words by Bella Genolio
KCSB’s External Music Director, Bella Genolio, had the chance to sit down with Shannon Lay and discuss her recent shows in SoCal as well as her new covers album. Read on to hear Shannon’s insights on touring, making music, ceramics, and more!
Photo by Kai MacKnight
Bella Genolio: Could you introduce yourself with your name and pronouns?
Shannon Lay: I’m Shannon Lay, my pronouns are she/her.
BG: You’ve had a couple of shows in SoCal this month and one coming up on the sixth. How’s this mini tour been for you? Do you have any highlights?
SL: It’s been nice. I honestly haven’t gone this long without not leaving LA in a while and it’s really fun playing around town. I have such an amazing community here, it’s just a blast. I love it.
BG: That’s super cool. Is that how you get in contact with all of these artists and perform with them?
SL: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’ve been lucky enough to grow up here. So at this point, I have over a decade of just being around under my belt, and I think that really helps.
BG: Awesome. As I saw online, you’ve been performing since 2016, and you’ve performed with bands like Ty Segall, Cutworms, Bedoine, what have you learned over the seven years about working with other musicians? How have you developed a stage presence that fits your style?
SL: I guess my comfort on stage definitely started before I started playing solo, I joined my first band in 2010. That was a really good introduction to just getting past the weirdness of being on stage. Because there’s something really, really strange about it, I think your nervous system really reacts to it, there’s a lot of fear and the classic kind of stage fright comes up. Just getting to know that side of myself and how to get past it in order to get up there and have fun, I think was really helpful to do with other people. When you’re in a band scenario, you have this crew of badass humans who have your back and are just cheering you on. And even if you stumble a little bit, you know, you have these other people that can deflect, so you’re not the only person anyone’s looking at. Then when I started playing solo, I remember the first show just being so scared about it that I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m never doing this again. That was terrible.” But then the feedback was so lovely that I was like, “Okay, I’ll try it again.”
Now, seven years into playing solo, I think I feel just an immense comfort on stage. I’m so grateful that that’s my experience. And I think I’ve done a lot of work to get to that place. But now it just really feels, I don’t know, it just feels comfortable in a cool way. And I think that has a lot to do with how the audience receives you. Not to say you need to be perfect in order to get on stage. But I think fake it till you make it, your comfort is their comfort, if you feel at ease, the crowd is going to feel at ease. And if you’re nervous the crowd is going to be nervous for you. I always tell people not to let on. Don’t say things like, “Oh, I’m so nervous right now.” You know, keep your cards close to your chest and really own the fact that that’s your moment, you are there because someone asked you to present your gifts. In situations like that, there’s really nothing to be afraid of, because you know exactly what you’re doing. It’s just all the outside chatter and kind of conditioning and all the layers that are on top of it that make it hard to let that authenticity shine. But the more you do it, the more comfortable it can be. And I think also having a good chat with your nervous energy and just being like, “Hey, look like I get it. This is hard to do. This is weird to do but we gotta do it anyway, step up, come on now.”
BG: It’s very impressive that you’re so comfortable on stage and you can find peace in front of all those people. Do you play with bands anymore or collaborate with other musicians?
SL: I like collaborating. I think I want to become more comfortable with it. I feel like because of the pandemic and having so much time to myself made it more comfortable to do things on my own. So, you know, that’s definitely one of those things where it’s like, “Okay, I see, I see that this is outside of my comfort zone and it’s probably something I should explore more of.” So lately, I’ve been trying to write with other people. I love playing with other musicians on my own project, if that is able to happen. I think collaboration is super important and it also gets you out of your own perspective, which then kind of enlightens your perspective. It’s an important ingredient to have in the mix for sure.
BG: Can you tell me a bit about how you got into music when you started playing guitar and songwriting in general?
SL: Yeah, I started playing guitar when I was 13. I had quit playing soccer. I played soccer like all my adolescence and was kind of outgrowing it, I wasn’t going to be a pro soccer player or anything. So I picked up guitar and it was a really good way to get some energy out. At the time the first Apple laptops had come out, so I remember getting a laptop that had GarageBand and I was able to record some stuff. I never set out to be a musician, but when I moved to LA after deciding to forego college after high school, I was like, “Oh, this is probably a cool way to meet people.” So I literally went on Craigslist and found my first band that I ended up joining, it was called Facts on File. It was just a three piece and I played guitar and keys. It was great, it was such a good introduction. And it really led to my next venture, which led to the next venture, the thread kind of pulled easily. So that was fun to feel.
BG: That’s super cool. I love the stories where you start playing when you’re really young, and it just blossoms into something so great. You just released a covers album of mainly old folk songs this April. Can you tell me a bit about how you created this album? How did you choose these songs?
SL: I wanted to make something like this because I love playing covers live. I think it’s a really amazing way to connect with an audience that may not know your stuff. It’s kind of an instant unifier. At that point, I had amassed enough covers to have a full album’s worth. So I went in and decided to start recording them. It felt like a mixtape of things that have shaped me, things that I thought that the people who liked my sound would like. It was just like a sort of essentials collection from my own experience and just the things that I’ve enjoyed listening to my whole life. It was a really fun thing to do. I absolutely love doing covers, I think it’s such a fun way to create and, again, it feels collaborative, because you’re learning someone else’s frequency and transforming it into your own and it’s a cool form of alchemy.
BG: Yeah, totally and in the folk genre so many people cover each other. They all just have such different sounds for the same lyrics and same chords but making something new out of that is so, so cool and so beautiful. You also have been making a collection of music videos, and one of your more recent ones was for Blues Run the Game. Can you tell me about your artistic vision for this video and more generally how you decide what content to create to accompany your songs?
