Shannon Lay interview: The Californian songwriter tells us about all the life lessons to be found in her beautiful new album August
Today California folk artist Shannon Lay shares ‘August’ the title track from her captivating new album, which comes out in a couple of weeks on Sub Pop. ‘August’ is the central thesis for the album, a song which captures the artist’s pure joy in committing her life to music – the theme that courses through the entirety of the record.
I had the opportunity to speak to Shannon and run through August with her, gleaning several pearls of wisdom in the process. It’s an album that exudes warmth and love, with empowering poetry sung along to creative updates on folk tropes. I wanted to know more about the writing of August, working with Ty Segall on the record, and the revelations that led to the lyrics – and I got all that and so much more. Check out the heartwarming and eye opening extended conversation with Shannon Lay, below new single ‘August’.
We're building up to your third record, August, your first for Sub Pop and a further evolution of your sound. Are you excited about all that?
Absolutely! I love feeling the growth with every record, and I think with this one it was a departure from the usual vibe that I've had. It's nice to create something a little more overtly positive than I have in the past. I'm hoping that it effects people in a way that helps them get through the tough times. It's a really optimistic record for me, it's very much a thank you to the universe for all the opportunities I've had, and hope there's many more to come.
It's named August because it's in honour of the month you decided to quit your day job and focus on music full time. Was that always the title? is that where the positivity stems from?
Yeah I think so. I'd been playing music for over 10 years before I was able to make it my life. There was always that fear of taking that leap and not being able to make ends meet. I just kept thinking "leap and the net will appear"; the month I decided to quit was the month before my first ever solo tour with Kevin Morby, and from that month it was just the more I fuelled the thing that I loved the more that it came back to me. It was just this really amazing experiment in where you put your energy is where the seed grows. It's just been awesome to watch it grow and appreciate this way of living where I can do what I love full time. I don't take any day for granted, it's such an amazing thing to be able to accept the responsibility of creating music and seeing where it's taking me.
Very nice. Was there one specific thing that happened that convinced you to do it?
It was the offer for the Kevin Morby tour that made me think this will be at least enough for me to pay my rent for the next 2 months, so let's just do this. I had been at my job for 7 years, so it was a huge decision to make that change. It just felt right. That one opportunity that got offered that allowed me to feel safe enough to let go of that safety net that I'd had for all that time.
Is that the tour on which you wrote a lot of material for August?
Yeah I wrote a lot of it on that tour and a lot of it on the months afterwards, reflecting on the times and having the time to spend at home and be free to write whenever I wanted. It was a really reflective period, and thinking about other people and what they do with their time, what we're capable of... I love the urban dictionary word "to sonder," which is to consider the fact that everybody has their own stuff going on, and people that they love and people that love them. it's kind of looking at the bigger picture of everything, I was doing a lot of that, so a lot of the material came from this huge zoom out.
Yeah I was going to ask you about that word "sonder" because it shows up in one of the songs.
Yeah, it's just this amazing urban dictionary word that somebody's made up; I love that they've put a word to that huge concept. I think it's something that people don't do enough, and for me it helps me when I'm in those moments when I'm spiralling out of control and things seem so overwhelming, to just take a minute and be like "you know what, I'm not the only person that's going through something like this." The old age saying "all things must pass," that always goes through my mind too. Like, it’s all good, take a minute to step back and you'll see that it's all just a small blip in the big picture.
Very cool. I want to start using that word, it's strange that there hasn't been a word for that before.
I know, it's wild!
Is the fact that the record is coming out in August coincidence or planning?
It was a total coincidence, it just worked out like that. I was really glad because it was fitting [Laughs]. It's wild because this August will be two years since I've been doing music, and to have something like this mark that milestone is a really cool opportunity.
When you decided to jump into music full time you already had a good support network of friends, you've mentioned Kevin Morby, I guess you knew the Woods guys from being on Woodsist, and then especially Ty Segall, who you worked with on this record. How do you know him?
We met maybe 3 or 4 years ago, and he's just been incredibly supportive the whole time; having me open for his bands solo, trusting that I could handle something like that, his audience was always so warm and welcoming to me. He's a huge role model for anyone who's looking to do music; he's super true to himself and what he loves to do, he loves to work with his friends, and he's always creating and he's always surprising - I think himself and everyone around him. He's an incredible person to have to look up to, he's awesome.
