Thao and The Get Down Stay Down plays Wonder Ballroom on March 25. Read our interview with Thao Nguyen about her personal and daring new album.
Two truths, two lies: From Christian punk drummer, Canadian Andy Shauf is a one-man tour de force hellbent on bringing (back?) the clarinet in popular folk music. Yes, Shauf started his musical career as a Christian punk drummer. Yes, he is Canadian. No, he is not a one-man tour de force, but only because he doesn’t want to be. And, no, he is not pushing for a clarinet renaissance, although its incorporation gives his music a unique flavor.
Really, Shauf just wants to make thoughtful, well-developed music that feeds the soul.
Through four full-length albums, including last year’s The Party, Shauf has built a respectable discography on the backbone of delightfully deft songwriting, creative instrumentation and lyrics that skew to the side of poetic. He plays with concepts and imagery that calls to mind those small, often forgotten moments that we have daily as humans, finding beauty in the quiet occasions.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Shauf’s music is the haunting gentleness of his voice. Distinct, and with a timbre that seems to sand the jagged edges out of spaces, he finds a delicate interplay between his instruments and full-voiced softness. On The Party, Shauf sought to tell a more comprehensive narrative, and the stylistic vocals accent the various feels, characters and settings of the album.
Although The Party features a more concept-driven lineup of songs, the tracks still stand individually as well-crafted, compelling vignettes. The clarinet is present, and looking back at The Bearer of Bad News, it’s an exercise in artistic development to catch how Shauf manages to find the sweet spots of each tapestry, weaving in the stripped-down sounds of a woodwind instrument in a strings world, giving the songs a kind of late-’70s sitcom theme feel, just, you know, if those themes were songs and the songs were good.
Recently, Shauf toured through Europe, and in between stops, he took a minute to call across the pond to talk with us about his origins as a musician, his creative process, and the challenge of playing the flute with cigarette lungs.
Eleven: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today – appreciate it!
Andy Shauf: No problem!
11: So, where in France are you right now?
AS: Um… I have no idea [laughs]. We’re in a small town – we’ve been in a lot of smaller towns, and I’ve just kind of given up on remembering where we are. It’s nice, though!
11: How long have you been on this European tour?
AS: It’s been about a week so far, I think?
11: I want to dive in and give a little background on you. I read that you started your career as a drummer in a Christian punk band. I’m curious about that – is that something that has carried over, that punk influence, or is that something from the past that kind of helped jumpstart your career?
AS: I mean, when I started playing music, I was a drummer. You know when you’re a kid, and you’re in high school trying to put together a band? All my friends and me were all into skateboarding and stuff, so we listened to pop punk and punk music, so we started a band. We got involved with the hardcore and punk scene, and I was really into punk during my teen years, but then I started getting into the singer/songwriters. I started writing songs on my own while I was also drumming in the loud bands, but I kind of just phased out. Sometimes I listen to loud records still, but it’s when I’m in a certain kind of mood.
11: What about the Christian influence? Is that something that you consider to still be present in your lyrics or some of the imagery that you use?
AS: Yeah, I mean, I was raised Christian, so when you’re immersed in that world for your entire life it’s kind of something that’s not going to leave you even if you leave that world. So, I think it’s something that still shows up here and there – it’ll be something I think about forever.
11: Along with that, when you’re writing music and some of the themes you have recurring in your lyrics, do you find them rising to that existential level where you find them grappling with big questions, or do you like to drill down into some of the smaller things – the more visceral pieces of life?
AS: When I’m writing, I tend to try to capture – I don’t try to tackle big questions. I think I’m more interested in the subtleties of life and situations rather than trying to make it really grandiose, you know? No one can really know that much, so I’m probably not going to answer any questions for anyone.
11: Sure. There’s a good balance in there. A lot of your music – your most recent album and your older work – has this tenderness, or calmness, to it, and I was wondering if that was something that you focus on or if that is how your voice and musical choices just come through?
AS: I think I’m a fairly… I’m a pretty gentle person. A lot more of your personality comes through in your music than you think sometimes, I think? I don’t really think about it as an idea; musically, it just kind of forms and then you can form it in a certain way, but, you know, I’m not going to write aggressive music
because I’m not an aggressive person. I’m kind of a little bit more on the calm side. Also, my voice doesn’t work if I sing loud… I don’t have a very loud voice, so quietness is all I can do.
11: How would you say your music has grown over the course of your solo career? You’ve made a bunch of albums, been on some really big tours, and I’m wondering if there are any sounds or themes that strike you when you go back and listen to some of your older stuff? And then, moving forward, is there a progression you can see, personally?
AS: I can definitely see myself making smarter choices as the albums go along. Even listening to The Party, there are some things I wish I would have done differently, but, you know, you have to make something in order to know that you want to make something else. I don’t know, I mean, I just try not to make the same mistakes twice, and try to expand on my horizons. Listening to my old albums it’s surprising the things that worked, you know, because you always – I don’t think I’ll ever really know what I’m doing, but you learn more each time. And when I go back to an older album, it surprises me that I knew to do something, at that time. If that makes sense?
