Not Quite Normal: Andy Shauf unites God, stalkers and strange moments on new album Norm

Audiences, by regions, have personalities. Who knew? Ontario singer/songwriter Andy Shauf, that’s who. Speaking from Fort Worth, Texas, four days into his tour as his six-piece band and their crew load into Tulips, he says audiences in Columbus, Ohio, are very midwestern and polite, and though he hasn’t yet played Philadelphia this tour – which supports the release of ninth album, Norm, on the -ANTI and Arts & Crafts labels — it’s one of the cities with “an incredible vibe.” Well, after all, it is billed as the city of brotherly love.

“Everywhere is a little bit different. (In) Nashville everyone’s a little bit more open, everyone’s a musician so they’re kind of cheering for different things than the people in Columbus would be cheering for.

“It’s the same when you go overseas; you play in Norway and you end up thinking that everybody hates you because they’re so quiet, very politely applauding, but after the set they’ll tell you how much they loved it. Everybody’s a little different everywhere. Americans are probably a little bit more open; Canadians are more polite.”

Take his word on these things. After all, Shauf, who plays all the instruments on his albums and produces them as well, has toured Europe and North America extensively for a decade and a half. Before this tour, there were weeks of rehearsal and “a lot of getting ready” to travel, which is done in style on the tour bus. “It’s nice, but living with 10 people in close quarters its different.”

Different, too, is this year’s release Norm — 12 songs that sound like a saunter through 1970s radio featuring gentle, sensitive male vocals, catchy arrangements, and sweet, skillful instrumentation, including clarinet and trombone, all played by Shauf. However, as the album progresses that saunter gets more like a slither, taking a musical turn past the cemetery as it slows down like fading heartbeats and flirts with dreamy dissonance mirroring the listener’s perceptions. 

The themes, too, at first seem like an amble through the everyday, catching a glimpse of someone in a grocery store, wishing a love interest would call, then calling them and not saying a word as you watch them hang up and close the blinds, then there’s a person lurking behind a tree, covering up their shoulder with leaves… Oh, wait. Maybe not so everyday after all as the lyrics, too, sink further below the horizon.

In fact, Norm is a pretty fucking creepy album, right down to the play on words of the title. Not much normal about this Norm guy at all, especially when a mundane drive to the Halloween Store starts with him forgetting to lock the house, locking the keys in the car, and then locking eyes with… um, himself in the rear-view mirror? God? The object of his desire, er, obsession? All tells about his stoner persona. 

As the album progresses, the music gets darker, and it seems this stoner is going to have to go to the Halloween party alone, alone because, well, what happened to that object of desire? Hmmm. It’s hard to believe the whole album came about from Shauf reading The Bible and trying to tell stories from God’s perspective. So, how does one write music this, um, interesting?

“My technique lately has been to just compile a list of the songs that I have and I’ll kind of just run down the list and fix things until I can’t really find anything left to fix. So, I’ll work on a song at the top of the list, I’ll get stuck on it, move on to the next one, (and) fix things until I can’t really figure out what to fix, and then I’ll move on. When I get to the bottom of the list, I’ll go back to the top and do the same thing kind of going through that list top to bottom until I eventually am going through all of them without finding anything to fix or change.” Whoa! No wonder the album is so dark; when he get’s to the bottom he goes back to the top of the slide! Helter Skelter, Charlie!

Shauf finds some rare songs feel right within an hour of starting to write them, while others demand months. Despite morphing into a concept album, Norm started as an unrelated batch of songs.

“They were kind of all over the map and I had this idea creep in (creep indeed!) about this guy who was kind of a stalker-esque type character and I wrote him into one song. I had this idea to keep including him, and then when I got the end of all the music and had all the arrangements the way I wanted them to be I went through all the lyrics and changed details here and there. And they all worked together in this sort of overarching narrative that has a lot of space in it.

“There’s a little bit more room for the listener to do some interpreting and it’s not all from the same point of view. I crafted it more like a puzzle this time around than a linear story.”

If you’re wondering what kind of music influences a creepy stalker God album, well: “I am honestly not the biggest music listener. I really enjoy silence. The one thing I’ve been listening to is kind of a couple of years old, it’s called, I don’t know what it’s called actually but it’s by this guy named Dijon (Baltimore’s Dijon Duenas) actually.”

One massive influence on Shauf’s musical prowess is his upbringing in a Christian family in Estevan, SK, although he later left the fold. “Yeah, I kind of decided that it wasn’t something that was really real for me, or it didn’t work the same way as it did for other people. I lived in a town that was just a Bible college, essentially, and a gas station. It was really important because there was so much music around and so much opportunity to play music. You know, I grew up playing drums on the Worship Team with my parents, and my parents would make me and my brother sing the special music at church so we’d be up in front of people singing. Yeah, it was an important part of my upbringing.”

While families often become fractious and judgemental, wishing hellfire to rain on their wayward apostate youth, Shauf has not experienced that in losing his faith. “I think it hasn’t really changed anything. I bet they wish I was still going to church but I think they understand that they wanted to raise me to be someone who thinks for myself so it hasn’t really changed anything. They’re pretty open minded and I have a lot of really good conversations with my brother who used to be a pastor and yeah, it’s an interesting dynamic but we haven’t really let it affect us in any sort of negative way.”

Sure, for now. But wait until they listen to Norm.

Andy Shauf plays March 15 at Jack Singer Concert Hall.