by Jo Higgs
On a record steeped in honesty,Wilds sees Shauf playing with the energy of spontaneity and grappling with maintaining privacy
Privacy and honesty are two things that seem particularly integral to the music of Andy Shauf – regardless of a few surface level contradictions between them. Shauf is quiet and soft-spoken with a meandering consideration to everything he says, as if he feels obligated to speak nothing but truth. He revels in his own company where this obligation can be adhered to without action – if you don’t speak, you don’t lie. It’s an age-old dilemma faced by your stereotypical troubadours, whispering singers of folky confessions, introverts that map their heart and soul atop of delicate piano and guitar arrangements. Not to say, of course, that Shauf is by any means a stereotype. One just needs to listen to the depth and variety of music he has recorded to understand that it would take a great deal to successfully pigeonhole him or his art. Wilds is another step, a new step, an inventive one, in the ever heightening staircase of Andy Shauf’s releases.
2020’s Neon Skyline provides the base narrative and character for Wilds – fundamentally the narrative voice and muse of Judy – and the songs for the album were concocted during a well needed hiatus from recording Neon Skyline. ‘I was just kinda mad at all my songs,’ Shauf jokes. ‘There were a lot of storylines of the Skyline that weren’t working and it was very tiresome, so writing the first song on Wilds, the lottery one, was like realising “ahhh, I could do something like this.” Shauf almost describes Wilds as a lesser project, saying it’s ‘kinda just a collection of demos.’ Yet there’s an undeniable magic to the album that should grant it status as a project more than worth existing in its own right.
This ‘magic’ seems to emanate from an energy that is so often inaccessible in recorded music. ‘The recordings on Wilds are just like demos I made in a half hour or something after I wrote the song,’ Shauf says. ‘I just wanted to capture the excitement about a song that is only there when it first comes to exist. I wanted to release these songs with that energy, before there’s any revising.’
Listening to Wilds really asserts this instantaneity. Though it’s not perfect in a technical sense, the bursts of different harmonies or the introduction of new instruments all feel very genuine and unforced. The bare hiss of the tape reel rolls into a guitar track that is then beaten out of the mix by a contradictorily loud vocal performance that nearly clips – despite the reality that is hardly more than whispered. Perhaps in an objective sense, this sounds wholly critical, but there is just a wonderful nakedness about it that can do no wrong. It’s honest to the point of endearing and, further, enveloping. ‘Yeah, it’s not the most comfortable,’ Shauf says of this hasty minimalist recording process. ‘I’m a perfectionist. There’s a reason I have to do things over and over, so kinda letting things go was something I had to come to terms with. They’re not perfect, there are mistakes and that’s just how they are.’
Wilds sees his recording process stripped back to become more revealing than ever – using an eight-track as a canvas. A gentle warble of the voice, a slight clacking of mishit guitar strings, or the hesitance of an ever-so-miniscule-y mistimed snare hit. It’s all open and honest in a manner that’s doubtless troubling to come to terms with as a private individual. The lyrics and storytelling on this project naturally follow suit – even though they are, on a surface level, tales of fictional characters. Shauf explains, ‘I think it’s kind of hard to separate yourself from your writing, but, also, the easiest way for me to write anything is to imagine myself in that scenario.’ He begins to unravel the sort of catharsis this style of writing can produce: ‘I do think there’s a lot of processing of things that happens when I’m writing. I’m not doing all this totally clueless, but there are moments where one of my songs will suddenly make a lot of sense to me a bit later, like “ah, so this is exactly what I was writing about.”’
‘A lot of people process things socially and conversationally,’ he explains. ‘They walk through things out loud, but I think I do a lot of that in my head and in writing. I’m putting myself in these scenarios, but maybe, at the time, I’m oblivious to the fact I’m actually in these scenarios which are in turn really similar to my life.’ He further jokes with a healthy dose of sincerity that ‘there’s a lot of songs that are really on the nose, and I just hope people take as if they’re heavy handed.’
There’s a personal history to the sonic development of Shauf’s music. ‘Dad was really into this southern gospel music when I was a kid. I hated it so much and I’m still not much of a fan, but there’s a lot of chord changes that I can feel seeping into my music in spite of how much I hated where they’ve come from.’ He laughs about the infestation of major 7th chords in his music: ‘you can’t really unlearn these things that have shaped you. It’s not like I’d need to unlearn these ideas, but it’s like even being raised religious, there’s always gonna be part of me that’s afraid of going to hell, even if these days I don’t really believe that’s possible.’
Wilds is honest in its own way, and crucially private for the sake of Shauf’s sanity. Its music is stripped back and truthful. What you hear is what you get. There’s a delicateness to every moment and every movement, and it’s considered but still natural. There is no dwelling over the creation of Wilds – it simply pours out in its own perfect form: messy and masterful.
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