Andy Shauf may be one of the most pure, focused singer-songwriters left today.
After years traversing the underbelly of mainstream indie success, Shauf's fortunes turned for the better when eyes and ears latched onto the 2015 re-release of his immaculate sophomore LP 'The Bearer of Bad News'. The album was equally sparse and emotionally full; the Canadian-born crooner spun his delightful intonations through folky soundscapes detailing heartbreak and vivid, wholly arresting personal tales.
It's no surprise that artists like Paul Simon and Randy Newman are noted inspirations for Shauf. There's no pulling punches here: Shauf wants to tell stories. 'The Party' – his third LP, and first with his recently appointed record overlords Anti- – sees the multi-talented crooner enter new-found territory, even for someone of his stature and prowess. Even though he resists the arbitrary 'concept record' title, Shauf weaves a brilliant cohesion into his desolate stories of beleaguered individuals all attempting to make sense of the same abysmal party.
We caught up with Andy Shauf a few days before the release of 'The Party' to find out how he was feeling, what he hopes people will take from the album and his unabashed resignation to the 'control freak' label.
Best Before: How are you feeling as the release of your latest LP 'The Party', your first full-length project with Anti-Records, edges closer?
Andy Shauf: I'm excited. I mean, it's kind of a nervous excitement. Release day always feels sort of like the completion of a process, even though it's more like the beginning of a lot of work. It's a sigh of relief that it's finally out, but also you're like, "Oh yeah, now I have to travel around and actually play these songs".
You've been conditioned to DIY methods of self-production, promotion and self-releasing. How did the transition to a huge record label come about, and have there been any significant changes in your musical mindset since then?
I haven't really had to worry about the booking or promotion for quite a while, so I think the transition was pretty easy for me. Having less to worry about is a nice feeling. I don't think there have really been any changes from a musical mindset, except that I feel like I can focus a little bit more on writing and recording.
I think on 'The Bearer Of Bad News' especially, there's a lot of questions about God. That's something that probably won't ever leave my mind. The question of the unknown, or just the things that we will never know and can never know.
I read that you grew up playing music in church, but what's particularly interesting is that you were in a family band – an experience you've noted as negative rather than inspiring. What was it in particular about performing in the church and in that musical ensemble that caused you to feel disillusioned?
When I was a kid, my parents and some of their friends would play music at our church and different churches, and I would play drums with them, which was actually something I really enjoyed. The part I didn't like was singing. My brother and I would sing "special music" in the church services, and I really didn't like that.
I don't want it to seem like I'm ungrateful for my musical upbringing or the opportunities that I had to perform at a young age. I just didn't like singing when I was young.
Does any aspect of your early religious upbringing influence your writing, or is that spectrum restricted to iconic singer-songwriters like Paul Simon and Randy Newman?
Well, my religious upbringing has definitely influenced the content of a lot of my songs. I think on 'The Bearer Of Bad news' especially, there's a lot of questions about God. That's something that probably won't ever leave my mind. The question of the unknown, or just the things that we will never know and can never know. Musically, I've been influenced by the old hymns. There are a lot of really beautiful old hymns that I used to sing in church.
Something that shocked me (and I'm ashamed to admit it did) was that 'The Bearer of Bad News' was initially released in 2012. I'm assuming the first responses to the album were not strong or widely shared. What changed for you to re-release it, and how significant do you feel that decision was in cementing where you are right now?
A U.S. label in Portland called Party Damage were interested in re-releasing the album and we decided that it would be a good way to get a better introduction to the States before the new album that I was working on at the time. So they teamed up with another Portland label called Tender Loving Empire and released the album in early 2015.
Yeah, it was a really good thing to do. I mean, I wasn't tired of the album yet, and I still believed in it, so it wasn't torture to put a band together and play the songs a few more times. A lot of opportunities came as a result of that re-release, so I'm glad we did it.
Some of the characters are pretty unrelated to others; they just all happen to be at the same party. I guess it is a concept record, but that's a scary term for some reason.
On first impression, what differences do you think fans will identify between 'The Party' and 'The Bearer of Bad News'?
Musically, 'The Party' is a lot more upbeat. 'Bearer' has a lot of space – it's really gentle. On 'The Party,' I wanted to make a pop album. The arrangements are based around a full band playing the songs, whereas 'Bearer' was sort of based on the idea that I could play the songs solo really easily.
'The Party' immaculately interweaves the stories of a handful of fairly complicated and slightly dismal characters as they come to grips with their current disposition and the very real party they've found themselves in. Would you define this as a concept record?
I guess it is sort of a concept record. I don't know if I'd call it that, because it's not really the tightest story. I don't think you could tie every song together. Some of the characters are pretty unrelated to others; they just all happen to be at the same party. I guess it is a concept record, but that's a scary term for some reason.
Is this technique of specific and direct character focalisation something you've always been accustomed to personally, or has it been a calculated attempt of separation within the now noisy singer-songwriter realm?
I think for me it's just a way to keep myself interested in writing lyrics. It's more challenging for me to try to write about characters. I feel like I have a lot more freedom when I'm intentionally writing fictional songs.
Do any of these characters or stories on the album – perhaps your misguided attempts at wooing a friend's ex on "Quite Like You" – stem from personal dealings, or is it merely you as a storyteller?
Some of them are based on things that have happened in my life and around me, but mostly they're just fictional. I think they're all relatively familiar scenarios.
Yeah, I certainly am a control freak when it comes to my music...I always need to follow through with an idea even if part of me knows that I'll hate it when I'm finished. It's a necessary part of my process and a very difficult part when I'm with other people.
You get slightly apocalyptic on the gorgeous "Begin Again", which seems to be focusing on the monotony of a specific narcissistic (or perhaps just a wild drunk) and disillusioned individual. Is the reference to "a brilliant light dissolving us all" just texturing, alluding to the character's drunken state, or are their wider comments on the aspects of modern social behaviour and human relationships as a whole being inferred there?
The apocalyptic reference in that song was a reference to the power that the Jeremy character holds over the narrator. Jeremy drunkenly and laughingly telling him about this person that he's seeing behind Sherry's back is like the end of the world to the narrator. I mean, this conversation really just ruins his night. It might be that he goes outside to kick leaves and smokes his last cigarette, but I'm not going to try to tie it all together.
Is it true that you played every instrument on the record? I heard you initially had a band that you ditched to return to your own DIY tendencies. Did the band aspect feel restricting to you in some way? Do you consider yourself a bit of a control freak?
Yeah, I certainly am a control freak when it comes to my music. I think there are situations in which I can collaborate, but I've always worked on my 'Andy Shauf' albums by myself. Bringing the band into the studio was a fine idea, but I think it was one that I wasn't ready to try. When we were in the studio with the band, I would have an idea and try to follow through with it and someone would pipe up from the other room with an opinion that would totally throw me off. I always need to follow through with an idea, even if part of me knows that I'll hate it when I'm finished. It's a necessary part of my process and a very difficult part when I'm with other people.
What do you hope 'The Party' will accomplish for you as Andy Shauf the artist?
I guess I just hope that it'll be an album that people will enjoy listening to. I wanted to make an album that would interest both people who listen to the lyrics and people who don't look into it.
'The Party' is out now via Anti- Records - purchase it right here. You can also stream it below in full: