Looking back at the path he’s taken in life, Andy Shauf realizes he’s been blessed, even if things didn’t happen for him right away. When he’s reached on his cell during a Houston tour stop, the Toronto-via-Regina solo artist is coming off a Jimmy Kimmel Live! taping that beamed him into the living rooms of North America, playing “Try Again” off his new album The Neon Skyline.
Reviews of the record have been gushing, praising the singer for beautifully off-kilter songs that draw on post-slacker pop and new-millennium soft rock.
On his upcoming tour, Shauf will jump from small clubs to rooms the size of the Commodore, which he’ll play when he hits Vancouver. All this suggests that, after five previous full-lengths and a handful of EPs, the whole music thing has finally started to work out in a significant way. Even though he’s cautious about overselling all that he’s done, Shauf doesn’t disagree. And no one is more amazed than he is.
“I think I was a little naive about how everything worked when I was younger,” he admits. “In high school, once I started writing songs, I remember going, ‘This is going to be my job. I’m really gonna do it.’ Initially, I was like, ‘I’ll take a year off and see what happens.’ And now it’s 15 years later. It’s crazy that I get to do all this—travel around and play shows—because if you told me this is where I’d be today, I would be pretty surprised.”
Shauf’s breakthrough came with 2016’s The Party, a record that was instantly relatable to anyone who’s ever felt like they arrived at a social gathering too soon (“You’re the first one there, overdressed and underprepared/Standing in the kitchen, stressing out the host”) and then counted the minutes until it was safe for an Irish goodbye. If you can recall a night when you lurked in the shadows while some overconfident blowhard held court, or slunk home feeling like you had nothing interesting to say, the album’s 10 songs speak your language."
So convincing was Shauf that people wrongly assumed that he was singing about himself on The Party.
“I feel like The Party was really deeply rooted in sadness,” he reveals. “When I was done with it, and I looked back at the record and myself, it was no wonder that people would interview me and wonder ‘Are you sad?’ And the answer was, ‘Um, no.’ ”
For The Neon Skyline, Shauf had a plan similar to that for The Party.
“I wanted to make a concept record with The Party, and people seemed to like it,” he muses. “But in my mind it was kind of a lazy, loose story. On this one, I wanted to do a little better job tightening up the narrative.”
On his essential Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young sang "See the losers in the best bars/Meet the winners in the dives". You don't have to spend five hours a day on a barstool with Jim Beam and Captain Morgan to know places ripped from the pages of a Charles Bukowski short story are always more entertaining than rooms filled with lawyers and stockbrokers.
One of the Shauf’s favourite dive bars in Toronto provided a ground zero for The Neon Skyline. Shauf—who started out as a drummer in an evangelical worship band with his dad and brother—handled the instrumentation and production on the record, and that gave him the freedom to take the songs wherever he wanted. The opener, “Neon Skyline”, sets the stage with an easygoing, left-of-the-dial take on ’70s folk-pop. And even though that’s the winning template for the album, on the 10 tracks that follow there’s enough thinking outside of the lines to suggest that Shauf admires the Beatles (see the paisley-hazed “Where Are You Judy”) as much as he respects Tom Waits (“Thirteen Hours”) and Tom Petty (“The Moon”).
Where the lyrics are concerned, Shauf once again shows an incredible eye for detail. He’s as able to find beauty in simplicity (“I looked in my fridge, it was a dark scene so I buttered some bread”) as he is to draw pictures that will resonate with anyone who’s gone through a rough patch (“Gentle mess, water falling from two eyes”). And he’s skilled enough at drawing characters on The Neon Skyline that a visit to a certain dive bar will now be on your bucket list for the next time you’re in Hogtown.
“Regina is such a small city that whatever bar you go to everyone kind of knows each other,” he says. “When I moved to Toronto from Regina I found this bar called the Skyline, that was just reopening. It really felt like a small-town bar where you get to know everyone really easy, and they become almost like a family. I do go to a lot of dive bars, but the ones that I like best are where there’s a real sense of community. You get treated well, and it becomes your second home.”
The Neon Skyline is actually a breakup record. But although he was obviously working through some things, there’s no cloak of sadness hanging over the songs. Assuming, that is, you are able to see more humour than pathos in lines like “Somewhere between drunkenness and chivalry/I hold the door open and let her pass through.”
“I didn’t want to make it a typical breakup record where there’s a lot of sadness and analyzing what went wrong,” Shauf says. “I mean, I spent a lot of time on the record analyzing why the breakup happened, but there’s also a real attempt to find a balance and get some humour in there. There’s more to life than intense feelings, because with every intense feeling there’s some dumb joke that you make with your friends at the bar.”
Friends, one might assume, who are more than happy for him, even when he’s on the road instead of on a barstool. Shauf is well aware that he’s been lucky enough that his good times don’t stop on nights when he isn’t hanging at the Skyline.
“There were times,” he muses, “where I thought, ‘Man I probably should have come up with a backup plan.’ But I dunno—I’m in my 30s now and things have really started to work out better. And I feel like I’m old enough to realize that what I have is going pretty good.”
Andy Shauf plays the Commodore Ballroom on Wednesday (February 26).