Hometown: Regina, Saskatchewan.
The lineup: Andy Shauf (vocals, instruments).
The background: Shauf belongs to that category of gentle, breathy-voiced cult singer-songwriters, mainly American, who specialise in wan, waspish tales of marginalised characters and their bittersweet love lives. So if you like Elliott Smith, Joe Pernice, Andrew Morgan, Kevin Tihista or the Aluminium Group, then you’ll love this Canadian purveyor of melodic chamber-pop. His music is richly textured but recorded on the cheap – often in his parents’ basement in the wild prairies of Saskatchewan. He’s already released a couple of albums, issued on tiny Canadian labels with no distribution in Europe, but this could be his moment. He has just signed to ANTI-, home to Tom Waits, Wilco and Neko Case, and he’s every bit as impressive as, say, Tobias Jesso Jr. He’s touring the UK in April and May with the Lumineers, although we won’t hold that against him.
His most recent album – 2015’s The Bearer of Bad News, some of which you can hear above – was widely acclaimed online. “An appropriately titled collection of mostly grim tales about small-town drug addicts, murderous lovers and other weary underachievers,” said one blog, neglecting to mention that, however ugly their protagonists, the tunes were never less than DIY-ishly lush and lovely. Its title – and those of its two predecessors, Waiting for the Sun to Leave and Darker Days – says plenty about Shauf’s only-happy-when-it-rains persona. He hasn’t always been a wistful balladeer, having played in various emo and punk bands. It was only after discovering Elliott Smith – and realising that he could master multiple instruments, including guitar, piano, drums and clarinet – that he became the bearer of dark days, dying suns and Bad News.
On his terrific new album, The Party, he handled all instrumental duties with the exception of the strings, which heighten the sense of melancholy melodrama. Shauf’s writing has been described as cinematic, but if anything his music would work best soundtracking a grimly funny TV drama like Girls. It features a cast of dismal walk-on parts such as the fool “in the kitchen, stressing out the host” on Early to the Party, “the halfwit spilling his guts out” on Begin Again, or the self-serving type slagging his best friend as a way of endearing himself to his freshly dumped ex on Quite Like You. As concept albums about a party and the after-party go, think the Weeknd’s House of Balloons, only instead of glamorous debauchees it’s stoner losers. But it’s so tightly narrated and beautifully observed that you warm to them all. The wonkily resonant piano, pattering drums, fuzzed-out and acoustic guitars, clarinets and swelling strings seem to pursue each character from room to room, mocking their pathetic situations. At times the budget grandeur posits Shauf as a sort of indie Burt Bacharach: don’t be fooled by the chintzy synths and general thrift-store appearance. He can go either way, though. One track, Martha Sways, injects notes of dissonance – off-kilter violins, random stabs of piano – that will be familiar to fans of Big Star’s Sister Lovers. Then again, a lot of these songs have the warm, easy-listening appeal of the hippest mainstream 70s songwriters, up to and including Nilsson, while reclaiming aspects of the cheesiest.
The Rupert Holmes revival starts here.
The buzz: “The kind of artist that makes you upset it took so long for their music to reach your ears.”
The truth: It’s his Party and he’ll make you cry if he wants to.
Most likely to: Drink to forget.
Least likely to: Drink piña colada.
What to buy: The Party is released by ANTI- on 20 May.
File next to: Kevin Tihista, Joe Pernice, Andrew Morgan, Jens Lekman.
Links: Andy Shauf.
Ones to watch: The Night Cafe, Ekkoes, Sego, Meeting by Chance, Camp Claude.