Shannon Lay is among the handful of artists that have the capability to have you head banging and happy one track, and weeping the next. Her musical prominence was clear from the moment I heard her work in the punk band, Feels. But her solo album was worlds apart.
You expect riff heavy tunes, and that expectation makes the tearful, morose, and sullen caterwauling of Lay’s solo work so much more heartbreaking. Lay has done extensive touring recently with different artists, touring solo and with Feels.
This interview was done at the Monarch in El Paso, TX, during a tour with Dent May, another eclectic indie artist. It was a weird funky setting, this show. The Monarch, adjoined to another bar/venue known as the Prickly Elder, had thin walls. The DJ set blasting from the room over was very audible.
But Lay’s serene and melancholy songs captured a room like not many others can. There’s something real going on when she plays and it runs down and across the floor until it bursts out of the hairs on the back of your neck.
Antonio Villasenor-Baca: So I first want to ask like, I mean I guess the music from Feels is somewhat different from your solo work. So what came first the solo career or working with the band? And then how do you balance the two different genres?
Shannon Lay: So I’ve always been in loud bands. I, I always thought that that’s what people wanted and then I saw like about three years ago I saw Jessica Pratt play and she’s an incredible solo artist and I just saw how it draws everyone was and I was like, oh my gosh, this kind of thing is something people are looking for. It’s something people like and so I think it was two weeks later I booked my first solo show for like two weeks after that show and just took a chance and I was so nervous for that show that I swore I’d never do it again. But the response was so positive that I just couldn’t stop. And it’s been nice having the juxtaposition because I feel like with Feels I just kind of explode outward. And then with my solo stuff, it’s more introverted and it allows me to kind of connect on this whole other level and maybe be a bit more vulnerable than I am with Feels, which is great. I mean it’s like having two of the best kinds of therapy in the world.
AVB: You mentioned you’re more introverted, but is it different or how do you feel like going solo? Because I mean I know you’re not the lead vocalist for Feels. So was it kind of an easy transition?
SL:: I sing a lot in Feels! Yeah, I guess so. Yeah. I mean it definitely, it’s very new to me being comfortable on stage so it only helps with that. But it’s cool to put yourself out there in such a sensitive way because I think people can relate to it really well. And then it’s also cool to like yell and scream and have a great time because I think people also want to do that. So yeah, it’s good too. It’s nice to have that and Feels has taught me how to be comfortable on stage for sure. Laena [Geronimo, Lay’s band mate from Feels] in particular, you know, we were Raw Geronimo before Feels so me and her have been playing music for almost 10 years together now. So she’s definitely been very patient with me coming out of my little snail shell and feeling cozy on stage because it’s not easy. It’s very difficult. It’s a very weird thing. I get caught up in it sometimes like the fact that people are just staring at you. I think you just have to be very in the moment and realize that, you know, be present with your craft and not be so lost in the reality of it. Yeah.
AVB: And what about stylistically because the music is so different? Do you have to draw inspiration from different sources?
SL: You know, it’s very similar sources but I think it’s always really clear when something that I write is for Feels or for me because it depends on if I’m hearing other things with it, you know? Like with whenever I write a Feels song, I just, I know it from the minute I started because like the way we usually do it as one of us will bring in a song and then we’ll all put our salt and pepper on it and it becomes a whole different dish. So when I write something for my solo stuff, it’s, it just tastes good as is, you know? It’s like it’s done.
AVB: Is it the same for like, the production of it?
SL: Kind of. Yeah. I’m getting more comfortable with adding things to my records and my solo records and I really want to start playing with bands, more live because I think it does add like a cool texture to it. So I’m starting to try to do that ahead. Think ahead a little more with stuff from like, oh, this would sound really good with some violin or some bass or something and for the most part if it’s a little more rock I’ll bring it to Feels.
AVB: And what about splitting time? Are you working on the Feels album? Are you working on your next solo album, touring?
SL: Yeah, as of now, it’s been really easy because Feels, we finished our record. We finished recording in August of last year and we just finished mastering it so we’ve been kinda laying low since we’re working on that. And then this year has been a really big solo year for me just because as of now, you know, it’s just kind of like when there’s a lull I take advantage and I’ll do more solo stuff. I’ll put my solo stuff on hold and just do more Feels stuff. But I think next year the Feels album will probably come out early in the year and then my next solo record will probably come later in the year. So I’ll probably just split the year into Feels and then solo and hopefully it’ll all work out- I’ll just be a beautiful array of time and management.
AVB: Could you talk a little bit about how you got signed to put out your last solo record. You talked a little bit about Kevin Morby and about how he was just totally moved, so heartbroken by seeing you play live.
SL: Yeah! You know, it was at this small bar called the Griffin in Los Angeles and he came to see me and after the show we didn’t know each other terribly well at that time, but we had met before. I actually met him when he had just gotten surgery on his vocal chords so he couldn’t speak and he had this chalkboard and he was just like, ‘Hi. I’m Kevin Morby.’ It was very cool, but after that show, he came up to me afterwards. It was just like, let’s do a record, like let’s make it happen. And it’s been cool to the two records that I’ve put out, both happened that way where someone has approached me afterwards, and just been like, we have to do this, let’s do this. So it was a really cool experience. And Kevin hands down is the most supportive, like uplifting person that I’ve ever had the pleasure of being friends with. Yeah. I don’t know where I’d be without him. It’s been an amazing experience working with him.
