Today, Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf releases his new album, The Neon Skyline. The Toronto-based, Saskatchewan-raised musician has built himself a reputation as a storyteller, and listeners will no doubt be taken with the album’s relatable yet affecting narrative (a man at his neighbourhood dive bar finds out his ex is back in town). But there’s also much about The Neon Skyline’s understated arrangements to explore and love.
As Shauf has done throughout his career, he wrote, performed, arranged and produced every song on the album himself. But in a change from the norm, he chose to begin each composition on guitar instead of his usual piano. Shauf told Guitar.com how five songs on The Neon Skyline came together – read on for more on the process and gear behind his new record.
Thirteen Hours was actually a song that I wrote on bass. I liked the sort of hypnotic sound of the root notes cycling through and came up with a vocal melody over those notes, which informed what the chords would be. With the ending, I wanted to continue the same progression but have it pop a little bit more. I recorded the electric guitar with my Silvertone Jupiter, which has those super nice DeArmond Silverfoil pickups in it. I love how those pickups sound when they’re breaking up.
For the fuzz tone, I used a trick that I also used on an older song of mine called The Magician, which is taking two Fairfield Circuitry Barbershops and running them in sequence with one boosting and overdriving the signal and the other sagging and overdriving. I really like that sound… It’s a fuzz that I can’t seem to get with other fuzz pedals.
Things I Do
Things I Do was one of those songs that ended up as two or three different versions. One of them had a lot of fuzz guitar on it… That was not the one that ended up on the album. I wanted it to feel more like gliding than like stomping. I went on a solo tour last year and played this song a lot, just me and acoustic guitar, so a lot of the parts that ended up on the final recording are just things that I lifted from the acoustic guitar part. The piano doubles what I’m fingerpicking for most of it.
I tried a few different things (guitars, clarinets) on the middle instrumental section until I finally tried out this really nice 30s Buescher alto sax that a friend left at my studio. It took me a little while to get used to the difference between a clarinet and a sax (which I’ve never had luck playing), but that ended up feeling like the right tone for the part.
When I was demoing this album, I was using a little Fostex R8 tape machine. I would say that it made me think of arranging in a different way. A lot of the time when I’m recording on Pro Tools, I end up doing a lot of arranging by cutting things up and moving them around. On the Fostex, I had no way to edit things, so I had to arrange as I went. I would start recording the electric guitar part or drum part at the start of the track and whatever I had by the end of the song was pretty much going to be the part.
The demo for Try Again was a really simple acoustic guitar and vocal with a driving Motown kind of backbeat. Then I recorded the electric guitar (Jupiter) through an MXR Phase 90 and that was pretty much the glue that held it together. I really liked the Fostex demo, but it ended up being so hissy that I tried again a few times on Pro Tools, but that sounded really sterile. I finally acquired a Tascam 388 machine and laid down almost the exact same arrangement and it finally sounded the way that I wanted. The noise reduction on the 388 is a really useful thing…
I was trying to use different tunings for a few songs in this batch. This one is standard tuning but the high E string is tuned down to a D (and then I put a capo on [the second fret] I think?). Like Try Again, this was a Fostex R8 demo that was arranged as I went through it. The electric guitar is the Jupiter again played through the Phase 90. The clarinet that harmonizes the electric guitar is playing a slightly different rhythm than the guitar.
I was really trying, on this album, to pare down the arrangements and keep them as close to the heart of the songs as I could, so this one ended up being seven tracks total. I was limited to seven tracks because I was keeping my click on track eight. I think I bounced this one to Pro Tools and ended up doubling a vocal line… So maybe it’s nine tracks, but that’s fairly unusual for me… I can get carried away with adding clarinet layers, but this one felt good with just the electric lead line and single clarinet playing together over the wordless vocal line. I think sometimes we (or maybe just I) forget that you can use vocal as a lead line.
When I started demoing for this album I was getting into a bit of a gear vortex, on Craigslist every day, etc. I was recording using an old Danelectro Spring King Reverb pedal on a bus, which was quite noisy. I ended up finding a Sound Workshop Spring Reverb rack unit on Craigslist and so I bought that and was so excited that I brought it home, set it up, and wrote this song using the reverb. I sent the track to a few friends, to show off the reverb, and it ended up being a favourite. I eventually re-recorded it on my 388 with an electric lead (Jupiter through Phase 90) and some swooping clarinets and that ended up being the track on the album. The Sound Workshop spring didn’t make it on there… but I still love that reverb.
Andy Shauf’s The Neon Skyline is out now via ANTI-.