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“It seems so hard to get people to actually listen to music,” says Salt Lake City rock musician Andrew Shaw. “There’s so much saturation right now with so many bands making great music and other entertainment vying for your attention. Someone dedicating any amount of time in their day to listen to the sounds I’ve created is great. And if they have some sort of emotional response to it, even better.”
Shaw recognizes that, when it comes to consuming music, we live in a different world than he did in high school. Twenty years ago, purchasing an album was a commitment. You owned that record and you looked at it; you unpacked it and kept it in your CD player to listen to over and over again. “Now that everything has gone to streaming, it seems more like visiting a buffet where I get a taste of this and a taste of that, then quickly move on to the next thing,” Shaw explains. As a musician, he knows that is how people encounter his music as well.
As is the story with many artists, Shaw’s passion for music was instilled at an early age. He grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, where his parents had him begin piano lessons in second grade. His father played the piano and the coronet (which Shaw picked up in grade school). In high school, he played the euphonium in concert band and marching band. But when he was 15, Shaw picked up his dad’s guitar. He never took a lesson, but taught himself and started playing pop songs and whatever he could find.
His first band was called Acrylic Caulk. “We were literally a garage band,” Shaw explains, “so we got our name by looking around and saying words that we saw in the garage.” He reflects on this time in his life apologetically. “It was the ‘90s. It was high school and we all had crappy taste.” They played pop music like Third Eye Blind and Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” “There was a drummer and two guitar players playing music and our friends thought it was cool,” he says unequivocally. But Shaw wasn’t the cool, brooding teenager dying to break out of class one might associate with a budding rock musician. He got good grades. He was a mathlete. He was in marching band, student council, and theater. He was a nerd and a total do-gooder. “I still am — a total nerd and a total do-gooder.”
Shaw is one of those introverted leaders. He seems shy at first, but once you get him talking, you’re drawn in and want to be part of whatever he’s talking about because you know he’s up to something great. You might run into Shaw at the City Library — not because he hangs out there, but because he works on the fifth floor running the communications department. “I love the library and all the first amendment democratic stuff around public libraries,” he says. “They’re the center of the community.” But Shaw wouldn’t associate himself with everything you think about when it comes to libraries. Working there was something that was more serendipitous than sought-out. When Shaw moved to Salt Lake City in 2003, he was following a girl. Two weeks after he arrived, he got dumped (and wrote a lot of “bad” songs about that). The “new” City Library had just opened and he began to volunteer, which turned into a part-time job at the gift shop, which turned into a full-time job in the administration office, which led to a graduate degree in library science. But you wouldn’t call Shaw bookish. “I’m a horrible reader,” he admits. “That’s how I introduced myself at staff orientation: ‘Hi, I’m Andrew and I don’t read books.’” Quite the revealing statement for someone with a bachelor’s degree in English. Why major in English? To read more? To learn how to write? As a songwriter, it makes sense to take that path. But Shaw confesses, “I wish I could say it was that intentional.” Shaw attended the University of Nebraska, studying electrical engineering because that’s what smart kids with good grades did. But he hated it and noticed there were no girls in his class so he moved on to psychology. After diagnosing himself with every disorder he studied he landed in the English Department.
He enjoys writing poetry, and trying to write fiction, but what he truly loves is writing music. “I don’t really believe in astrology,” Shaw begins, “but I feel I’m a Gemini through and through because I have these multiple personalities. I’m super passionate about the work I do during the day at the library, but I also love the music stuff. And even within the music stuff I have four bands and each has their own personality and they have their own thing I’m trying to do within those bands.”
Color Animal is Shaw’s big, central band and what he considers the most accessible. Their latest album “Why Don’t We Have Fun?” was released on April 1. The title is meant to be a fun and encouraging answer to “What do you want to do tonight?” In another, perhaps more literal way, it laments the fact that having fun seems to be more difficult the older we get. Shaw is the front man in Color Animal and writes all the songs, but in his band Albino Father – a noisy, psychedelic group – he plays bass and gets to let go a little and enjoy the music while someone else writes it. Magic Mint is Shaw’s solo venture, but he calls it his “solo group” because the sound resembles a full band. “I’m creating a wall of sound” Shaw explains. “Drums have a reverb, guitar and vocals go through a delay pedal; there are a lot of effects going on.” One fan describes it as “walking a tight-rope instead of singing or playing guitar.” This fan happens to play glockenspiel in Shaw’s last (but not least) band called “The Sister Act.” She also happens to be his wife, Utah artist Mary Toscano.
Being married to an artist has its pros and cons. On one hand, collaborating with your artist wife on the design for your albums makes for the best cover art ever. On the other hand, money is tight, and they have to take turns scheduling “studio time” in the second bedroom in their downtown condo. But they clearly work well together. “I feel like I’m an infinitely better designer and probably musician than if I didn’t know Mary,” Shaw gushes. “She’s so good at what she does.”
