Nick Schofield and Devon Welsh Aren’t Trying to Clearly Define Reality

The friends and collaborators dive deep on artistic motivation.

Nick Schofield is a Montreal-based composer whose latest album Glass Gallery — inspired by Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada — was just released in February. Devon Welsh is a fellow Canadian artist, formerly of the electropop duo Majical Cloudz, who  now performs solo under his own name. To celebrate the new album, the friends and collaborators hopped on a call to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Nick Schofield: Devon, it’s great to be catching up, especially in this strangely public forum.

Devon Welsh: Yeah, exactly. Now Big Brother is watching, now that we’ve hit record. Before we started recording, we were talking about jamming with our partners, because we are both musicians and our partners are also musicians.

Nick: You asked how things are going in Montreal, and I mentioned I’ve actually been in Gatineau, Quebec living with my partner Yolande, and her Chihuahua, Bug. And I mentioned that Yolande is also a musician and it’s been really special during the pandemic to maintain this creative chemistry and be able to play music together, and just kind of talk shop and bounce ideas back and forth. That might not be possible if my partner or roommate was an architect, for example, and I asked if you and Nika [Danilova, aka Zola Jesus] ever really dig into jamming.

Devon: Yeah, we have jammed. I guess not everyone comes out of a jamming background, some more than others. Too little jamming can be a bad thing. Too much jamming — maybe on an extreme end of the spectrum, it can go badly. [Laughs.] 

I started getting into music first when I was in high school writing songs on guitar. But then when I was a little bit older, my first experience with a band and making music with other people was all jamming. It’s just like jam, jam, jam, and then something comes out of the jam, and then you kind of turn that into a song, and that’s how you make songs together with other people. Is that something that you did as well?

Nick: Absolutely. From basically my adolescence onwards, jamming has always been the main way of generating ideas, especially because I don’t read notation especially well. It’s always just been most fun to see what different people bring to the table in the moment. I would say generally, even more than ever, these day I try to harness what comes from those unplanned moments. I think that there’s something very truthful in those instinctual responses that jamming very much permits

Devon: We come from the same music community, relatively speaking, in Montreal — this is kind of a forced conversation point that we would never have if we were talking without a recording of it.

Nick: [Laughs.] For the record.

Devon: I feel like jamming was a thing in general in that community to a certain extent, or I associate music communities with lots of jamming. 

I don’t know how much I’m just immediately getting immediately sidetracked, but whole other models of music making that I really appreciate as well, for its own kind of unexpected synchronicity and unexpected outcomes, is — thinking about the Smiths, how [Johnny Marr] would simply make a demo of essentially an instrumental piece of music that is structured as a pop song. And then Morrissey would take the demo and then write his melodies and his lyrics over that, and that would be the final song. Sort of like the opposite end of the spectrum, where it’s like the work is completely separated. But I also think that has its kind of jamming-like qualities, where the it’s sort of like playing exquisite corpse more than working on a painting at the same time with somebody else. You sort of get one side, and then you get somebody’s interpretation of what should go on top of that, except it’s just not in real time.

Nick: Yeah, I think that still qualifies as jamming in some kind of parallel way. Maybe not in like the association that everyone has with Phish being a jam band. 

Devon: Yeah, the Smiths’ school of songwriting is somewhat of a heretical school of jamming. It’s been excommunicated by the jamming authorities, but it is jamming.

Nick: Yeah. It definitely doesn’t exist in the mainstream jamming society — Phish being the overlords, the mob bosses of jamming.

Devon: Yeah, that’s true. Phish has kind of taken control of that narrative, but I think jamming resists orthodoxy and it proliferates everywhere in all kinds of accepted and forbidden forms. And we celebrate them all. 

Nick: [Laughs.] We certainly do. This maybe leads to a good point, because we’re talking about generating ideas in the jam forum — one of the things I wanted to specifically ask you was, what instruments are you normally drawn to use to create demos? And how do you typically go through the demo creation process?

Devon: Historically speaking — because I could describe right now what I use, but it wouldn’t really get at the core truth of it, which is that I’m somewhat of a gear mooch. Or a sort of gear parasite, I guess you could say, whereI feed off the host body, which is whoever is close to me. 

Nick: And more equipped.

