Andy Shauf Discusses the Narration and Story Editing of His Latest Album, “Norm”
Troubled, deeply flawed individuals who may or may not change are the lifeblood of many great novels. Such a character is the soul of the novel standard (ANTI-), Andy Shauf’s eighth and most challenging album, sonically and narratively.
standard is told from the perspective of three alternate narrators, including the title character, a loner-turned-stalker who ultimately drives the story down a dark path. As with many classic novels standard plays with the biblical theme of man’s struggle against God. You can hear God narrate certain songs and try in vain to turn Norm away from his wicked ways.
At first, Norm sounds pretty sweet – it’s easy to get drawn in by the lovely melodies, as he says, “I’d live by the phone/If I were listening/To you talk about your day.” But if you listen closely, you will They hear Norm confess that he called his neighbor and said nothing, just watched her through a window until she hangs up and closes her blinds.
Later we will see how Norm creeps unnoticed behind trees, cinemas and shops. But as the narrative grows darker, God attempts to save Norm again, giving him multiple chances at salvation.
“Any kind of empathy we have for this character comes from the way he’s introduced slowly,” says Shauf ww, refers to traceable human touches, such as Norm’s clumsiness when locking himself out of his car. “You can see his weaknesses, but they’re introduced gently…the darkest parts come towards the end of the record.”
Since the story is told from multiple angles and not necessarily told chronologically, Shauf wanted to make sure listeners caught just enough of the story to realize that Norm is a creepy guy. He points to George Saunders’ use of alternate narratives in his stories, noting that he “probably picked up a bit of that.”
“The hardest part of the story in general was trying to get the three narrators to work. And I don’t really know if I got there,” adds Shauf. “I wanted a lot of the story to happen in the listener’s head, but I wasn’t sure where the crucial details were missing.”
So he reached out to his friend and writer, Nicholas Olson — and asked if he could provide some lyrical feedback from a storyteller’s perspective. As the story editor, Olson advised on details such as using the pronoun “you” to effectively demonstrate which narrator is speaking. “Or on the actual lyric sheet, I suggested capitalizing certain pronouns to give a little clue as to who the narrator was in that situation,” says Olson.
As for how much empathy listeners should have towards Norm, Olson explains, “The album looks at love in a broader way than love is often seen in contemporary music.”
Feeling empathy for a dysfunctional character like Norm is complicated. “I might sympathize with him if his idea of love stems from a problematic love upbringing,” says Olson.
Does norm change by the end of the story? “Well,” muses Shauf. “What he wants happens… and there was an easy way to end the story, but I didn’t want that…. It took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t have to write the ending. Not exactly in the lyrics.”
The rest of the story’s details are answered in the stillness of lyrical pauses, where the orchestral melodies set the mood and intent. But the story is told so subtly that the listening experience is just as captivating when listeners don’t want to bother trying to figure it out.
standard has a modern sophistication, thanks in part to Grammy Award-winning audio engineer Neal Pogue, who has worked with Outkast and Tyler the Creator and came on board to mix the album. Shauf refers to his other albums with a throwback vibe, though standard was created not to invite the listener into another era, but into a dark and nuanced story that explores power and love in all its complicated forms.
“We have all these amazing technologies,” says Shauf. “We can make a record sound like anything. So why am I trying to transport people to another decade? Why not just transport them somewhere else?”
DO YOU SEE IT: Andy Shauf plays Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark St., 971-808-5094, revolutionhall.com. 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 7th. $30. Smaller seating only on the balcony.