Awesome, and when did the topic arise of working on a record together?
I had thought about it when I was writing it. There was this undertone to it and I was thinking about who I wanted to fully realise that kind of vibe with, and he came to mind. I brought it up with him and he was immediately super down.
I always think that whoever you record with seeps onto the record, their energy is inevitably intertwined with what's going on, and so I really wanted his energy to be intertwined in this one. I really love the ideas that he brought to the table and the things that ended up being there that I would've never expected. He's the kind of person that once you get the wheels turning it's hard to get them to stop, he's so honest and enthusiastic and encouraging. It was an incredible experience working with him.
Did you consciously change your approach to writing in order to channel this positivity?
I think it's true for a lot of songwriters, that they feel like they have to go to a dark place to be inspired, and I felt that for a long time where I thought heartbreak was the ultimate fuel for the fire, or some kind of traumatic event. But I challenged myself to find inspiration in the moments of positivity, and from that came these songs that inevitably made me feel really good. It's cool to discover that part of yourself that can find inspiration in times of happiness. I think it's really necessary to have that outlet, rather than having to go to a dark place in order to write a song.
Even though we're talking about it being a positive record, it starts with a song called 'Death Up Close', which doesn't seem too positive on its surface, but it is.
More than actual death, I was thinking of the death of old habits and these behaviours that didn't necessarily benefit me anymore. Again, it was about the idea that everybody is going through that thing. It goes from "I" to "you" to "we", so it's kind of this collective experience of growing up, and finding new behaviours that can make life a lot easier, and hopefully learning things about yourself that can help you.
It can be painful to let go of bad habits sometimes, and I think a lot of people hold on to their hurts as if it's a part of them that can never leave. It was kind of the idea of saying goodbye to that part of yourself and making room for more positive reinforcements instead of immediately going to negative thought patterns.
At the end the "I love it/ I love you" lines are me saying I love this process, and love seeing other people go through things and how they deal with it and how they share that with other people. Humans are incredible, the way that we go through life, and how different everybody is. It's nuts, you have so many options and to see people turn maybe a bad childhood or a traumatic experience into something that empowers them or lifts them up - it's amazing how we deal with trauma, and growing up in general which can be traumatic in itself.
Cool! One of the other advantages of working with Ty Segall is you can get access to his friends like Mikal Cronin, who plays sax on this song - or did you know him before?
I'd met him before, and he's just an incredible dude, a multi-instrumentalist for days, he can shred on anything. I think bringing the saxophone into that song really changed it, it created this openness, almost like when you're wandering through streets in Europe and then there's this huge square that appears all of a sudden. I love that feeling, and I think he brought that to the song, he opened it up.
That's such an interesting way of describing how it opens up the song, but I can totally envision what you're saying. It's such a strange sax solo, it doesn't even really sound like a sax.
Right! He's really good at doing that. It's almost like an entity or something.
In the next couple of songs you mention wind and rain, and nature has always been a part of your lyricism.
I think I'm always appreciating what's around me. Recently I moved next to the Los Angeles River, so that aspect is introduced to my life. I moved into this place with a gorgeous huge front yard, so I guess I've been experiencing a lot of green, and in the morning the wind in the trees and the birds, and you can take a bike ride down to the river. So there was a change in my environment that probably shifted my thinking a little bit. Also just travelling, driving through the countryside in the UK is one of the most inspiring things I've ever experienced, it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.
Yeah, it is pretty special. Your song 'Nowhere' kind of reminds me of 'Road to Nowhere' by Talking Heads thematically, but is that right? What is the theme of 'Nowhere'?
The short answer is "enjoy the journey." Don't think so much about where you're going, it's about enjoying the ride along the way, and considering the fact that you don't have to have these expectations and ideas about what's going to happen, it's all happening in that moment, even the 8-hour car ride - so much can happen if you allow yourself to be present in that moment. You might discover a song or watch a movie that changes your life. There's so much that can happen in the in between, and it's about that.
One of my favourite lines on the record is from 'Nowhere': "it takes more mind more than eyes to see through." Is that something you've always lived by or something you've realised recently?
It's more of a recent discovery I think. I started my self-exploration really recently, and that's something that I realised big time, the fact that you can't see everything that's going on, a lot of the time you have to feel what's going on. That's an incredibly important skill to have in life. It's that gut feeling that you should trust yourself and where you're going, because there's this unseen plan going on at all times. Everything is already happening, you just have to show up.
