In the self-contained world of Andy Shauf’s records, things are rarely what they seem. Albums like 2016’s The Party and 2020’s The Neon Skyline are filled with small moments staged between a specific cast of characters, but listen closely and you might catch a detail that will change your perspective on the entire story. However you choose to invest in them, the Canadian singer-songwriter writes intimate, affecting songs that carefully strike a balance between wistful beauty and humour. As he was working on new ones, Shauf originally thought they might not even be connected this time; it would be a more conventional collection – normal, even – thus, Norm.
Shauf’s latest album, out today via ANTI-, ended up having a lot more in common with his previous albums, sketching out scenes for his characters to figure out how their feelings relate to one another. Partly because of how the songs were conceived, however, and partly due to the influences that he was exposed to, Shauf also explored new and interesting ideas, both musically and conceptually. Some things are immediately obvious, others take time to sink in. On the surface, the songs are pleasant and hazy, but there’s something much darker lurking underneath. I can’t tell you exactly what it’s all about, and neither will he. But follow along and you’ll be rewarded with a sincere and haunting collection where each storyline ultimately comes together while still leaving things eerily open, like a dream.
We caught up with Andy Shauf to talk about the story behind every song on his new album. Read our track-by-track interview and listen to Norm below.
1. Wasted on You
I know that when you started working on the album, there wasn’t necessarily a clear link between the songs. But as you revised and tinkered with them, they started to feel like they existed in the same world. When and why did ‘Wasted on You’ feel like a fitting introduction to that world?
I wanted to include it, so I was trying to figure out how I could make it work. It was sort of a realization that I could use an omniscient narrator, and I thought it would actually be really useful in this story for a perspective to have the perspective of God in the story. Someone who sees everything, someone who knows everything about everyone. It was kind of tricky thinking about how people could come to that conclusion of, “Oh, one of the narrators is God.” For some people who aren’t familiar with like a totally cartoon Christian god, or that concept of just a Christian god, it might still be a stretch, but I thought it was kind of the best way – God just singing about what what he’s created.
I also read that you were listening to vaporwave around the making of the album, and you can hear that in some of the dreamy synth tones on this track. What was it like playing with that sound and bringing it into the universe of Norm?
There was this realization that what I really loved about vaporwave is that it kind of changes the environment that you’re in. You can be walking down the street, but you’re also in an old shopping mall in the early 2000s. What I love about recording is getting sounds, and the way that things are recorded can have such an impact on the way that you perceive that instrument, or you perceive the imagined space that you’re hearing. There’s a point with my recordings where I realized that all I was seeming to do is try to get this old kind of sound. Like on The Party, I really wanted to go for this old, LA recording sound, and then it kept going further where I was trying to get, like, old sounds. And I realized with this record I needed to get back to trying to use sounds to transport your mind to a different place – and not just the past, but kind of somewhere else. Vaporwave was a good reminder of that, and a good example of that.
2. Catch Your Eye
I wanted to bring up the symbols that you’ve put next to each track title in the lyric sheet [*, ~ , and +], which seem to mark the different narrative perspectives. I also noticed that in the lyrics themselves, you use the lowercase “i” for for all songs except those sung from the perspective of this omniscient narrator. “My” is capitalised on ‘Wasted on You’ as well. Is that another hint for the listener?
Yeah, because I was trying to play with the idea of, there’s a divine “I” and a divine “My” or whatever, and the rest is just human.
With this song, you start to hear the sinister element of the story creeping in, even though the details are still unclear. Was that aspect of the song present when you originally came up with it?
When I initially wrote this song, the lyrics were a little bit different, but there was still an eerie element to it. It was kind of early on that I wrote the song ‘Telephone’, and that gave me the idea for this character that could be what ties the record together. But I was writing from the same place of toying with this idea of something sounding really romantic, but there’s this sinister element to it.
‘Telephone’ clings to the same kind of obsessive yearning, and I thought it was interesting that it follows ‘Catch Your Eye’, but rather than focusing on the gaze, it’s more about hearing the other person’s voice. How close together were the two songs written?
Those songs were written, I’m not sure how close together, but probably pretty close. Even musically, they’re very similar and melody-based. But what I wanted to do with those two songs was just – they are seemingly very romantic, but over the course of those two songs, you maybe realize that something’s a bit off. But if you really listen closely to the whole of those two songs, by the end of them, you’ll know that something’s off.
