Andy Shauf scales down the population of his immersive world on ‘Wilds’. Here, he traces the record’s origin.
Stream: ‘Wilds’ – Andy Shauf
In the beginning of 2020, Andy Shauf released his sixth studio record The Neon Skyline, a smokey concept album centered around a small-town bar and its various occupants. Sometime during its creation, Shauf began to “[lose] faith in the Skyline concept” and started, instead, penning songs about a fictitious character named Judy — who eventually made her way into Skyline as the narrator’s ex-lover anyhow. But leftovers of the Judy-specific tracks, a trove of quieter, minimalistic lo-fi recordings, stand as an arresting collection on its own: A stark and subtly charged account of an unraveling relationship. And through them emerged Wilds.
“It was an album that could have been. It was a story that I never really got to the heart of,” Shauf explains. Listening through Wilds feels a little like watching the movie Boyhood — its chronicling, documentarian hand heightens the tender realism of the couple’s love story. It’s not particularly glossy, nor is it exaggeratedly poignant. We see the couple on beaches and in hotel rooms; we hear about two imagined proposals; then, on the last track, we watch them share a dance at a friend’s wedding, presumably long after the end of their relationship.
For the first time since The Party, our characters are no longer attached to a physical location. Instead, Wilds is a heavily dislocated album, moving from place to place and beholden only to the relationship and its emotional itineraries. Shauf has always found himself in the characters he writes, and, with, Judy, he was “putting a little bit of each of [his] relationships into the character.”
Shauf doesn’t describe himself as a very serious person, which is probably what makes the specific kind of heartbreak on Wilds — a little facetious, a little self-deprecating — so coolly beautiful. In the music video for “Spanish on the Beach,” a rubber duck wearing sunglasses floats in the pool, while his songs bear lyrics like “Great American sitcom pauses, commercial break/Nothing really matters, can I do another take?” (“Call”)
Somewhere between these two tracks is “Jaywalker,” a particularly devastating portrait of the narrator, so absorbed in his own sorrows, getting hit by a car while crossing the street. “Everything that you love always goes out of style,” Shauf sings matter-of-factly, as though it’s just something that happens to people.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Shauf about his newest record. Below, find our conversation about Wilds, Raymond Carver, and Treefort Festival, which he played in late September.
A CONVERSATION WITH ANDY SHAUF
Atwood Magazine: Congratulations on Wilds. Could you speak a little more on the decision to release tracks from the same era as The Neon Skyline?
Andy Shauf: Really early on, in the demoing process for Skyline, I was making demos on this little eight-track tape machine. I was pushing them all really far into the red, so they were kind of distorting, and I really liked that. With early demos, I would write the song and record it right away and end up with a cohesive sound just because I was using the same machine. My plan was to make the real album on a different tape machine of higher quality. But the more that I tried to re-record the songs, they changed. The vibe changes.
So I always had this batch of demos that I really like the sound of. When everything shut down, I was having a conversation with my sound guy, Justin. He was saying, “Why don’t you just put a few of those demos together and release something?” As always, to just get more songs out there. And also maybe buy a little time between this album and the next. They’re like Fostex demos, I called them. So I found that reel of tape, and I was listening to it — eight songs in a row, written back to back, and it was a specific time where I was sort of losing faith in the Skyline concept. So I wrote this song about a lottery and about this person named Judy. That was the first Judy song, and it was the first song in an attempt to get away from the Skyline narrative, and I was going to maybe make an album about this Judy person. Eventually I combined all the ideas. But yeah, it was a turning point. It was an album that could have been. It was a story that I never really got to the heart of.
With Wilds, the vacation setting appears in a couple different songs. And then there’s the television blue — more domestic, idealistic settings come to the fore on this record. What informed these choices?
