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First Play: Andy Shauf, The Party plus track-by-track guide

Holly Gordon

"I’m sure that there are some great times being had at this party, but I didn’t write about any of them. I just wrote about the bad times," says Andy Shauf, laughing over the phone from Sweden, where he’s touring his upcoming album, The Party. It'll be Shauf's debut on labels Arts & Crafts and Anti-, and you can stream it above one week in advance.

The Party isn't a concept album, the Regina songwriter assures, and is instead a set of vignettes that loosely relate to one another: all the characters are attending the same party, but that's about it. There’s the woman who is (awkwardly) the first to show up (“Early to the Party”), a guy who thinks his girlfriend is cheating on him (“The Worst in You”) and someone who dies while having a smoke outside (“Alexander All Alone”).

"It’s a bit of a mess," concludes Shauf.

While his characters may be in a disorganized heap of broken hearts on the party floor, the composition on The Party is meticulously orchestrated.

Shauf originally started work on the album a couple of years ago in Germany, only to return home, scrap it and start again. He then spent a year of his non-touring time recording the album in CBC Regina’s Studio One, counting hours on his own perfecting each instrument and recording solo.

"Working alone is kind of the easiest way for me to end up with something that I’m happy with," Shauf explains. "Just because when I record, if I’m recording a drum part, I’ll probably sit there for four hours or something trying to get it right and trying to figure out the little details that I want to have happen in the part. Same with all the other instruments. It’s just easiest to do it alone because if someone else is there they can get impatient or cranky or someone needs to eat something and I just wanna keep going."

The only sounds Shauf didn’t create himself were the strings, which musician Colin Nealis added ("the violins and violas and cellos").

The result is a folk record so lush it feels as though Shauf made a feature film, providing settings, characters and colour to fill out a full motion picture with just 10 songs. Dipping into '60s pop melodies, it’s easy to see yourself slow-dancing to The Party while closing out your own messy gathering.

When we caught up with Shauf over the phone in Sweden — where he had just finished a tour opening for the Lumineers — we asked him to give a track-by-track guide to The Party. Read his answers below.

'The Magician'

"'The Magician' was one of the first ones I wrote for the album so I didn’t quite have a theme or anything yet. And so I wrote that song and it just started out as a really sparse piano-and-voice song about just kind of feeling lost and not really knowing what was coming next or what I was gonna do next. Then it ended up not as a piano-and-voice song at all. It took a lot of different versions ... and now it’s a big mess — collage — of different ideas [laughs]."

'Early to the Party'

"Right before we went to Germany, I was panicking. Like you know, I don’t have enough songs [to go on tour], so over ... Christmas I went to my brother’s church and kind of came up with an idea for that song and it was just based off someone showing up to a party super early and kind of being a little bit of a burden on the people trying to get ready. There’s nothing like knowing you’re way too early. There’s no feeling quite like that."

'Twist Your Ankle'

"'Twist Your Ankle,' that’s also an early one, it was kind of just about a really bad night I had, just one of those really messy nights where you feel like you humiliated yourself even though it’s mostly just in your head. Yeah, that one started out as, like, a really ’70s, wholesome piano song, and it stayed that way right up until the very end and then I changed it at the last moment to be more of a guitar song."

'Quite Like You'

"I think that’s probably one of the first songs I wrote with the intent of it being a themed album, so it’s got three characters: there’s a narrator and then this guy Jeremy and his girlfriend, Sherry, and so Sherry I guess is the person who shows up at the party super early. She’s kind of upset and Jeremy is kind of ignoring her and she’s not having a good time. So the narrator goes and tries to cheer her up but then kind of ends up hitting on her, and so he’s got some sort of motive that he didn’t even know he had. It’s a bit of a mess [laughs]."

'Begin Again'

"I guess Jeremy is telling the narrator — I don’t know if it’s the same guy as in the last song; this album is kind of, it’s loose — so Jeremy’s kind of telling this narrator that he’s cheating on Sherry and the chorus is just the narrator imagining the world is ending. So this news for him — that Jeremy’s cheating on Sherry — and he’s cheating with the girl that the [narrator] likes. And just hearing that news is kind of shattering for him. And that was probably, well that was the last song that I wrote for the album, the first time I thought it was done. So I wrote this one in Studio One. I thought it was the last piece, but it wasn’t." 

'The Worst in You'

"I was actually writing ‘To You’ at the time, and that one took, like, three or four days trying to get the arrangement right, and [on] ‘Worst in You,’ I just started playing guitar because I was getting kind of annoyed with myself, and started writing that one about just feeling jealous or just looking for problems where there aren’t problems. So this guy goes out for a smoke and can’t find his lighter, so he goes back into the party to go find his girlfriend who has his lighter, and he thinks he hears her laughing upstairs and walks upstairs and there’s just closed doors so he figures she’s doing something she shouldn’t be doing."

'To You'

"That was a piano song that I wrote the music [for], or half of the music, when I was touring in Europe. We were staying in the Hague in the Netherlands, and there’s a piano so I sat down with that and made the music for that. That one’s a song about a guy just being, I don’t know, he’s a little bit drunk at the party and he decides that it’s a really good moment to tell his friend that he loves him, and his friend kind of just laughs at him so, yeah. Another really happy song."

'Eyes of Them All'

"That one went through a lot of changes. I never actually came up with lyrics for it for a long time, and then I was gonna scrap it from the album, decided that I didn’t like it, and then really late in the game, after everything else was finished, I decided to redo that song and I wrote new lyrics for it and changed the key of the song and changed the feel of it. So, God, I can’t even remember the lyrics for that song. We haven’t learned that one so we haven’t been playing it. That one’s just kind of about a guy talking to a girl outside and then I think he kind of just falls into believing that he could love this girl that he’s talking to, and it’s just about her, yeah, she’s just dancing and he’s kind of watching her."

'Alexander All Alone'

"'That started out as the grunge song in the batch of songs. It used to be a pretty straight-ahead, guitar-rockin’ song, and now it’s kind of a weird, shakery, I don’t know. I always think of it as a jungle beat or something, but it’s not [laughs]. That one’s about a guy going out to have a cigarette by himself and sits down, starts smoking and stands up and stretches and falls down and he’s dead. And the neighbour sees him and they call the ambulance but he’s gone and he just gets trapped in his body. He’s in there, but he’s dead. So yeah, you know, your regular party happening."

'Martha Sways'

"'Martha Sways' was the second song that I wrote in this batch of songs and it’s about a guy and a girl just kind of dancing to the radio. I think it’s probably at the end of the night, just the two of them. I kind of wrote it just about — there’s a darkness that can kind of take over when you’re drinking and you kind of lose yourself, or you can lose yourself. Yeah. That was a song that went through many different versions. There was like a ’60s piano-pop version of it that I really liked, and another band version and there was an electric guitar version and a piano version and a really weird version that had the chorus come in with this club beat that was really a strange place to take it, and then it ended up just being kind of the first version that I ever made of it, is what made it on the record."