The Story Behind Every Song On Andy Shauf’s New Album Norm

The Story Behind Every Song On Andy Shauf’s New Album Norm

Andy Shauf wasn’t trying to make another concept album. He was reading the Bible, writing stories from God’s perspective. He was writing songs about small thoughts and asides, imagining a collection of unrelated tracks. It would be called Norm, i.e., a “normal record.” But instead, a character named Norm emerged, and the songs began to move closer to one another. Now, after all, there is another Andy Shauf concept album in the world — but it’s not like the other ones.

In some ways, Norm extends logically from Shauf’s past. It is all characteristically beautiful singer-songwriter material, with some slight evolutions in his compositions and arrangements. But rather than pick up with his old beloved characters, Shauf follows a new one — Norm, the guy who might seem like a hapless stoner with a crush but is something much worse. This time around, Shauf has intentionally left things more open-ended, and even analyzing each track will leave some things to the imagination. But it doesn’t take long to realize Norm does something terrible by the album’s conclusion.

Any Shauf album invites analysis, parsing of his storylines and the ups and downs of the characters’ lives. On the occasion of Norm, we caught up with Shauf to talk about how a failed disco album, true crime fascinations, and getting sober all led to his latest collection, a series of songs that might seem gentle and pretty until you see just how dark the narrative turns. Now that you can hear the album for yourself, read our track-by-track breakdown below.

1. “Wasted On You”

This feels like a sort of overture for the album. This is a pretty granular thing to start with but in the lyrics there are specific capitalizations, “You” and “My,” etc.

ANDY SHAUF: “Wasted On You” is narrated by the god of Norm’s universe. The “You” is capitalized because the conversation is God and Jesus. But at the same time, it’s capitalized to differentiate from the other “you” on the record, which is the pursued person, who is only referred to as “you.”

So is this not necessarily in chronological order? I guess it could’ve been before the events of the album, but it struck me as looking over the whole thing.

SHAUF: It’s kind of like God has just created the world and he’s filling in Jesus. Jesus is like “What’re you making?” and he’s like “Here, I’ll explain it to you.” It’s more related to the terms of creation. God’s expectation with his creation is that they recognize his love and that’s how he’s going to show favor.

Originally this album was not going to be a conceptual/narrative album. Did this song predate that?

SHAUF: This was earlier. I was reading the Bible a bit, and I was trying to write songs about those stories from the perspective of God, using his voice as the narrative. When the idea for Norm came around, this was a good way to have an omniscient narrator to summarize the theme of the record — misunderstanding what love is.

2. “Catch Your Eye”

That’s a good segue into “Catch Your Eye,” which on first glance could be a straightforward lovelorn, pining song, but there’s something a bit creepier going on.

SHAUF: I was vaguely getting at the idea of someone following someone. I just wanted it to be really nice-sounding song, a nice melody, [then with] a little bit of a sinister undertone. You realize this person is following someone all around the grocery store. There’s a line: “Words under my breath/ Float through the ceiling.” That’s how I initially tried to tie the character of Norm to a relationship with his God figure. A little prayer under the breath, that shows that Norm is recognizing the love of God.

It’s present in a few songs, but the album has some different instrumentation for you, particularly a lot more synths. The album bio talked about you listening to vaporwave, how you thought about making a dancier record.

SHAUF: Yeah, I was making a disco record previous to this. I was lent a synthesizer and I started writing more by basing ideas off melodies I was coming up with on the synth. I think “Catch Your Eye” I actually based off a piano idea. But it was this meandering melody based off this chord structure.

This still originates as you at home playing everything, but the wording you used was you were afraid of being a “throwback” artist. You asked Neal Pogue — who’s worked with Tyler, The Creator and Janelle Monáe — to mix it. What do you think he brought to the sound?

SHAUF: He brought a lot of space and a lot of clarity. There’s this weird thing in indie music where people fetishize vintage gear and saturation. I’m sure Neal did a lot of overdrive stuff and things like that, but he mixes in the box, using plug-ins, and just tried to make it sound good. That’s what I wanted him to do. Space, clarity, fix all my mistakes. [Laughs]

Wait, so I’m still curious about the disco album. Was this a moment where you were thinking you’d go in a totally different direction, or a creative exercise to sort of warm up for what became Norm?

