How furtive glances, awkward conversations and failed jokes helped bring life to the Canadian musician's excellent new night-in-the-life-of full-length

The Neon Skyline, Canadian musician Andy Shauf’s charming new album, is focused on the small moments.

Unfolding over the course of a single night in a cozy neighborhood bar, Shauf’s narration captures furtive glances, awkward exchanges, failed jokes and deep, sometimes insightful conversations. While past albums often hinged on big, dramatic scenes — Shauf has joked about writing lots of songs where someone dies or is murdered — in Skyline the night just kind of… ends, which is a part of what makes the material so immediately relatable.

“I was having doubts about it and thinking that something big had to happen in the story for it to be worthwhile,” said Shauf, whose tale, in the simplest terms, recounts a man visiting his local watering hole, conversing with friends and bumping into an ex. “But there was a certain point where I realized that if you’re writing about a night out at the bar, usually in that night out you’re thinking, ‘This could be the night something big happens.’ And seven beers later you are walking home like, ‘Well, that was that.’ And nothing happens. And those nights are always [filled with] small details and this imagined, glorious thing that you think will happen, and it never does. Then you wake up and do it all again.”

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In embracing this approach, Shauf, who performs at a sold-out Ace of Cups on Friday, Feb. 7, was forced, at times, to shelve his wit, allowing characters to make jokes that fall flat. “If you want to make it realistic, this guy’s not a comedian,” Shauf said. “He’s going to tell some stinkers.”

The musician then pointed to a specific joke in wistful track “The Moon,” where the group floats the idea of visiting another bar around the corner (named, appropriately, The Moon) and one character cracks that she forgot her space helmet. “And when I wrote it I was like, ‘That’s such a bad joke,'” Shauf said, and laughed. “And the longer I sat with it I was like, ‘This is probably a joke I’d actually make.’”

Shauf said that he's drawn toward crafting albums built on larger, overarching themes because he likes the challenge, comparing it with finishing “a puzzle where you’re always missing one piece and you have to make that piece.” The musician's previous album, The Party, from 2016, was similarly concept-driven, ping-ponging between people and perspectives at a single gathering. Skyline, which shares musical DNA with 1970s soft-rock types like Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman, unfolds from a largely singular point of view, in contrast. 

For Shauf, the process of making music is as much about discarding as it is creation. After hitting on the concept for his new album, which borrows its setting from The Skyline, a bar the musician frequents in Toronto — “It’s like a classic diner with lots of wood and old leather booths … and they always have the heat up a little too hot,” he said — Shauf wrote dozens of songs about a regular's single night on the town. “And then I decided I was going to scrap that idea, and I started writing an album about someone named Judy. And I explored that for a little while until I came to a dead end,” said Shauf, who eventually fused the concepts, making Judy the narrator’s former flame.

“So I’m glad I didn’t scrap it, but I was also really excited by the idea of scrapping it,” continued the musician, who expressed discomfort with the school of thought where every song is viewed as a jewel to be treasured. “I know I’m going to go through 20 or 30 terrible ideas before I get to something I really like. And I don’t know if it’s so much confidence that another song is coming as it is persistence. If you’re trying to write a song every day, chances are you’re going to get stuck … but I’m always hopeful when it comes to writing that things are going to get better.”

The persistence paid off for Shauf, whose self-editing and novelist’s eye for detail enabled him to craft scenes like the one in “Try Again” where the simple act of the narrator’s ex placing her hand on his arm conjures complex emotions.

She puts her hand on the sleeve of my coat.

She says, “I’ve missed this.”

I say, “I know. I’ve missed you, too.”

She says, “I was actually talking about your coat.”

Regardless of his knack for creating such effortlessly rich scenes, Shauf has never considered fiction writing, saying that the idea of sitting silently and staring at a blank page generally fills him with dread.

“A story can jump out of the music easier than if I’m trying to write sentences and paragraphs," he said. "It's such a daunting format to me because a sentence can go on forever. With music, there’s a limitation, and you have 20 syllables or 10 syllables per line, and you have to push the story and you can’t waste any words. Every time I try to write with a blank page, all my words are waste. There’s something that really jars my brain when music is involved."