11: Is there an example or something that pops into your mind when you say that?
AS: Well, when we were getting ready for this tour, we’re touring with clarinets this time, so I had to make charts for the clarinetists, and I’m going back into The Bearer of Bad News (2015) to listen again, and most of it is like, ‘oh my god, that’s dumb.’ But, some of it is like, ‘oh wow, that’s really simple and it works.’
When I was making that album, I was learning how to play clarinet, and I was just starting to learn how to use things to support other instruments, and stuff like that. So, it’s just like little flukes that work out, and it’s like, ‘that’s actually not horrible.’
11: You mentioned the clarinet, and that’s something I wanted to ask you about. It’s kind of unusual today to hear the clarinet in most popular-style music, and I was wondering how you use it. Do you write with it? Or do you write with it in mind, like, ‘oh here’s where a clarinet line could go’? How important is it as an instrument for you as you continue to move forward as a musician?
AS: I think I use it… I think people give me too much credit for it. I just use it like a guitar. If someone is tracking a song and there’s an acoustic part, and they’re like, ‘oh, this part needs electric guitar,’ it’s kind of like that. I just decided that I didn’t want to do lead lines with an electric guitar, so I got a clarinet, learned how to use it, and I just play along to what I’m doing, and that’s how I write my arrangements. But, it’s been really useful for me because it’s kind of taught me how to arrange for other instruments, so I think I’m going to keep using it, but I don’t know… I’ll probably just keep using it like a guitar to sketch out ideas and maybe get some different stuff going out there. I mean, how many albums can you really make that are just so much clarinet? I thought I was overdoing it on my first album…
11: It’s got such a unique sound and timbre, that even though you can make it a little bit diverse, you’re always very clear what it is, where it’s coming in and where it’s fitting into the music. You play quite a few instruments – are you learning any new ones?
AS: I got a flute for Christmas, so I was trying to learn that a little bit while I had some off time. Gonna keep digging in on that. It’s a pretty similar instrument to a clarinet. Maybe I’ll just abandon the idea of learning instruments and just let people who can actually play them, play them…
11: What’s the biggest challenge right now? I’ve heard that it’s similar, so I’m curious what the most challenging part of the switchover is?
AS: It’s like the clarinet in the way that the fingerings are – the keys are in the same order and the hand motions are the same. But, the mouth thing – it’s like blowing over a bottle, which is like, that seems easy, but it’s hard. It’s really hard.
11: Different kind of breath control?
AS: Yeah… I’ve been a greasy cigarette smoker, so I don’t have lungs for that kind of instrument I guess.
11: So, with The Party, I wanted to know how that came together for you. A lot of other artists that we talk to, it seems everyone has such a different way of putting together songs, putting together albums, and some of them are very meticulous – piece by piece – and some of them just make a ton of music and pick out the good stuff. For The Party, how did that come together?
AS: When I started writing for the album, I was kind of writing how I would for just any batch of songs: see what came out. But, I was ending up with a lot of narratives that were based around kind of a party scenario – not necessarily a party, but maybe like a bar or something – and I thought I could probably just tie them all together, so then it got a little more specific and harder to write after I gave myself that limitation. I didn’t end up with really any extra songs. I had like one song that tied in because it was written from Jeremy, one of the main character’s, perspective. So I was going to use that, but it was really slow so I cut it. I don’t know… it was hard. Trying to set up different scenarios for different people at this party was tricky. I think I did an OK job, but it wasn’t like – I didn’t plan it very well. There were a lot of loose ends I was trying to tie up at the last minute, and I think I ended up making a lot of the songs not connect as well as they could have? But I think that’s also one of the good things about the album is that it doesn’t all tie together super tightly, so people can draw their own conclusions.
11: You mentioned that once you put that constraint on yourself it became harder to write, but it seems like sometimes artists kind of put that constraint on themselves, put themselves into a box and then they have to write themselves out of it a little. Did you enjoy it? Or do you think at some point you’ll steer away from it?
AS: At some point, I think I’ll steer away from it. I mean, I want to do a really good job of it instead of, you know, ‘I did it once and now I’ll move on.’ I found it kind of interesting to do as songwriting for myself, so I’d like to do something really good with that format before I move on from it. I like the challenge of it. It seems like kind of a… not easy thing to do, but I don’t think people realize how fucking corny you can make a story album if you weren’t careful. You know? At a certain point turn it into this musical theater thing, so you kind of walk a fine line. It’s nice to have a challenge like that. I’m enjoying it so far.
11: You’re coming through to play Pickathon in August!
AS: It’s my first time, and people talk about it all the time, so I’m really looking forward to it!