Devon: Exactly. And it’s almost like, because I’m so used to that way of working with things — like when I got an acoustic guitar to learn guitar when I was, like, 16, and then I made demos on that and then it was like, Oh, I’ll work with my acoustic guitar because that’s just the instrument that I have. And then when I started jamming with Kyle Jukka, he had a 404 and whatever else — he was a normal gear person, and then I parasitically attached to him and would use his stuff, and so on and so on. So now that I live with my partner, Nika, she has some synths and I use those. The one that I use the most is the Prophet 12.

Nick: Ooh, baby.

Devon: Yeah, it does a lot of different things, it’s very cool. But as a gear parasite, I don’t come to a comprehensive knowledge of the gear, I just use it for my own feeding purposes or whatever. Whereas the typical gear person will understand the gear, I won’t understand the gear. I’m a low level of intelligence. I’m just there to reap the benefits.

Nick: [Laughs.] You’re in survival mode.

Devon: Yeah, exactly. And then sometimes a guitar, that is also hers and not mine. That’s basically it. In terms of making a demo, sometimes I’ll make an instrumental where a vocal part will suggest itself, like, Oh, I could sing over this, I could turn this into a song. Or it has that feeling to it, and then sometimes that won’t happen. But along the lines of jamming, sometimes I’ll make an instrumental and go, This is just an instrumental track. And then a few days later I’ll come back to it and suddenly realize, Oh, I could actually sing over this. And then and that process kind of will bring me outside of what I would normally write if I was just sitting down at the synthesizer or something like, OK, now I’m going to write a song. It kind of frees me from some of the preconceptions that I have about what that should be.

Nick: And also maybe the technical barriers of having to play the instrument and sing your parts and come up with everything in that one moment.

Devon: Yeah, exactly. Let me flip the question back to you: What is your demoing process like? But also, because I know that Nick Schofield, Glass Gallery — your ambient work is one of many different projects and types of music that you do. Do all of those different projects have the same demoing process, the same creative process? And then you sort of, after the fact, break things up into those different projects? Or do you approach each in its own way?

Nick: Yeah, I would say that each of my projects kind of has its own alchemy of creation, and its own kind of paradigm that leads towards the types of productions that we do. So, for example, with my solo music, I’ll tend to focus on working with one synthesizer and kind of exploring the character, the identity of that synthesizer, and often drawing from one source of inspiration as well. On Glass Gallery, it was the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the instrument was the Prophet 600 — a 1982 polyphonic analog synthesizer. 

The demoing process — it kind of gets back to the immediacy of jamming that we were talking about. The creation is really just, lay down one idea — and often it’s just, like, plop my hand almost blindfolded on the keyboard. I’m not thinking like, I’m going to play this key now, or, I’m going to do this type of chord. I just hit some notes and start fiddling with the filter and the arpeggio later. Once I arrive at something I like, which typically doesn’t take very long, I just lay down a recording of somewhere between three to six minutes of that one idea and continue to overdub, responding to each layer that I’m adding until the piece feels complete to me. 

That’s pretty much how I make my solo music. But for another project that I’m involved with called Rêves sonores, that is basically: I record different musicians purely improvising, and we’ll sample the saxophone here and the violin over there and a nice piano chord, and then I’ll reverse this and pick that up and down, and I basically end up creating this kind of strange sonic collage of different instruments together. So I would say that kind of illustrates the disparity between the different types of creation processes that I go through, where it could be one instrument purely responsive to what I’m doing in that moment and just overdubbing multiple times, versus not even playing anything and just sampling other musicians. But the commonality between these two projects, and pretty much every project I’m involved with, is that I tend not to write in advance. It’s almost always about generating ideas in the moment and trying to capture that spark of creativity, and let that be what sets the fire ablaze.

Devon: Yeah. That sounds very similar to how I approach music as well, even in terms of writing songs. It’s not like the idea of, I sort of think abstractly about the chords and the melody and then I just find the right arrangement for it — it’s more like, the arrangement and everything comes when the song is written. Maybe the song’s done in a couple of hours, and then that’s that. 

Nick: Exactly: 

Devon: As you say, to just capture something — I think it’s probably a healthy response to the tools that we have. I feel like songs were kind of prewritten when it wasn’t so easy to simply record as you’re writing. I feel like that sort of approach to making music kind of fits with being able to record right away.

