For all the fun they are supposed to represent, few social interactions are as potentially fraught as a party. What if you show up too early? What if no one else comes? What if you have a few drinks too many and make an ass of yourself?
They’re among the possibilities that Andy Shauf explores on his new album, The Party. The Canadian singer’s Anti- debut is a collection of smart, subtle pop songs overflowing with artful hooks and deft lyrics that capture one awkward party moment after another through characters fueled by a mix of booze, longing and, for some of them, the looming specter of regret, whether for talking smack about a friend while hitting on his ex on “Quite Like You,” seeking comfort in the arms of someone who looks like your ex on “Martha Sways” or simply being in the way while the host is getting things ready on “Early to the Party.”
“Most of the characters in this are drunk, so it’s kind of a drunk lens, which can be telling,” Shauf says by phone from Brussels, in the midst of a European tour. “People feel like they can really be themselves when they’ve had a few drinks, or they can really not be themselves.”
Some of the album is drawn on the singer’s own experience at parties, though only to a point. “I can become quite a party animal, but by nature, I’m pretty quiet, reserved. Shy, I guess,” Shauf says. “Most of the things that happen to the characters aren’t things that specifically happened to me, but they’re familiar. It’s pretty easy to imagine the scenarios that happen.”
Like any good party, Shauf’s third full-length album took a lot of planning—so much so that he did a dry run first, recording a version of The Party with a full band in Germany. “My original idea was to make a ’70s L.A. pop album, sounding like Steely Dan or something like that,” he says. “And I finished it, and it did, but I didn’t really like it.”
Working in an unfamiliar studio, and collaborating with other musicians instead of playing all the parts himself, resulted in “all these weird, crisp sounds that I wasn’t happy with,” he says. “I thought I could do a better job recording it.”
After the sessions in Germany, Shauf, 29, returned home to Regina, Saskatchewan, and channeled his dissatisfaction into reworking some songs, writing a few new ones and then recording the album a second time, playing most of the instruments himself at local studio. “Walking around for hours on end in a room with a laptop, trying to come up with arrangements: that’s my idea of a good time,” Shauf says, deadpan, but not joking.
All he kept from the sessions in Germany was a string arrangement at the start of “Early to the Party,” says Colin Nealis, a friend and member of Shauf’s touring band, who wrote the arrangement. “Over the course of the 10 days, I think we all realized that Andy is best at basically every instrument,” Nealis says of recording with Shauf in Germany. “He gets the right aesthetic, he gets exactly what he wants for touch and feel. I’m fortunate that I play instruments that he doesn’t really play, and he developed sort of a trust with me and felt that he could ask me to play the way he wanted me to.”
Once Shauf re-recorded The Party, he called Nealis to write new string arrangements on several of the new versions. “It was rather easy, because it was very intuitive where strings should go,” Nealis says. “The nice thing about playing Andy’s music is that the songwriting is so incredible. They’re these very clever pop songs that sound simple, but that isn’t necessarily the case.”
The final, re-recorded version of The Party trades the Steely Dan aesthetic for a different kind of 1970s L.A. vibe, one that hews closer to the classic pop sound of Harry Nilsson or Randy Newman. Many of the songs are built around piano, accompanied by a light touch on acoustic guitar, crisp drums and, mixed in the background, punchy basslines.
“I just love the texture of the piano,” Shauf says. “Guitars are cool, but electric guitar just sounds like electric guitar all the time. Piano is a moving, living instrument. Every one sounds different, and they’re so percussive. They have a really warm character to them.”
Shauf began working on songs for what became The Party in 2012, in between his first full-length album, 2009’s Darker Days, and the follow-up, 2015’s The Bearer of Bad News. The theme of The Party emerged over time. “A lot of the songs I was making were happening under the same circumstances, being at a party or being at a bar, that kind of thing,” he says. “So I decided to try to link them and make it more of an intentional thing.”
After two previous albums, and a handful of EPs and singles, The Party may well be the album that introduces Shauf to a wider audience. He’s already done a Tiny Desk session for NPR, and received glowing reviews from Stereogum and The Sunday Times of London. “It takes time for a large crowd of people to hear your songs,” Nealis says. “Even when we were playing tiny shows four years ago, it seems like he kind of stands out from the rest as a songwriter, so it’s nice to see that he is gaining some recognition.”
For more from Andy Shauf, check out his 2014 Daytrotter session in the player below.