AMONG THE FIRST SOUNDS you hear on Andy Shauf's second album, The Bearer of Bad News, is one not often heard in pop music. It's vibrant but muted, like a photo of a beautiful person under a veil of soft focus. The recording is so intimate, you can hear the passage of air that's powering the instrument, the gentle click of keys moving to change notes.
It's the sound of that junior-high band staple, the clarinet.
"I saw a band from British Columbia and one of the members played clarinet, and I thought, 'Wow, that's such a nice texture.' So I asked for one," Shauf says in a telephone interview from somewhere in Winnipeg. "My mom bought me one, and I thought, 'Man, if a kid in grade five can learn how to play this, I can learn how to play this.' I wanted to show the world that I could learn the clarinet."
Shauf, 27, is a soft-spoken guy with a dry and self-deprecating sense of humor who grew up in Saskatchewan. He learned to play drums when he was five, and was playing along with his parents in church before he was 10. As a teenager, he drummed in punk bands until a friend taught him how to play guitar.
"So I started writing songs for my girlfriends," he says. "Cool, right?"
Shauf recorded his songs, but never played them for anyone until high school. He moved to Regina, Saskatchewan, after graduation and put out an album called Darker Days in 2009, but "it kind of bombed," he says. That delayed the release of his second album, which he'd already been working on for two years.
"So I just kept writing and writing," Shauf says. "Eventually, I got out of that contract and started recording Bearer."
By the time he released The Bearer of Bad News online in 2012, he'd written close to 100 songs in about four years. He recorded the ones that appear on the record in his parents' basement. "I made noise in their house for a full year," he says. "I'm not sure if that was something they were super pumped on."
Maybe not, but thank goodness Shauf's parents are patient people. The Bearer of Bad News is a gorgeous collection of understated folk-pop songs that blends Shauf's melodic murmurs and downcast lyrics with tasteful arrangements that walk a line between lo-fi and ornate. The centerpiece of the sound is Shauf's voice and guitar, but keyboards, drums, stringed instruments, and vocal harmonies always seem to float into the picture at just the right time. And yes, the clarinet makes regular, welcome appearances. The result sounds something like Paul Simon at his saddest and most introverted, or late-era Elliott Smith's baroque ambitions presented through early-Elliott production values, though that's probably underselling Shauf's home-recording acumen.
This week, Bearer is getting a much wider release in a joint venture from Portland's Tender Loving Empire and Party Damage Records, and Shauf's giving the record its first real push in the United States. He's excited to do so, though his natural nonchalance might communicate otherwise.
"I'm really proud of this record, so I want as many people to be able to hear it as possible," he says. "It's exciting. People tell me I never sound or act excited."