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Andy Shauf’s Norm

The singer-songwriter finds a new creative process to match a compelling narrative


FEB 27, 2023 | ISSUE 11

Andy Shauf by Angela Lewis - Photography Courtesy Of The Artist

During the early months of 2020, while the world was sheltering in place, singer-songwriter Andy Shauf took to the garage of his Toronto home to start a new record. The Regina-born musician has garnered international acclaim since the release of 2016’s The Party and 2020’s The Neon Skyline, including a nomination for the Polaris Music Prize. His solo discography and work with the band Foxwarren have cemented his reputation as a meticulous songwriter and gifted storyteller.

It’s hard to imagine anyone with these credentials being critical of their output, but Shauf, a self-described perfectionist who writes, performs, and produces all his albums, was looking to do something new. The result is Norm, Shauf’s latest record via Anti-. While the album is unmistakably Shauf’s, it is largely uncharted territory. The instrumentation trades in guitars for pianos and synths, resulting in a dreamy, jazz-inflected soundscape.

Like The Party and The Neon Skyline, Norm is a concept album, but the narrative is more obscure and sinister than its predecessors. There are three narrators — a god-like figure that presides omnisciently over the album, a lovestruck tow truck driver, and Norm — as well as a fourth character who is a source of infatuation for the other characters.

Whereas Shauf’s previous albums saw characters navigating complex relationships in close-proximity settings — at a house party and a bar — the characters in Norm view each other from a distance. The narrative unfolds like a story by Flannery O’Connor or Joyce Carol Oates, with a violent and obscure conclusion listeners must parse for themselves.

Norm Album Cover

Andy Shauf by Angela Lewis

sM | This is your third concept album, but it seems that storytelling has always been a big part of your music. How has your approach to crafting narratives changed over the years?

AS ── When I started writing narrative songs, it was vast, unexplored territory for me. I would choose a scenario and try to write something about it. In some ways, you find the things that work for you and the things that don't, so it sort of gets easier, but the more subject matter you've covered, the less you can do. You don't want to retread.

Early on, I had songs like “Hometown Hero” and “God Bless The Peaceful Man,” where I would take a character and throw them into an intense situation. It was fun to do, and I felt maybe like an old country and western songwriter writing about the Wild West or something. But at a certain point, I realized I couldn't keep up with this sort of shock-value songwriting. So I took the stories to a place I was more familiar with. In The Party, that was a period in my life where I was going to a lot of parties, so I took characters and wrote them into my familiar life. Then with The Skyline, I did the same thing─only it wasn't a party, it was a bar.

When I started writing the songs for Norm, they were unrelated. I wanted to make Norm like a normal record, a collection of songs. What ended up happening was that I looked at the batch of songs I had, and found a way I could turn all the details towards relating to each other. I decided that to further my writing, I had to take this to a place I wasn't familiar with and that was disconnected from my actual life.

sM | This record has a lot of trademarks I think listeners will recognize from your previous albums, but in several ways it feels like uncharted territory. For one, the narrative is darker and more ambiguous. How did the subject matter develop for you?

AS ── At a certain point, I wrote the song, “Telephone.” I had been complaining a lot about talking on the phone with this person I was kind of seeing at the time. I didn't like talking on the phone, and I was whining about it. So, I wrote this song where the first verse sounded like it's this person longing to talk on the telephone, and the second verse is from the perspective of someone who's calling on the phone but also watching through a window─watching the person pick up the phone, and their reaction. When I wrote that song, I already had the title for the album; I was going to make a normal album called Norm. When I wrote the song, I thought that could be Norm — this person who’s watching — so I started to take the songs in that direction.

I had already finished most of the songs for the record, so when I found Norm, I decided I would change the lyrics to the songs — one by one, detail by detail — so that they worked with each other. It was a very loose batch of songs lyrically, and I started tightening up the narrative so that everything worked together. I hadn't really done that before because I guess I had decided that when you write a song, the lyrics are unchangeable or something. It was a painstaking process of changing line by line, recording it, and listening to it for a night to see if it could anchor itself in the new way.

If you want to know what I intended with the record, there are three different points of view. On the physical record, it's indicated with these symbols. There was a point where I had this story and these different perspectives I was writing, and I was trying to figure out how I could make the perspectives uniform.

Then I watched Mulholland Drive. There's a lot of symbolism and stuff I didn't understand. At a certain point, there was this shot of a key on a table, and it zoomed in and stayed on that shot. I was like, this is the slowest pan ever. It was like three minutes, then five minutes. I'm thinking, “This must have been chaos in the theatre. Like, this is wild.” Then my browser closed, and I realized the movie had just frozen─and I was watching and interpreting this frozen scene like a dummy, thinking it was so genius.

It made me realize it's probably better if I don't tie the story together nicely because the way people interpret things is how they find their meaning. I thought I should leave some narrative space for people to interpret.

sM | With Norm, you wanted to write a normal record, yet the end result is this kind of ambiguous narrative inspired by Mulholland Drive. What was that evolution like?

AS ── I think that in trying to do a normal record, I ended up finding a process that's going to work well for me in the future. When I was writing The Skyline, I was trying to write the story song by song. One of the first songs I wrote for that album was the first song, “The Neon Skyline,” which introduces the story, and then I wrote the album linearly, front to back, trying to figure out what was going to happen. Whenever I would hit a wall, I'd have to scrap a song and write a new one in a new direction.

The process that I found with Norm was just more revision. It's how I've always done it with the music side of things where I have a general idea musically, and then I refine it and refine it until I'm happy with it. This process on Norm was the same when I started with very general lyrics. Like the song “Norm,” it actually started out being about this guy buying a sandwich. It was like, “Oh boy, Norm in the sandwich line” or something, and I knew when I wrote those lyrics that they weren't going to stay that way. At a certain point, I changed the chorus.

I've always had this misconception in my head that authors of books will just start writing and then finish writing. What I realized is that probably most authors are writing books in small chunks, changing details, fixing things that don't work together, and ending up with this big clump of words they continue to refine. Eventually, they end up with a novel or a short story or whatever they're trying to write. That’s essentially what I did with Norm. I'm excited to have found that process.

Andy Shauf by Angela Lewis