Ahead of his two Mod Club shows, the singer/songwriter talks Polaris Prize, Christian pop-punk and why he doesn't leave his new neighbourhood
ANDY SHAUF and CHRIS COHEN at the Mod Club (722 College), Tuesday (November 22) and Friday (November 25), doors 8 pm. $15. ticketfly.com.
Andy Shauf’s acclaimed third full-length album is about a party, but partying seems like the last thing on his mind the evening after Donald Trump won the U.S. election.
“I haven’t talked to anyone all day,” he says forlornly, seated in a booth at Parkdale’s Skyline Restaurant, long hair draping his face. “I’ve just been thinking and looking at social media, and it hasn’t been getting me anywhere.
“Sometimes I think there’s so much going wrong that I should try to make something that contributes to good somehow. But I just write fiction songs. That’s easy, and no one gets mad.”
Out on Arts & Crafts, The Party is an album of the year contender (hence his two headlining shows at the Mod Club) and made the 2016 Polaris Music Prize short list. It’s a beautifully realized, quiet orchestral pop record written from the perspectives of various people in states of struggle at a party. The setting is social, but the perspective is inward-turned.
From his downward gaze to his soft voice and propensity for trailing off with an “I don’t know,” it’s easy to imagine the 29-year-old’s songs are autobiographical. Shauf admits the situations are drawn from his life, but he doesn’t feel like they’re about him.
“People always ask me if I’m the guy at the party watching things happen and taking notes. I’m like, ‘What?’ Nobody’s like that at a party. If they are, they probably don’t get invited to many parties…. I don’t know. When I go to a party, I just get drunk.”
Shauf grew up in Estevan, Saskatchewan, and then Regina, where going to house parties and bars is “kind of what you do.” He comes from an evangelical Christian family – his brother is a youth pastor in Chilliwack – but left the faith after finishing high school, a split that hasn’t caused too much family conflict.
“They just pray for me,” he says with a smile. “They try to win you back at some point.”
He’s mostly self-taught and first got his hands on musical instruments through his parents’ Radio Shack outlet, which also functioned as the town’s music store. “Stuff that didn’t sell came home with us. A bass guitar. An electric guitar. Half a drum set.”
After some unsatisfying studio attempts with a band, Shauf recorded third album The Party himself and played every instrument on it aside from the strings. It moves easily between stripped-down vulnerability and lush, grander moments often fuelled by clarinet, an instrument rarely heard in indie pop/rock or singer/songwriter fare.
“I don’t know why. It’s a really, cool-sounding instrument,” Shauf says. “There are saxophones on everything, but they’re so harsh-sounding. Clarinets are mellow. And it’s the easiest instrument to play. My mom bought me one as a Christmas present, and I was like, ‘If a school-aged kid can learn this shit, I can do it.’ And I did.”
Clarinet is also the reason Shauf recently went to Chicago to record with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who wanted clarinet on a song for his next solo record. And Tweedy provided the glowing pre-taped introduction that played just ahead of Shauf’s performance at the Polaris gala in September.
Which goes to show you just how far playing clarinet can get you.
Shauf takes a drink of his Pilsner and smiles. “Yeah, straight to the top.”
He moved to Toronto in April and has been at work on his next record in his apartment. He has one song finished and plans to feature guitar more prominently than piano, the primary instrument on both The Party and 2012’s The Bearer Of Bad News.
“I want to make something that’s more focused than The Party. A lot of the songs that made the album I’d written before I had a party theme. So it’s a pretty loose record thematically, narratively. I want to do something that’s more… precise. A little more intentional. And from one person’s point of view. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I want to finish it as soon as I can, but The Party took a few years. So did the previous album. So I think it’s going to be a bunch of years.”
Has the move to Toronto impacted his songwriting?
“I think it’s helped. I don’t have much else to do but write because I don’t know that many people. In Regina, I’d get distracted easily because I lived with roommates in a house or someone would call to go for beers.
“I’m still getting used to [Toronto]. It’s a big change. It’s a very busy place, and that’s scary. I’m not a real crowds type of person. There are nice quiet spots, like this place. This is one of, like, four places I go. Places where you can drink. I don’t go too far outside my neighbourhood.”
• Pilsner is Shauf’s go-to beer, but Bohemian is “legit what Saskatchewanians drink. It’s the same shit.”
• Shauf’s first professional stab at a music career was as a drummer in a Christian pop punk band called Captain, which broke up in 2006. “We played at churches, and a lot of our summer touring stuff was at Bible camps, lead worship. Weird stuff.” He says he didn’t have spiky hair.
• While on tour with lang/case/veirs earlier this year, he learned that k.d. lang can guess the exact frequencies that need to be removed from the monitors during sound check. “I used my frequency analyzer to listen one night, and she was singing a frequency and was like “180,” and it was exactly right.”
• The Polaris Music Prize gala gave him a stomachache. “It was cool but also stressful. Then the moment the winner was announced [Kaytranada’s 99.9%], my stomachache went away. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I really don’t deal with pressure very well.”
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