SHANNON LAY: I’M WAILING FOR EVERYBODY!
photography by stefano galli
Living Water isn’t the first solo album by Feels guitarist Shannon Lay, but it feels like it—it’s an album and an announcement at once by a musician who’s discovered new clarity of sound and purpose. And strangely—happily!—even with her most complex arrangements yet, she sounds more free than ever. (Water magnifies the power of Lay’s prior releases, with reverent production and less-is-more accompaniment by top-flight guests: violin from Feels bandmate Laena Geronimo, cello from Sonus Quartet’s Vanessa Freebairn-Smith, bass by Julia Holter/Tara Jane ONeil collaborator Devin Hoff and the Cairo Gang’s Emmett Kelly on bass/drums/ very deliberate synth.) On Water, she’s obviously drawing from a 60s British folk tradition that reveres a green and pleasant land, but she adds character and definition all her own. There’s something in Water that recalls the spirit of proud but lonesome private-press folk albums that stole a few days of deluxe studio time, or of writers like Terry Allen and John Prine whose best songs were lit from within by a stubborn sense of hope. (See also: classic Lisa Simpson, back when she believed in things.) She’s still a shredder and a half when she goes electric, but on Water, Lay switches to another kind of electricity—like lightning and thunder at night, hers is a sound that comes right out of the sky. She performs on Fri., Mar. 2, at the Natural History Museum. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
You’re from Redondo—do the words ‘Fire Chief’ mean anything special to you?
Shannon Lay: Oh boy do they! You go to Old Tony’s on the pier and you get yourself a Fire Chief! I myself prefer that classic Mai Tai. But you get to keep the glass for either. I think I have at least six, and many more in the cutlery graveyard.
I have seen naked people on that beach twice. How many times have you seen naked people on that beach?
Shannon Lay: I have never seen a naked person on that beach! I must be going at the wrong time. Every once in a while I’ll see some dolphins. There’s definitely always seagulls. There used to be this great gift shop there—kind of halfway past Tony’s_and they had this huge fake Great White shark. It was super scary: ‘Pay $4 and see the beast from the sea!’ It was such a big deal to go see it as a kid. I gotta ask someone if it was real—it was so long ago it feels like dream. I’m pretty sure it was real? It was in this glass case and the room was all black. I’m gonna go there and ask about it.
Who exactly would you ask if the scary fake shark in a black room was real?
Shannon Lay: Whoever’s workin’ there now! They’ll know, man! Growing up in Redondo Beach was the best. I left when I was 17, right out of high school, and I hated it when I left—‘Get me away from this!’ I almost moved to Chicago or San Francisco. I was trying to run from my childhood. But it’s been ten years since I left and it’s the best place in the world. I love going there so much. I’m so glad I grew up there. It created an environment that was stimulating but you were still struggling—the perfect combination for inspiration and energy that needed a home. A beautiful amazing place to spend my girlish youth!
Struggle and stimulation—did you just figure out the scientific components of inspiration?
Shannon Lay: I might have! I love that instead of us being bored and doing heroin or something we went to the beach! This beautiful outlet for all the energy you have as a teenager. The natural thing is to surf and skate. Teenage angst is inevitable and you go through that but maybe you don’t waste five years in rehab and then do something productive—it’s very efficient!
‘Coast’ is the only song on the album where you curse—you say you’ll ‘die in a wave of fucking mystery.’ What about that mystery deserves that rare ‘fucking’? And it comes right at the very end, too.
Shannon Lay: I’ve tried that song without that word—it doesn’t feel the same. The whole song is about … kind of how bullshit everything is. How you grow up and have to unlearn everything you’ve been told and figure it out yourself. And the way so many people we admire, the shit goes down—the same way as history, your life, the street you walk on. At that point in the song, I’m tired, I’m weary and it’s all gonna end one day anyway! So I’m putting in my two cents. Crawling up to the counter, put down my two cents, might be a little pissed off! I’ve been thinking of how immensely small we are. Looking at something like the ocean, it’s amazing. And you remember that and feel safe in that. It’s amazing to put that in perspective—my favorite way to do that by far.
So if the ocean in ‘Coast’ symbolizes infinity, is ‘fucking’ the only way for a person to truly capture infinity’s character?
Shannon Lay: I guess! What do you do? You can’t control that thing—there’s no way!
Water starts with ‘Home,’ but the home in the song seems very small. Maybe it’s a person, or the space between two people. Then ‘Coast’ ends the album with something colossal: the ocean, infinity, death … The album starts with one person and then gets bigger and bigger in scope.
Shannon Lay: 100%. I’ve just been learning an insane amount about how nothing at all matters.
Is that comforting?
Shannon Lay: I’m trying to shift my perspective that way. It’s like it inhibits the dream. There’s a way that’s possible to be where you’re … in control of the matrix! I strongly believe that you really do get what you put out. For, shifting my thinking to all the wonderful enlightening terrifying things in my way, it call just becomes a big bright situation that you’re walking into. Inevitably, you begin your life worrying about people—your mom and dad, your first kiss. And then you’re worrying about everything—worry about paying rent, eating, getting a job. And then there’s everything else! It’s so big and we’re so small. The amount of control you have over life is overestimated. It’s about that shift. I’d love to help people realize how much power they have. It’s the easiest and hardest decision to make. To me there was this everpresent feeling of incompleteness. I was looking for the answer in other people, in music … and it came down to facing all the darkest parts of myself. This moment where you either want to do it or you don’t. And you have to feel it. I still struggle every day. The awareness that has developed behind my emotions has grown immensely and it’s amazing to feel it grow. But it’s definitely not for everybody. I’m sitting in traffic right now and it’s moments like this I think, ‘All these people … they probably have people they love, people they hate, people who love them.’ It’s bizarre!
