Interview: Andy Shauf on his provincial party-pieces

It turns out that phoning Canada can be a bit of a pain. It’s pretty far away. In lieu of human interface, singer songwriter Andy Shauf answered some questions for us by email. He was at home in Regina, Saskatchewan as he responded, with only vague plans to fiddle about on the piano later in the day or pen a new word or two.  The image of Andy Shauf sitting whimsically by a window overlooking miles of grassland, pondering subjects for his future material is not out of keeping with the atmosphere created by his music. It seems he’s a man true to his art, without pretensions and relies on what feels natural.

His new album The Party is out on 20th May 2016 in the UK and a European tour with The Lumineers includes two trips to venues around our fair isle. In anticipation of the new material, we do some compare and contrast with recent extra-Canadian release The Bearer of Bad News. The new album delivers on the promise that our Introducing article alluded to last year.

He begins by explaining why it seems like he has managed to release two albums in the space of a year: “The Bearer of Bad News was originally released here in Canada in 2012, and then we toured that for a while and eventually re-released it in 2015 in the rest of the world. I guess while everyone thought it was a new record, I had pretty much [finished] my actual new record The Party. The songs that are on The Bearer of Bad News were written between about 2008 and 2011.

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The Bearer of Bad News was recorded in Andy’s parent’s house, but sadly they have since moved, so he worked on The Party in Regina’s Studio One.

Canada, famous for vast swathes of relatively under-populated land, has inspired many of music’s greatest artists (and storytellers for that matter). Mr. Shauf, if not necessarily ‘inspired’ in the traditional sense, is certainly influenced by his North American surroundings: I’m a product of growing up in small towns in the Canadian prairies. I think a lot of the characters on The Bearer of Bad News are based on small town life, and I’d also say the same thing about the characters on The Party. I guess I tend to write about familiar settings, so my home is often the backdrop for my songs... the winter is isolating, and that has had an influence on a lot of my writing.”

The latest record, as the title might suggest, consists of a series of party-related vignettes. Apparently this idea became more of a conscious choice as he worked on it. “I realised about halfway through writing this batch of songs that they were tied together in that way. I let go of a few songs that I had written alongside these to keep the theme a little bit tighter.”

The way his small stories are constructed is very consuming as you listen. This might in part be due to the first-person perspective from which they told. Usually this would be for autobiographical reasons, with other artists who more directly write about themselves, instead Shauf seeks to draw you into overhearing, then feeling a part of third-party "conversations" in a “natural way”.

On the last record, he laudably played all the instruments you hear across it. It’s a fine achievement which has again allowed him great creative freedom. In his own mind his style doesn’t really change and uses whatever sounds I’m into at the time, or different uses of instruments. All of the instruments except for the violins are played by me, so I end up doing things in a certain style, whatever my playing is leaning towards at that point in time.”

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This sounds a bit strange because the arrangements are notably much less variable than The Bearer of Bad News. On the subject of his vocals (it seems appropriate that he might shrug as) he says, “I just end up singing how I think the song should be sung.” It might sound odd, but presumably he just doesn’t consider it to be a big deal, while at the risk of repetition, most artists seek more conscious changes to styles, approaches and subjects across different albums. Shauf just seems to go with his on flow; an attitude which translates in his music.

As you might expect in songs about parties, there are numerous incidents surrounding alcohol and cigarettes. Reconnecting to the evocative "Hometown Hero" (from The Bearer of Bad News) where the eponymous character says “I’m just gonna grab another pack” and a moment later “man these things will kill me” comes "Alexander All Alone" (on The Party) “smoking a cigarette, the last pack he’d ever buy."

The two characters are actually polar opposites; Alexander is the subject of a tragically melancholy tale. For Andy, the recurrence is down to the fact “everyone who smokes is either trying to quit or just running to grab another pack." Again, it just seems a matter of fact rather than some thematic construction. Similarly, alcohol brings out underlying feelings a lot of the time. A lot of the ideas in The Party are just normal situations being complicated by too much drinking - making important decisions when you shouldn’t be. Maybe if it was a dry party they would have just played Scrabble and gone home.”

With respect to the great word game, this would have made for a much less interesting listen... Hurrah for alcohol.

Find out more about Andy Shauf here.

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