SHAUF: No, I fully expected I was forging ahead with a disco record. It was not going well. A lot of the disco songs have been repurposed in certain ways. Some of them made this record, like “Halloween Store.”

I was thinking of that “Dancing In The Dark” cover you did, whether that coincided with that era.

SHAUF: I was making the disco record, and then I quit drinking. I had a sort of “What the fuck am I doing?” in listening to my stuff. I was writing a lot with booze, and stopping the drinking stopped the writing. I thought I needed a project, so I tried a cover. It was a fun exercise. The Bruce cover was the death of my disco album.

Sobering up and being like, “Whoa, what is this album I was working on.”

SHAUF: I was listening back… it’s hard to realize how much that stuff can effect you. At the end, I don’t think I was using my whole brain for a while. So the disco stuff, I think I was just down a dark road.

3. “Telephone”

“Telephone” originated before Norm was a narrative album, partially referencing your distaste for talking on the phone.

SHAUF: Kind of, yeah. I was not enjoying talking on the telephone at the time. I wrote this song kind of as a joke. I wanted it to sound like I was longing for the telephone, and the second verse, if you pay attention, you see the shift is that it’s someone watching through a window and it’s got a bad vibe to it.

So there was already that voyeuristic element to it before the Norm narrative developed?

SHAUF: I had the Norm title for the record. I was just going to make a “normal” record.

Right, the title was originally not this character, but about the album itself.

SHAUF: Yeah, but then when I wrote “Telephone” I thought: That could be Norm. I don’t know if I switched right away after writing “Telephone.” I kept things loose lyrically. But that’s where Norm came from.

So this song was an important pivot in making the album.

SHAUF: Idea-wise, and musically as well. This was the first song that I made with the synth melodies.

As the album gravitated towards the Norm narrative, you hired Nicholas Olson as a story editor. Can you tell me what part of the process that impacted, what your dynamic was like?

SHAUF: I reached out to Nick after I had finished tweaking lyrics here and there throughout the whole Google doc. Moving lines here and there so they would all connect and work together. It was such a long process of editing myself that I realized I wouldn’t be able to read through it without knowing what was there and what was in my head. So I sent him a full document, not even showing him the music, just to see if he could pick up the story as I was trying to put it down.

He read it once, he was a little bit off, so I tweaked a few songs, sent it to him again without explaining. It was closer, so I tweaked it again — I think it was the third or the fourth time where he put it together exactly as I wanted it to be put together, or close enough.

Even now, is it something you want people to see clearly, or be able to read multiple meanings in? Because you’ve also said you wanted it to be a bit more oblique than, say, The Neon Skyline.

SHAUF: I wanted it to be interpretable. I don’t want to give all of it away. If someone really wants to work for it, they can figure out exactly how I intended it to play out. But I wanted to leave enough space for people to not have the same understanding of it that I do.

4. “You Didn’t See”

So there is a God narrator, Norm, and a third narrator.

SHAUF: The third narrator would be an ex or something of the “you.” They narrate two songs on the second side.

The album was influenced by David Lynch right? One thing I read was about Mulholland Drive and unreliable narration, but the other was about your browser crashing and getting stuck on this one still for five minutes.

SHAUF: That’s what it was. There was a point I came to with the lyrics, before I sent it to Nick, where I was struggling with how much to show. I had written all these songs without the intent of tying them together, and once I started tying them together, I wondered how far to go. I had a bunch in past tense, present tense, from different narrators. At a certain point I tried to flip them all to the same narrator, and it just didn’t work. I changed some of them back. I switched it around. I was struggling with wanting to make it entirely clear what happened, have an ending and show what happens at the end.

Then I watched Mulholland Drive and my browser crashed. If I was sharper as a person, I probably would’ve gotten this point from the actual movie — you can leave things open, and open to interpretation. But me watching a frozen browser for 10 minutes and thinking it was genius was a way more obvious punch in the face. I got joy from watching that. I had my own internal idea of why he would do this. It showed me it’s not what I show that is the only thing that’s important. I needed to leave space. I needed to leave questions unanswered, for people to want to understand what’s even happening in it.

