The Canadian singer/songwriter Andy Shauf didn't set out to make a concept album when he started work on what would become "The Party," his thematically linked recent work that details the narrative arc and characters at one particular festive gathering.
Rather, says Shauf, on the phone from a tour van in Alberta, Canada, he was writing introspective songs without specific intention. "The party theme just kept coming up – even in the personal songs. I was going to a lot of parties, so it made its way through a lot of the stories."
Halfway through writing, he decided that he would commit to that theme, and, in his words, "center it around one night, loosely."
The resulting 10 songs carry the listener through the beginning, middle and end of a night of revelry where insecurity tangles with desire, and do so with a quiet folk-rock vibe that recalls the Laurel Canyon scene and effervescent FM radio pop of the 1970s.
String arrangements add a depth of emotion, with the artist's understated mellowness suggesting a wallflower hoping to get noticed at the edge of the dance floor. Shauf will perform a sold-out show Friday at the Echoplex.
With his long brown hair and relaxed demeanor, he looks like he could have gigged the Troubadour as Harry Nilsson's opening act. "I'm not really a party guy until I turn into a party guy," Shauf says, adding that it "takes a couple beverages" to loosen him.
A similar transformation occurs over the course of "The Party." The album opens with "The Magician," in which our hero is already self-conscious even though he may not even be at the party yet: "Look close — you'll see him sweat the most each time his options disappear." He's smoking cigarettes and wondering what lies ahead.
A song later, Shauf bemoans the fate of the early attendees in "Early to the Party" through a meditation on social dread. "Overdressed and under-prepared / Standing in the kitchen / Stressing out the host / Pulling teeth 'til anyone arrives." Soon he's already "trashed and out of line" and declaring that "everyone's laughing at me — I wish I would have stayed home."
Shauf drew on his own experience at parties, conjuring a few specific characters whose interactions throughout "The Party" drive the drama. "Jimmy's so stoned I'd be surprised if he saw the tears in Sherry's eyes," he sings to open "Quite Like You," introducing tension in the form of jealousy and desire. Jimmy, it turns out, is one of the protagonist's best friends.
Some of the songs on "The Party" came quickly, says Shauf, but others involved what he described as "strong-arming them into the theme and trying to bring them together."
That kind of force isn't apparent on the album, which is the artist's first for the Los Angeles label Anti- after two records on smaller labels. (In Canada, Shauf is signed to Arts & Crafts.)
The artist says that he'd already finished "The Party" before he started talking with Anti about putting it out. They were interested, and Shauf used that as an excuse to return to the studio and re-record much of the album.
"I was a little worried that they wouldn't still like it," he says, revealing an insecurity that's reflected in the emotional texture of the record. "You show someone the album and they're like, "Oh we like this!' Then you go back and completely change it. Maybe they won't be on board anymore."
They were, and the extra effort seems to have paid off. "The Party" grows grander, more majestic as the party progresses. "The Worst in You" features Shauf offering a vocal melody that he traces with an identical guitar line. He details a moment of self-loathing while concluding that his love interest is making out with someone in a bedroom — only to hear her call his name from somewhere else in the house. Sings Shauf: "Why do I always seek the worst in you?"
Since "The Party" was released in the spring, the artist has been promoting it through headlining shows and opening slots for artists including rock band Wilco and the folk-rock supergroup case/lang/viers.
During his performance earlier in the year with them at the Greek, Shauf's understated songs echoed outdoors while onstage he and his band delivered precisely rehearsed renditions of six "Party" songs.
Few people at the concert were dancing so early in the night, but one gentleman couldn't resist. As Shauf sang "Alexander All Alone," which is about a death at the party, the man spun wildly, moving with life-of-the-party energy.
"That was awesome," recalls Shauf, laughing at the disconnect, when asked if he remembered the moment. "That is not a regular occurrence at our shows."