“I like to keep my world small” Andy Shauf laughs. Why? “Maybe I don’t have the capacity for a lot.” From a big fish in a small pond, to the larger lake that is Toronto, Shauf says he likes to make the lake feel small. In this case, he’s referring to the couple block radius of the city that helped inspire his new album, The Neon Skyline, a romantic homage to a beloved diner in a rapidly gentrifying Parkdale. It makes sense that Shauf likes to focus in. Small moments are the singer songwriter’s specialty as his lyrics often find magnificence in the mundane, focusing on tiny memorable moments over a single night.
“The Skyline reopened right when I moved to Toronto and I ended up going there a lot.” It’s close to his home in Parkdale and Shauf quickly became a regular, making friends with the owners and staff and falling for the diner’s little community. “I come from small town Regina and I’ve turned Toronto into a tiny place for myself. I only walk a few blocks. One main street to one main street. If I go anywhere else I feel like I’m traveling to a different city. When I go up to Bloor I’m like ‘Oh my God where am I?’
First opening in 1965, The Skyline is the namesake and centrepiece of an album that follows the narrator through the events of a single night and the memories that come to mind as an old flame returns to town, leaving lingering sparks in old haunts. “I was pretty much splitting my time writing and drinking at the Skyline. It’s just writing about those small details. You make a lot of acquaintances when you’re a regular at a bar. People work all day and then they go drink. The small things that happen when you’re wasting time I guess.” When Shauf finished writing The Neon Skyline at first he worried about a lack of plot, “but it’s just a bunch of really small things and I feel that that’s like life. Nothing really happens. It’s all just tiny tiny things that you attach weight to, or don’t.”
It’s these slowed down soft moments and charming conversational quotes that lend to Shauf’s intimate lyrical style. “I think I tuck things away and remember things so eventually they’ll make their way into a song… or they won’t… Like there’s a song about reincarnation on the album.” Shauf is speaking of “Dust Kids” a delicate romantic cut, both grounded and starry-eyed, that reminds one of how that post-heartbreak feeling can be compared to some kind of purgatory. “I read this book and then every time I would meet up for drinks with people I would tell them about this book, kind of obnoxiously.”
The Neon Skyline indeed reflects the inner narratives we project and how the characters we portray intermingle within our community. With Shauf these exchanges act as lyrical inspiration. He’ll start writing a guitar part singing “throw away things” until “one of those little moments” sneaks back up into his focus. “I think that the small details are how you get to know people —It’s how I get to know the characters that I’m trying to write about. The small things that make the biggest impact.”
Relationships, and the outcome of those relationships, formed with acquaintances has always been something that Shauf’s found intriguing.“I think it’s interesting in that sort of scenario when you are getting to know someone just by the small little pieces of themselves that they’ll give up every once in a while. There’s no real reason why you know them, but you can get a little glimpse into their life. I like that. It’s hard to just get to know someone for me so when you get to know someone really small pieces at a time… You can build some really interesting relationships that way… or not at all.”
Compared to Shauf’s Polaris Prize short-listed record The Party, the mood of The Neon Skyline is slightly more subdued and vulnerable. The shift in tone wasn’t conscious but the concept more so was. “With both albums it was pretty close to what my life was like at the time of writing… [The] Party was more ‘Oh these songs are kind of about parties maybe I’ll keep writing in that direction.’ But this one I knew I wanted to make a concept record from the start of it. It was more intentional.
That said there was no detective red string type board, he remembers. “When I started I wanted it to be like ‘I planned this out really well and I know exactly what’s going to happen.” but it did not work that way. It was more writing as I went and coming to dead ends and having to scrap songs. It was kind of a mess. Maybe next time I’ll have an outline.”
It wasn’t until the end of the album making process (Shauf wrote, performed, arranged and produced the album himself) that the record’s echo of patterns repeating themselves became clear to the artist. “A lot of the things I write I don’t really realize until after…. I think I’m being sneaky a lot of the time like, ‘Oh this isn’t about me,’ but then it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, this totally is.”
Indeed the work is vulnerable and relatable with the record’s narrator remarking “Sometimes I feel like I should never speak again.” How does the humble writer feel about releasing such personal work? “Whenever I finish a record there’s at least a two-week to two-month period where I’m like ‘This is a huge mistake.’ I’m kind of coming out of that…Seeing how people react to [The Neon Skyline] makes me feel a little bit better…Sometimes when you’re close to it you feel like ‘Oh my God this is on the nose.’ It’s embarrassing.” Not at all. In fact we beg to differ.
With many understandable comparisons of his work to that of Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell, Shauf is at the top of his game and has created a new Canadian classic that feels like an old friend. It’s no wonder there was a line-up outside The Skyline for the album’s listening party, an event of ease full of laughs and smiles. Andy stood quietly by the bar as fans approached, asking him to sign their vinyls, which were being sold as the diner played them over the speaker, an enthusiastic yet polite applause followed each track. A waiter compliments Shauf on a song’s bass line while clearing tables as regulars outside were boggled and confused as to why their local was so busy. Fellow music fans and industry acquaintances caught up over cold ones as the hospitable owners and servers juggled us all with grace. Shuaf’s new album played the perfect soundtrack to run into friends old and new, and maybe even a past lover. It was the kind of night the record is exactly about.
In album cut “Living Room” the song’s narrator asks How hard is it to give a shit? to which when asked Shauf replied, “I think pretty hard… I don’t really give a shit about that much…I just wanna write songs. That’s it. Just leave me in my tiny pond to write songs.” Shauf is only slightly worried about turning too many people on to his local lily pad that is The Skyline’s. “I’m a little scared. That’s my quiet bar. I hope that people go there but I also hope that I can still go there.”