Can music make you feel less alone? Can it foster intimacy from afar? In his stark songs, which are like sonic poems, the Canadian artist Devon Welsh has mined such questions with rigor, vulnerability, and grace. From 2010 to present, his body of work has pushed language to the fore in service of closing the space between artist and listener, prizing human connection above all.
With his duo Majical Cloudz, Welsh found a huge audience for that vision: he released two critically-acclaimed LPs with Matador Records, and went from DIY house-show tours to playing arenas with Lorde. Moreover, Welsh created life-affirming moments: on-stage, he looked people in the eye—blurring the line between music and performance art—and could bewilder listeners or make them cry. But after disbanding Majical Cloudz in 2016, Welsh retreated to take stock of his purpose as an artist. He shifted his relationship with music. His solo album, Dream Songs, arrived in 2018, rescaling the pulsing heart of his work with arresting orchestral arrangements. In the wake of Dream Songs, Welsh has taken stock once again. Leaving his longtime home of Montreal, the Ontario-born artist moved to rural Wisconsin to recalibrate still. Recording in a basement studio and embracing a quieter, simpler life, he worked on his emotional health through meditation and therapy. His newest music is in ways a product of those introspective focuses.
Welsh’s second solo album is called True Love, and it strengthens the poetry, illumination, and appealing minimalism of his best work. Working more fluidly and intuitively than before, Welsh reflects powerfully on the ambiguous emotional spaces around love—romantic, platonic, internal; how love can be a game, a daydream, a paradise, or horror. Flipping the fantasy of “true love” that prevails through pop culture, Welsh set out to articulate the human heart from realer angles and depths: True Love is instead an honoring and an investigation of “true love”’s complexities. “A lot of the songs are about the difficulties and grey areas around love—about everything that can go wrong or get complicated about loving somebody,” Welsh says. “They’re about actual love.” “As you get older, love becomes so much stranger than the childhood fantasy versions of yearning and desire,” Welsh says. “Romance can be such a scary thing because there’s so much trust involved—sitting with uncertainties and reservations, taking a longer look at emotions, trying to understand them. But there’s a deepening of love, which is the energy that holds people together. There are so many layers, and there’s so much more love everywhere.”
These nuances are broached stunningly within the rhythmic wordplay of “Somebody Loves You,” on which Welsh sings out to a beloved but estranged friend and wonders how they’re doing. “Dreamers,” inspired by two close friends, is a spirited ode to dreamers, to the young fantasies and self-doubts that come with believing with your whole being in the power of music. The sparkling, acoustic “Grace”—the very rare Welsh song performed on guitar—feels like a strummed twin to “Dreamers,” like a lovely product of such childlike optimism, an unmoored jolt of air.
Through the process of True Love, Welsh found himself reflecting on our culture’s rigid notions of manhood and masculinity, and how they’re implicated in love of all kinds. “The male stereotype is that you’re not supposed to cry, you’re supposed to be strong and confident and powerful,” he says. “That feeds into a masculine identity where you can’t look inward and figure out: Who am I that’s distinct from that?T hosestereotypespreventpeoplefromunderstandinghowtheycanrelatetoothersfroman authentic place—instead of how they feel they’re supposed to be operating.” The novelistic piano-ballad opener “Uniform” explores this directly and solemnly, paying homage to Welsh’s stepfather and grandfather, whom he calls his heroes and role models. But it is perhaps the emotionality and vulnerability of Welsh’s idiosyncratic style that unravels such archetypes most.
There was a novelty to Welsh’s recording process for True Love, which was an overwhelmingly solitary one. Whereas Majical Cloudz and Dream Songs were distinct collaborations, Welsh worked on his new music primarily alone. (It was mixed by Austin Tufts, and features additional synths and sound processing from Nick Schofield and Kyle Jukka.) That self-contained principle extends to how Welsh is continuing to release music now: removed of the label system, towards an autonomous approach, stemming from his own comfort zone. “Making music is a personal thing for me,” Welsh says. “Ideally it is a reflection of something intimate.”
It’s no surprise, then, that True Love’s breezy and especially intimate-sounding “System” is a love song to the all-consuming powers that its title evokes—a three-minute piece of satire as systemic critique as indie-pop tune, “feeling totally submitted to the destiny that these massive forces have on you.” With his characteristic openness, Welsh admits that the fun-house echo chamber of being an artist online had become wearying in Majical Cloudz. He struggled with a loss of identity, and it left him with a deep skepticism towards the music industry. “I had a total nervous breakdown with respect to being a musician,” Welsh says. “The headspace of that world kind of burned me out.”
But he calls his move into self-releasing more natural and emboldening. “There’s no script for how to do things now,” Welsh says. “I’m just trying to express things that feel intimate and worthwhile, but leaving it a little bit with a question mark.” In an era of widespread burnout, it feels radical and hopeful to see an artist reckon with these realities and find a personal path forward—and in his songs, a disarmingly clear sense of self.