In conversation: Shannon Lay

Have you ever listened to an album and thought, “how did this person crawl into my body and experience my exact emotions and feelings at this very moment”? When you cry and you can’t tell if they’re tears of happiness, sadness, or quiet reflection. That was my reaction when I first heard Shannon Lay’s sophomore solo album, Living Water.

To say that the album is beautiful is a vast understatement. Lay’s vocals are both sweet and haunting; gentle but powerful. They command your attention and leave you wanting more than the 40 minutes offered on the album.

Her lyrics are anecdotal and poetic, addressing thoughts, feelings, and emotions faced by any person who’s taken a risk; who’s left what’s most comfortable to them. Often inspired by travel, Lay takes you on a journey. You’re along for a ride through a warm desert, a cool coastal town, and atop a snowy mountain - all at once.

Calm, grounding wisdom can be found in tracks like “Caterpillar,” reminding us that “life is like the sea // ever changing in itself and all of its surroundings // full of hope of possibility // the odds of good and bad are matched // it either creates, destroys, or delivers.” She instructs us to live the lives we want: “Don’t believe what they say // don’t believe what you think.”

Even the sadder songs like “Give It Up” are lined with glimmering hope: “happiness comes when you ask for it // suffering stops when you ask for it // come on, come on, give it up // you’re holding on too tight // you’re trying too hard // and there’s nothing wrong, i don’t know what i’m doing.”

On several tracks, Lay’s soft but thoughtful acoustic guitar work are accompanied by a violin and/or stand up bass. Together, they create harmonies that’ll fill your heart and make your eyes swell.

Lay has been writing music since the age 15 when she got her first laptop equipped with Garageband. She told us, “To this day, it [songwriting] is the only thing that makes any sense at all.”

Living Water was recorded by the talented and prolific garage rocker, Emmet Kelly of The Cairo Gang, Bonnie Prince Billy, and Ty Segall in his Los Angeles home studio. It was released on indie rocker Kevin Morby’s new label, Mare Records, a Woodist imprint (Woods, Hand Habits, John Andrews & The Yawns + more) last month. Grab a copy and peek at her upcoming show dates here.

Below, Shannon and I discuss the writing process, self doubt, feeling lost, being ok with being happy, breaking into music full-time and more.

SB: What was the writing process for Living Water like? How’d it differ from All This Life Goin Down?

Shannon Lay: All This Life Goin Down was my first time putting a proper record together and the writing came from songs I’d had for a while. There’s a lot of different experiences covered on that record.

With Living Water, I began most of the songs at the same time and I think it allowed them to be related in a lot of ways. I’ve also learned a lot about my voice in the last year and I had a much different approach in that sense. I hope I can grow with every record and that I hear the growth between these two.

SB: The violin and bass on Living Water really get me, especially on “Come Together”. Who’d you work with?

SL: Laena Geronimo played Violin and Devin Hoff played stand up bass. They had maybe heard the songs a couple of times when they came into record and they killed it! They’re both so natural and creative with they’re playing. Everything came together really nicely. I’m also in a band with Laena called Feels so i just got to work with my best bud. I love what they did on “Come Together,” I hear it every time I play the song by myself live.

SB: As someone in their late twenties who’s moved around a lot, each time being further away from the people who know me best, this album spoke to my current mindset, feelings, worries, and hopes. It made me happy cry, sad cry, and given me the chills. Does this album mark a certain time and place for you — or is it bigger than that?

SL: I can totally relate to that feeling. These were some of the first songs I wrote while I was in a good place (most of them) and that’s new territory for me. I’ve always found inspiration in suffering. So flipping it to finding inspiration in positivity felt really good.

A lot of this record is about not knowing where I belong and feeling lost and unsure and being scared about the future; but then it also addresses accepting those feelings and being ok with living an unconventional life. Learning to appreciate every minute and all the beautiful details of being alive. It’s totally a happy cry and a sad cry situation happening simultaneously.

SB: I’ve image that it has to be bizarre when strangers (like myself) relate so strongly to your words, life, experiences, and emotions. Music is so personal. What is that experience like for you as a songwriter?

SL: It’s incredible! I’ve had that feeling listening to music over the years and some of those moments have been more powerful than any therapy or pill could have provided. I love that people feel something when they listen to the music I make. It’s incredible, the phenomenon of being there for someone that I may never know.

SB: Do you ever experience hesitation before sharing your work publicly? If so, how do you overcome it?

SL: Every day, all the time. I think every artist suffers from crippling self doubt and deprecation but the most important thing is giving yourself a chance. Get out of your own way and just put it out there. Don’t be so afraid to fail that you don’t try at all. It will never be easy but if it was then it would be no fun anyway.

SB: You quit your job at a vintage shop this year to pursue music full-time. Congrats! That’s something you don’t hear many artists being able to do these days. How did you know it was time? What was the leap like?

SL: Ultimately, my dream is to play music for a living but facing that reality was really heavy. I’m lucky though, the store I worked at was such a supportive place and my boss allowed me to make sure it was the right time to walk away. I kept saying to myself, leap and the net will appear; and when Kevin Morby offered to take me on tour, I knew it was time. It feels really amazing to be putting 100% of my energy into the thing I care about most.

SB: And you just signed to Kevin Morby’s Woodist imprint, Mare and toured with him and the band. What impact has this had on your music career? What was that experience like for you?

SL: It was a dream tour. Such an awesome crew, incredible shows. It was my first big solo tour and I learned a lot. It was such a great opportunity to play for so many people.

SB: What advice would you give indie artists trying to turn their music into their full-time career?

SL: Say yes to everything. You never know which moment will change everything. Be genuine and be kind.

SB: Your solo music is so different from what we’ve heard from you in Feels. What roles do the two projects play in your life?

SL: Now that I have both, I couldn’t live without either. Feels is such an amazing release physically and mentally and I get to play with my best buds. My solo stuff is a deeper kind of therapy, a moment to sit and listen. I like that someone could discover Feels and then discover my solo stuff and find the moments for both.

SB: We all know it’s tough for musicians out there today, typically requiring constant touring to make a living. What do you think takes to make it as an artist in your genre today?

SL: My favorite music being made today is made by people who need to do it. It’s not just a want it’s a genuine love for creating and a loyalty to other worldly forces. I think all it takes is that need.

*Don’t forget to buy the album.*

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