Nick: Absolutely. That’s such a major difference, currently that the space between writing and documenting your idea has been diminished, and you no longer have to wait to go to the studio. So for many people, their bedroom is the studio. 

Devon: Yeah. And the way that you described working on your solo stuff is very similar to how I’ve approached making music as well. The Rêves sonores project reminds me — I mean, it’s not exactly, but it’s almost like the yin and yang of my project with Matthew Duffy, Belave. I sort of see this kind of Dionysian aspect to what you’re talking about, where you record people improvising and then you then sort of improvise in the editing process as well, with reversing pianos and everything else. Maybe you see that project as kind of an outlet for a certain type of creativity that is more up to chance than the stuff that you make under your own name.

Nick: One second—

Devon: Yeah.

Nick: Oh, I like this — I had to look up Dionysian. “Relating to the sensual, spontaneous, and the emotional aspects of human nature.” Devon, absolutely. I would say that that’s very relatable. That kind of attitude is pervasive in almost all of my creativity. I’m much more of a, How does this make me feel? type of creator, versus what is logically going on. Which is kind of contrary to my personality — I do think I’m more of a rationale-based human that likes to make decisions based on logic. But when I’m creating, it’s really just as responsive to this inexplicable feeling inside of me that just wants to continue to pursue that idea and feel some relation to it.

Devon: That leads me into a question. So — OK, I wanted to try to transition this in a smooth way, but I think I missed the opportunity. Oh — your music is Dionysian. 

Nick: “On that note.” [Laughs.] 

Devon: “Keeping that in mind” — your recent album Glass Gallery was inspired by Ottawa’s National Gallery. It’s an interesting thing to be inspired by. It’s something that I wouldn’t have considered. Can you talk about why you were inspired by the National Gallery?

Nick: Perfect segue. I just have to tip my hat to you. [Laughs.]

Devon: I missed something there — there’s a counterintuitive relationship between the idea of the Dionysian process of art-making with what I would consider the opposition to the Dionysian — the Apollonian, kind of a clarity of light and order, to the Dionysian’s loss of categories and sort of swirling chaos. I associate Ottawa’s National Gallery with kind of the Apollonian, like it doesn’t strike me as a very Dionysian subject for music. But I think it’s a really interesting one.

Nick: I think that’s a very fair assessment. The source of inspiration — it is kind of swirling in past memories, soaking in inspiration from the architecture as well as certain exhibitions. So. It’s not as if I’m dissecting the components of the gallery itself. It’s really like my personal relation to the gallery that was important to me, and that I’m trying to communicate in the music. 

Devon: That’s interesting, and it bears out in the the album cover and how it relates to the subject of the album. You know, it’s about the National Gallery, and you look at the album cover — “Oh, it’s Nick!” So the real National Gallery is inside Nick’s mind. I think that may be the key to understanding this album.

Nick: [Laughs.] I loved it when you said that the album art offers some kind of more intimate personality, and helps personify a field of music like ambient instrumental music that often feels quite faceless. I think you’re right that, while the source of inspiration is the National Gallery, it ultimately comes down to my personal relation with the space, my history there, and very specific reference points. Moments of seeing the light pour in, going there on class trips as a child and seeing my mom working there and thinking that this is such an important space and this sanctuary of creativity. [It’s] such an incredible reminder like the importance that art has in society. And then more recently, specific types of paintings — specifically abstract geometric paintings where I could start to hear what these paintings would sound like.

Devon: The fact that you made an ambient album about the National Gallery calls to mind, for me, a kind of understanding of art and its relationship to public institutions. It recalls to mind for me the National Film Board of Canada or the old CBC. That is something that I feel like I grew up with — the idea of your album kind of reminds me of my idea of Canadian artistic traditions that I really appreciate. So I wanted to ask you about that — do you see the decision to make an album about your experiences in the National Gallery as being part of a tradition of art made in Canada? Is that a weird question?

Nick: I think it’s an appropriate question. I remember going to the National Gallery and looking at the paintings and having this very clear thought early on in my musical practice, that going to the gallery begged the question: What are the sounds that I could create that would hang on the walls of the National Gallery? That is obviously mixing many different mediums in that sentiment, but the idea of this is such an inspiring public space that truly did imbue to me, from such an early age, the importance of art in society. The most beautiful building in the country is housing innovative and diverse works from around the world — to me, it showed the value of being an artist. And while an artist’s work, we know, is so rarely valued monetarily, there is still this undeniable cultural importance that is evident in a space like the National Gallery. 

