There’s always been a generous spirit to the way Devon Welsh makes music, even if it could get a little confrontational in its intimacy. “Can I try to be you/ Can I dress up in your clothes and be somebody new?” he asked on one song by his old band, Majical Cloudz. “Hey man, sooner or later you’ll be dead,” he sang on another. The simple yet uncomfortably direct songs he wrote back then were rooted in a place complete honesty as they poked against the darkness.
Welsh has taken it relatively easy since the band called it quits in 2016, choosing to gradually work on his solo music and the experimental side project Belave. His solo debut, Dream Songs (out now), is the result those years actively avoiding his unlikely stint in the spotlight, which included a tour with Lorde in 2014. “When Majical Cloudz ended, I was interested in taking a break from trying to hustle or trying to put myself out there and make money and engage with the music industry,” Welsh tells Billboard during a phone interview.
The new music borrows certain elements what made his last project tick -- minimalist song structures, with Welsh’s tender, imposing baritone at the forefront -- but swaps out former bandmate Matthew Otto’s skeletal electronic backbone for lush string arrangements. They’re sprightly and purposeful on “By the Daylight,” gut-wrenchingly solemn on “Dreams Have Pushed You Around.” But even at their most serious, the songs his solo album still resemble a more optimistic enterprise than his other projects.
Welsh usually delivers his lyrics with the conviction a day-drunk street preacher, one who needs you to hear this one last thing because your life might depend on it. On Dream Songs, however, he’s more like a wizened minister who’s accrued a lifetime answers and is now solely concerned with transferring that energy to others. Welsh says that, if anything, his college background in religious studies and drama informed the way he wants to worm into his listeners' lives.
“I think that was another angle into music and into finding my way into what I would do with Majical Cloudz and now doing this,” he says. “I think it’s nice to be able to connect with people on the level their interior worlds and effect that in a positive way.” Below, he tells Billboard about the end Majical Cloudz, releasing music on his own label and the philosophy behind his live shows.
When you walked away from Majical Cloudz, it seemed like it was at the peak its popularity. Were you ever concerned about leaving at the height its powers?
I was, for sure. I mean, the part making that decision that was difficult was the idea , "I’ve got something going now, I have this artistic project that is kind commercially successful, there are fans it." And one sliver the thought process came from people like my parents or people who were thinking more pragmatically, like, “Are you sure this is what you want to do? Because this is your career, this is something that’s working out for you.”
I think if I had to kind analyze it, I started Majical Cloudz, and then fairly quickly it seemed that people were interested in it. I felt young, I felt naive. I didn’t really know anything about the music industry or what the actual experience being a working musician was like.
And you’ve mostly gone a different route for Dream Songs, at least with distribution. You’re putting it out independently. What made you want to forego labels this time?
I guess I can be somewhat neurotic and easily stressed. I like making music, and I like putting it out there and having people listen to it. The stuff in the middle was stressful to me. I wanted to do it in a way where it was me making the choices and me taking the risks, where I felt like I didn’t have to take a label’s vision into account -- or the expectations anybody else in terms what success would be defined as.
You included a note with this record about writing about the things you’re hoping for. Do you feel like you’re in a better, more hopeful place than you were a few years ago?
Yeah, absolutely. I don’t really know exactly where the darker music came from, but speaking about my life in general, I’d like to think that I have a better, more positive relationship with myself. I feel less self-critical. Working on being less that way is something I put energy into, so maybe that came out in the music. When I was writing Majical Cloudz songs], my focus was on using music to talk about things that I needed to get out as a vehicle for talking about my feelings and putting together the pieces things I wasn’t otherwise able to express in other settings. And then when I was making the music for this one, maybe the same thing was true, but they were just different emotions that I was learning how to feel and learning how to express.
When it comes to performance, you’ve talked about being largely inspired by comedians and performance artists like Andy Kaufman and Chris Burden. Have you changed your approach to the live show for your solo work?
Maybe it has changed. Again, it’s nothing that I ever really consciously think about, like I’m giving the live show a makeover or anything like that. When I was younger and starting to perform, I was really inspired by Chris Burden and that intensity and confrontational element in performing -- get out there and push these personal sentiments into people’s consciousnesses. Maybe now I have less desire to do that. I think with music that I’ve enjoyed the most, it always has a collective healing or makes me feel better because it takes away something that was weighing on me. I want the show to be very positive and for people to leave it feeling like something was taken f their shoulders. That just translates to trying to be more gentle as a performer. I want to be in touch with my emotions as much as possible when I’m performing, just as I always have been, but maybe now it’s even more truthful than it was before.
The name your label, You Are Accepted, comes from the title an essay from theologian Paul Tillich. What do you find moving about that work?
When I first read it, the explanation sin and grace really inspired me. He talks about it in the sermon, but these are words that we’ve heard all our lives and have all these different meanings. A lot them are not very relatable, or it’s hard to get inside them and feel them. And I felt that his essay really explained those terms and the idea separation and union in a way that really resonated with me. I understood what he was talking about: separation between ourselves and others, separation inside us, separation from ourselves and God or whatever it is. It was also something that was coming into the music I was writing. I felt like the themes a lot the songs ended up feeling close to the messages that piece writing in particular -- the idea kind wanting to be seen and understood by one another.