Band: Andy Shauf
Label: ANTI- / Indigo
Canadian musician Andy Shauf pens songs that explore universal truths through picaresque vignettes, from the colorful people-watching observations of 2016’s The Partyto the tale of a failed relationship explained over one night at a local watering hole on last year’s The Neon Skyline. But Shauf has never exactly been held up as a confessional sort of songwriter, even though underneath the carefully plotted narratives and conceptual storylines, he’s always been writing about himself.
Wildsmight change that. A collection of nine songs culled from around fifty tracks recorded by the prolific Shauf during the writing of The Neon Skylineand presented in a near-unfiltered form, the unstudied rawness of the songs on Wildsis a revealing look at Shauf’s mindset during the time he was writing Skyline—what he calls “a glimpse into the window of how chaotic things were”—as well as a peek into the creative process behind a proper Andy Shauf studio album, a snapshot of how the multi-instrumentalist first begins building his songs into more ornately arranged final products.
Though it’s not necessary to be familiar with The Neon Skyline to “get” Wilds, this new collection certainly can be interpreted as a companion piece to that record, a revisiting of the doomed lovers throughout various stages of their relationship. The songs are presented here in their most nascent shape; Shauf playing all the instruments, coming up with the arrangements on the fly, and recording it all himself to “a little tape machine” in his studio in Toronto.
For an artist known for his elaborate and at times symphonic musical arrangements, Wilds might seem like a left turn into tatty indie rock; full of lo-fi tape hiss, vocals that edge into the red, whispery drums, and an imperfect “in the room” feel. These are the songs in their purest form, untouched by overthinking or editing, with all imperfections left in. On many of the tracks, you’re hearing the sound of Shauf recording his ideas down as they happen, playing the tunes for the first time. “It was kind of like, if there's a spot and I come up with a part for it in the next hour, that's what it's going to be,” says Shauf. “They’re quick ideas and kind of quick sketches. The arrangements are really concise and there's not much decoration to it. Everything's just utility.”
All nine songs on Wilds were written and recorded closely together, during a period when Shauf became disenchanted with the idea of centering the Skyline narrative around one night at a bar. To shake off the writer’s block, he began experimenting with a different concept, penning songs about a woman named Judy. Shauf ultimately decided to return to his original plan, but the creative exercise was fundamental to what Skyline eventually became. “I felt like a little bit of freedom from the restrictions of The Skyline narrative. And the rest of the songs on this album were all written back-to-back, just sort of exploring this new idea of someone named Judy and exploring the past relationship,” he says. “But then I included that in The Skyline narrative.”
The paths converge on “Spanish on the Beach,” a song that could’ve slotted onto Skyline. Over gentle, jazzy guitar strums augmented with the wispiest of woodwinds, Shauf tells an empathetic, funny story of the couple’s time on an all-inclusive resort vacation, using the idea of a language barrier as a metaphor for the beginning stages of communication breakdown. It ends with the narrator envisioning an imagined scenario in which he proposes to Judy before bursting into song, musical theater-style, with the resort’s house band. “It’s the same theme as the story ended up being at the Skyline but the narrator's life is a little bit booze-fueled,” says Shauf on the song. “And this vacation is kind of like the first stop on the way to destruction.”
If The Neon Skyline takes place post-destruction, Wilds exists somewhere at the crossroads, a nebulous realm where things could go either way—and that goes just as much for Shauf, personally, as for his characters. Though Skyline isn’t exactly a love letter to alcohol, it is about a bar and features a protagonist who is probably spending a little too much time there. Putting together Wilds coincided with some realizations Shauf experienced about his own relationship to alcohol. “When you look back at something that you've written, it’s so much clearer with some distance where you were,” admits Shauf. “It was kind of shocking how clear it was—that the way that I was living was not ideal.”
If Wilds was a revelation to Shauf, it’s also a revelation for listeners. Hearing his songs pared back to the sparest of parts reveals not only how good a songwriter Shauf really is, but also how affectingly personal his songs are when his songs are unlatched from the mise en scène of a conceptual storyline. Take “Jaywalker,” a loping ballad that nominally tells the tale of a person not looking where he’s going while crossing the street and, by song’s end, waking up alonein a hospital with a dream of Judy driving a car, and no idea what the hell happened. But peer a bit deeper and you’ll find that Shauf is exploring a far more existential theme: the experience of the lost soul meandering through life (“Hanging around townnever looked good on you”), the low-level level depression so common as to be invisible to everyone around (“All of your friends started wondering why/ You were choking back tears at an easy goodbye”) and the ways, both good and bad, that life can broadside you when you least expect it. “It was kind of me thinking of myself and feeling like I was walking blind a little bit,” says Shauf. “This guy's walking across the street looking at his feet and just getting hit by a car. That's kind of how I was living.”