Like you said, musically, they’re similar, but they also both have have unusual endings. Instead of ending abruptly or in a traditional way, they float around a bit kind of uneasily.
Yeah, it was kind of just playing with the music and trying to make them, not tie together, but continue to flow. There’s the element to ‘Catch Your Eye’ where there’s these pitch-shifted harmonies, and I wanted it to sound really romantic, and then it’s like there’s a serious darkness. It’s a very cartoony demon voice to have this pitch-shifted voice, you have that weird weight to it, and you’re kind of floating through to what might seem to be a romantic place, but it has something wrong with it.
I love the line “I would live on the telephone if I was/ Listening to you talk about your day,” and specifically the phrase “I would live on the telephone,” because it’s just over-the-top enough for you to realize there’s something wrong.
Yeah, it’s desperate. It’s everything, you know – to live is all that you have. It puts way too much importance on something.
4. You Didn’t See
This is the first time that we hear the name Norm, and I love the emphasis that it’s given with the stacked vocals and the melody shifting. Does the name have any particular significance for you in the context of the record?
The reason why I chose the name Norm was because when I started writing the record, my idea was to make a normal record. And I thought I’ll call it norm, and it will just be a totally normal record where there’s twelve unrelated songs or whatever. As I wrote it, when I got to ‘Telephone’, there was the idea that this could be a character, Norm. And I just continued to write it as a normal collection of songs, but eventually I did decide to go that route and make Norm an actual person.
Was it then that that final line on ‘You Didn’t See’ was added? So you had the song and decided that’s a good point to introduce the name?
‘You Didn’t See’ was probably the second last song that I made. I probably had 10 songs total, and I thought I can make this a concept about Norm. I got rid of some ideas that weren’t close enough to tie the lyrics in and added a couple specific ones to help guide the narrative a little bit more closely. So ‘You Didn’t See’ is a very utilitarian song where I needed to have a certain perspective recognizing that things were going sideways, and explain that perspective’s involvement to a certain extent.
Nicholas Olson is credited as a story editor on the album. What was that process like of having an outside perspective helping you organize the songs?
I worked with Nick kind of after I had the full idea of the story and the structure. It was at the end that I wasn’t sure if it was translating from what I’d written to what someone would perceive from it, so it was sending it to Nick and telling him nothing about it at all and asking what he was picking up from it. It was kind of a back-and-forth of a few different times until I thought that he was interpreting it how I wanted it to be interpreted.
5. Paradise Cinema
By this point, it’s clear that Norm is someone who’s enchanted by the possibility of romance. I was wondering if there’s a reason you chose the movie theater as a significant setting in the narrative where that could be pursued.
I don’t know, it just happened naturally. Maybe the the music of it had me kind of picturing a cinema or something. As I was writing the second verse, it was like, “Oh, they’re walking to a theater, and Norm is watching.” But I think it was mostly because of the perspective of a cinema. If you’re going to a movie, you’re watching the screen, and you’re not really aware of what’s happening around you. You’re not really looking around the room and seeing who’s there. It’s something that you experience alone, if you’re going to a movie alone; if you’re going to a movie with friends, you’re also experiencing experiencing it alone because it’s not a social event. So it’s unusual that Norm is sitting three rows behind this person who’s just walked to the theater.
You’ve mentioned David Lynch as being in some way an inspiration to the album. Even if it’s not a direct influence, I think the strange dreaminess of it would still remind me of David Lynch. Can you talk about how non-musical inspirations like that fed into the storytelling aspect of the record?
I think in general, I love when a story has a sort of surreal element to it, and when there is room for interpretation. The actual David Lynch influence on the story was not really from his story, it was from my really coincidental funny interpretation of something that wasn’t intended to happen at all. And it was at a point where I was really struggling with how I was going to tie the story together, and how I was gonna make it clear to the listener what happened. And it’s just a reminder that space in a story is really important. I’m not so familiar with David Lynch, I’ve seen Twin Peaks and Mullholand Drive and maybe some other stuff. But I just love that there’s so much space and room for interpretation, and everything about it is intentional, but it’s not overly spelled out for you. I think that’s really important.