So that from a very early age made me consider the question of what it means to be an artist, and what kind of sounds I would want to create and exhibit in a space like the National Gallery. Even though it tends to be dedicated more for visual arts, I tried to ask the question to myself about what kind of sounds I would create that would match this type of environment.

Devon: When you’re describing the National Gallery, you’re talking about a public space and about how it gives you certain ideas about the social purpose of art. That’s something that I associate — maybe I shouldn’t be talking about Canada or whatever — it’s not about Canada as a country, but it’s just about my childhood and the sorts of inputs that I was getting. One positive thing that I got about growing up in Canada is seeing institutions like the NFB or the National Gallery, getting the sense of a social purpose for art, and an idea that art should be available easily to everybody, and that it should try to connect with the public as much as possible. It can function in a way that is outside of the marketplace, it can have a purpose that is about more than being bought and sold.

This is a big question, but what do you feel the purpose of art is? Or what, at the very least, do you feel the purpose of your art is, if there is such a single answer? 

Nick: Such a huge question, but I’m so glad that you asked it.

Devon: It’’s something that I struggle with, and I think since the pandemic, it’s something that I’ve considered more and more, as our relationship to how we take in culture is changing. As a musician, I’m like, OK, I’m making music — why? What do I want to do with it? How do I want to affect people’s lives with making music, and what is the social function of music?

Nick: It’s such an overarching, or I guess underlying, inquiry to why we do what we do. But ultimately, it’s going to be answered on such an individual basis that there there’s definitely no objective answer to your question. But personally, I would say that it’s just about self-expression. Which sounds potentially generic, but I do think that there’s some things that can’t be put into words. Not to say that the literary realm is not art, but there’s something about expressing something visually or with music or in poetry that is not trying to clearly define our reality, but more allude to our experience.

Devon: Yeah, there are things that can only be said through art. I think that that’s definitely true.

Nick: Exactly. Art doesn’t necessarily try to define our reality, but tries to communicate our experience. 

Devon: Yeah. I think certain ways of communicating can only happen through through art. I most value that social aspect to art — like the fact that we know each other and are friends comes through the vehicle of music. There’s something that’s at the core of art that has to do with that. It a form of play that people can engage in together that allows them to reveal themselves to each other. I think it creates the conditions for community, I guess you could say, and that by creating the conditions for community, you’re doing something that goes beyond the functional — it goes beyond the buy and the sell and the job. It sort of opens a space that is free from certain things that we have to endure in our daily lives. It’s a place where people can dream. If somebody goes up on stage and they have some art to share, they can communicate themselves to people in a way that maybe they wouldn’t be able to do were it not for that art. I think that’s kind of the flip side of the idea of art as about self-expression — it’s sort of about giving and receiving something that is essential to who somebody is.

Nick: I think that’s a beautiful idea right there. Part of me feels that I would create even without an audience, but I know personally that I have received so much inspiration from other people creating. I very frequently will look at a friend’s photograph or hear a sound that someone in my community is creating, and that directly impacts me as well, in terms of just wanting to continue to create. But I also like the fact, of what you’re getting to, that having any type of artistic practice or any type of creative expression opens the door to having some kind of exchange. And that there’s so much friendship and community that can be fostered in that exchange — perfectly demonstrated by us. I have been a longtime fan of your music, felt immeasurably influenced by your musical creations, and through just wanting to continue to appreciate what you were doing, we got the opportunity to become friends and collaborators. This is the exchange that I’m talking about — art fosters more than just a person expressing themselves, but this kinetic energy that can start to build up. It doesn’t exist just on this one-dimensional plane. It very quickly takes shape and has this almost, like, cold fusion, unstoppable energy to it.

Devon: Yeah, it can generate a momentum of its own in all kinds of unexpected and unforeseen ways. Another aspect of that, that kind of social dimension of making art and that leading to communities and that momentum that it generates — I’m starting to sort of also see that as… So there’s mass culture, culture that is kind of created by the powerful and spread to the masses. 

