Interviewed on June 4, 2018
LA-based singer-songwriter Shannon Lay often sings about the sea. She grew up in Redondo Beach, but the seaside that Lay evokes in her most recent album Living Water (2017) bears little resemblance to any in California’s South Bay. Alongside fiddle lines that stretch over sounds of crashing waves, Lay sings from a haunting shore. Lay spent the last year touring the country and the world, first with Kevin Morby, then on her own. Her recent albums Living Water (2017) and All this life goin down (2016) received critical praise for their uncommon lyrics, sparse instrumentation and Lay’s hushed, commanding vocals.
I was introduced to Shannon through her best-known song, “Recording 15," which draws out the choice between holding onto lost love and letting it go. We spoke twice — once, before her soundcheck at Zebulon, where she played music from the forthcoming album she’s recording with Ty Segall, and a second time, before a soundcheck in San Francisco. In our conversations, Lay told me about the different voices she’s sung in, what she learned working for seven years in a vintage clothing store, and how she learned to live a simple life.
What The Sound: Do you enjoy Zebulon as a venue?
Shannon Lay: I do! I love that the show space is separate from the bar area, especially for quieter stuff. People can be loud together in the other room and if they come in here, they’re usually very respectful. It sounds so nice for quieter stuff.
WTS: I came to see Julie Byrne here and she ordered everyone to sit down. It was relieving. Would you do that?
SL: I love when people can sit, it’s my favorite. It makes me a little more comfortable because I go to shows and have to stand all night and it's exhausting.
WTS: Speaking of exhausting, you’ve been very busy touring this spring. Where have you passed through?
SL: I did Europe in March, which was incredible. I just came back from this festival in Ohio called Nelsonville. I’d never been to Ohio and I’d never been to the Midwest during summer — I really loved it. I loved the humidity. You just had to slow down and take it easy.
WTS: Were you playing solo or with the arrangement you have tonight?
SL: No, this is the first time I've ever played in this format. I’ve had violin and stand-up bass but this is the first straight-up drum-bass combo that I'm trying out. I mean, it's cool because on the new record especially, there's a lot more of that. I wanted to start doing it to feel more comfortable and hopefully, in the next few months so I can start taking people on tour.
WTS: You seem to play with longtime friends for the most part. Do you play with folks whom you haven’t had prior relationships with?
SL: I never have. It's always a very close-knit thing. My favorite person to play with is Laena Geronimo, who’s in FEELS (Lay’s “psych punk grunge post future rock + roll whatever band”) with me. She's a classically trained violinist and her energy adds so much to the set. When I was in Europe, she came out for the last week and the shows were elevated to an entirely different place.
WTS: Does having someone on stage with you fundamentally change your experience of performing?
SL: I think so. I mean, doing it alone is very stress-free. I get concerned if someone else is involved — if they’re okay, if they’re having a good time. It’s an added stress but at the same time, an added joy. Especially with Laena — like, freaking out with her beforehand and then having this moment onstage of quietude and solemness. It’s a cool juxtaposition.
WTS: Do you tend to give a lot of direction to your musical collaborators?
SL: I give a lot of artistic freedom to people, definitely when we're recording and especially live. There are some key moments that I like to have happen, but for the most part I want them to have fun with it. Hear what you feel and play what you hear — just feel it out.
WTS: What's your musical training or background?
SL: I started taking lessons when I was thirteen because I stopped playing soccer and I had tons of excess energy. I decided to play guitar and took lessons from this guy in Redondo Beach, where I grew up. I’d just bring in songs I wanted to learn so we started out with “Blackbird” by The Beatles, moved onto Neil Young. I was obsessed with Ben Kweller back then so I learned a ton of Ben Kweller. It was an amazing experience but it took a good two years until my brain could tell my hand to do something and my hand would do it. But the minute it clicked, I'll never forget that day. It was such a cool moment of, “I can do this.”
WTS: Tell me about the day.
SL: (Laughs) I mean, It's as simple as going from a C chord to G chord and just jumping to it. It is so hard to learn how to do that. I think it’s why a lot of people stop playing music just when they’re beginning to learn. It really is a whole different way of instructing your body, but it's so satisfying once you do it. To me, it was just the most satisfying thing.
WTS: Did you begin songwriting alongside your learning to play guitar? Were you a singer before you played?
SL: Oh yeah, I sang all the time as a kid. To an annoying extent.
WTS: Were you a church choir or a talent show kind of girl?
SL: Neither, more of a bedroom and playground kind of girl. I was obsessed with the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys and I just sang along ad nauseum. I didn't start writing music until I got my first laptop when I was sixteen. It opened up all these doors — being able to record something made it worth it to write. I have hundreds of recordings on my old laptop, from when I was in high school. They’re ridiculous.
