Andy Shauf’s latest release, The Party, might strictly be classified as a concept album. However, it’s probably more accurate to describe it as a collection of musical short stories that are all set under one roof over the course of a single evening.
Song by song, the record pans across an ensemble cast of characters, allowing listeners access to their thoughts and conversations as they face insecurity, isolation, relationship landmines, and even death.
One track, “Early to the Party,” captures the anxiety of a guest who has arrived “overdressed and underprepared,” waiting for her date to arrive; once he does, he’s already drunk, and goes off with his friends, leaving her alone. In “Quite Like You,” the protagonist drunkenly trash-talks one of his closest friends in hopes of winning over his comrade’s broken-hearted girlfriend (“I don’t know what you see in him / it seems to me that all he ever does is bring you down”). “Alexander All Alone” follows the thoughts of a guest who drops dead while smoking what he swore would be his last pack of cigarettes.
In other words, despite the setting, this probably isn’t a record you’d put on at a rager. Even at its most upbeat, it’s deeply melancholy and introspective.
Around the time that he was writing the record, Shauf — who spoke to City Paper by phone before a recent show in Atlanta — had been reading a lot of short stories, particularly by Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver, “just trying to figure out how people use a limited number of words to get certain feelings and characters across.” He was also going to a lot of parties, and that theme began naturally cropping up in his songs.
“Besides parties being something that you go to to have fun and let loose, I think in those scenarios people are a little bit more willing to give up more of their personalities than in other settings,” Shauf says. “That’s kind of where you get to know people, and people show their true colors and true feeling whether they want to or not. … I guess I’m interested in that kind of thing: what people are really like.”
Shauf, who is from Regina, Saskatchewan, got his start playing church music with his family before moving on to the local DIY and punk scenes. He didn’t necessarily fit in musically — “I would not say that I’m a very punk-rock person,” he says, dryly. But Shauf retained some of that punk ethos of self-sufficiency. He recorded all the instruments for The Party himself and, until this last one, all of his records had been recorded at home. He’s often compared to singer-songwriters like Paul Simon and Harry Nilsson, and his recordings have a muted 1970s AM-radio feel, full of sweetly sad melodies, delicate arrangements and subtle hooks.
For his previous full length, 2012’s The Bearer of Bad News, Shauf wrote 100 songs, 11 of which made it on to the record. For The Party (which came out last year on Anti Records), the writing process was more focused. “Those hundred songs for Bearer,” he laughs, “they’re terrible. There are so many awful songs.” This time around, although it sometimes took a little bit of force to fit all the songs into the story line, he had a better idea of where he was going. “I still have a lot of song ideas, but I know what I want to do musically and lyrically, so that just kind of helps me to stop all the bad ideas.”
Shauf has said that his story ideas come from other people’s lives, and that he shouldn’t be considered the starring role in these narratives. But he writes about these small, sometimes emotionally devastating moments in a way that feels so intimate and true-to-life, it’s hard to imagine that his own experiences don’t creep in.
And, well, they do, at least a little bit. “I write these songs and then I start recording them right away, so that kind of helps me forget what I was writing about,” he says. “And then a couple shows later I’ll be singing and I’ll [realize], ‘Oh, this is really thinly veiled, and exactly about this specific thing that happened in my life.’”
“Sometimes,” he adds, “you think you’re being so tricky with writing about characters and then you’re like, ‘Oh, wait, this isn’t even a character.’”