The Quiet Brilliance of Andy Shauf
A profile of the anxious man with an angelic voice.
All photos courtesy of Aiden Morgan
Ten years ago in Regina, Saskatchewan, every kid of a certain age who went to shows knew Andy Shauf's music. If you attended an open mic around 2006 and he was on the bill, you would witness him quiet the room with a guitar and his surreal voice. Regardless of musical preferences or scene affiliations, when Shauf was done playing, everyone would talk about how he was destined to be an important artist. Now, the Polaris Prize nominated singer-songwriter lives in Toronto and gets regular national and international radio play and tours Europe with acts such as The Lumineers.
The day before Thanksgiving, he talked to me prior to playing a sold-out homecoming show with a full band at the Exchange—possibly Regina's most important cultural building for the kids who used to watch Shauf back in his open mic days. A year ago, he worked as a cleaner and bartender at the place. He even helped paint some walls and laid linoleum at the venue with Library Voices singer Carl Johnson. This was my fourth interview with Shauf; I know how difficult it is to get him to speak more than a few sentences. During a conversation for Prairie Dog Magazine we had last year, I asked him about being an introvert. He responded, "... I'm pretty relaxed — or I seem relaxed. I'm probably 90 percent stressed all the time."
He seemed more confident these days—he does a lot more interviews now—but once told me he gets devastating anxiety when he has to talk to people. During a phone conversation a few weeks before the show, he said he hasn't cut his hair in three years, half joking he just wants to avoid making conversation with a barber. He's not a bragger. The soft spoken man has a singular focus: to make great music.
In his words: "When I get home from tour and talk to normal people, I realize I have nothing to talk about except music and gear. I'm basically totally socially inept."
We sat at the bar he used to tend, drank coffee, and conversed as much as he could handle. I wanted to find out about his personal life. Every word you get out of him is gold, simply because his words are rare. Apparently the zen-like Shauf used to be a "spazzy" kid and was once a drummer for a pop punk band called Captain. He said he calmed down when he realized everyone could beat him up, a point underscored by a high school gym class experience.
"We had gym—where you go to the gym, and I just skipped all my bench pressing. It's kind of embarrassing. I don't like being embarrassed. Our gym class was split with grade twelves and grade nines, so you had to lift as a minor niner in front of all the huge grade twelves back in Caronport, [Saskatchewan]."
Lyrics off his 2016 album The Party explore similar anxious feelings of inadequacy. The chorus from "Twist Your Ankle" goes, "Everybody's laughing at me/ Just let me walk home," the narrator pleads after getting publicly rejected by a crush. "Early to the Party" features a self-scrutinizing character who shows up at a gathering before any of the other guests, and the opening track "The Magician" describes an entertainer as "just a shaking hand without a concrete plan." Song after song delves into doomed moments of hyper awareness and vulnerability at a party.
It's tempting to read into Shauf's lyrics and connect his personality to his isolated characters, but he says his writing is fictional. He told me he ran out of interesting life experiences to talk about. His ideas "come from other people." Obsessed with his craft, he believes he doesn't have much to say about himself—in his lyrics or real life. He recently hung out with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy who is on the same international record label, ANTI- (his other label is Arts & Crafts). Shauf described the encounter as "scary."
"It was cool," he said, "It happened before Polaris. I went to Chicago and he wanted some clarinet on a demo and it was fun but super scary to hang out with one of your heros. Flying solo to Chicago and getting in a cab to go to the Wilco loft was like, 'Oh my god.' I played it cool and super nervous."
Ironically, Tweedy may have been equally star struck. During a video shown at the Polaris ceremony, he said Shauf's work "doesn't seem to have a lot of antecedents or contemporaries."
What makes his songs stand out is his awareness of when to ease off. He has the ability to create complex multi-instrument arrangements (he plays a lot of instruments). His single "Jenny Come Home" features piano, synth, guitar, percussion, and clarinet all from Shauf. Despite his technical skill, he often embraces simplicity and sometimes outright silences. During these spaces, listeners are left to reel at yet another moment of existential crisis or bliss. For instance, he said he is particularly proud of a reverb swell after a drum fill on "Begin Again." It's an obscure, personal moment, but those are the moments that define his music.
That craving for solitude is especially apparent on 2015's The Bearer of Bad News. That solemn album broke Shauf into the US market. It was a moody turn from his comparatively upbeat and love-song filled Darker Days from 2009.
There is a bold side to Shauf, but it takes a lot of prodding before he crosses that threshold. "I get a little bit fighty sometimes," he said. He recounted a house party when "push came to shove" with an individual he caught stealing a prized flask he bought at Sasquatch Music Festival on his birthday. "The thing was, he stole something from our house and he wouldn't admit it." He felt bad about the physical altercation I dug up and quickly asserted the would-be thief is "actually a nice guy. I regret what happened."
While he smoked a cigarette outside, his reading habits came up in conversation. He's a fan of stories by Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver, and Denis Johnson. I asked if he would ever consider writing fiction outside of his songs.
"I can't write without music," he said. "It's just hard because I need that limitation. It's hard for me to write sentences because it's hard for me to talk in sentences. With music it gives me a reference for syllables. If I write poetry, I end up writing really corny patterns and it ends up being a limerick or something."
As we walked backstage and he made last-minute show arrangements with his team, I asked how he deals with performance anxiety. He said he's recently started taking beta blockers, medication to help numb his nerves. On the way out, as he recounted experiences from his party years he dropped this thought: "I realized that everything is meaningless. Life is just a game of telephone. Everything you know has just been told to someone else."
He has ideas for a next album, but nothing concrete. Shauf said he can be controlling in the studio—he played every instrument on the last album. He works in a methodical, obsessive manner and doesn't seem to have much interest in socializing. That's not to say Shauf isn't friendly. He would just rather play music than talk about it.