'November' is next up, and you specifically mention "November songs"; what's a November song?
It's actually a song for Nick Drake, and he passed in November so I named it 'November'.
Ah, I didn't realise that. There's a lot of honouring your forebears on this with Nick Drake, and later in the record Karen Dalton. That's quite a folk trope.
Yeah, I love the folk genre; it's kind of this huge river of experience that you go to and drink from. It's such an ancient form of communicating, and this really simple way of expressing your feelings and story, and so many folk songs have been around for so long that you don't even know who did them but you know them so well - a song like ‘All My Trials' or something like that, it has this ancient mysticism about it.
But I like to take a nod to the people that I've loved so much and have brought me up as a folk artist, and I think it's really amazing to expose people to those artists as well. Anyone who doesn't know Nick Drake or Karen Dalton should know Nick Drake and Karen Dalton. I think having any kind of platform should be used for good and hopefully to expose even one person to either of those artists. It's a huge thank you to them for the huge mass of information that I've acquired in my short time on the planet.
Very nice. Now that I know 'November' is about Nick Drake the line "I wonder if a voice so quiet could ever really die/ and that's when I realise it cannot" is really powerful.
Yeah. On my last trip to the UK I played Green Man festival in Wales, and his grave is about an hour away from there, so I went to his grave and sang him that song. It was a very cool, nerdy moment for me [Laughs].
That's amazing. You could use that again somehow, it's such an interesting scene.
Let's go on to 'Shuffling Stoned', which comes from a moment in a record store that you witnessed where the guy at the counter was buying weed, is that right?
[Laughs] Yeah! It was this really tiny record store Brooklyn and the cashier was playing the best music, and I kept looking at the same records over and over again so I wouldn't have to leave. And then at one point his weed dealer comes in, and I get a waft of it and it smells so lovely... it's just one of those moments like "how did I end up here? I'm so glad I'm here."
That does sound like a nice moment, which you've now turned into a song. Does a moment often turn into a song like that for you?
It happens very rarely, but when it happens you feel it so vividly, there's this real click that happens. It's almost like you've just thrown up or something, you just had to let it out. I love those moments. You always have to be open to the communications from the muse, from this bigger thing that gives everyone inspiration. That was one of those moments where the muse was just loud and clear.
Perfect. 'Past Time' comes next, and I'm quite curious about it, it seems like the most typically folk-y when I just look at the words written down. But what is it actually about?
It's about my grandma! [Laughs]
I see! Why does it start with "I see danger here"?
Because she's a bit scary! [Laughs] She's a real tough, stubborn powerful woman. She's actually not my real grandma, she's my step dad's mom, but I don't have any of my real grandparents left. Me and her have gotten really close over the years, and I think as much as I love spending time with her there's always that fear inside. She loves brining up what an asshole I was when I was a little kid [laughs]. Every time we hang out she brings that up, and then she says how I've become a very nice young lady [laughs].
I wanted to pay tribute to her because her life has been incredible, and I think it's wild that people from that time are nearing the end; people that experienced that way of living are soon not gonna be here anymore. So hanging out with her and hearing about how she grew up and what she went through is fascinating to me. I wish that I had some of her tenacity in me. I feel it can only be acquired by living in that era when life was simpler but more complicated, and you had to be tough because if you weren't you wouldn't survive.
I got to play her the song for the first time when she came to one of my shows a while ago. It's hard for to get out of the house, she's 87, and she came to the show and she had a great time. It was very cool to get to play that song for her.
Amazing, I was gonna ask if she'd heard it. That's great!
She had a great time, which is wild because she hates everything [laughs].
On its surface 'Wild' seems like quite a dark song.
I have this fascination with true crime, and I think part of the reason I love it so much is the extremity of it. The idea that everybody can give all their money to charity, or they can murder their wife. It's this capability that we have everyday... you're standing in line at the grocery store, you could either punch the teller in the face or tell them their eyes are beautiful. We have these choices every day.
I think that song is mainly my fascination with that, and how most people keep it together pretty good, everybody's doing a pretty good job at supporting each other and not murdering people every day. We have that option, everybody has that option to be either amazing or a total and complete monster. It's wild.
