Ahead of Sound + Vision’s return, Miriam Balanescu catches up with LA-based folk-adjacent artist Shannon Lay
Last year, Sound + Vision – a festival which found its footing in Norwich – landed in Cambridge, bringing with it a jaw-dropping line-up of music and comedy. Occupying the city’s best venues, the festival aims to create a buzz around Cambridge’s creative scene over one long weekend, showcasing the region’s up-and-coming artists plus some out-of-town talent.
This year will see the Junction, The Blue Moon, The Portland Arms, Thirsty, The Six Six and the NCI throw open their doors to laugh-makers and musicians alike. Los Angeles’ own Shannon Lay is one of the festival’s hottest acts, due to perform at The Six Six on 21 April. The former Feels guitarist dived headfirst into a full-time career as a musician in 2017.
“It was a very full moment, like the ‘zero’ card in tarot,” Shannon says. “It shows someone just carelessly jaunting towards a cliff. It was a real moment of: leap and the net will appear.”
Following a nomadic early twenties spent touring, she signed with Sub Pop in 2018 to embark on a solo career. Her albums August and Geist were launched in 2019 and 2021, both to critical acclaim. Now, she’s enjoying taking things easy, picking up ceramics as a hobby: “It’s such a full-body craft. I didn’t realise how much strength it took.”
A sense of introversion is intrinsic to Shannon’s soul-searching songs – pushed deeper by the pandemic. “I turned 30 in 2020, so I crossed this threshold, and it was very serendipitous for me because I was able to go inward in a way that I had never done before,” she explains. “I was able to just fall apart – look at all the pieces, decide what I wanted to keep and what wasn’t mine any more.
“My last record was a solitary journey,” Shannon continues. “I wanted to express what I was going through in such an isolated time, because I could feel other people experiencing something similar. The most amazing things come from stillness. It’s such a simple act, but also allows all this growth to occur.”
With various influences, including science fiction – Dune inspired her single Rare to Wake – Shannon’s music is hard to put a finger on. Though many define it as ‘folk’, she’s hesitant about this label. “I feel I have a straw in that river,” she says. “I tap that tributary of the vast river of musical knowledge that runs through all of us.”
But traditional folk has a ‘timelessness’ that she wouldn’t want to make a claim to. “It feels like a big responsibility to take on that label.”
Folksy instrumentation does run through Shannon’s work, stemming from her roots as a guitarist. “‘Singer-songwriter’ carries a strange connotation, even though it’s literally what you do – most musicians are to an extent singer-songwriters,” she claims. “When I first started playing solo, I avoided acoustic guitar altogether because there are so many assumptions. When someone gets onstage with an acoustic guitar, you judge before they play a note. So I played electric for a long time, and felt like I had to maintain this edge.”
Now, she has surrendered: “When we embrace the parts of ourselves that make us cringe, it ends up being our most powerful point of inspiration.”
Shannon is one of the more established artists to feature at Sound + Vision, which is putting emphasis on making a home for up-and-coming acts, joining forces with the Junction’s talent nights The Fiver and New Routes. Co-founder Ruth Cousens hopes the combination of music and comedy will help audiences find something new, letting them hop between events. “Last year, people were using their wristbands to see things they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Ruth says.
On her first tour in years, Shannon is looking forward to a more relaxed approach: “At this point, I’m obsessed with finding the right environments to play in,” she insists. “When you put music in a setting that creates an experience rather than just me fighting a room of people, it’s much nicer.”