Is that ‘sonder’? When you realize everyone else is a living feeling person too?
Shannon Lay: I just heard about that! A really beautiful thing to think about. I think empathy is highly lacking in the world we live in. Sonder is a wonderful start.
Should I ask you if total empathy is incompatible with the values of our society?
Shannon Lay: Definitely—a psychopath is a better businessman than a monk.
But can a monk make better beer than a business man?
Shannon Lay: Definitely.
If someone listened to your older albums, could they hear this change in your perspective starting?
Shannon Lay: ‘Starting’ is the key word. To me it never stops. Music or any art form—it’s amazing to watch yourself grow. An extreme example would be Bowie. It’s that feeling of your soul in your body and so many different views you’re gonna experience. For Living Water, I heard it—I heard myself shifting gears. I hope every record is like that. This year was crazy. I was able to quit my job—I kinda realized the insane amount of purpose I felt toward this responsibility that I initially didn’t accept. A lot of people have the ability to create but maybe don’t wanna accept the challenge and responsibility of it. It’s not easy and not always satisfying. It’s crazy to me the lack of assistance for people who wanna do that. It’s much better in Europe and Australia. You get crazy grants. But there aren’t many great bands. It’s a trade off—the struggle breeds some genuine creativity. It’s amazing when you come to terms with that—settle into that.
Water seems like an encouraging album—like someone telling you to stay hopeful. But it’s not glibly hopeful. ‘Give It Up’ and ‘Recording 15’ are right next to each other, and it seems ‘Give It Up’ is an answer to ‘Recording.’ In ‘Recording’ you’re sad and saying you’ll always hold on, but in ‘Give It Up’ you talk about having to let go or it’ll destroy you. So is that the kind of hope here? Hard-won learned-the-hard-way hope.
Shannon Lay: You nailed it! ‘Recording 15’ is an older song. I brought it back because … I don’t know, for so many people that scenario rings true. I typically try not to write about boys. I hate being stereotypical when there are so many other things to talk about, but you can’t deny the the subject resonates. People come up to me after shows: ‘What is that song about “…far away”?’ ‘Recording 15.’ It fills a very specific moment. It’s a very deep feeling. I wanted it to be hopeful at the end. And ‘Give It Up’ is the song that’s a conversation I’ve had with myself in my head countless times. When I sing this song, I picture myself on a talk show with myself: ‘So how many times are we gonna do this? Figure it out—lighten up!’ It’s important to develop a dialogue with yourself—separate yourself from your ego. It’s a different thing—a different person.
With your inner talk show host.
Shannon Lay: Yeah! The muse—whatever you wanna call it. It feels like something whispering in my ear. Maybe you won’t feel it for months, and then there’s a week where you can’t stop writing. I always try and stay open to it—stay attuned. Part of the responsibility I have is listening to that voice. I have countless moments I’ve been in the car and had to pull over—something couldn’t wait! It’s a funny thing with writing. My favorite songs I’ve ever written, I don’t think I wrote them. They’re something I was lucky enough to pass by in this dimension.
Now that you know the sound of that voice, can you recognize moments when you’d heard it but didn’t listen to it?
Shannon Lay: Yeah—everybody has to learn what it even is. I didn’t have a way to record until I was like 15 and I got my first laptop. Until then—and pretty much until I started playing solo—the songs that would come about just within me were put to the side. It didn’t feel urgent. Then something happened when I saw … the person who inspired me to start playing solo was Jessica Pratt. I saw her at the Echo and I was like, ‘Oh my God—people are so responsive to this! Maybe I do have a place in the scene for this stuff I’ve kept secret.!’ It’s awesome to feel you have a place. A lot of times, you feel what you do creatively is something no one is gonna like. ‘I don’t wanna try, I’m scared of failing …’ You come up with every excuse in the book to not accept what is coming. But it’s the best feeling—anything that scares the shit out of you, you should just walk right into it.
That’s such a surfer/skater thing!
Shannon Lay: Totally! ‘It’s gnarly out there sometimes!’ The only thing I look for in live music is that genuine need to do it. You can tell when someone needs to be out there. I felt that watching Jessica Pratt, Kevin Morby, King Tuff, Ty Segall, Aldous Harding.
Are there differences between the kind of music you listen to when you feel lost or sad or upset, and the kind of music you make when you feel lost or sad or upset?
Shannon Lay: They’re symbiotic. With anything—comedy, painting, music. We’re all looking for a way to relate. Musicians are lucky in the sense we have beautiful therapy in which we put our emotions and they can help someone maybe going through the same thing. I’ve been learning a lot about finding inspiration in a happy place the last couple of years. Which is new territory for me. It’s always been a self-deprecating dark place I pull inspiration from. You get into habits like that and then you feel you have to be that way. Creating a healthy happy environment has been really enriching. It’s possible and you can share that with people. You gotta make music that makes you feel what you feel. You can wallow for a bit, but get yourself out of it. You gotta sometimes listen to a song that’s like, ‘Get up and go outside and dance!’
I’d love to hear you make that song with a vocoder.
Shannon Lay: 2020—Shannon Lay disco record!
You’re a Virgo—Virgo is associated with Astraea, the Greek goddess who stayed longest with the humans before leaving because they were too horrible. She was the last person to give humanity a chance. How does your patience with humanity compare to Astraea?