A conversation with Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf can be an almost as elusive enterprise as listening to his music, at least that is how it appears to me on this cold January afternoon, when I reach the artist over in Toronto via Zoom. In each, everything is about peeling off layer after layer, discovering new things on the go, never giving away too much – but in the end the journey is worth every mile you make. As for Norm, the new record of the renowned artist, it grants a bittersweet mixture of mellow indie folk delights, wrapped around a “dark story” about a weird character which is a more than pleasant ride but still leaves you puzzled and makes you want to untangle the stories told.
“I think with every release, there’s like nerves. I worked for a really long time on this record, and I kind of was able to pay attention to all the details that I wanted to and kind of make it just how I wanted it to be. So I’m excited about that, because I think I did a good job, but I’m also nervous for what people are going to think of it or if people are going to like it.”
Initiating a new cycle in his work after the post-lockdown album Wilds, Andy Shauf shares that he has been solely “working on ‘Norm’, kind of uninterrupted” ever since 2021. “I had a lot of time to devote to Norm and I had absolutely nothing going on in my life”, the songwriter remarks. And that statement comes with quite some pride rather than a confessional tone.
“When you squinted through the glass / At the moon caught in the leaves / You didn’t see / Norm” (You Didn’t See)
To approach the essence of Norm it might be crucial to admit that it doesn’t open up to you just like that, but will really demand you to get inside the stories of the album – and the musical side of it neatly mirrors that ambivalence, constantly shifting from mellow characteristics to a gloomy preset that opens op the dark design of the concept side of it.
“Norm is a story about a guy who is, I guess, kind of confused into what love is. There’s a lot with the story that I don’t want to give away. It’s a dark story… I wanted it to be a nice sounding record, but behind what’s sounding nice with it is this character, Norm, who is not a very good guy. The story is told from three different perspectives.And yeah, it’s just kind of three different perspectives of not quite understanding what love is.”
It all started with the eponymous song title then as well, quite unsurprising. However, it was not that the song that turned out to become Norm was what Andy Shauf began with. “I wrote that song Telephone and decided that that could be Norm. And I don’t know, a few months, probably later, I was, I wrote this kind of piano song and I worked on it”, Andy reconstructs. “It took me about a week of just like playing this piano melody over and over to finally get it so that my hands could actually play through the whole thing. And then the first line that I wrote for it was, ‘Oh boy, Norm'”, and the motive was born. “Initially it was like it was a song about this guy Norm who was standing in line to buy a sandwich and he like dropped money and somebody else picked it up”, he continues. “It was just this little observational song about a guy named Norm. And after, when I thought about Telephone and the character that I could use for Norm, I turned it into this song where Norm is like, it’s the afternoon and he’s kind of super tired watching this American show, ‘The Price is Right’. And he’s falling asleep and gets awakened by the voice of God telling him to stop his wicked ways.”
“All [of] the songs that I had written up to that point were often all sorts of directions and not related. I decided to sort of start turning them and putting Norm into each of them. And that’s how I kind of ended up tying them all together. But initially, that was not what I was doing.”
The Flaws Of Interpretation
Influence is always a fickle thing in creating music – how are you going to know what really gives a boost in the process of song creation? Andy Shauf’s Norm breathes that ambivalence as well, being a product of made up stories just as giving away the touch of everyday life’s bizarre coincidences, as the songwriter tells me, relating the strange story of misinterpretation while watching David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive:
“After I had figured out the character of Norm and decided to turn all the details towards this one aspect of the story, towards Norm, I was having a lot of trouble figuring out how to tie it together. And I watched Mulholland Drive. And I was watching, and at a certain point, there’s this shot of a key on a table. And I was watching, and it just stopped. And what I saw was that it was really slowly panning in on this key.And I was watching, and five minutes went by. I was like, this is the slowest zoom. This must have been crazy in the theatres. People must have been losing their minds. And after like, ten minutes or something of me just being like, this is insane. My browser crashed. And it was just the movie had frozen.”
Strange as that incident was, it gave Andy “the idea that I don’t really have to tie this story together, because people will read into it however they want to read into it. And it is, it’s written to a point where I’m satisfied with how it’s tied together”. A concept record that breaks up the very idea of concepts, going by the title of Norm? Yes, it comes down to a formula as bizarre as that. But isn’t that what fiction is all about?
“If you want to know what the actual story is, you’re going to have to look really closely.And a lot of it will be your own interpretation… It’s just that idea of not having to tie things together. I got to the end of ‘Mulholland Drive’ after I restarted it. And it’s like, I don’t know what happens in that movie. I don’t know if anyone knows exactly what [Lynch] intended the explanation to be.”
The Fictional Craft
At this point of the talk we are really at the heart of what Norm is for Andy Shauf, to present his case as a songwriter, and for that matter, a writer of stories primarily, embedded in layers of sound. He is a gifted storyteller and his new record firmly acknowledges that fact, exposing his imaginative craft and heaving it to a new level entirely.
“That’s kind of what is interesting to me about songwriting is that you don’t have to just write songs about your own life. I’ve been writing, like, fictional story songs for a long time. And people kind of interpret them as closer to my life than they actually are, which is kind of annoying, I guess, in a way. But yeah, with ‘Norm’, I was just trying to get further away from my own life. This is a scenario that I’m not familiar with. And I think for me to progress as a storyteller, I needed to move away from things that were semi-autobiographical.”
It is a strange case in songwriting that, by power of sheer assumption, songs are attributed to an auto- or at least semi-biographical relationship to the lyricist, maybe comparable to the case of poetry, when looking to solely literary creators. “I don’t know why that is”, Andy laughs. “I don’t know if it’s just that songs are often in the first person… I don’t think it should be that way.”
“When I play shows, like [for] my last album, Skyline and Wilds, they have a character named Judy in them. And people ask, ‘who’s Judy?’ all the time. And it’s like, there is no Judy. And when I say that, people seem disappointed. But it’s like, you know, I’m trying to write stories. And you seem to like the story until you realise that this wasn’t about my life, which is not that they decided that they didn’t like the story anymore. But I don’t know why it makes any difference if it’s a true story or if it’s a fictional story. I find it more interesting to write fiction because, you know, it’s more of a challenge, I would think.”
With Norm, Andy Shauf reflects, “I think I have figured out a little more what it takes to write a longer story… on this record, I realised that … for my process, I need to have it all as a chunk, and then kind of edit the different parts of it to make it work together.” It all still works as music nonetheless, and although the musician is “definitely interested” in heading for solely literary realms one day in the future, he remains an artist on the frontiers between storyteller and musician. And Norm is a splendid invitation to experience these crafts evolve a productive liaison.
“I think the process of writing ‘Norm’ made me realise that it’s something that I could actually probably get into. Because, yeah, I just didn’t realise how easy it was to actually just focus on the words and leave the music behind. They’ve always kind of gone together for me.”
Norm is out now via ANTI records.