WTS: Listening to your first two albums, All this life goin down (2016) and Living Water (2017), there’s a distinct shift in the quality of voice. What’s behind that?
SL: I was so timid on All This Life Going Down. I'm basically whispering the entire time. You can use your full voice or you can sing from the back of your throat — I did a lot of the latter. I hadn't found my voice yet. I think that you’re first imitating, then you're learning and then you kind of figure it out and go from there. It’s a big process of trying things out and on that record, we were going for this beyond-folk, more experimental, freaky style. On the second record, we took out the reverb, made it much more down-to-earth. Being able to sing confidently in my full-voice is like a different world. The record I’m making now is even more so just letting it go and it feels amazing. To hear the changes is really cool. It's like these life markers, like, “I was such a different person even two years ago.” You do so much growing all the time.
WTS: You hope so. It’s great because, it’s not like either stage necessarily better than the other.
SL: It's just different! It's always evolving.
WTS: Are you currently performing songs from All This Life Going Down? Do you feel any pressure to sing in the way they sound on the record?
SL: I sing them differently now. I sing them full-voice and it changes the songs, but in a such a way that makes me want to re-record them again because they're so different to me. It's opens up all these doors in terms of rethinking what I’ve have already done.
WTS: What was your first experience as a professional musician?
SL: I joined my first band, Facts on File, when I was eighteen. I found them on Craigslist. I love looking back on those times because I was so timid onstage, I had no self-awareness. I feel like you have to go through that strange, in-between period in order to grow. The band wasn’t very active and I felt myself wanting more so I left. I met Laena through my old manager at a vintage store in LA called Squaresville. She needed someone who played guitar and keyboard and sung and my manager recommended me. So one day, Laena comes into Squaresville, leans up against the counter, hands me a CD and is like, “How’s it going?” And the rest is history.
WTS: And she hadn't heard you sing or play guitar or keys?
WTS: The leaps of the faith people make are beautiful.
SL: And the timing of life is hilarious. You can’t question it for a minute. It’s all happening as it should.
WTS: And that was one of those instances?
SL: Exactly. Laena was very patient with me in terms of waiting for my development to happen. I was this little shelled animal for a long time and she watched me break out of that. I don’t know where I’d be without her.
WTS: You’ve been very much involved in the production of both albums. Tell me about those processes.
SL: I come in with just guitar and vocals written and then my co-producer and I are like, okay, well, what does it mean? I did All this life goin down with Jeffertiti Moon. Living Water I did with Emmett Kelly. This record I’m doing with Ty Segall. They’ve all been incredible to work with. I wanted to do this album with Ty so it’d be a very different record and it totally is. It’s still melancholy and quiet, but there are these moments of boisterous happiness that I really wanted to come through.
WTS: When did you realize or decide that you were going to be a co-producer on all of your albums?
SL: I guess it never occurred to me not to be. I’ve always had the idea that having the ability to relay what you want to somebody is what makes a really good recording musician. You think of people like, Bjork, who go in and are like, “I need a [very specific] bloop bloop sound” and somebody’s like, “I got you, Bjork.” That’s what makes it so you don’t need outside help. It’s an important skill. That being said, I also love having outside opinions. When you’re so close to something, it can be hard to see the whole picture.
WTS: You write poetry — are your poems distinct from your song lyrics?
SL: I usually write lyrics first in the form of poetry, and it becomes a song. My favorite is when I’m on tour, I’ll usually just be taking notes or hearing a sentence that strikes me. I’ll always write it down. When I get back, I’ll play guitar and go through my notes sing something to see if it sticks. I guess the Leonard Cohen approach of poem first, music second.
WTS: A portable process.
SL: Yes! Occasionally though, I’ll just hit record and make a song. Those are my favorite moments. I call it “the muse” — you have this energy that you can tap into and that feeds you. You always have to be open to it because you never know when it’s going to come. It may not come for years and then come in droves, and you’ve just gotta be ready.
WTS: When you say, “You hear a sentence”— are these sentences people are saying aloud or ones you hear in your head? What’s the catalyst to begin writing?
SL: Yeah, it’s the strangest things that spark it. I’ve had to pull over before when something pops into my head, or someone will say something so poetic and they don’t even know it. Landscapes always strike me — the energy of a place. I wrote so much driving around Europe in a van.
WTS: Would you ever pack up and head over there?
SL: I haven’t been anywhere that’s struck me like that yet. I’ve been to a lot of places where I’d love to spend more time, but nowhere that I’d move to. I do want to get out of LA at some point. Maybe somewhere with snowy winters.
WTS: Which shows do you remember in particular from that tour?
