Folk music has always been a loosely defined concept, a genre defined by personal boundaries and unwritten, ever changing rules. One thing that it has always had though is a certain air of seriousness, whether it’s a network of Folk Clubs across the UK, or the rebellious earnestness of The Greenwich Village scene, folk musicians can be a lot of things, but they’re not, publicly at least, meant to be that much fun. All of which makes time spent in Shannon Lay’s company all the more surprising; Shannon is positive, hopeful and seemingly so excited to see what comes next.
Much of Shannon’s excitement can be traced back to a fateful day back in August 2017, the day Shannon took the plunge and became a full time musician, “I got my first real tour with Kevin Morby and I decided it was enough money that I knew I could pay my rent for like two months so I took the leap and ever since then it’s been amazing”. The excitement for, and appreciation of, that opportunity pours out of Shannon at every turn, an artist clearly delighted to be in the position she finds herself, “putting 100% of your energy into what you’re passionate about and having the opportunity to do that is what this record’s about. The immense appreciation I have for that experience and the life that I’ve been living the last two years…it’s just incredible to see return from your seeds, I’ve planted so many seeds and the garden just keeps growing and it’s really cool”.
Kevin Morby wasn’t just responsible for taking Shannon on tour, Kevin liked Shannon’s music so much that he started a new record label to release it, Mare Records, an imprint of the Woodsist label. That record, Living Water, came out shortly after the tour, and saw Shannon’s profile soar, and a deal signed with the legendary Sub Pop, who will release Shannon’s second album, August, later this month. We ask how that came about, “we did a mass email, where we were like, “here it is check it out”, to all the labels we admired. I think we sent it to Drag City, 4AD, all the labels that we loved and Sub Pop like mere hours later was like, “we love this let’s do it”. I love that label and I love that they were interested in me because they’re not known for singer-songwriters”. For a label still, in many people’s mind associated so heavily with the Grunge-scene, in its thirty-three years releasing records, Sub Pop has undeniably shifted it’s sound, not always to everyone’s liking, “there’s still some haters who are like, “why are you doing this stuff? Where’s the next Nirvana?”, but at the same time music is so diverse, why limit yourself to a genre? There’s so much stuff to explore”.
August is an album constructed following Shannon’s decision to go full-time, “it was a really fun one because it was coming from such a place of like, appreciation and happiness”. At a time when musicians have looked at the world and often found little to be positive about, we question whether Shannon feels odd releasing such positivity into the world, “I like to put it out there as I feel a lot of people think they have to ruin their life in order to be inspired some times. You can also write from a happy place and impact people when they’re feeling good. Of course you need those songs to cry to, but you also need those songs to fly down the highway screaming the words”. If you’re expecting highway-ready all American anthems though, August might be something of a shock, Shannon’s love of traditional folk is to the fore throughout, a world of finger-picked guitars, crisp vocals and perfectly judged instrumental additions. If not maybe a traditional soundtrack to hitting the road, much of it was written while on it, “a lot of the time when I’m on tour I’ll write poetry and then I’ll come home and play guitar. Sometimes a song will come together and then other times when I get lucky it all just happens at once, if I hit record at the right time I capture it”.
If many of the tracks began life as just Shannon and her acoustic guitar, listening to August it’s clear that’s not where the ambition ended. The album was recorded with a man Shannon knows well from playing in his touring band, Ty Segall. Shannon is effusive in her praise for what Ty brought to the record, “he was really awesome about offering up ideas and trying stuff, we had so much fun…the music stands alone well, but adding to it creates this atmosphere”. Part of the joy of making the record, was being able to try things that Shannon perhaps couldn’t replicate live, “when you make a record, you never have to play that song exactly the way it is on the record. You might as well make something that is cooler than you could have ever made it live”.
With a more ambitious production on the record, there’s also a desire to bring additional elements to the live show, not so much to replicate the record, but to give the Shannon Lay live-show a greater dynamic and flexibility. “I’ve been trickling in bands members when they’re available and when I can afford…I’m trying to do it more and recently I’ve enlisted three of my best girlfriends to be in “the Shannon Lay band”. I’m really excited for that because I want to bring that atmosphere to the live experience and tickle more parts of people. I love the fact that I can do it alone and it still have an impact, but I think switching it up and keeping it unpredictable is also nice”.
In terms of touring plans, Shannon is currently building up to a US tour in November with Michael Kronin, while dates in UK (Edit: Shannon had since added a London show at SET Dalston on October 21st) and Europe are in the pipeline, “I love folk music so deeply, and especially playing in the UK. The appreciation for it, the silence in the room is incredible and just the reactions that I have playing there, it really does feel like I’ve been there before, it’s like the idea that I’ve lived there and written there at some point in my cosmic experience”. We ask how that compares to audiences elsewhere, “it’s a little bit challenging for people to shut the fuck up sometimes. I usually don’t fly off the handle, but when it has been my show in the past, I will call people out. You have to have empathy for this situation. The feeling after a show where people have been talking my whole set, I’m so exhausted it’s crazy. On the converse if people do appreciate what I’m doing for the half an hour that I’m up there, it fills me with joy. People need to be comfortable with silence, I feel like nobody is comfortable with silence , everybody’s constantly, like “oh I’m going to put on the TV, put on a podcast, put on some music”. People in Europe and the UK in general are much more receptive to people and things that they’ve never heard of before, they will give it this chance”.
