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. 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." /> L.A. Record


March 1st, 2018 | Interviews

photography by stefano galli

Shannon Lay: That’s incredible! I have to say … I don’t like most people. But I can honestly say that going into social situations, I will give anybody a chance! You can come to talk to me and I’ll talk to you. But at the same time I have an inherent gut feeling with people, especially in L.A. … you gotta find your crew. I do believe this whole ‘end of the world’ thing. But I always thought instead of everyone dying, it’d be like shifting consciouness. Like we can become more enlightened people. It’s really all so amazing here! Zoom out, look at this fucking world we’re living in, asshole! Go look at a tree! It’s so crazy the way we treat it. We’re fighting against nature. Man’s contempt for nature, oh my God.
Water is an album with almost nothing manmade appearing in the lyrics—really only a kitchen visited in one song. Why isn’t any of the actual world around you—the streets and freeways and traffic lights of L.A.—on the album? I can see how some reviewers don’t understand where you’re from because nothing on this album signals ‘L.A.’ or even ‘city.’
Shannon Lay: This record was totally a love song to the ocean and the earth. I write most when I’m traveling. I write a lot of poetry—it’s where I get most of my lyrics. I think I’ll write an L.A. record one day. L.A. is the best! But at the same time it’s a moment, sitting in my backyard and thinking about all the things happening and all the places to go—it’s all so new and intriguing. I’m still so curious about it all. I don’t want nature to not be there when I go. It’s important for people to realize how important nature is in our daily lives. The color green can change peoples’ world. It’s been proven by science! If anything, I just wanna be another nagging voice: ‘Remember where we came from and remember what keeps us alive.’ Just because Mr. Burns is in the White House doesn’t mean shit’s gonna end. Something like Trump happening is creating so much fire in people. You can make a big difference in your little corner—don’t feel small in the sense of being alone. So many people share this vision for a better future—a future that makes any kind of sense at all. We’re all just crazy stardust. Like what is money? What’s money gonna do for anything? It’s just a means to an end. I’ve never been a billionaire, though.
And if you were?
Shannon Lay: I just read about this guy who bought 400,000 acres of forest that was about to be demolished—just so they couldn’t. I’d probably do shit like that.
You could put seeds in your albums.
Shannon Lay: I love that! And the whole thing can be compostable.
Have you ever performed for something that wasn’t a person?
Shannon Lay: Dogs and cats for sure—I love playing for them! I’d sing to a tree any day!
That’s so elven.
Shannon Lay: We’re getting there!
In ‘Caterpillar’ you sing, ‘I’ll be by your side / In dreams or in physical reality / Whichever funds allow.’ That’s more real and practical than a lot of songs, and also one of the few limits to life this album talks about—or limits that aren’t in one’s own mind. That line is very … realistic.
Shannon Lay: That song is for my friends Josh and Amy. They had a baby and it’s name is Caterpillar and that song is my advice for her. That line specifically is like ‘I will come and travel with you and be with you always, and if the money is there I’ll be there physically, too. I’ll come with you.’ It’s my reminder she’ll never be alone—she’ll always have buds around her.
When people talk about your music, they also talk about Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan—both British. When I listen to you, I also thought of Iris DeMent, John Prine, Loudon Wainwright—all American. One difference I’d say is Nick and Vashti don’t have a country influence, but those Americans do, sometimes super explicitly—and you don’t, really. Why is that? It’s like your music is coming out 5000 miles away from where you’re standing in some ways.
Shannon Lay: I have a real appreciation for country music—
And you cover Kris Kristofferson!
Shannon Lay: Yeah! I love it so much! It’s heart and soul. It’s the best! But the British folk … you can feel the crisp air when you listen to it. You can hear the rain. See the green hills. Something about it puts you in that place. If I had to choose between a campfire in the desert or a little cottage in a rolling green pasture, I’d go with the cottage. But I’m so new to folk. It blows my mind because people say names like, ‘You remind me of this…’ ‘I’ve never heard that!’ And I’m stoked to discover. I try to listen to a lot of new folk, explore older artists … it’s all really eye-opening. I’m also Irish, so I think I really connect with the old world style of storytelling and song. I love Arthur Russell when he does like acoustic folk songs—I always love a story about hearing the corn grow. The simplest things!
You could do a wild Thin Lizzy cover with guitar and violin.
Shannon Lay: You got it—I’m on it! I love that. Everybody’s saying the same thing. I always compare ‘Town Without Pity’ to a Wu Tang song. ‘Man, this town … this life … how are we gonna get through it?’
That’s Thin Lizzy exactly.