The coincidence you’re referring to is that the screen froze while you were watching one of his films?
Yeah, I watched it frozen for like 5 to 10 minutes, thinking, How did he do this? I thought it was panning in really slowly. And when it crashed I was like, “Oh my god, I’m a moron.” It froze on a key sitting on a table, and it seemed so intentional. I was like, “This is genius.”
I just wanted to confirm that was true. Things in press materials are sometimes exaggerated, so I thought maybe it wasn’t 5 to 10 minutes, maybe it was like one.
It was embarrassingly long. [laughs]
When you came up with ‘Norm’, how did it work with the other songs that you had at the time?
When I initially wrote it, I just had the idea for the album being called Norm. This might have even been before ‘Telephone’. But the song initially was about this person standing in line to buy a sandwich and dropping money, and someone else picked up the money and pocketed it. But I was really unhappy with the chorus of it, so I kept the song to the side for a long time. And then there was a point where I realized that in any good story involving God, there needed to be like an interjection – it’s sort of the point where God is reaching out to Norm, telling him that he’s aware of what’s going on. But at the same time, it’s just Norm being lazy and falling asleep watching TV.
That omniscient perspective isn’t so veiled anymore, especially with the line, “I speak into his dream, ‘Stop these wicked ways and I will lead you to the promised land.’”
Yeah, but I think there’s a haziness to it where, if somebody’s already lost in the narrative and not sure what’s going on, they might just be confused and think Norm’s having like a weird dream, like when you wake up and you think you hear something. That was kind of the the intent, where Norm’s laying sideways and half-dreaming until he’s not sure if he’s dreaming anymore.
7. Halloween Store
Like the movie theater, the Halloween store is another place where horror and fantasy become part of our everyday lives in a strange way. It’s funny how mundane the subject of the song seems to be at first – kind of like what you were describing with the origins of ‘Norm’ – but then it finally has that eerie twist.
Yeah, this song was from a batch of songs where I was trying to make a disco record, and it was horrible. But I had this song, and it was funny at the start, this mundane occurrence in this person’s life. I kept rewriting it and trying to figure out what I was going to do with it, and it just seemed like the perfect place for this chance encounter it to happen. There is that element of, Halloween stores are kind of dark places – for economic reasons, and also they’re kind of scary. When you’re a kid, especially, some of the costumes scare you, but the vibe is just scary in general. It’s like desperate capitalism or something.
You grow up and you realize it’s a different kind of scary.
Yeah, exactly. It’s a very light song, but it’s the beginning of the real darkness of the record.
This changes our perspective of the narrator again, but the interesting thing to me is that we don’t get the sense that he’s deceiving us or manipulating the listener – even if they’re in a state of delusion, they’re still being earnest. When you were crafting the album, were you conscious of how the listener might relate to the characters and Norm specifically, and how to keep their interest engaged?
It’s interesting because there are songs on the record that are narrated by Norm – the thing that was tricky with it is you need the tone to be consistent. And so a lot of the earlier songs that are narrated by Norm, you’re with him, you can relate to him, there’s a certain darkness to it. But on ‘Sunset’, the darkness goes too far. And so you are with them and you are relating to him, and when things start to go farther than you can relate to, the tone has to say the same. It’s an uncomfortable song, and I think if people are with it and relating to Norm, it’s going to be a part of the story where they go, “I’m out.” Because he is a relatable character, and I think that’s the thing about evil people – they can still be likable.
9. Daylight Dreaming
As the tension heightens and the music gets heavier, we’re introduced to this new voice that’s relaying the scene from a different perspective. What led to that decision at this point in the story?
This was the part of the story that I wasn’t sure how I was going to achieve what I wanted to achieve, which was making the story make sense in general. Because there is an element to this song where the way that character that Norm is pursuing and Norm end up in the same… vehicle? [laughs] I don’t know how specific to be, I guess it’s up to you. But I wasn’t sure how to make it so that it made sense why this person ended up in Norm’s car, essentially. There was a thought that I could show this from the perspective of the first song, but I thought that it would be important to introduce a third perspective, because there is an element of chance to it. And there’s an element of: Life is a lot of moving parts, and everything that happens to you happens to you because a lot of other things happens to other people. It’s not as simple as: I want something, and I get something. It’s: I want something, and it happened that everyone else wanted something, and so I got something.
