Published Oct 30, 2015Asked whether it makes sense to say that Montreal duo Majical Cloudz's new album Are You Alone? sounds almost relieved, Devon Welsh's face lights up. "That makes sense! I felt relieved writing it."
In May 2013, Welsh, the earnest, stone-faced but open-hearted singer/songwriter and producer/arranger Matthew Otto had just released their breakthrough album, the stark, heartbreaking Impersonator, but they weren't exactly in the best place, otherwise. Touring was already taking a toll on their mental and physical health; at the time, Welsh told Exclaim! that he was "between almost everything in my life, including my ability to write music, my geographical location, my psychological orientation, my various personal relationships."
These days, Welsh notes that "there are a bunch of factors making me feel better as a human being." It shows.
Where the austere Impersonator came off a little bit cold and distancing at times, Are You Alone? is a warm, welcome hug. There are gentle synth blankets lining most of the songs ("Heavy," "If You're Lonely," the sweet "Call on Me"), while Owen Pallett contributes piano, analogue drums and strings, most perfectly on the gorgeous "So Blue."
The first thing you'll notice, though, is Welsh's voice. Gone is the almost operatic baritone he employed to dramatic effect on Impersonator, as are the noticeable vocal manipulations and digital stutters — "We'd take the demo and turn it into samples," he says — that marked songs like that album's title track. By contrast, Welsh's croon is higher, softer and warmer on Are You Alone? opener "Disappeared," having lost none of its characteristic richness. "I think with Impersonator, I was learning to sing properly," Welsh says, "so getting into this mode of singing in that specific, performative way was a way of turning an insecurity into a strength. I think I've just developed confidence in my own voice."
Welsh quit drinking two years ago, which both routinized the way he writes songs — "I used to write music late at night, after a few drinks or something; now, I wake up and basically have until 5 or 6 p.m. to work on writing music" — and contributed to Welsh's "getting my act together in terms of my health and my well-being, having a routine and a good diet."
It also birthed Majical Cloudz's best work yet. While the duo had begun work on the album in early 2015, it became clear to Welsh what Are You Alone? was going to be after he and Otto returned from a month-long North American arena tour opening for pop star Lorde.
"It made me think more about what the point of music was. Audiences don't really know anything about you, and you go onstage, and you don't have much time. I started to think a lot about what music is communicating, started wanting to communicate something that felt substantial and had some positivity to it.
"If there's any conscious intent here," he says of Are You Alone?, "it was made to form connections with people."