SL: There was one show in Switzerland where I had this beautiful steak dinner beforehand. I was so full of wine and they just threw me onstage. I was just the happiest little gal. Berlin was incredible. We played at this place called Frieburg where we were set up inside of a beautiful glass cube in a park.
WTS: You were inside the cube?
SL: It was a big cube. Traveling allows me to divorce from the experience of being home. I don’t have to look at dirty dishes or sweep the floor. I can just focus on my surroundings and have uninterrupted poetic thoughts. It’s really nice to find that clear headspace.
WTS: Given how much your songs rely on lyrical storytelling, what does it feel like when you play to a majority non-English speaking crowd?
SL: If they don’t speak English, I try to convey the sentiment of the song in other ways. Really put out the emotion in an energy-sense rather than a verbal-sense. A lot of people seem to get it and that really stokes me out.
WTS: I was listening to “Coast” and there are actual sounds of the sea in the song. Is that something you want to play around with more, integrating sounds of natural landscape?
SL: Living Water was definitely a love note to the ocean. I love bringing attention to environment. I feel like, with this next record, however, I’m getting further away from that.
WTS: Are you getting closer to something else in particular? If landscapes were useful to you in your first two records, what are you calling upon now as an overarching theme?
SL: My current record is very much inspired by my own personal journey. It’s a reflection on choices I’ve made, people I’ve met. Just looking back on it all and taking stock. As someone who tries to live in the moment, it’s hard to remember to look back at the things I’ve done. I’m doing that and patting myself on the back, which I’m really bad at doing. Just taking a minute to appreciate how far I’ve come and looking at the reasons why I’ve decided to do all this and what it means to me. It’s not easy to give yourself credit.
WTS: I feel like most artists must go on the difficult journey towards claiming what they do, what they make.
SL: It’s naturally a self-deprecating field.
WTS: You said you worked at a vintage store for a while.
SL: Yeah, I’ve been working in retail since I was fifteen.
WTS: How did you think of your work in retail versus your work in music? Was there a pleasant equilibrium to doing both simultaneously?
SL: I don’t miss it now, but it was a great experience. I grew up at Squaresville. I started when I was 19 and worked until I was 26, so it took up a big chunk of my primetime. I learned so much about myself and people and patience. I think everybody should have a service industry job at some point so they can have that empathy towards those people and not treat them like shit like most people do. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world, but music became such a clear path. I really had no choice but to do everything I could to make it happen. I wasn’t happy clocking in anymore, it didn’t feel right to be there. If something doesn’t interest me anymore, I just drop it so fast. The skies cleared and I had to make it happen. But it was great — the time I spent there and the girls I worked with were so incredible and will be lifelong friends. Growing up and working, having to pay your rent and figure stuff out. It’s a really important thing to do. It’s very humbling and you have to learn to deal with people you don’t want to deal with. It’s a good thing.
WTS: When did you start working on music full-time?
SL: Only in August.
WTS: Wow, just a year! Was there anything jarring about that shift?
SL: It was great! What gave me the opportunity to take the leap was Kevin Morby asking me to do a full U.S. tour. It allowed me to have a financial safety net. That’s what was really holding me back — I had a job that paid my rent. When Kevin asked me to do that, I was like, it’s time. It was an opportunity to come home and not return to that job. Surrendering to the responsibility of making music full-time was such a powerful thing. I take it very seriously but at the same time, I’m having the most fun I’ve had in my entire life.
WTS: And to start off with Kevin Morby when he was experiencing such a spotlit moment seems like great timing.
SL: Absolutely. I couldn’t have hoped for a more supportive musician to share my first adventure with. It was a game-changer. The next record is going to be called August because that’s the month it all changed.
WTS: How did you have to recreate a structure for yourself when you first began this unregulated phase?
SL: Definitely. I think managing yourself is the hardest thing in the world. Music is especially weird because sometimes you’ll sit down to write and nothing will happen and you have to go do something else. And then the next day, when you weren’t planning on writing, it flows like water.
WTS: What are some things you do when you have to busy yourself with something else?
SL: I live by the LA River now and I love to go for a bike ride by the river. We have a big garden, so I’ll just hang out with the plants. Or just watch cooking shows or The Simpsons for eight hours straight. I’m really good at doing nothing. So I’ll usually just do nothing at all.
WTS: That’s a skill.
SL: It is! And it’s really hard sometimes. I also have great friends that can distract me.
WTS: There are a lot of good people in this city.
SL: There are. And you really get what you put out. If you’re doing good things, you’ll meet other people doing good things.
WTS: I agree. Your music connects with people on a deeply emotional level, so I imagine you’re used to having good energy flowing your way.
SL: I really do try and attract good things. Keep life light. I think you have a choice about how hard it needs to be, so I try to keep it as simple as possible.