When I met Andy Shauf, he was standing outside of a small rental car with Saskatchewan plates, the back seat of which contains a guitar case, an amplifier and a small suitcase. He was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Unprovoked, he said, “I wonder how many people are going to be here tonight.” This man gave us The Bearer of Bad News, released in Canada in 2012 before making its way to the U.S. earlier this year. It’s an album that tells the stories of characters who confront faith, solitude and death in 11 songs built around the sounds of a timeworn piano, an acoustic guitar, and an unlikely clarinet. If the Coen brothers were to write an album, this would be it. On Sept. 25, Shauf opened for Low at The Outer Space. The 50-odd people who witnessed Shauf’s set Friday night must have felt similarly to those who heard Elliot Smith when he was still an opening act. Before Shauf went on, I sat down with him to discuss his musical upbringing, the making of The Bearer of Bad News and what to expect from his forthcoming album release.
Yale Herald: So why don’t we start by you telling us a little bit about where you grew up, when you first started writing music, and all that. You’re from Saskatchewan—Regina, is it?
Andy Shauf: I didn’t actually grow up in Regina; I live there now. I grew up about an hour away, in a town that was a college town, so there were a lot of opportunities to play music. I started writing songs and playing shows in high school, I guess.
YH: You’ve talked in the past about growing up with Christian music. Did that have any influence on what you’re doing now?
AS: I don’t know that it has a role in what I’m doing now, but it definitely gave me the opportunity to be involved in music and [to be] around music for my whole life, just with playing in church and all. The college near me was like a Bible college, so there were a lot of worship bands, and just a lot of opportunities to play music.
YH: So you were playing gigs at a pretty young age?
AS: Well, not like young young, but I played with my parents when I was like ten.
YH: What do you parents play?
AS: My dad’s a piano player. My mom’s a piano player, too.
YH: Well, speaking of childhood, could you talk about what you listened to growing up?
AS: Growing up, I listened to a lot of Christian music, and then gradually got into pop/punk—Blink 182 and Green Day. And then there was the whole emo thing. That’s kind of where I got started listening to acoustic music like Dashboard Confessional. And then I found Elliott Smith, and I thought, “This is way more interesting than the emo acoustic music,” so I listened to that. And then I found other stuff, like Randy Newman and The Beatles. But I didn’t really get into the music that I love now until I was older, like almost out of high school.
YH: And how about nowadays. What do you listen to in the car on the way to shows?
AS: There’s this guy Chris Cohen—his album I love —I listen to that quite a bit. We just listened to that A. A. Bondy album, American Hearts.
YH: Alright, well, back to you. The lyrics on The Bearer of Bad News are mostly stories or characters. Where do you draw these stories from, are the characters in any way autobiographical, and do you have a favorite story or character on that record?
AS: I don’t really know where the stories come from. I guess it’s just like little ideas here and there. On those songs, at least, I didn’t start out with a game plan on how the story’s going to go. One line would lead to another, and I’d figure it out after a while. As far as their being autobiographical, I’m not really sure. I mean, there are little pieces of myself in all of the characters. In order to make the character believable, at least to me, I kind of have to put myself into their shoes.
YH: So I guess it’s safe to say you’ve never actually tackled a conman in a corner store?
AS: [laughs] No.
YH: For the people who don’t know the story of The Bearer of Bad News, could you talk about the writing process, the recording process, and why it didn’t come out in the U.S. until a few years later?
AS: I wrote that album for a really long time. I had a record deal in the States before, and they actually rereleased my first full-length. So I had already been touring on it for a couple years, and then they put it out down here and I came and did a couple more tours. And I was expecting to record a new one right away, but [the label] just wanted to get sales up on the first one and wouldn’t let me release a new one. So I got dropped from them in 2010 or 2009, I think. So I had 100 songs or something, moved home because I was broke, went to my parents’ basement, and they just let me record and write more there. I think I was there for a little more than a year recording pretty much every day.
YH: And wasn’t there a rumor that you could hear your dad walking around upstairs on one of the tracks?
AS: I don’t know if you can hear my dad, but I know you can hear a dog barking at one point. I’m not even sure what song it’s on, but my neighbor’s dog was right beside the window of the basement and it was always barking.
YH: When you toured with a band, what was it like getting people to learn parts that you otherwise played?
AS: It has been an issue in the past. I used want everyone to do exactly what was on the record. And then this past year, I started touring with new guys, and I was like, “You know what? This is probably unnecessary, and probably uninteresting to watch, if you’re just seeing exactly what the record is.” So I started to give people more freedom to pick how they want to interpret the parts. It’s been freeing to be able to let people play how they want to play. But we don’t have clarinet players on the road, so it’s usually the keyboard guy covering some of those lines, or I’ll cover them on electric guitar.
YH: And now you’re touring solo. How does that change things?
AS: Well, it means that I can mess up whenever I want. I can play whatever songs I want. It’s kind of nice. I’ve been touring with the band, so now when I play these songs solo, I kind of miss the guys, or miss the full sound of it. But it’s nice to be able to do it on my own every once in a while. Load-out is easier.
YH: Although that amp of yours is quite a brick.
AS: It’s a beast.
YH: You’ve got a new record in the pipeline, and I’ve heard a few of the songs, which people are already describing as way more upbeat. So what has changed from Bearer of Bad News to this record, and what can we expect from it?
AS: What changed? I don’t know that anything changed. I mean, a lot of time went by – I recorded Bearer of Bad News in 2010. So I just kept writing songs and tried to think more about what I’m going to do with these songs. And if I’m going to be playing them live, I might as well make it so that I want to play them live. But they are a lot more upbeat than the last ones.
YH: Any new instruments?
AS: You know, when I started this one, I thought, “I’m not going to use clarinet at all because I used it a lot on the last one,” but I used it again a lot. There’s a triangle—I don’t think there was a triangle on the last one. A little bit of synth. That’s a new one for me.
YH: How about lyrically? Will there be stories and characters?
AS: Yeah, it’s going to be called—tentatively, I guess—The Party, and it’s kind of just a bunch of songs about the happenings of a party. It’s a pretty loose story, but it’s all character-based and situation-based.
YH: Certainly a departure—at least title-wise—from your last few. So I have to ask, who is “The Bearer of Bad News” on that last record? Is that you?
AS: Yeah, I guess it’s me giving all the bad news.
YH: And now you’re the party.
AS: Yeah, I’m the party. The party isn’t…The party is a little bit depressing, still. It’s not a great party.
YH: Well there’s a magician here right?
AS: Yeah, nobody’s having the best time, that’s for sure. Isn’t that just like every party?