Some musicians are magnets for attention. No matter where they go or what they’re doing, they always seem to demand recognition and flattery.
But Andy Shauf, one of Toronto’s best kept musical secrets, is the exact opposite of that attention-seeking stereotype, remaining unobtrusive even at his own gigs. In fact, he might be one of the only people that’s thankful to have to wear a mask, since it allows him to camouflage in a perpetually frenetic city.
“I feel like that’s a Toronto thing where I’m self-conscious all the time,” Shauf remarked in his signature hushed, careful voice. “Having to wear a mask has solved my Toronto self-consciousness.”
Shauf, 33, is a fairly unassuming character. Almost always hiding behind a rotating collection of floppy baseball caps, the native of Estevan, Sask., listens far more than he speaks, a trait that comes across marvellously in his woodwind-infused, humour-laced brand of indie folk. Like Elliott Smith or Paul Simon, his music doesn’t aspire to make sweeping, forceful statements. Instead, Shauf’s records — especially his latest release, the wondrously polished “The Neon Skyline” — focus on the rustic, idiosyncratic happenings of everyday life.
Since the pandemic suspended his world tour last March, he’s spent most of his time between his Parkdale home and nearby studio. Though he’s eager to get back to playing shows, Shauf has some apprehension given that he might be expected to have new material ready and polished. After all, his latest effort could be almost two years old when he returns to the stage.
“I gotta get my s–t together and get some new stuff going,” he said.
Still, Shauf hardly had an uneventful year in 2020. Following the release of “Skyline” last January, he appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in February and released a single in April. The title track of his sixth studio album even made it onto former U.S. president Barack Obama’s 2020 summer playlist.
“I checked it seconds after it was posted or something and I was like ‘Woah, I’m in this,’” Shauf recalled. “And I didn’t really know what to do because I thought maybe it was fake.”
While some artists thrive in solitude, Shauf’s narratives are spurred by serendipity and relatable normalcy, two virtues that have been decidedly lacking from most lives over the past year. As a result, his creative output hasn’t been as fruitful as some of his contemporaries; aside from the aforementioned record that dropped before all hell broke loose, he’s been rather quiet, only popping in for an occasional charity livestream or cover.
For any other creative, that may be cause for concern. But for Shauf, prolonged periods of stillness can only be followed by an outpouring of brilliance, a prediction his musical collaborators are quick to corroborate.
“I know he works on songs every day and he’s super committed,” said Sam Evian, a New York-based musician who collaborated with Shauf on a twinkly remote cover of Randy Newman’s “I’ll Be Home” in December. “Not only does he work on songwriting everyday, but he works on recording and arranging and production everyday. He’s rounded out a particular, special practice for himself.
“He’s gonna make another beautiful record, that’s for sure. I can say that with certainty.”
Quietly, Shauf’s been showing signs of life. He’s been working remotely with Foxwarren — a band he formed with his childhood friends — on a new album. There’s no immediate timeline for a new release, but Shauf hinted that they are making significant progress on a followup to their 2018 self-titled effort.
“We’re getting there, but we’re still searching,” Shauf said. “This isn’t really the easiest time to be creative.”
On a personal level, Shauf has tried to make his health a priority; he’s stopped smoking (for now) and has taken up yoga, though the former could be problematic.
“I’ve foolishly written the word cigarette into every song that I’ve written,” he said sardonically.
Other musicians in Shauf’s circle are eager to see where he goes next. As Karen Ng, the cheery, bespectacled clarinetist who has accompanied Shauf onstage since 2017, put it, his creative process is as meticulous as it is divergent, making his eventual next step all the more intriguing.
“He’s got a very specific idea of what sound he wants,” Ng said. “The next thing is probably going to be really exciting because I think it’s going to be very different.”
If you ask him where he’s going next, Shauf gives a sheepish answer. He may not be releasing the disco album he half-joked about and then discreetly put together, but his next endeavour is poised to be different, at least if his recent listening history is any indication.
“Spotify’s deciding what my next album will sound like,” he said.
As for pandemic advice, Shauf answers without reservation, just like one of his characters would.
“Wear a mask,” Shauf said bluntly. “Don’t touch s–t.”