Obviously people became attached to characters from your past work, like Judy. Do you find there’s a balance amongst your fans of people who want to follow those narratives and someone who might hear a song like “Catch Your Eye,” who might not know the context and just make their own meaning?

SHAUF: If someone thinks “Telephone” is a beautiful love song, I think they should be able to think that. I think they should listen a little closer. [Laughs] But the story on the record is really dark. I’ve written a lot of dark songs where I spell out exactly what happens. With this one, I wanted to tell a dark story but I didn’t want to tell anything dark about it.

5. “Paradise Cinema” & 6. “Norm”

SHAUF: I think God notices for the first time that Norm is up to no good. It’s following Norm a little bit further and seeing his behavior is troubling.

Right, the stalker-y elements get more explicit here. But then it’s not until the next song where we’re sort of seriously introduced to him in the title track. This is another thing I was wondering about when you’re putting a story together but also an album, that needs sequencing and musical flow. So there’s a way “Norm” makes sense as the sixth track, but is there also a narrative reason we get this scene mid-album?

SHAUF: This is the point where it’s God’s intervention. He’s showing himself to Norm and showing he’s not pleased with Norm’s behavior. I wanted to make it sort of mirror the music. You’re getting a slow introduction to Norm. He’s being introduced inconspicuously, he’s longing for someone, he’s longing for the telephone. If you’re a casual listener, you’re going to think, “This sounds nice.” “Paradise Cinema” might sound a little ominous. At a certain point you’re going to realize Norm is not a good guy and the music is getting darker and darker. I wanted it to be a gradual realization something is off. So this is the introduction to Norm and God’s concern.

In the past you talked about there being autobiographical elements in your characters. After that, what drew you to a character like Norm instead?

SHAUF: Partially a lot of true crime. I wrote this during the pandemic, when I didn’t have a personal life. There was so much true crime that came out during the pandemic, I think that had an effect. During the pandemic I had so much time to think about things I had made. I made The Party when I was going to a lot of parties, I made The Neon Skyline when I was drinking at a bar called the Skyline. I kind of realized that if I wanted to further my pursuit of writing fictionalized songs or stories, I really had to get away from things that I knew or part of my personal life.

There’s also this aspect of like, our involvement in the internet. It gives us access to everyone — almost everyone, if you participate. There’s an element of us being able to interact with people without them interacting with us. Very commonly. I think everyone’s familiar with knowing someone a little bit more than they should. I think I was exploring that idea a little bit.

7. “Halloween Store”

You have this catchy, pretty, (apparently formerly disco) track. This is Norm scrambled and leaving the house.

SHAUF: He’s glitching a little bit.

Because he was just receiving messages from God?

SHAUF: He’s just a bit of a stoner. [Laughs] He’s been smoking weed all day and he’s having a hard time leaving this house.

Is there a thematic layer to this taking place around Halloween?

SHAUF: It’s definitely a Halloween story. I was hoping to put it out around Halloween, but I missed deadlines. It’s kind of one of those details things. They were going Halloween costume shopping, there’s a party coming up. It wasn’t an intentional Halloween aspect. I wanted to write a song about the Halloween store because I think it’s a hilarious concept. They’re a bad vibe. [Laughs]

8. “Sunset” & 9. “Daylight Dreaming”

So this is one where I heard it a few different ways, where it first struck me as a kidnapping thing. But then I thought it was from the ex’s perspective— 

SHAUF: This is Norm’s perspective. So it is kind of a kidnapping thing.

Oh, shit. So I was right the first time.

SHAUF: This and “Daylight Dreaming” are the same moment. “Daylight Dreaming” is the ex’s perspective.

And that’s seeing him go off with Norm. Maybe I was being overoptimistic, I thought she got away and Norm was watching her not fall into his trap in “Daylight Dreaming.”

SHAUF: It was tricky to figure out which order to put these songs in because I didn’t know what I wanted to reveal first. The idea with these two… this third narrator has no ill intent with this joke he’s trying to play. He’s a tow-truck driver and loves to tow her car and see her reaction. Norm has recognized God’s love, while this third perspective guy is also praying to God for strength to not keep doing this stupid thing he’s doing, which is bothering his ex. It’s sort of trying to put God, this dude, and Norm in there. Like, is God present still for this moment. Norm is getting his opportunity to go through with his evil plan — or not even a plan. He’s taken over by his desire.

