BREAKING THE NORM
Andy Shauf Leaves Space Between Himself and His Songs
IT’S 2009. A 21-YEAR-OLD ANDY SHAUF SITS ON THE SET OF STRIPPED DOWN, a local music program based in his native Saskatchewan. He’s hiding behind a guitar with three words engraved on it: “Jesus Never Fails.” Through long, shaggy hair and nervous laughter, he explains how he’s trying to write himself out of the love song category. “But I keep writing love songs,” he shrugs.
It’s a snapshot that stands in stark contrast to the 35-yearold singer-songwriter who speaks with Exclaim! on the heels of the first two dates of his latest North American tour. This Andy Shauf has six solo albums under his belt, with seventh LP Norm out in February. His music has been shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize and his songwriting has earned the recognition of Jeff Tweedy, Barack Obama and Randy Newman, among others. He may still shrug off a statement here and there, but he holds a uniquely calm conviction. And as for that “Jesus Never Fails” messaging, though the guitar was his grandfather’s, Shauf has long since parted ways with his Christian roots.
By today’s standards, Andy Shauf is somewhat of a music industry unicorn. Successful but elusive. Prolific but private. The line between the personal and public has been blurred to a point of near-extinction for artists big and small. It’s an accepted and bemoaned reality of the music industry ecosystem — one many artists participate in actively, serving up their personal lives on a digital platter.
This has made the club of elusive artists an ever-shrinking one, and Shauf is happy to be a part of it. “I like the separation between the person and what they’ve made,” he says over the phone, speaking with a soft sincerity that comes through in conversation as much as it does through his music.
Shauf appreciates mystery from the artists he admires, and he has achieved the same for himself. If you want to know what the singer-songwriter is up to, you’d have better luck wandering the streets of Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, where his home and studio are located, than perusing online. While other artists share updates on what’s for breakfast and who’s for dessert, Shauf’s social media accounts operate like a need-to-know bulletin: tour dates, single releases, video promos, repeat.
Shauf’s apprehension around social media comes down to moderation — something the singer-songwriter says he has struggled with in a few areas of his life. During the pandemic, he quit drinking after acknowledging that it was negatively affecting his life. “I drank too much, and I couldn’t figure out when to stop,” he explains.
In the time since, he’s been leaning into self-compassion — exchanging harmful habits for healthier ones. His days now include 30-minute yoga routines and early wake-up calls to replace the late nights.
But he hasn’t completely cut the cord. “YouTube is my social media vice,” he admits. When asked for a peek into his algorithm, Shauf cites Van Neistat, a 47-year-old artist whose most popular content includes videos like “The Reality of Owning a Vintage Truck” and “Essential Travel Packing Tips.”
“I LIKE THE SEPARATION
BETWEEN THE PERSON AND WHAT THEY’VE MADE.”
“He’s a really positive person, and he kind of just gets shit done, and I like to see it,” Shauf explains. “It’s super weird though. He rips around on this motorized longboard and it’s like, I don’t know if we’d be friends. But I like his energy.”
As much as creating this distance can be healthy for an artist, elusiveness can be bad for business. “I have been very fortunate to have been sort of grandfathered in,” Shauf laughs, puzzled at his own ability to draw in new fans and retain old ones, all without adopting the industry’s paint-by-numbers approach to self-promotion.
In a way, Shauf has built a career out of furthering the divide between himself and his music. He’s gained esteem for his ability to craft conceptual albums centered around fictional characters and plotlines. We’ve peeked into the minds of tortured widows, unlawful teenagers and vengeful lovers. All the while, Andy Shauf has strategically faded into the background of his fictionalized universes.
The gulf between himself and his characters has never been wider on Norm. Named after the album’s central character, an infatuated stalker, Norm interrogates the sometimes-sinister ways that love can be misunderstood and misguided. Amidst textured, jazz-influenced grooves, Shauf masterfully builds a narrative that evolves from romantic to delusional.
The singer-songwriter presents listeners with a challenge: “[Norm] is introduced very slowly in a sort of disguised, concealed way, and the music is really sweet. Whether or not you pick up on what’s happening depends on whether or not you’re listening and if you’re paying attention.”
The album develops like a mini true crime series, perhaps a nod to Shauf’s own love for the genre. While Norm is described as the type of guy who drifts in and out of consciousness on his couch with The Price Is Right blaring in the background, Forensic Files is more likely to be streaming in Shauf’s living room. “I’ll just watch those all day.”
Over a decade into his career, Shauf has marked off many items from the industry’s success bingo card: late-night TV show appearances, international tours, accolades and endorsements from music legends. He’s found his stride, even if he’s still trying to figure out what success means to him in the long run.
“I’m aging, and there’s a thought in my mind, like, ‘Hey man — you don’t have any savings and you don’t have any backup plan,’” the 35-year-old acknowledges. “The support won’t always be there, you know, so you just kind of hope that at some point, you can get a leg up and be able to take it easy if you have to.”
For Shauf, humour helps the uncertainty go down a bit smoother. “I think the real goal is that you want to live like a successful dentist,” he suggests, citing the idea from one of Neistat’s YouTube videos.
“Whether or not I’m still doing this at 50 and living in a little apartment, that’ll still be the goal.”