Shannon Lay: One of my favorites by them is ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do.’ That never fails to pick me up out of a dark place.
‘How we gonna get through this?’ has to be one of music’s great questions. Tell me another.
Shannon Lay: ‘WHYYYYYYYY’D SHE LEAVE ME!?’ I learned a lot about lyrics listening to Pavement. I love when you can say something when it’s poetic—not really obvious. You give it some nuance. I’m a huge fan of that. Really obvious stuff has never really done it for me. I like it when you say something in a roundabout way.
What’s a lyric you always carry with you?
Shannon Lay: I thought of Bjork—she has so many good ones. ‘I’m only in this to enjoy.’ I got into Bjork a long time ago—since high school. She’s so awesome—like writing songs, being more creative with melodies. Writing with the left part and not so much the right. Her song ‘Immature’ rings really true. She does the same thing as Malkmus—maybe it comes from English being her second language. How poetic she is—it’s incredible. It’s funny what stays with you. I get that with a lot of horror movies—like you can’t unsee things! Certain things never get out of your head. There are songs I associate with seeing something in a movie, a lot of music I’d rather never hear again because I associate such a dark feeling with it. It’s not really a horror movie but that scene in Almost Famous where Penny Lane gets her stomach pumped and Stevie Wonder is playing. So classic—but every time I hear it I just see her feet slip over the side of the tub! So brutal. Great song, though!
If you’re the kind of person who listens mostly to reissues and not new music, are you missing something?
Shannon Lay: Yeah, especially right now. I’ll admit I’m really behind on new band and being in L.A. especially it can be overwhelming. You blink and ten shows have happened! But there’s so much incredible music happening now. All it takes … it’s like any other discovery. Go to the show, see the band, if it affects you, listen to them, find something related to them … it grows from there. Especially if you play music in L.A. you have to go to shows, you gotta listen to new stuff … and it’s brilliant! That’s how I found my favorite artists. I played with them by chance, or I’ve gone and seen them and developed a relationshop—that’s a really important facet of this time. I think people will talk about this time. We’re really lucky to live now—it feels electric, unstoppable, now more than ever get out there and support the people trying to be tomorrow’s Bowies and Danzigs and Nick Drakes! I just did a solo trip to New York City and it was the first time I’d really gone out by myself. I didn’t have a car—
Were you on the subway with your guitar?
Shannon Lay: I think I did that a couple times! A guitar in a shopping bag—classic! It’s really amazing how music can be comforting. I had a really good time. I took the Amtrak from Boston to New York City and one record that really stayed with me was the new OCS record, Memory Of A Cut Off Head. The most amazing stuff is being created right now and it’s really cool to sit on a train and have it resonate so deeply, and be like, ‘I’m gonna play a show with them!’ Cool music keeps you company—it reminds you’re not alone.
What feels most vital to you as a listener —music that makes you think, music makes you feel, or music makes you act?
Shannon Lay: Music that makes you feel—that’s what it’s all about. My favorite comment I get when I play a show is someone comes up and says, ‘I needed that.’ It’s all about being more comfortable with expressing emotion, and having a healthy way to do so. It’s therapeutic—very healing. The next record I’m going to focus on that a lot. Bringing people’s attention to how much power we have over our well being—facing monsters. Realize they don’t control you—the past doesn’t dictate who you need to be. You can heal emotional wounds—you can face the darkness!
It’s interesting you talk about how you have this need to make music—but the music you make is very much directed at other people. It’s less about you yourself and more like trying to help people and bring them with you.
Shannon Lay: I’m all about that! No part of this is satisfying my desire to feel loved. It’s all about giving more than I have, and giving more after that. It’s really a need to help people in that way. If you can even affect one person in life in a positive way—in your whole lifetime, one person positively—then you’ve done a good job. There’s no point in pointing out something other than … I’m gonna be a hippie again and say, ‘Plant a tree!’ Don’t set off a pipe bomb in a shopping center! There are options in life, and I’ve chosen to help people feel better.
Lisa Simpson said, ‘I’m wailing out for the homeless family living out of its car. The Iowa farmer, whose land has been taken away by unfeeling bureaucrats. The West Virginia coal miner, coughing up his lungs …’ That was twenty years ago and if anything it’s worse. So now—who are you wailing for, Shannon Lay?
Shannon Lay: Man—I’m wailing for everybody! I want everyone to feel loved and reassured and sad if they need to. I wanna be that embrace that’s there when you need it. Early Lisa Simpson is the deepest shit ever. It’s so thick and rich with satire and beautiful commentary on such a real scenario. That quote brought a tear to my eye—incredible. Fucking epic. I love that.


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