The event is presented as something that happened serendipitously, but you’re also kind of playing God, as a songwriter, in order to make it work.
Yeah, it’s kind of like, “I have a problem, now I need to solve it.” With this perspective, there’s an element of selfishness, and that was kind of the theme of the record: a one-sided, selfish love where it’s not love, but it’s being called that. It has more to do with what one person wants than what two people have or what many people have. So this song is someone fighting their urge to act impulsively – trying to fight the urge, asking maybe God for help to fight the urge to do this thing that they’ve done before and has never caused harm, but this time it’s both within their control and outside of it, what’s gonna happen.
10. Long Throw
‘Long Throw’ continues the thread of this voice, but I think it’s interesting when you compare it to ‘Telephone’ as well, because it’s describing a similar situation someone is waiting for the phone to ring, but this time we have a better idea of why the other person isn’t responding.
That one went through a lot of lyrical changes, because I’m sure it was written musically around the same time as ‘Telephone’, but it’s a very ambiguous song. Essentially, it’s about a Halloween party, but it’s the other side of ‘Telephone’, in a way. Where ‘Telephone’ is maybe someone longing to be on the telephone, ‘Long Throw’ is someone who is dreading – needing their phone to buzz and show that this person is getting back to them. There’s an element of urgency to it, but also avoidance, where this person is worried and this person is going somewhere to find someone, and they were not invited. Originally, I wrote the song as someone being at this party and wanting the person to arrive and wanting the person to be watching. And as the story went on, it started to sit at the end of the album where the person wants the person to arrive, but the person is so frustrated that they are going to throw their phone or something.
11. Don’t Let It Get to You
I love the synth here, because it almost sounds to me like the character calling from the other side. Do you remember toying with that arrangement?
I have a real history with really concise arrangements and tying things together too much and being too neat, in my opinion. With this song, the synth melody and the way that the filter opens up and closes, it’s probably something that can’t be totally recreated. It was spontaneous and very open and meandering I little bit. And I liked that element of it, where it’s taking up a lot of space, but it’s not even sure what it’s doing, and it’s kind of just doing what it’s doing by chance.
12. All My Love
You mentioned tying things neatly in a musical sense, and I feel like with this song, instead of clearing up the story, you bring all the voices together. That’s signaled by having all the symbols together, and lyrically you’re circling back to the first song, too. What stuck out to me is how it puts the weight of the whole album onto this feeling of regret, or wasted love, which has been at the heart of a lot of your music in the past. How much do you think the characters on Norm have in common with characters you’ve written before, or even with each other? And why do you think it’s that shade of love that’s reinforced in the end?
I think they probably have a lot in common with past characters, and each other as well. A lot of my record The Party is about misplaced love or misplaced affection, and Neon Skyline is an old love where it’s returned and it’s different, and it doesn’t work in the new context, or people change. And this record, I think all the characters are misunderstanding what love is. I think in all of us, there is that tendency to misunderstand that, and to try and understand it and keep it and try to make it work. I don’t know, I write a lot of love-adjacent songs, and these are exploring a different and darker part of that misunderstanding of love. And they all kind of come together in this last song, where it’s the repetition of what they’ve all been asking the whole time.
Bringing out this darker side of it, but also bringing it to a different scale, right? Because you have this omniscient perspective, or God, the question “Was all my love wasted on you?” takes on a whole new resonance. Was there an element of risk to that?
It feels risky in in certain ways. I’m not trying to make a comment on God, necessarily. I think there are a lot of problems with the way that people make God and understand God or understand the concept of God, or put their own spin on belief. It felt risky in a way, including God, because of the way that people will perceive that I’m talking about God, or perceive that I’m talking about their God. And I’m not, necessarily – I’m just talking about, you know, I’ve created a little Norm universe where there is an overseer, and they have an imperfect understanding of this love that they have created. I think it’s the same way in our world, where people believe in a God but don’t have the capacity to understand anything outside of their own perspective, to a certain extent; you’re gonna put on God what you are able to understand can be put on God, or you’re going to make a large, beautiful thing into what you can understand of it. And that is going to be imperfect, and you’re going to spread that. There is a risky feeling to it, but I think writing about big things – you can only really write about small things and put them all together into a bigger concept.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.