Published Jan 24, 2020Andy Shauf's stages are getting bigger, but his world isn't, and that's the way he likes it.
The 33-year-old singer-songwriter is set to spend the next few months touring all over the U.S., his native Canada and Europe; he moved from Regina to Toronto in 2016, largely for a change in scenery, but also to take advantage of the larger musical community. His music has popped up in episodes of Saving Hope, Being Human, Casual and iZombie. But Shauf is still going to the same, cozy hangouts he's always preferred, even as his profile grows.
It's why we decide to meet up at the Skyline Restaurant, a homey diner in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood that serves as the namesake for his new album, The Neon Skyline, out now on Arts & Crafts. It's clear to see why the restaurant was the inspiration for Shauf's record, with its charming decor and laidback, familial vibe. During our chat, Shauf occasionally breaks our conversation to greet a majority of the staff, trading hellos and picking up old conversations.
"There's a feeling here that's similar [to Regina]," says Shauf of his favoured pub. "Everyone's friendly, you can get to know everyone pretty easily." Though he's lived in Toronto for almost four years, Shauf holds onto his small town proclivities: his apartment and studio are within blocks of the Skyline. "I feel like the only way I can live in a big city is to make it into a small city. I never walk east of Dufferin," he says, referring to a street firmly embedded in the city's west end.
Tight spaces are a trademark of Shauf's songwriting. Over his last few records, Shauf's songs have increasingly featured recurring characters, turning his albums into small towns of their own, where a familiar face is bound to pop up eventually. It started with 2015's Bearer of Bad News, where the final two songs are linked, and progressed with 2016's Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted The Party, his breakthrough, in which each song features a different vignette about the same house party.
It all coalesces in The Neon Skyline, which follows the story of Shauf's nameless stand-in who, during a nightcap at the namesake bar, finds out that his ex-girlfriend Judy is back in town — and then she shows up, telling him "I knew exactly where you'd be." Like a zigzagging, barside conversation, the tense and tender Judy storyline is punctuated with detours through the lives and musings of secondary characters, turning The Neon Skyline into a veritable short story collection that explores the difficulties in communicating with loved ones and finding peace in the uncertainty of adulthood as the years start to pile up, as told through a series of brisk folk-rock songs that transplant Randy Newman's razor-sharp storytelling onto breezy Paul Simon instrumentals.
The Neon Skyline further cements Shauf's signature songwriting style. His aptitude for honing in on human moments of existential dread, combined with a keen ear for clarinet-favouring arrangements, adds up to a singular sound that sets Shauf apart from his peers. Bruce Springsteen sings about working class heroes with Broadway-style panache, but Shauf tells his stories of word-slurring wallflowers and past-their-prime quarterbacks with a subdued honesty. He's the same introverted, humble guy tucked away in the bar that he sings about, trading self-deprecating barbs and wry witticisms with his buddies as the empties pile up — a fitting orator for a generation defined by economic, environmental and socio-political anxiety.
Shauf says the decision to place the album in the Skyline emerged early on, when he mumbled out the line "come to the Skyline" while working on what became the album's opening track, "Neon Skyline." "When I'm writing something, I have to be picturing something. The Party — it was easy for me to picture parties, I was also doing that all the time. When you have a setting, it's easier to see what the characters are gonna do. I guess it's just how my brain works."
Given his literary approach to songwriting, it's no surprise that he counts short stories and the works of literary luminaries like Raymond Carver and John Steinbeck among more typical singer-songwriter fare like Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. His penchant for going solo in the studio is also quite author-like, born from a desire to not waste his collaborators' time.
"I just do best with finding ideas when I'm by myself. There's something about wasting other people's time or trying to accommodate people's levels of patience. When I'm by myself, I can do an electric guitar part for three hours and at the end of it, be like 'No, that sucks' and try something else. And I don't feel bad about it, I love it," says Shauf. "That's the point of recording, for me, is to find the good ideas. It takes a million bad ideas to get to the good ideas sometimes. When you're with other people and other people are adding to the track and then you scrap it, you feel guilty! It's easier when I'm not hurting my own feelings."
And, much like how Mordecai Richler had Grumpy's and Ernest Hemingway had Sloppy Joe's, Shauf has the Skyline, which he estimates he visited around three times a week while making the album, gleaning inspiration from people-watching at the restaurant, drunken conversations and his own life experiences.
Sure, he's met Randy Newman — "He doesn't remember me, I'm sure" — and recorded with Jeff Tweedy, but if there's any sense that the fame is going to Shauf's head, he doesn't show it. "I guess I get a little starstruck, locked up," he says of his brushes with established songwriting greats.
It's no easier for him on the other side of the conversation, either. "People recognize me a little bit more, but it's not an everyday thing. Maybe once a month, maybe more," he says. "I just tend to brush it off because it's uncomfortable. I just wanna write songs. People talk to me like, 'Oh, I'm so excited to meet ya, I can't believe it's you.' I'm like, 'Shit! I can't believe it either!'"