable on stage,’ and though that might seem like a bad thing to a reviewer, I tend to take that as a compliment. I never want to be the kind of performer that seems completely calm and collected on stage; I would rather be someone who is being real about the idea that when you get on stage it always feels new and that like it should never feel like you’re going through the motions. I don’t wanna seem like a slick performer.”
He pauses, and then provides a pleasantly succinct explanation of his aesthetic: “There’s a quote… I can’t remember the origin right now, but the idea is that there is strength in fragility. I think that’s because it allows you to put things out into the open that wouldn’t otherwise be there, and I think that takes a certain courage. I think that that courage is usually always rewarded.”
Various interviewers have focused on the fact that Welsh grew up in some sort of Christian commune, even though that bit of his biography doesn’t amuse Welsh himself a great deal: “I don’t really have too much to say [about that time]. It’s not that interesting.” His parents now left the religious community in question when Welsh was “four or five,” and he grew up largely in Ontario, where he attended a Montessori school. He studied religion at Montreal’s McGill University, although again, this seems to be something he’s left behind — the lyrics on Turns Turns Turns track, “I Don’t Believe In Anybody,” for instance, hint at a purely humanist perspective on the world: “I don’t believe in anybody/ Only you.”
It was at college — where also he met a certain Claire Boucher — that Welsh started making music in earnest. His first band, Pop Winds, made decidedly psychedelic pop music — listening to their work, the idea of him collaborating with Grimes suddenly makes a whole lot more sense. (Indeed, it’s interesting to trace the evolution and simplification of his sound from Pop Winds through II to the minimalism of Impersonator.)
The idea of Montreal as a hotbed of creativity is one that’s taken hold in the music press over the last few years — articles calling the city the “new Seattle” started appearing as far back as 2005, and the success of Grimes, in particular, has kicked the mythology into a whole different gear.
Clearly “scenes” are just as often defined in retrospect as they are when they’re t their peak, but Welsh says that if anything, the mythology of Montreal doesn’t do the reality of the the city justice: “It was probably a lot more special to me than anyone. Any journalist could now make it seem, because you can say you know all these people were working together and then nowadays people who are fans of all those bands can imagine what that was like and say, ‘Oh, all these bands were playing shows together, and it was really cool.’ But to me, and to, I feel like, a lot of other people, it was so special that no degree of mythologizing now could match what it felt like at the time.
“When you’re at the point,” he continues, “that you feel like you and all these people you know are making this music that feels really special and you know you have these dreams where people recognize it on a wider level and they start to appreciate it and everyone succeeds… that feeling is something that can’t really be mythologized. [The way the city has been portrayed] doesn’t really to me capture what it feels like to know that there’s something special and then to see it actually happen.”
If there’s anything bittersweet about the success of his contemporaries, he says, it’s that this sense of community has receded as both he and his friends have spent more and more away from the city. “These days,” he says, “I feel almost more disconnected from [Montreal] than I am connected to it. I’ve been touring so much lately that I haven’t really been there so much. If anything, the story of a vibrant interconnected Montreal music scene is something that was happening maybe a couple years ago when all of the bands that people are talking about now were playing shows together and exchanging ideas and collaborating, and all that was happening with not very much outside interest.
“It all led to all those people being able to move out into the wider music world and start touring and releasing records and just doing the whole thing. It was such a successful project [and] community that now everyone is away all the time. It feels good to be able to talk about that community to people like yourself, who are now interested in these bands, and it’s great that everyone’s succeeding — but at the same time it means that the music that was happening between all those groups is now dispersed into the wider world.”