There are at least two sides to Shannon Lay.
There’s the punk guitarist who is one of two lead singers in Feels, the local band who contain their own dichotomies by alternating between frantic punk-rock bursts and sumptuously grand pop opuses.
Then there’s the solo singer-guitarist whose mesmerizing folk idylls are markedly different from her work with Feels. It is this version of Shannon Lay who will open for Gold Star tonight at Highland Park Ebell Club.
Although her solo songs often have a delicate, dreamy quality, Lay doesn’t fit the stereotype of a gentle folkie strumming in a quiet coffeehouse. Instead, she often appears on bills with punk, noise and hard-rock bands and is the relatively rare solo vocalist who plays live on electric as well as acoustic guitars. When the Redondo Beach native spins her original songs into eerie, hypnotic webs of sound, she can entrance even the most hard-hearted listener.
“I like the electric guitar because people assume something when they see a girl with an acoustic guitar,” Lay, 28, says in a phone interview. “Having electric guitar, it was my comfort zone and [showed] who I am at my core, a punk chick. I really didn’t want to be put in the singer-songwriter category.”
Is it difficult to be a solo artist opening for full bands? “It’s always a toss-up,” says Lay, who lives in East L.A. “It can be hard to wrangle them in. I was just on tour, and I had a really hard time capturing people. It always depends. When I open for Ty Segall or Oh Sees, the audience is much more receptive.”
In early October, Lay hits the road again, touring the United States with Night Shop before she plays a few dates on Segall’s acoustic tour. In November, she flies to Europe to open for Rodrigo Amarante. Later this month, on Saturday, Sept. 22, Lay appears at the Echo in a tribute to Leonard Cohen that includes Entrance, Holychild, Lael Neale, Imaad Wasif, Draemings and Lay’s Feels bandmate Laena Geronimo.
“It’s been a busy year, but it’s been fun though,” says Lay, who released two albums in 2017, Living Water and All This Life Goin’ Down. “The two records were recorded at very different times. I was in different places at the time, and you can hear it,” she explains.
Her 2015 debut recording, Holy Heartache, is a collection of 16 stripped-down demos she recorded at home. “That was just me putting songs on Bandcamp,” Lay says. “It never felt like an official release.”
Nonetheless, Holy Heartache offers intriguing glimpses of Lay’s preternatural sound. “I am here, and I am listening,” she confides on “Life” amid dark waves of guitar. A few lines later, she declares, “We are rulers of the underground/Fuck your light, we brought our own.” It reads like a defiant punk-rock statement, but Lay sings the lyric with a cool intimacy.
“It comes from a deep place,” Lay says. “Punk lyrics don’t always have to be screamed.”
Her early punk and metal inspirations include The Damned, Ramones, Negative Approach and Slayer. “I grew up on X. They were one of the first bands I saw. I knew everything was going to be OK.”
When Lay blends her hushed, haunted vocals with the glowing jangle of her shimmering guitar on such tunes as “Evil Eye,” from All This Life Goin’ Down, the effect can be intoxicating.
“I’ve always loved warmth,” she says about her guitar tone. “I’ve always wanted to be a blanket around you. It sounds like I’m in the room with you, and I’m holding you tight.
“Nick Drake is my god,” she says and lists The Velvet Underground as another major inspiration on guitar. She also credits The V.U.’s Lou Reed as a lyrical influence. “And I’ve always loved Stephen Malkmus,” Lay says. “My goal is to be ambiguous about the obvious — it makes for better poetry.”
She began playing guitar in a band with Facts on File before joining Raw Geronimo, an L.A. punk-pop group led by singer Laena Geronimo, who eventually changed their name to Feels. “Raw Geronimo began as a six-piece. As the years went by, we slowly lost members and got new people, and when things fell apart in a more dramatic way,” the name was changed, in part to reflect her growing role as a vocalist, Lay explains. “Feels became a different organism. Feels became such a collaborative band, we decided to start anew.”
And yet even with her increased presence in Feels, Lay needed another outlet for all the new songs she was writing that didn’t fit in with the band. “I think that’s why I’m still able to do both,” she says. “They’re two worlds that can exist together.”
In Lay’s solo world, her lyrical subjects range from the destruction of nature (“Coast”) and arbitrary definitions of insanity (“Parked”) to witches hanged at the witch trials (“Ursula Kemp”), as well as journeys both literal (“Living Water”) and figurative (“The Search for Gold”).
“Feels was on tour, and we were driving through Texas,” Lays says about the title track of Living Water. “When I’m on tour, that’s when I write the most. I was noticing all these signs. Living Water was a place near Four Corners. I guess that’s just a road-trip song.”
“The Search for Gold” is more of an interior travelogue about Lay’s quest to find her own voice. “It’s about setting off on a journey with only what you need,” she says, calling it “an anthem to bravery in the face of danger.”
In the stark, somber ballad “Parked,” Lay blends themes of romance and insanity with soulfully soothing vocals. “There’s a lot of mental illness in my family. My mom is bipolar,” she says. “What is craziness? Who are we to define it? It’s also about a moment when you’re with somebody and not wanting to tell them how you feel, and it slips out. … And how a strained love can lead us to questioning our own sanity.”
Discussing the breathy, acoustic trance “Ursula Kemp,” Lay says, “Everything that I say in the song is true. Ursula Kemp was a real person who was persecuted in the [English] witch trials. Her son testified against her, and she was hanged.”
Lay’s whispery vocals and tangled acoustic-guitar plucking on “Coast” make it one of the highlights on Living Water. “That whole record was like a love song to the ocean, where I grew up,” she says. “It’s me declaring that I’m worried about this place and the environment. I wanted to draw attention to how beautiful that place is to people and to try to make a difference in my own way, with an anthem to the immense mystery of the whole thing.”
Lay is already working on a new album titled August. “This has been my first year just doing music,” she says. “That’s why the record is called August; that’s when I quit my job last year. I was working at a vintage store called Squaresville. That was my home … [but] I was able to support myself with music. I feel lucky — not everyone can do it.”
As far as her other musical job, Lays says that Feels have just finished their second album. “It’s a much different beast than our first one. I think the kids will love it,” she jokes. Unlike the self-titled debut, which was recorded in a few days, “We were able to take our time” on the new album, she says.
“We span genres because we all love such different stuff,” she says, adding that the upcoming Feels record has “punk moments and insanely dreamy moments. There’s a fun prog-rock song on there. It’s a roller coaster.”
Shannon Lay performs at Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S. Avenue 57, Highland Park; Thu., Sept. 13, 8 p.m.; $15. (323) 478-9562. She also appears at the Leonard Cohen tribute at the Echo, 1822 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park; Sat., Sept. 22, 5 p.m.; $14. (213) 413-8200.
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