AVB: What’s the reaction to like when people hear both the Feels and then the solo stuff, just because, I mean, do you have people saying anything? Like where did this come from?
SL: Right! Well, most of the time people just realize that after the fact, whether they see Feels and then realize that it’s me playing in Feels or whether they see me and realized that I play in Feels. It’s always just like, ‘that’s, that’s wild. Wow.’ I don’t know. Like I think, I think every artist has so many facets and they should explore every element of themselves. I think it’s important to recognize all elements of yourself and I like shocking people with that. Like I love when I first meet someone for some reason there was a Feel show than a solo show and I’m like, come to both of these shows. You’ll know exactly who I am! Here it is.
AVB: And how did the tour and how was it planned with Dent [May]?
SL: Oh, Dent’s, amazing. He’s such a fucking bad ass. His old band is so sweet and getting in the band, I didn’t know any of them and they were so welcoming to me and our only connection was that we had the same booking agent and so they really took a chance to take me on the road and you know, this tour in particular, I decided to just bring an acoustic guitar and you know, a lot of, I think a lot of the audiences were, were very receptive and I was really surprised and it’s very cool to know that you could just sandwich yourself between two crazy bands and come out with a guitar and a voice and people are like, oh, I’m going to listen to this too. You know, it’s cool to challenge people like that and I’ve, and I think a lot of people came up to me and said they appreciated the ebb and the flow the show, you know? I think it’s like a nice element to have. So I don’t know. It’s been really fun.
AVB: And then I just finally I can talk a little bit about what inspiration did you get? Like, I guess attracted to music. When did you start playing? How did you start Raw Geronimo and then Feels?
SL: I started playing guitar when I was 13. I’d quit playing soccer and I had all this excess energy and I needed somewhere to put it. So I started playing guitar, which was an amazing place to put it. And then moved to L.A. right after high school and found the first band on Craig’s list. They’re called Facts on File and then left that band because they were very slow paced. And then I met Laena. I was working at this vintage store called Squares Ville and my manager there, knew Laena and she was looking for a guitarist and a keyboard player. And so she told her about me and I met Laena and found Raw Geronimo was a funny band. I think we had to like kind of do everything wrong in order to figure out how to do things right. And so, we were trying really hard and then everything fell apart and then we were able to put it back together how we wanted and that was Feels. And so ever since then I think, you know, Feels is a much more clear incantation of what we want to do and has gotten great response from people and we love playing live and like feeling the energy of folks. I’m really excited to tour this new record. It’s incredible. Compared to our last record, our last record, we recorded nine songs one day. That was it. Poof, record was made. This record- we spent eight days at a studio just recording and it was amazing, like it feels just a lot more grown up and polished and in a good way, not too much. It’s great.
AVB: So it took eight days to record, but how long did it take in all?
SL: We recorded for like five days and then probably mixed for like four and like added weird stuff, some cowbell here and there or whatever. But yeah, yeah, that was, it was just cool to take our time with it and like go in with all the songs flushed out and yeah, just get to be like, no, we didn’t like that, so let’s do it again. You know? It was cool. It was very cool. Still very much a live record though, like we did a most of it just completely live.
AVB: And what about the latest solo album?
SL: I’m almost finished with it. I think it will be done in September and it’s much more upbeat than Living Water, which I’m really excited about, like I’m in a much happier place and I’m trying to figure out how to write music from that place because I think a lot of people have to get to maybe like a self deprecating spot or even sabotage some elements of their life so that they have inspiration and I’m trying to just write from the spot of being really content with everything and it’s cool. It’s like a nice challenge. So it’s been fun doing that and I’ve been writing a lot on this tour like a lot of inspiring moments, just like man, life is wild and everywhere so different and everyone has such a different experience. It’s kind of coming from that vein and it’s, it’s really a celebration of me being able to play music full time, which I’ve never had the opportunity to do and I’m loving everything about it. It’s incredible.
AVB: Is that what Living Water was? Did it come from like a more melancholic place?
SL: Definitely, it was. It was a lot of songs about, you know, previous relationships and also kind of reflecting on the current state of the world and the environment. I wanted to bring people’s attention to the ocean, which to me, I want to help that thing when I look at it, I think like. I never would not want to be able to be here and look at this. I guess I just hoped that I would affect even one person in a positive way of, like pick up that piece of trash or, you know, just like, um, realize how much we depend on nature for our happiness. Our survival and well-being and don’t get too lost in your every day. like just take the time to visit what matters. I read that just recently we became more urban than rural of a society, which is a trippy thing. It’s like, the fact that there’s more of us living in cities than living in nature. I don’t think that that’s never happened before. And so yeah, I think it’s important to just remember what matters because I think we all need it, but maybe we don’t realize that we do. So yeah, Living Water was kind of. Yeah, just like, I feel very hopeless right now, but I know what I need. I need to just be by the ocean, you know?
By Antonio Villasenor-Baca