Ultimately Wilds is not only another spin on the barstool at the Skyline—this time a bit wiser, with a little more clarity, maybe with a seltzer rather than a beer—but a standalone chapter in Shauf’s own artistic narrative. The organic nature of the songs and the imperfect quality of the recordings make the stories they tell feel truer to life as it’s experienced in the moment rather than via carefully edited words on a page or through the golden, unreliable haze of memory (or booze.) For his part, Shauf loves the scrappiness of the songs, the roughness of the sound. “I think it's really cool that these are quick and they're not perfect. I think it just suits the songs really well,” he says. Quick and not perfect—just like life.
Band: Andy Shauf
Album: The Neon Skyline
Label: ANTI- / Indigo
Few artists are storytellers as deft and disarmingly observational as Andy Shauf. The Toronto-based, Saskatchewan-raised musician's songs unfold like short fiction: they're densely layered with colorful characters and a rich emotional depth. On his new album The Neon Skyline (out January 24 via ANTI-), he sets a familiar scene of inviting a friend for beers on the opening title track: "I said, 'Come to the Skyline, I’ll be washing my sins away.' He just laughed, said 'I’ll be late, you know how I can be.'" The LP's 11 interconnected tracks follow a simple plot: the narrator goes to his neighborhood dive, finds out his ex is back in town, and she eventually shows up. While its overarching narrative is riveting, the real thrill of the album comes from how Shauf finds the humanity and humor in a typical night out and the ashes of a past relationship.
His last full-length 2016's The Party was an impressive collection of ornate and affecting songs that followed different attendees of a house party. Shauf's attention-to-detail in his writing evoked Randy Newman and his unorthodox, flowing lyrical phrasing recalled Joni Mitchell. Though that album was his breakthrough, his undeniable songwriting talent has been long evident. Raised in Bienfait, Saskatchewan, he cut his teeth in the nearby Regina music community. His 2012 LP The Bearer of Bad News documented his already-formed musical ambition and showcased Shauf's burgeoning voice as a narrative songwriter with songs like "Hometown Hero," "Wendell Walker," and "My Dear Helen" feeling like standalone, self-contained worlds. In 2018, his band Foxwarren, formed over 10 years ago with childhood friends, released a self-titled album where Pitchfork recognized how "Shauf has diligently refined his storytelling during the last decade.”
The Party earned a spot on the Polaris Music Prize 2016 shortlist and launched Shauf to an appearance on The Late Late Show with James Corden as well as glowing accolades from NPR, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and more. "That LP was a concept record and it really made me want to do a better album. I wanted to have a more cohesive story," says Shauf. Where the concept of The Party revealed itself midway through the writing process, he knew the story he wanted to tell on The Neon Skyline from the start. "I kept coming back to the same situation of one guy going to a bar, which was basically exactly what I was doing at the time. These songs are fictional but it's not too far off from where my life was," Shauf explains.
For The Neon Skyline, Shauf chose to start each composition on guitar instead of his usual piano. He says, "I wanted to be able to sit down and play each song with just a guitar without having to rely on some sort of a clever arrangement to make it whole." The resulting album finds its immediacy in simplicity. While the arrangements on folksy "The Moon" are unfussy and song-centered like the best Gordon Lightfoot offerings, his drive to experiment is still obvious. This is especially so on the unmoored relationship autopsy "Thirteen Hours," which boasts an arrangement that's both jazzy and adventurous.
Like he's done throughout his career, Shauf wrote, performed, arranged, and produced every song on The Neon Skyline, this time at his new studio space in the west end of Toronto. Happy accidents like Shauf testing out a new spring reverb pedal led to album cuts like the woozy closer "Changer" and experimenting with tape machines forced him to simplify how he'd arrange the tracks. Over the course of a year-and-a-half, Shauf ended up with almost 50 songs all about the same night at the bar. Though paring down his massive body of work to a single album's worth of material was a challenge for Shauf, the final tracklist is seamless and fully-formed.
As much as The Neon Skyline is about a normal night at a bar with friends and a bartender who knows exactly what you'll order before you sit down, the album is also about the painful processing of a lost love. Lead single "Things I Do" examines the dissolution of the narrator's past relationship. Over tense and jazz-minded instrumentation, Shauf sings, "Seems like I should have known better than to turn my head like it didn't matter. Why do I do the things I do when I know I am losing you?" He explains, "a lot of this record is a breakup record. I haven't had a breakup in a long time, but a lot of relationships have had one of those nights where one person shows up somewhere when they weren't supposed to and then picks a fight with their partner." Elsewhere, songs like "Clove Cigarette" explore the better times, honing in on a memory that "takes me back to your summer dress."