So it’s a gnarly twist where because the ex plays this joke she’s driven into the arms of Norm.

SHAUF: Yeah.

There’s this horn part in “Daylight Dreaming” that had me thinking about musical decisions that weave in with the story, how you might shape this over time.

SHAUF: It’s just another layer you can really accentuate the importance of a moment or the darkness or levity of a moment. I wanted to use that just to emphasize… he’s being desperate in his asking for strength. You could say it lightly, or you could really mean it. This guy is struggling.

You said earlier that you were reading the Bible and writing about certain stories. Are there any particular Bible stories you drew upon for this? Where there’s like one guy who’s up to no good but hearing God, and another really trying to ask for help?

SHAUF: No, I don’t think so. With these stories, there’s generally things that happen. Somebody is struggling with something, God shows himself. God either responds in one way or doesn’t, because it’s a test or something. In this story, God sticks up for the wrong person, and when he removes himself from the scenario, fate takes over and everybody suffers.

10. “Long Throw & 11. “Don’t Let It Get To You”

Well, even before I mixed up the last two, one thing I was thinking is these later songs are a lot more lyrically sparse and oblique.

SHAUF: “Long Throw” is from the perspective of the ex. It’s the moment he’s realizing this person is not getting back to him. It’s really broad. I’m imagining he’s gone to a Halloween party where they were supposed to be. He’s in a costume. He’s not invited. I don’t know if his intentions are good or bad, but he’s not getting that text back. “Don’t Let It Get To You” is sort of the overarching sentiment to the story. Shit happens and if you overthink the meaning in certain things it will just get to you.

Is that a God narration then?

SHAUF: Yeah, “All that time spent wondering/ How things will be.” There’s just certain things that we can’t know. It’s kind of cruel.

12. “All Of My Love”

At the end it zooms back out the way it was zoomed out at the beginning. So are our final moments with the characters supposed to be in “Sunset”/”Daylight Dreaming” and “Long Throw.”

SHAUF: Yeah.

So we can assume something very bad happened to the “you” and then we see the ex alone at this party. The last song is the same lyric as the first song, but it’s the first half of the phase as the title this time. It gave me this dream loop type effect to the album.

SHAUF: It ties the story back to the first song. The album is kind of “What if God didn’t understand what love was?” It’s a re-stating of this but it’s meant to be this is God, this is Norm, this is the third narrator all with the same sentiment. They’re all looking to this person wondering if their love was wasted on them.

Not to belabor the Lynch thing, but this one particularly gave me that vibe akin to his movies — it’s a very pretty song but there’s something to the timbre of it that’s off and eerie. Like an unsettling dream. Was that on your mind, the idea of having this album that, on a surface level, could play like this earnest beautiful thing but have all this twisted stuff hiding there?

SHAUF: Yeah. The end refrain, it’s the first progression just slightly darker. It dips into a darkness, and… it doesn’t get light. The first song is really cheery, goes through a real hard time, and becomes the last song, you know? [Laughs]

What drew you to that notion of a God that doesn’t understand what love is?

SHAUF: Love in general is a really fascinating concept. It’s something almost everyone gets wrong for their whole lives. It’s taught wrong. You have so many religions that are based on love and this concept of God’s perfect love, but I don’t think we can even comprehend that as people who can’t seem to make that work for ourselves. There’s all sorts of love songs. But I think I wanted to make love songs that were disconnected from romanticizing love. If there’s a reality to it, it’s that we’re always getting it wrong. Almost always. I’m sure some people are getting it right. [Laughs]

Having gone through this process of trying to avoid making a narrative album, then deciding you would, then deciding it would be this different approach and set of concerns… do you have other ideas like this now? Does it open up new directions for you?

SHAUF: I think the thing this project opened up for me was the realization that I can’t write something starting out knowing what I’m going to write. I wrote this in chunks, throwaway lyrics for 12 songs and then I tweaked them until it worked together. So I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I know I won’t know what it is until I’m halfway through it.

Norm is out now on ANTI-.

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