Oct 13, 2021
By Larry Mullin
Photography by Colin Medley
While Andy Shauf’s new album, Wilds, features more lyrics about Judy and other beloved characters from his preceding albums such as 2020’s The Neon Skyline, the Canadian singer/songwriter says he’s not staking his career on an extended, Marvel-esque expanded universe. Instead—despite The Neon Skyline’s acclaim by not only critics but also former President Barack Obama, who featured the title track on his widely hyped annual playlist in 2020—Shauf has long been working on new material with new characters, using a new writing approach. Wilds’ connection to Neon Skyline is due to them being written at the same time, Shauf adds during an interview where he also discusses his forthcoming music, how he dealt with a wheel falling off his tour bus recently, and what it was like to get kudos from the former leader of the free world.
Larry Mullin (Under the Radar): In an earlier statement you described Wilds single “Spanish On the Beach” as describing a vacation that “is kind of like the first stop on the way to destruction.” What did you mean by that?
Andy Shauf: The idea for the song came about from—maybe this doesn’t happen to you—but I’ve been in relationships that were just about to end, and we think, “Maybe we should take a trip.” And while you’re enjoying it, you know that what’s waiting for you at home are the same problems that you were trying to leave behind. That’s what I was trying to get at with that song.
A magazine in your native Canada excitedly pointed out, when “Spanish On the Beach” was released, that “toward the end of the track, the narrator imagines proposing to Judy, the prevalent love interest in The Neon Skyline.” How is it fulfilling to write about these characters again?
The songs for Wilds and The Neon Skyline were written at the same point in time. I was out on tour for The Neon Skyline and playing some of these songs from what would be Wilds, and I’d read the crowd’s reactions to these songs they hadn’t heard before. When I’d get to a line mentioning Judy I’d think, “Oh shit, they might think I’m still writing about these same characters and exploring these same ideas.” But I’m actually not trying to further expand that universe anymore. While I was writing songs that eventually turned into the album The Neon Skyline, I was exploring different characters a lot, and trying to figure out the story as I went. And there was a lot of exploring new characters, writing different scenarios and placing the characters in them. So I wrote a ton of songs about Judy, and these Wilds songs are left over from a point where I was going to abandon The Neon Skyline’s concept and not have it be about a bar. It’s from the same batch of songs.
Your fans would be pretty distraught to hear you almost abandoned the Neon Skyline concept.
I had two to three songs from my initial attempt at The Neon Skyline that made the cut for what eventually became that album. Then, at a certain point, I wanted to get away from that idea, and write these songs about Judy that were going to be for a different project. Then I circled back around. When I say I was going to leave it behind, I mean it was going to be a different Skyline album completely. It wasn’t like I was going to scrap the album that came to be. It was a different Skyline.
During interviews about working on prior albums like The Party—which features some of the characters you’ve continued writing about on follow ups—you emphasized the importance of settings. You said, “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.” Is that still your process, and if so how else is it beneficial?
I haven’t found myself writing that way lately. Instead, I’ve been trying to write with more character development in mind. When I was writing The Party or Neon Skyline I was trying to write those settings as characters on their own. The bar’s influence on these characters in Skyline, for example. The Party was essentially the same thing. But the more I reflect on songs I’ve written and the way I’ve been trying to use stories, the more I realize that I’m not exploring character development as much as I’d like to. So, I’m trying to switch it up and learn from past mistakes in my writing.
So your next album will have more character development?
I hope so. It’s harder to put into practice than talk about. Whether it’s working is yet to be determined.
How excited are you for audiences to hear these more nuanced character driven stories, once you’re finished?
Yeah, I’ve been working on a new record for a good part of the last year and a half. It’s something I’m looking forward to sharing with people. But I’m always going to think the thing I’m currently working on is my best work yet. So yeah, I am excited.
I read about how, as a boy, you learned a number of instruments from messing around in your parents’ music and electronics shop. That’s how you learned the clarinet that gave The Neon Skyline and Wilds those uniquely haunting moments. Aside from the character development you mentioned, will this upcoming album feature any new instruments in your repertoire?
I’m always trying to expand what I put on my records. There’s more flute on this new record. I played a little flute on The Neon Skyline. I was just at the first steps of being able to make it make sounds then, but now I’m a little further along with that. I’m also exploring the synth world a little more. I’m always looking for ways to make things sound different.
Tell us more about playing the clarinet on The Neon Skyline and Wilds.
It adds a distinct texture that’s not too intrusive. It’s a pretty soft sounding instrument, that can obviously sound pretty haughty at times. But I like layering it with other instruments, to ramp things up a bit.
Honestly, when I started using clarinet I just thought: “Hey this isn’t a guitar, and I can get it to make noise.” It’s nice to use something different that can add a new vibe to a song. And I’ve been hearing more clarinet and saxophone on other people’s music these days. There are a lot of overused instruments, and the clarinet isn’t one yet. Though maybe it will be later. But I like that people are realizing it’s easy to use and arrange.
You recently tweeted a photo of a wheel that fell off your bus, with the caption “Due to unforeseen complications with our bus, I’m playing solo for the next few days. The band will rejoin me this wknd.” What happened?
Having a wheel fall off your bus is not ideal. Luckily, it was a back wheel. We were all sleeping and didn’t really notice it happened. We woke up confused. The wheel fell off and bounced down the highway. Luckily, it was early in the morning and it didn’t hit any cars. No one got hurt. So it’s all good, except we had to get the bus repaired.
I feel like this year and a half of COVID, and all the stresses and unexpected scenarios that arose with that, prepared us a bit to deal with strange things arriving on the tour. Because of all the gear we couldn’t move with our bus out of commission, I played solo, then met up with the band at the end of the week. It was totally fine. I love playing with my band, but it was sort of refreshing to be forced to play solo. It’s been awhile since I’ve performed, and part of me wanted to play solo and try out the songs on Wilds. Hiccups always arise on tour, and we were lucky that it wasn’t getting sick with COVID. It’s nice to be back on the road. Hopefully we can continue to get back to more normal touring.
Lastly, what was it like to have Barack Obama include your song “Neon Skyline” on his annual playlist?
It was pretty surreal. I remember I was in my studio, just checking Instagram. I saw that I was tagged in a post, and realized “Oh, this is Barack Obama.” I refreshed it a couple of times. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. When I was sure it was actually him, I texted a friend: “Holy shit.” And that’s about it.
It’s an honor to be on a playlist like that. But I’m not sure how much of an effect it really had. If I listen to a playlist, sometimes I’ll mark down a song I like. But most people were probably going about their daily tasks while listening to it, and forgot about it. It made me happy. But I still gotta keep writing and working and whatever. [Laughs]
So you can’t retire to a beach just yet?
No, though that’s what I was hoping for!