SL: Oh, yeah, that one came because of this wonderful director that did John Kirkbride, he’s from the UK. We had actually worked together on my second record. I had a song called ASA on that album, and he really connected with that song so he emailed me and was like, “Hey, can I make a music video for you, you don’t have to be in it. Here’s the concept, my brother is going to act in it.” And from that, the video was such a beautiful result. It went so beautifully with the song and having the UK aesthetic that kind of gloomy, moist setting, it just really accompanies fingerpicking well in general.
Later he had hit me up and was thinking of doing a video for Blues Run the Game as a fun project. So then I came up with the cover and we filmed a little bit while I was in Manchester. He lives kind of in the countryside, but he came up and hung out for a bit and this was just his concept. He had built this amazing rig that let the camera see through the sound hole of the guitar and you can see the strings and everything and it was just kind of like the life of a guitar. Actually in the video he ended up filming in this hospital that Jackson C. Frank was at for a little bit in the UK, because he struggled a lot with mental health and addiction and so he ended up at that hospital. It was like there were little pieces of him in the video, and I think that the UK was so important to Jackson C. Frank and his journey. It felt really appropriate to have that be the setting for this reimagining of that song. So I got really lucky with that one. He just felt passionate about the project and I was like, “Let’s do it!” So we had fun with that.
BG: That’s really special. I want to go back to an older song that you wrote called Awaken and Allow, which is mainly a cappella, until the instrumentals come in at the very very end. When I saw you at the Teragram, you performed it a cappella. Is there anything that inspired you to feature your voice with no backing? Do you want to make other a cappella songs without instrumentation?
SL: Yeah, absolutely. That song has been such a cool offering because I’ve gotten so much amazing feedback from it and you can kind of feel the energy shift in the room. It’s kind of why I started ending my set with it because I want to leave you on this note of just a little bit of self reflection. Hopefully, you kind of come to that place of acceptance of like, “Oh, man, yeah, I’ve been going through so much lately. But you know, it’s okay. And I’m here where I’m at, and I am who I am. And that’s beautiful. And I might have more work to do. But like, this is an amazing experience.” I am hoping that just the simplicity and the message of the song can really help people. I mean, I think that’s what I love about music is it puts these kinds of big, esoteric concepts into these really down to earth packages where you just listened to the song and all of a sudden you feel uplifted. It’s magic. I love acapella songs, it was the first one I’ve ever done. I think it was a real gift from my Irish ancestors. It felt very much like an Anne Briggs type of style, just singing to the wind kind of vibes. I definitely want to tap into that more. It feels like a really cool place to create from.
BG: I watched that video for that one too and that was really special. You did the whole acapella part, and then it went into another song and it transitioned really nicely. Did you direct that video?
SL: Yeah, that was all my partner, actually. His name is Kai MacKnight, he’s an amazing director and cinematographer. That was all his doing. I think, for me, I just really wanted the idea of transition and had that as kind of the main concept. What’s so great about having someone who really understands your creative perspective is he was able to create this world around the song that really fit it perfectly. We filmed it at Zebulon, which is a kind of family venue in Los Angeles. It’s just good times all the time. I love how the instrumentation and production came together on Geist to find specifically the song that it goes into and to have like the players on stage, they didn’t write the parts, but they were able to kind of bring the visual element. I really enjoyed making that one. It felt sort of voyeuristic in the best way where it’s just like, you happen to be there as we’re experiencing these moments.
BG: That’s super cool. At the Teragram Ballroom show as well as on your website, you sell handmade ceramic cups and mugs. I think it’s really cool that you sell these alongside your merch because it really suits your sound. When did you get into ceramics? Do you make art in any other medium?
SL: Yeah, I love crafting. I got into ceramics last June so I’ve been doing it for a little over a year now. But I’ve always felt called to try it and there are so many great studios in LA and in your town no doubt there’s probably somewhere cool that they’re doing classes or whatever. For me ceramics just stuck. I have a closet full of kind of forgotten crafts, like I love wood burning and embroidery and painting. This one kind of just put everything that I love about creating into one package and it also became something that went really well with music, which was so cool. I didn’t really expect that to happen. It’s been a really amazing venture and it’s also such a meditative craft full of metaphors and beautiful lessons on impermanence and all the experimentation of it. It’s nice to learn that, that feeling of pushing something to the point of breaking and then knowing that point and being able to stop just before that point, it’s a lot of experimentation. It’s been so fun and I also feel like it’s one of those things you can never stop learning about. There are so many aspects that I haven’t even gotten into like glazes: I just do the underglaze and then the clear glaze. I highly recommend ceramics if it calls to anyone at all.
BG: That’s super special. I’ve never heard ceramics talked about so poetically.
SL: Really it is so poetic. What I love about it is that it uses all four elements to their maximum degree: earth, air, fire, water, you need them all in their most extreme form to make this thing happen. When you fire something, it gets fired twice at around 2,100 degrees, an insane temperature. And the clay is the earth and you could not make it happen without the water and it has to dry in the air. It’s so amazing. It’s so ancient, I love stuff that’s been around forever. I feel like acupuncture, kombucha, any ancient kind of thing. I’m just like, there’s got to be something to this.
BG: Folk music.
SL: Yeah exactly.
BG: Do you have anything else you would like to add or talk about?
SL: I have a show coming up this Friday. It’s at Permanent Records Roadhouse and I’ll be opening for another worm band, the Flatworms. They have a new record that just came out. But yeah, I hope that you’re doing okay. I feel like it’s kind of a collectively challenging moment, and I think that it’s important to give yourself what you need. Sometimes that’s a nap and sometimes it’s a massage and sometimes it’s a good meal, whatever it is for you. I think everyone needs that reminder that rest is okay. Just hang in there. We got this.