With any album about a lost love, the key ingredient is a generosity and kindness that can only come from a writer as empathic as Shauf. On the standout personality-filled single "Try Again," the narrator, his friends, and his ex find themselves at a new bar. The former lovers' reunion is awkwardly funny and even sweet, as he sings, "Somewhere between drunkenness and charity, she puts her hand on the sleeve of my coat. She says 'I’ve missed this.' I say “I know, I’ve missed you too.” She says, 'I was actually talking about your coat.'" It's a charming moment on a record filled with them. Shauf's characters are all sympathetic here, people who share countless inside jokes, shots, and life-or-death musings on things like reincarnation when the night gets hazy.
On top of heartbreak, friendship, and the mundane moments of humanity that define his songwriting, Shauf makes music that explores how easy it is to find yourself in familiar patterns and repeat the same mistakes of your past. His characters wonder, "Did this relationship end too soon? Would going to another bar cheer my friend up?" Or in the case of the foreboding "Living Room," where a character asks herself, "How hard is it to give a shit?" the songs on The Neon Skyline ultimately take solace in accepting that life goes on and things will be okay. Shauf says, "there's moments on the album where the characters are thinking 'this is the end of the world.' But there are also moments with some clarity and perspective: Nothing is the end of the world."
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Band: Andy Shauf
Album: The Party
Label: ANTI- / Indigo
Andy Shauf is inviting you to The Party. The Party is the ANTI- Records debut for this Canadian songwriter, who grew up in small-town Saskatchewan.
Awkward characters show up “Early to the Party,” and either reveal life-changing secrets (“To You”) or try their hardest to reveal nothing at all (“The Magician”). In “a city the size of a dinner plate,” everyone knew the guy who keeled over dead after smoking what he promised would be his last pack of cigarettes (“Alexander All Alone”). The girl dancing by herself, unselfconsciously, in the middle of the room, with the “Eyes of Them All” upon her. One moment you’re dancing with someone who bears an uncanny resemblance to your ex (“Martha Sways”), and later you start slagging your best friend as way of endearing yourself to his recently dumped ex (“Quite Like You”). Did that all really happen in the same night? It certainly happens in the space of this tightly narrated thirty-eight minutes, all set to ornate arrangements of fuzzed-out guitars, string sections, clarinets and dreamy synths, all draped over delicate piano, acoustic guitars and rainy-day drums.
Shauf grew up in a musical family who would often perform together at their church—which, for the 12-year-old Shauf, was more discomforting than inspiring at the time. He picked up the drums and played in pop-punk bands in high school, and got into emo before someone slipped him an Elliott Smith album. That sent him down a rabbit hole into ’70s singer-songwriters like Paul Simon and Randy Newman, and soon he was writing his own material. The summer before Grade 12, while his friends were all working summer jobs, Shauf stayed home and made his first record. After high school he moved to The Big City—a.k.a. Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan (pop. 193,000)—and started touring Western Canada, mostly DIY venues in punk scenes. The soft-spoken guy with an acoustic guitar found himself opening for hardcore bands a lot. “I always expected to get my ass kicked, but people would just end up buying CDs.”
In 2015, after toiling for six years in relative obscurity, Shauf’s 2012 release The Bearer of Bad News was re-released in the U.S. by Portland labels Tender Loving Empire and Party Damage. Choice festival gigs started coming in: Newport Folk Festival, Iceland Airwaves, Toronto’s Field Trip, two tours of Europe. Wasn’t he sick of those songs by then, though? “The album was something I was still proud of, so I was okay with touring it a little bit longer.”
On The Bearer of Bad News, Shauf started out with 100 songs and whittled it down to 11, the cream of the crop—no wonder it turned heads. This time, older, wiser, and with a clearer vision and narrative construct in mind, the self-produced multi-instrumentalist and master of subtlety focused on 15 and cut it to 10. Brevity is key: these vignettes and character portraits are as rooted in classic pop songwriting as Aimee Mann or Ron Sexsmith, with shades of the Shins, Belle and Sebastian and Grandaddy seeping into Shauf’s modern arrangements. Recording began with a band in Germany in early 2014, but Shauf—who is endlessly rewriting lyrics and rearranging songs, building them up and then stripping them back to their basics—decided to start anew back home in Regina. There, he set up shop at Studio One, located in an old CBC building, and was left to his own devices. He plays all the instruments, with the exception of the strings, handled by Colin Nealis.
The Party is not exactly a concept record, but it was a way for the singer-songwriter to get out of his own head. An after-party record, more like it. Or for the hangover the next day, when only Shauf’s songs can make any sense of the emotionally-charged scenarios that played out the night before.
When The Party was over, Shauf had no regrets—even if its characters have more than a few. You’re invited to The Party. It’s one you’ll never forget.