If Shannon has been keen to push her music, and folk music forward, there’s also a clear appreciation for its history as well, she talks with fondness for Nick Drake, and for the music’s ability to create an atmosphere of contemplation. We ask how Shannon defines folk music, “I guess the criteria if I had to put it in a box, is a really pure way to convey emotion or a story, it’s kind of ancient in its ways. I love folk because it’s like this river that you can go to, and drink from, and add to, and it’s very cool”. The inspiration of rivers also follows on from Shannon’s debut album, “I always have to remind myself to get in touch with nature, especially living in LA. I grew up Redondo Beach, California which is an amazing beach town and my last album, Living Water was very much a tribute to the ocean and the immensity of all that. I recently moved to a house, so I live right by the LA river. It’s this weird, man-made river, where they’ve ripped up the cement in the middle and all these trees have grown. I think also, to keep with the river theme, was the idea of forward motion that I was feeling which I wanted the record to convey. Also the idea of sharing ideas and this record being something that inspires people, hopefully for as long as material things aren’t evaporated by a nuclear bomb or something. The idea of having my place at the river bank, that I can go to, that other people can go to, it’s a shared experience”.
Alongside Nick Drake, another folk influence that Shannon is keen to shine a light on is Karen Dalton. A contemporary of Bob Dylan on The Greenwich Village scene of the 1960’s, Karen was something of a reluctant star who never particularly enjoyed playing her own songs, yet has undergone something of a renaissance courtesy of praise from the likes of Nick Cave and Joanna Newsom. Shannon cover’s Karen’s track, Something On Your Mind, towards the close of the album. “I started covering it because it was just such a gorgeous message of you really won’t get anything done if you don’t accept the fact that you might fail, but you have to try, you have to get out there and do it. I also wanted to put her in more of a megaphone, if even one person explores her catalogue that’s a win. I think it also just really fit with the whole theme of the record which was, “you’ve got to try”. You’ve got to try and do what you love, because why else are we here, what’s the point? I think the biggest win in life is to enjoy it, I think that’s like the biggest fuck you to this world, that wants you to stay sick, and stay pay cheque to pay cheque and stay depressed and stay staring at your phone…just enjoy it, that’s the biggest win”.
Throughout our conversation, Shannon touches regularly on the idea of people trying to make the most of what little time we all get on this planet, there’s a drive on both a personal and wider, collective level to find a way to move forward, “I think it’s cool to know how small we are but we’re part of something so big. I think any kind of impact that you can make should be as positive as it can be. Everybody has their own lives, it hits me a lot when I’m sitting in traffic and you can kind of see people in their cars. Everyone’s doing the same thing, yet everybody has these vastly different lives or maybe they’re really similar. They’ve all got people they love, people they hate, jobs they love, jobs they hate, shows they like, maybe someone just died, everybody is going through something. It blows my mind when I see blatant rudeness in the world, because you have no idea what that person is going through. So to just come in and think you can just affect their lives in this negative way and then just on your merry way, it blows my mind…I call it the zoom out, where you broaden perspective and consider the fact that you are such a small piece of this puzzle and you’re not alone in what you’re feeling and what you’re struggling with. It is a really important thing to remember in order to not spiral out of control because life is nuts and we all have so much to deal with. I think considering the fact that it’s all a dream people have more control than they think over their scenarios, and to kind of take advantage of that, and be like, “you know what I’m not happy with this I’m going to change it”, that’s kind of what I did towards the end. I was just like, I don’t want to work at this vintage store anymore, I want more out of life, so instead of just giving up and thinking I can never do it, putting my self doubt to the side and being like, “you know what I think I can do this” and giving it a shot. It’s so important to realise your full potential, or at least pretend that you have, you could fool everyone including yourself”.
With that in mind, we wonder what Shannon’s goals are going forward, where does Shannon see this new record taking her, and her music, “I guess I just want to be able to keep doing this, I think that’s always my goal, if what I create can perpetuate more creation, I’m happy. I had a girl message me the other day and say that she bought a guitar because of me, stuff like that is really cool. I love the idea that by creating this small little drop in the lake, it could create these ripples that could affect other people. I’m hoping this record is, just, like, a beacon of hope for people and it helps us get through. This is such a weird time that we’re living in, and I think to be negative about it is really easy. I’ve tried to go with that motto of create the world that you want to live in. I guess it might be a little ignorant. I just hope that people like it and it just keeps facilitating this thing that I love do. I think that’s just the goal to be able to continue”.
At a time when political music is having a strong renaissance and many artists are questioning the state of the world we live in, it’s interesting that Shannon touches on the ease of being negative, we wonder what she makes of the current musical climate, “you look at what’s in mainstream pop-music and to me, it sounds like a distraction. It sounds like they’re saying, don’t think about anything, just think about that guy you like who isn’t texting you back. I think people, in the indie scene or the underground scene are saying something that is really meaningful and will encourage people to speak up, and appreciate the fact that they have a voice and can use it. I think anyone, who has any kind of say, anyone who has a microphone of any kind, a pen of any kind, you need to encourage people, you don’t need to like throw your hands up and be like, “well fuck it, we can’t do anything about this”. I think in the end the idea that love can’t win is insane, so I think we just have to keep fighting in our own way. Especially with the democratic debates that just happened it blows my mind that people are arguing that change can’t happen. That was a huge theme to me that we’re so set in our ways that we can’t change it, like, we have to change it, there is no option to say the same. Eventually if this planet gets too hot, then Amazon and Exxon and whatever, need to change, it’s bizarre to me that you wouldn’t use your power for good. I guess the world is full of Mr. Burns’ and you have to just keep plugging away, it’s a bizarre time isn’t it”. A bizarre time, when we all need a bit of positivity and to see a bit of beauty in the world, August brings us both, an artist flourishing, a poignant reminder that in the end love does always win, and the tiny seeds we plant can grow into something wonderful.
August is out August 23rd via Sub Pop. Click HERE for more information on Shannon Lay.