Andy Shauf: I really love Raymond Carver short stories, and that was the territory that I was trying to get into writing about — imagining that this couple are comfortable, and they’re taking these trips trying to get things back to a certain magic point. The television blue is like, they’re staying at this shitty hotel. Well, I was imagining it to be a shitty hotel: Blue paint and a pool where there’s just no shade. It was informed by trying to be really plain-spoken about mundane events that happen to people — that feeling of your relationships falling apart. It’s not a huge explosion. It’s just kind of piece by piece.
Could you elaborate on the character Judy?
Andy Shauf: With Judy, I was putting a little bit of each of my relationships into the character. There are certain things — “Television Blue,” for example, is loosely based on something that actually happened in my life. So it’s a lot of little glimpses of characteristics or events from my own past.
I never felt like I fully developed the character, like with Skyline and the whole batch of songs that I wrote around that. I was writing in such a weird, scattered way, trying to find the story with each new song that I wrote. So I didn’t really have a good character sketch or a good idea of who Judy was. Judy was a lot of snapshots of things that had happened around me. If you listen to it, and you get a good picture of who this person is, that’s great. I don’t know if I ever had a good picture.
Jeremy is a character that has also appeared in previous records, and I was wondering if you could speak a little on his character and presence here.
Andy Shauf: There was a point where, really early on in the writing for Skyline, Judy was Sherry, who’s one of the characters on The Party. I was going to continue using those characters. That kind of just stuck around in “Jeremy’s Wedding.” I guess there’s a bit of a link if you want to make a link between the two records. I think now he’s a character that’s one of those friends who you’ve fallen out of touch with. But they’re very recognizable and they bring a certain mood around.
Would you say you imagine them more as archetypes rather than fully fleshed out characters?
Andy Shauf: Yeah. With The Party characters, I’m not necessarily picturing these people physically. It’s more like, The Party was a group of friends. Neon Skyline is pretty much the same group of friends, but they’ve aged a little bit. Like a group of friends you bump into every once in a while?
Do you think that you would continue with this group of characters?
Andy Shauf: I’m gonna go in a different direction, but maybe in the future I’ll revisit this world. I need to give it a rest for a little. I definitely had a lot of time since we’ve stopped playing shows until now, so I’m pretty far along in another project. And, yeah, it’s a little bit different. Still stories and characters, but they’re different this time.
Do you have a favorite track on the record?
Andy Shauf: I really like “Judy,” the first song on the record. Because it’s light, and I think it’s funny. Maybe other people won’t. I also really like “Jaywalker,” because the person who mixed it, John Anderson, took the lead line and boosted the organ part, which became prominent. When I had mixed it, the organ was really buried. So it kind of feels like a brand new song. It feels a lot cooler than the way that I had thought it was going to be presented, so I’m really happy with that one.
“Spanish on the Beach” is a track that I particularly enjoyed. What was the concept behind its music video?
Andy Shauf: In July, it was me and Collin Neil, the guy who’s playing keyboards with me. We went out to this farm to work on a Foxwarren recording with my friends from back home. We were out there at their parents’ farm, and I bought a camcorder to try and get some home videos going. There was this cool duck floating around, so I filmed it for a while. [laughs] That’s the concept. And then I thought it would be funny, so I made a little video.
How has it felt to be back playing festivals?
Andy Shauf: Playing a festival felt really, really great. It was nice to just just be able to look at and see people enjoying something together again. Because obviously, in the back of your mind the whole time, I’m concerned about my safety. I’m concerned about other people’s safety. It’s so different coming from Canada, where in Toronto, when I’m walking on the sidewalk, people are still really giving each other distance and stuff. And when I come to the States, it feels a little more like everyone’s kind of assessing their own risk. It feels good. It feels like people are being respectful.
Do you have any specific memories from Treefort in the past?
Andy Shauf: Once we played right before Jonathan Richman, and that was really cool. We had driven all through the nights, loaded, and then started playing until we were all exhausted. And I remember getting out of the van and just being so tired and feeling like I was getting sick, and just grumpy. Then this stage hand’s giving me attitude. Then he came and apologized, but at the time it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And then Jonathan Richmond played, and everything was made well.
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