Festival Heartstrings Interview

Storied Shauf: An Interview with Andy Shauf at Newport Folk Festival

At 11:05 AM on Saturday, July 25th, Andy Shauf took the Alex & Ani Harbor Stage. It was his his first performance at Newport Folk Festival, and also the first performance of the day. As he readied himself for his first song, he confessed to the crowd that he was nervous. They responded with a supportive round of enthusiastic applause, only to prompt Andy to say “you’re making it worse!” The crowd laughed and applauded some more. What followed was a stunning performance. We sat down with Andy three hours later at a picnic table inside Fort Adams, just beyond the festival’s main stage (The Fort Stage). What the audiences didn’t know, was that the musician who stood in front of them on the Harbor stage, was as candid and forthcoming as the man I met one-on-one inside the Fort. Despite his declaration of nervousness, I found him to have a calm, quiet demeanor, a dry humor and wit, and to be attentively engaged in what was clearly an exciting and wonderful day in his life.

What was it that built up that vision of Newport?

The legacy.

What does it feel like to be on stage for the first time here?

I was nervous, for sure. I was expecting it to be scary and intimidating because there is so much history, but it was nice. People really listened and I just felt very welcome.

What were you doing the days leading up to Newport?

I had a couple of days off before this, so I flew back to Toronto, got on a plane, left my band and came here by myself. So, I definitely built up my nerves. It kind of felt like any other show until a couple of days ago when I was like,

Oh man, I have to get in shape here. This is going to happen (laughs).

Photo: Lauren Jahoda

If you had your band with you, would it have been a completely different experience?

Yeah, because I haven’t really been playing solo lately. We’ve been touring since January with not much time off, so it would have been simpler almost to play with the band.

Did you practice or rehearse, or did you just detox prior to coming here?

I practiced a little bit because I was playing a bunch of songs I don’t normally play, or haven’t been playing this year, so a little bit of rehearsal, a little bit of psyching myself out (laughs).

What is your songwriting process?

I kind of have to be alone, and feel like no one’s going to walk in. I usually just play around with some musical idea, get a lyric going that can give me an idea for a story. Lately I’ve been writing in a studio that’s in the CBC in Regina. It’s in an office building pretty much. I have a key and I can access it, and when I’m in there, no one else is in there and I feel like no one is going to walk in. So I have to feel comfortable to write. I live with a bunch of roommates, so I rarely write at home. Lots of people talk about writing on the road and that’s not how I do things (laughs). I kind of have to be fully devoted mentally and I guess physically as well. The space has to be right. Yeah. I just can’t sit down on the grass and write a song.

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Photo: Lauren Jahoda

Is there anyone you are especially excited to see perform?

I’m excited to see Jose Gonzalez play.

Your songs tell beautiful and intricate stories, and I think people can get easily attached to the characters, but there’s also a level of mystery involved. You reveal a lot, but also keep a lot in. Is this purposeful? How do these stories and characters develop?

The characters usually develop on the fly. Due to the nature of being limited by time and a certain number of words that I can use, I have to pick what things I want to show and what things it doesn’t make sense to. I always end up with things I want to add about the person, or situations that could happen, but it just doesn’t seem important so I can kind of scale it down to what needs to be there in order for the character to be clear.

Can you tell me more specifically about writing “Wendell Walker”?

That song is about a guy, two friends in the winter time and one is married. They get married really young and become unhappy, and the narrator has an affair with Wendell’s wife. That song was a weird one because usually it takes a lot of editing, going back and taking out words, and adding things, but that one came out all in one line in a couple of hours.

How did you come up with the title?

That was probably the first line I came up with…Wendell Walker was a friend of mine. It just sounded like a cool name. I feel like I write a little too often using alliteration with people’s names (laughs). When I started writing story songs or songs with characters in them, that was my favorite part…coming up with their names. I got really into Randy Newman. He writes narratives. I really like how he can write and give you a really vivid picture of a situation within two minutes, or within 30 words. That’s how I got really into that. Before I started writing narrative songs, I was just writing love songs (laughs).

How old were you when you wrote your first song?

The very first song I wrote was when I was maybe 6 or 7. My dad helped me write the music and I wrote the lyrics. He’s a singer. He used to write songs but then he had us kids (laughs).

How does your dad feel about what’s happening to your music career?

He’s really supportive. I think for him it was always something he wanted to do and pursue, so he’s really supportive. He’s bailed me out a lot of times financially, so he’s behind me. He’s in a quartet, and they’ve been on tour this week.

What do you do when you’re not doing music?

One of my roommates is really into…we’re musician nerds…so he really wants to get better at every sport. So, we’ve been playing a lot of baseball, football, he bought tennis rackets a couple of weeks ago so we tried to play tennis. Hockey in the winter because we have a rink by our house. We go there at night, drink some beers, shoot some pucks. So sports (laughs).

Any secret talents?

I’m okay at hockey. That’s a secret talent, I guess (laughs). I’m really bad at every single video game, so that’s one thing that I’m really not good at (laughs).

A secret non-talent (laughs).

Last question — can you tell me a lyrics or a quote that bears special meaning and stays with you?

I’ll just say my favorite line in a song. Randy Newman has a song called “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” There’s a line: “Tin can at my feet, think I’ll kick it down the street, that’s the way to treat a friend.” That line blows my mind. It’s just so alive with imagery.

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