Andy Shauf - Interview
I, pseudonym groti, had the honour of seeing the illustrious Andy Shauf play at arguably the best live venue in Boston, the Sinclair. The interview was recorded pre-show but post-enamour- I signed my life away to practice a devout life of Shaufangirlism upon quite literally stumbling across a physical copy of Bearer of Bad News during a public radio internship. It soon became the soundtrack to life-pondering existentialism, aka afternoon rain-trodden minivan commutes.
Flipping back to the present, we must recognize some impressive subtleties that were incorporated into a meticulously well-crafted live plot- two clarinetists, allowing for Andy Shauf's studio-composed harmonies to materialize; tasteful deviations from the studio versions, usually consisting of "ooo"-inciting novel melodic lines; and of course, Shauf's irremovable genuineness, a shy smile introducing his songs to an eager and supportive group of friends.
I had the pleasure of being graced with a bit of dear Andy's time for an evening phonecall. Devoid of pauses and ums, read below for our chat with Mr. Shauf.
I wanted to ask about the production of this album. The first time I heard of you was Bob Boilen raving about _Bearer of Bad New_s, about how you played and recorded all of the instruments on your own, and mixed down the tracks in your parents basement. How did the shift to Anti- impact your record’s production (collaboration with other producers, etc.) and composition?
I actually pretty much finished the album before I started working with Anti-. It was actually my choice to try and take it to a studio and make a more expensive-sounding record. It’s hard to make a record when your only money source is touring.
When you write songs, do you generally write out your melodies on a score, or do you instantaneously crystalize it in recording?
[Laughs] I definitely don’t write it out first because I don’t know anything about music. People have been asking me to do horn and clarinet arrangements, but I don’t really know how to do that…I know how to play the clarinet, but most of what I do is just finding things by playing things.
Speaking of the clarinet, your relationship with this instrument is quite interesting, having picked it up simply due to the fact that your mother spontaneously gifted it to you one year. How do you make the decision to incorporate your lush clarinet harmonies into a song? Do you make more of a bottom-up sound-based decision, or more of a top-down “they symbolize x” decision?
It’s kind of a textural thing. It just fits into things so nicely because clarinets can be a little bit sharp or brash, but they’re also really soft. Most of the songs I was writing for Bearer of Bad News were composed of acoustic guitar and acoustic piano (I guess it’s the same for The Party), and I wanted something that was a gentle sound and gave it an extra helping hand to make it sound full.
What changes do you have to make when transforming this beautifully crafted studio sound into its live realization?
On this tour we’re lucky because we have two clarinet players with us, but there are lots of tours where we have to figure out how to play the clarinet lines on other instruments. Another thing is piano. Piano is a hard to sound to place. Lots of bands play with digital pianos, but that just sounds really awful. We have an old 70s stage piano.
You’ve introduced strings in some studio sessions (KCRW, etc.). How did that come about?
When I was working on The Party, I got up to a certain point where I felt like I had filled all the clarinet roles that I wanted to fill, and my friend Collin came down to the studio in Regina, and he played some strings on it. A lot of the things I was trying to do on The Party included unison and texturing, so a lot of times the piano and clarinet are playing at the same time, violins playing the same line as the piano. It feels a little bit different if a guitar or clarinet was playing that line. Just trying to build different sound using acoustic instruments.
What pushed you towards this predominance of solo playing of instruments and mixing single-track recordings rather than recording with a full band? Do you generally prefer writing with other artists or writing on your own?
The guy that I worked on the strings with is someone who I really trust, in terms of his musical tastes and abilities; he’s also someone who’s really easy to work with. Working on my own I think I do add a lot because it’s hard for me to be heard sometimes. When there’s another person with me it can be a little overpowering. I’m not exactly the most outgoing person, so sometimes it’s more frustrating to communicate ideas than to just do them myself. There are a lot of compromises you have to make in a band, you have to write together. I don’t have to do that if I’m the only person in the band.
Has writing always been a central component of your musicality?
Yeah, I didn’t learn the guitar just to play guitar. When I learned the guitar, it was basically for writing songs. I didn’t learn a bunch of rock tunes, I just learned the chords and started making songs.
Have you ever written stories before? Or poems?
No, I think that would be really hard.
How do you think your hometown has influenced your music?
I don’t really know.
I guess that’s maybe easier for someone else to say, your mom or something.
Yeah, well people do ask me that all the time- how does Saskatchewan affect your writing? But I don’t think that’s something that I have a good concept of because I just write what I write. Other people can maybe see that something’s very Canadian or very prairie, but for me I just make the songs…I can’t tell what they’re like. I’m really close to them so I can’ see.
Your music videos are so dynamic both in terms of medium (cartoons vs. cinematography-esque; experimental vs. fictional narrative). How much say did you have, and what is your background with each of the artists?
You know, like, none. But video’s not my art form…if you’re working with someone you trust, trusting their vision is really the way to go. I’m really happy with all of those videos. The one guy Winston who made the video for 'The Magician', I think maybe one of our labels found him, he’s a collage artist from Montreal. Chad van Gaalen made the video for 'Quite Like You', and he makes all kinds of crazy videos, really good music…I’ve been working with him for a long time.
What type of venue do you prefer playing in as an artist that makes very intimate music? Does that translate better to a smaller venue or is size not the main determinate when figuring out what live environment is best suited to your music?
I realized I don’t like playing tall stages where everyone is craning their necks way up, I feel weird about that…but I also feel weird on low stages… I’m not really sure what the perfect height is. I like small shows, but I feel like big shows are a little easier to get momentum. Large crowds are more willing to get into it. Sometimes small shows can be really shy.
Have people every crazily danced to your music?
Yeah, a little bit.
On your Wikipedia page is says that you play the graduated cylinder.
I have no idea what that is.
My diligent research tells me that your parents owned an electronics store when you were growing up. Did this have any influence on your music?
My parents owned a Radioshack until I was in grade 3. We had a few guitars around the house that didn’t get sold; that’s where I got my first drum set from; but it was mostly Radioshack stuff, so computers and TVs.
Thank you to the illustrious Krystal Robbins, for helping to arrange amidst tragic gear robbery and pandemonious Harvardian schedules.