Nick: Created but also co-opted, I would interject.

Devon: Created and co-opted, yeah. So there’s this mass culture, and it has certain messaging to it and it has certain ideas about who we are and how we should relate to one another and about how our society should look and everything else — I appreciate art and artistic communities as almost a force field against that. Artistic communities are a kind of a refuge from mass culture, and a kind of a way to push back against it by being a part of a community that generates its own culture and has its own messages and its own ideas about who we are and how we should relate to one another. I think there’s something really valuable about being able to make your own art as a response to the mass culture of our society, to say, “I can create, I can produce, I don’t need to just consume.” I think that comes back to what you said about self-expression as well — not only self-expression, but community expression.

Nick: Absolutely.  think it’s an idea that should totally be amplified and reinforced from a young age, that anyone can express themselves creatively. I think that the power of self-expression should be in everyone’s hands and everyone should be enabled and encouraged to find ways to express themselves with whatever means are available.

Devon: Yeah. I think the kind of mass culture and the idea that art exists in a marketplace — it’s like, “OK, is there a market for the art or not? Are you an artist or not? Are you a musician or are you not a musician?” I feel like that’s a dichotomy that exists in our society. It’s like, “Oh, I could never do that,” or whatever. There are certain ways that one is defined as an artist, a musician or something else, and I think that doesn’t really get to the base layer of what art can and should be. It’s something that comes before the marketplace. It thrives and exists at the personal level in a more fundamental way. I think that self-expression and expressing yourself creatively through art in some form is a human activity, and if everyone were doing it, maybe we wouldn’t need the mass culture so much in our lives.

Nick: Yeah, and rely on the commodification of art as well.

Devon: Yeah. That’s something else that I feel like I sort of got brainwashed in a good way with growing up — thinking of it like the NFB or something like that, the idea that things can be documented and culture can be created and art can be made for purposes that aren’t just profit. There’s a sort of social function to art that can almost be eroded by the incentive to profit.

Your album kind of takes me to that place, where it’s like, you listen to it and you go into the National Gallery and you’re in this public art space. It’s very light and airy and it’s a place that feels kind of unrelated to the profit motive or something. 

Nick: Notably, during the time of creating Glass Gallery, I was going to the National Gallery every week, and I would always go on Thursdays in the evening when it was free to the public.

Devon: Right. Nice.

Nick: I think that kind of highlights what you’re talking about, that this space has the potential to be very communal and accessible and thus be a place of equal inspiration for everyone. While there is so much like capitalism at play within the art world, the fact that anyone can walk into the gallery on Thursday afternoons and soak in, whether it’s the serenity of the architectural spaces, or certain artists or certain era of paintings, — I just think that’s incredibly affirming. And actually ends up being an opportunity for so much self-growth, that someone can go into this space and realize what they are naturally gravitating towards and that they feel is expressing something that they need, or that they can relate with. 

This also comes back to jamming, that where jamming is often about wandering around in this creative space and all of a sudden inexplicably landing at one spot that feels true — I think that there’s a funny parallel to be made about wandering around the National Gallery and meeting a painting or a certain space in the architecture that all of a sudden just rings true for you, and helps you realize a feeling that you’ve never been able to fully communicate before, and here it is like materialized.

Devon: Right. And that it’s a communal space — you’re walking around the gallery surrounded by people that you share a common intention, to sort of reflect on something immaterial. It reminds me of going to church. You’re there on Thursday afternoons, everyone that’s there is there to take in art. It’s a headspace and a mindset that is not the norm — most of our daily lives are spent going from A to B and doing what we need to do. But when you’re in that public space, you’re there with everyone that has freely chosen to spend their time reflecting on art. 

Nick: Yeah, no pressure to be purchasing anything, or expectation of what you’re supposed to be enjoying either. Society needs more spaces like the National Gallery that is free on Thursday afternoons — it’s a beautiful environment that gives people hope, a place that they feel welcomed and celebrates self-expression.

Devon: And where people can become self conscious of themselves as a public, as a community, where you can see each other in a space that is free of the exchange of money and demands on our attention.

(Photo Credit: left, Christopher Honeywell)

Devon Welsh writes songs and lyrics in Majical Cloudz. His opinions are neither to be taken seriously nor to be trusted.