That's true. Don't those thoughts make you paranoid though?
I like to think it makes me more aware of my surroundings, and therefore ready for anything [laughs]. But it probably does make me a little more paranoid.
The title track 'August' is next, is it directly about your commitment to music?
It's very much about that. It's a very forward, almost angry-feeling song to me. It's me putting my foot down and being like “I have control over my life, I can do what I want and that's exactly what I'm gonna do.” I'm hoping that it still encourages other people to feel similarly, if they're on the fence, or if they're not happy with the way that their lives are. You have so much more control than you think, and to take that control is the hardest part; to realise your power and never apologise for it.
I think that's a great sentiment. I hope people will take that away from this song and the album as a whole.
I hope so. I would love that.
'Sea Came to Shore' kind of ties back to the previous album with the water, seaside and stuff. Was this written on the road?
I think I wrote the lyrics when I was on the road. What I'll usually do is write poems while I'm on the road and then I'll come home and start playing guitar, and sometimes it'll come together like that song did. That one's very similar to 'August' in that it's saying you have to forge your own path, you can't expect anyone to help you, and you can do it.
I really like the stanza, "Sane came to mind/ At the edge of a mountain/ I am the last thought before clarity/ Clear as day." Who is speaking there, yourself?
Yeah, it's kind of the idea that we put other people before ourselves a lot of the time, and to have the realisation that you are the most important person in your world. It's important to remember that in the end we're all we have, so you can't go looking for the missing piece in someone else at huge detriment to yourself and your potential, and that should be clear as day.
The violin and strings throughout the album are great, but the violin part on 'Sea Came To Shore' is probably my favourite. How much input do you have on those parts?
Sometimes I have really distinct ideas, but on this one I think Laena [Geronimo] completely winged it, and it was one of those things where it was a very fast-moving train and she had to sneak in where she could. I think she did a beautiful job with it, her intuition is so gorgeous and natural. She really killed that one.
Yeah, she did. 'Sunday Sundown' seems to perfectly capture that feeling of "oh no it's the end of the week, better soak it up because it's back to the grind tomorrow."
I think it's very much that, yeah. I wrote it at my old house where there was this gorgeous view of the sunset, and any day I was home I would sit out there and I would watch it. This particular day I had my guitar and it just came out. I was just thinking a lot about the end of the day, the end of your wits, these moments that we have, the sundowns of our lives, and the vibe of a Sunday in general; end of the week, you've been through a lot, take a minute.
Nice. And is it a love song in a way?
It's more encouraging other people to love themselves. I'm such a self-help guru at heart [laughs]. I love instilling the idea that we're more powerful than we think to other people. The line "you don't know how much you deserve," I think a lot of people don't realise how much they deserve in this life, and I think a lot of people accept the love they think they deserve, which most of the time isn't a third of what their heart needs.
It's true. It's a hard thing to accept that you deserve more. We as human beings feel like we have to put up with what we get, I don't know what it is about us...
Yeah, it's really weird. I think so much of it is unlearning what we were taught our whole lives, and figuring out the right ways to think. That was the case for me, where as soon as I left the house I was like "oh my god I don't know anything!" It became this long journey of winging it, figuring it out. Any time something would happen I would be like "I don't deserve any of this, I don't know why this is happening." I said no to a lot of things because I didn't think I deserved them. I'm getting over that, but it's this crippling self-doubt, this saboteur that's in all of us. All it takes is putting that guy in his place.
Yeah, that's amazing. This whole record is like a monument to your having figured out how to get what you deserve in life.
Absolutely, absolutely. And being unapologetic about it. People say "sorry" far too much.
The idea of success is so different for everybody. We're constantly told to look at others and what they're doing, and we compare ourselves to them and think we're not doing enough or not far enough along, but everybody's path is so different, and success looks so different in every situation. It's really tough to not be so critical of yourself. I have a really hard time with that. It's gotten better but I think a good lesson to everybody is to be a little bit nicer to yourself.
Yeah. It's that simple really... I mean it sounds simple... Anyway, 'Something On Your Mind', we already mentioned Karen Dalton but why did you decide to cover this song specifically?