With several albums already released for Color Animal alone, Shaw is certainly prolific when it comes to writing music. But when asked to talk about the meaning behind his music, he doesn’t exactly have an answer. Shaw feels the music he grew up listening to was, in retrospect, overly earnest and manipulative, and that’s something he wants to avoid in his songwriting. Even though he is very interested in social justice issues, Shaw’s still figuring out how to make it work with his music. Last summer, he did wave his social justice flag when he performed “The Preacher and the Slave” by Joe Hill outside the City and County Building in Salt Lake City, where Hill was tried and convicted for murder in 1914. “The Preacher and the Slave” parodies the popular Salvation Army hymn “In the Sweet By and By” and is arguably Joe Hill’s best-known song. Shaw feels our world is suffering without a modern Joe Hill or Bob Dylan. So with “Why Don’t We Have Fun?” he tried to not shy away from making a statement and to figure out how to make it work instead. “Musicians and artists need to be part of the conversation,” says Shaw. “I think we can illuminate new corners or connect with different audiences that are feeling disengaged with the talkers, politicians, and academics. I don’t want my lyrics to come off as saccharine, manipulative, or overly earnest, so I’m trying to find that balance of contributing to the conversation in a way I think is engaging and thought-provoking.”
But Shaw isn’t eager to explain his songs to anyone. “I can probably unpack for you what I was thinking about when I wrote certain lyrics or what I think about as I perform certain songs or what they mean to me, but I don’t expect for that to be the meaning for everyone else, too,” he clarifies. “I love it when people get their own meaning out of something.” Spoken like a true artist.
Being an artist is something Shaw takes very seriously. He feels more comfortable calling some of his compositions “sound art” as opposed to music. He sees a lot of other musicians doing interesting things as well and is inspired by their experimentation. He recalls going to see a band play and the drummer brought out a shovel as part of his kit. Shaw observed as the sound guy went up to one of the band members: “He walked up to him with a microphone like, ‘how do I mic this?’” he laughs. Shaw has been experimenting with loop-based music lately. A few years ago he was doing it completely separate from his pop music, but he finds himself combining them more. Recently, he played at the Marmalade Library Branch and at 12 Minutes Max (at the City Library) with this more experimental “sound art.” He enjoyed how different that experience was compared to playing a gig at a bar. “People asked questions after the performance,” he says, “and it was nice to have to articulate in words some of the things I was doing with my music.”
Shaw looks forward to experimenting more in the future, but there are more pressing things on his time. Now that Color Animal’s newest album has been released, he will continue to finalize a project with Salt Lake’s Municipal Ballet Company which will be choreographing dance pieces to the music he writes for Color Animal and Magic Mint. “I’m so excited to see what the choreographers and dancers have in store,” says Shaw. “The Municipal Ballet Company does amazing work and they are big fans of Salt Lake City, just like me. Sarah [Longoria] wants to make great ballet available in Salt Lake City for both the audience and the dancers.” Longoria is the company’s director and Shaw admires how she’s creating opportunities to keep more of the dancers here that come out of our universities. Those shows open May 12 – 14, but they’ll also play the Ogden Arts Festival in June and perhaps some more dates throughout the summer.
Another musical project that has come about in recent years is the opportunity to score films. Artist and filmmaker Kenny Riches approached Shaw to write the music to his 2012 film “Must Come Down” and again, for “The Strongest Man” which was an official selection at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Riches admits he doesn’t speak in musical terms at all so when he talks to Shaw about what he is looking for, Shaw will record some music for him and he has to articulate what he likes or doesn’t like. “He ends up recording a crazy amount of music and I use just a very small percentage of it, but he works at it until we’re both happy,” says Riches. “Andrew is dedicated, and very, very patient.” Scoring films has been a dream of Shaw’s because he’s always felt music was a great part of filmmaking. “Breaking into that, or anything music-related, as a full-time gig seems out of reach for me, but I’d love to work with other filmmakers and earn more of a living making music.”
Shaw is starting to feel the push on his time, but when asked how many more bands he sees in his future, he quickly says, “Infinite.” Clearly, he’s a collaborator and loves his bands and his bandmates love him. “Andrew is just about the most pleasant person to be around” says Felicia Baca who plays bass in Color Animal. “He’s extra smart, funny, kind, accepting, organized, and so absolutely creative and driven that it’s baffling.” With such a prolific musical resume, Shaw has had experience diving into things and seeing them work out, and other times, not. As a leader, he’s brought many people along with him on his creative journeys. He’s seen bands come and go. As much as he’d love to tour and land an Indie record label, he recognizes that might not be compatible with the life he truly wants. He is passionate about the various things he does: music, design, marketing, librarianship. “It’s hard to imagine giving one up in order to do the other” Shaw ponders. “It’s a struggle that’s always happening in my head.” Spoken like a true Gemini.
This profile appeared in the April 2016 edition of 15 Bytes.