It's the encouraging tone of the song, where she's admitting that we have these days that are really hard, we have moments where just want to give up, but we have to keep trying. I know for a long time I was really afraid to try just because I'm so afraid of failure; it's an inevitable pattern that leads to absolutely nothing. I think the idea of becoming comfortable with failure is really important, and I love how this song reinforces that attitude.
The minute that you're not afraid to fail is when you'll start learning, and people need to experience that aspect of life in order to move forward. I think you just have to give it a go, and if it doesn't work out then it doesn't work out. There'll be another opportunity right around the corner. It's the idea of not being afraid to try; you've just got to push past that fear and go for it.
Great! Yeah it fits perfectly with the theme of the record.
Totally. I love singing that song. Every time I sing it, every word means so much.
Is 'Unconditional' a love song in a way?
I think I was reflecting on the idea of unconditional love, and how it's also kind of dying in this weird thing that society has become. I'm still reflecting on that, on the idea of unconditional love and the lack of it in a lot of what we do. I think it's the idea that so many people claim this type of experience, this unconditional love, and don't actually know what that means.
Interesting. Giving unconditional love is powerful in a way.
Yes, absolutely. I think the last line "keep me hung on a wall," is that idea of putting that love on a shelf and keeping it sacred, but maybe not nurturing it as you should. This song I think I'm still learning about as I play it; it's still such a new song for me, and it's got this feeling of dissatisfaction. I always get a little bit angry when I play it, because we give everything to life and a some of the time we don't get what we deserve in return, and that concept is really hard to come to terms with.
It's like you could be screaming at the world and no one will hear you, or you could give all your time to charity or volunteering to help homeless people, but there's homeless people everywhere still. It's the idea that the problems that we have we can't fix them with just the two hands that we have. Maybe it's the frustration with that. It's so hard to come to terms with sometimes. You can have this undying love for the world, but the world can just shit on you sometimes [laughs].
Yeah, I know that feeling for sure... I'm glad you didn't finish the record with that song then! It's the most downer song on the record then.
It is! It's all about the balance of realising the beauty of life but also watching your back and knowing that things won't always go your way, and even if your karma is clean and you're doing a good job, anything can happen. I think just being prepared and watchful and knowing that you have to be diligent at all times, it's an important aspect of being alive. On my mind right now is the political situation too, and thinking about how helpless I've felt and so many of my friends have felt. I've been doing a lot of benefits for Yellow Hammer and ACLU, and it feels really cool to see people come together for those, but at the same time it's such a small thing, you just want to yell so much louder, but it's difficult sometimes... it's all gonna be ok [laughs].
Yep, “it's all gonna be ok in the end, and if it's not ok then it's not the end.”
I love that! [Laughs].
The last track on the album is 'The Dream', which just has the single line "it seems to me all a dream..." was it always planned to be this kind of mantra type thing?
I started off thinking I would have more words, but in the end, a huge thing I've learned about life is that it is this dream that you can manipulate. People need to realise the powers they have over their situation, over what they're getting out of life, you just have to figure out the best ways to live that benefit you as an individual. Not everybody can live the same way and get the same outcomes. So thinking of life as a dream is super empowering in the sense that sometimes it's a nightmare, sometimes it's incredible; sometimes you're flying, sometimes you're falling, it's just endless opportunities and circumstances and experiences that can happen, but you have so much more control than you think over those circumstances.
Also it brings a nice lightness to the end of the record, because I'm saying there's all this stuff on you all the time, but in the end just go lay in a park or go to the beach. It's this weird dream, it's this weird journey that you're on... sometimes I trip out so hard on how weird it is that we're even here... the fact that I'm on the phone with you doing an interview for this music that I made is so trippy... everything, everything, this light that I just turned on, it's so crazy, you can't take anything for granted. It really does feel like a dream sometimes. All the time! It's crazy. I think we get caught up in the reality of it, in the fact that "oh I have to be at the dentist at noon," or whatever, but in the end this is the weirdest thing in the world. The world... oh my god sorry I'm tripping out, I'm spiralling.
You're right, I agree with everything you're saying!
I know! I think it's just a wild experience. All it takes is to zoom out and realise how small we are, that we're part of this huge thing that exists for some reason - or no reason at all! And that's fine too. But I think on the end, create the experience that you wanna have, and realise that you get what you put out, and don't be an asshole.
Shannon Lay's new album August is out August 23rd on Sub Pop.
This article was origianlly published on The 405 - 9th August 2019