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  • Writer's pictureEdward Pomykaj

Shannon Lay's 'Geist' is a Haunting Love Letter to Humanity - An Interview

Updated: Nov 11, 2021


The LA-based singer-songwriter talks about how acid, tarot cards, and Dune inspired her newest album

Before Shannon Lay could write and record another album, she had to fall apart.


With three intimately beautiful albums under her belt - each more complicated and grand than the previous - Lay found herself ready for a shift, not only artistically, but spiritually. Some form of self-discovery was imminent, and Lay had been preparing herself for this reckoning. "Getting closer to myself was this long process that sort of climaxed in 2019," says the LA-based singer-songwriter. "I felt myself starting to fall apart, my ego-identity and everything."


2019 was a big year for Lay. She released two albums that year - a solo album (her first release after signing with the legendary Seattle-based record label Sub Pop) and another with FEELS, a band she retired from shortly after that release. And, of course, it was another year of touring - just like the last seven years - but this time things were different; now she was touring not only to promote her work in FEELS, but also to promote herself as a solo-act, opening for Kevin Morby. Suddenly, after being her longtime side-project, music was her full-time job, and this came at an unexpected cost. "I'm not really built to tour all of the time" says Lay, adding, "I've been so many places but I've seen very few." What Lay needed was a sense of stillness, something her life had been lacking for quite some time.


So Lay collapsed - she fell apart. Luckily enough, however, this meant something new and beautiful was on the way. In her own words, "after destruction comes trust, divine timing, and beautiful growth and abundance." For Lay, falling apart became was a deliberate task; a way of dissecting oneself at the seams and taking a look at the patterns of thread holding you together. Geist, her fourth and most self-confident album, would be the result of this process.


But every grand journey has a humble beginning. Lay says that her journey into the world of self-care began sometime around 2014 while watching an episode of RuPaul's Drag Race in which RuPaul says, "If you can't love yourself Hon how you gonna love anyone else?" It was like a teeny-tiny lightbulb went off: "Ah! That makes so much sense," Lay remarks.


Then she read Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now and took comfort in the idea of presence as it relates to self-reflection, especially the idea that, as Lay puts it, "you are not your mind," which offers a new way of understanding yourself in relation to your thoughts, feelings, and actions.


Then at some point - maybe during the depths of quarantine - she watched David Lynch's Dune. "The themes just stuck with me," says Lay, adding, "the journey of Paul - who is trying to convince himself he is who everyone says he is - that's the kind of journey all of us are on; we're just trying to figure out who we are although we've already been that person." The songwriter also found consolation in one of the narrative's central quotes - "fear is the mind killer" - finding it not only apt in describing one's own journey into self-discovery, but also timely, referring to our current zeitgeist - the era of the pandemic.


Lay seems to have seen the tragedy in "fear as zeitgeist." The idea of the zeitgeist - a word which translates from German to "the spirit of the time" - is an attempt to define the particular way in which an era feels, noting the general mood in the air, and how that mood permeates the ideas and actions that develop during that era. But the second half of that word - geist - is a far more complicated term than just "spirit," and rather involves the concepts of mind and thought, and even ghosts or hauntings. If fear is what dominates the spirit of the time - the geist of the time - than we are surely blocking access to whatever corners of the mind we have yet to fully explore and understand.


"I remember going to the grocery store and I would come home and be so scared," says Lay. "I think our fear was so palpable - we are incredibly contagious beings - so to feel each other's presence during this time was difficult because everyone was so afraid." But what fascinated Lay during this time was humanity's ability to persevere through that fear, and the small - and subsequently big - ways that people found peace and joy during this time.


Lay first came across the word geist in a book on musical vocabulary and found it succinct in describing her thinking during the songwriting process, saying "it struck me as a really good way to poetically title what I was trying to convey on this record, which was a sincere fascination with the human spirit and our ability to adapt and get through things." For Lay, "'geist' became a gentile and more mysterious way to say something that was obvious."


In a sense, Lay became invested in the ways that the mind is not killed by fear, but instead can always find a way to carry on, despite the very thing that should defeat it.


Suddenly, the zeitgeist was far more than fear - it was also bravery. It was anxiety and calm. It was hostility and harmony. Solitude and connection. It was exactly something, and exactly something else - the world imbued with disparate connections, unlike possibilities, and pleasant dissonance. Flowers wavering a-front a stormy sky beyond. But geist - this amorphous feeling in the air, the human spirit - represented not only an outward perspective on the world, but also an inner-world, where falling apart could become the assumption of form. From here, it seems, Lay could write music that wasn't simply intimate and personal like her previous albums, but instead, music that sounded entirely cosmic, involving both the self and the whole.


Geist is the sound of someone throwing themselves into contradictions - asking for involutions and mirrors so as to seek difference, as if to find they are precisely what they are not. And receiving it. Sameness and difference. Desire and unwant. Stillness and Movement. In Lay's words, "Everything matters and nothing matters."

 

Lay begins Geist with the track "Rare to Wake" - a song deeply influenced by the themes of Dune - on which she tackles themes of stillness v. movement, being and becoming, and self-discovery. On the track, Lay sings about longing for something new, for change and development, while nodding at the fact that she is already what she wants to be. She sings, "I will miss my pain / I must make way for something better," only to claim that, "without change something sleeps inside us, rare to wake." In a sense, the track tells us to recognize the change we've already been experiencing, as if all it takes to become someone new is to be the person you already are. This point gets reiterated simply and politely throughout the song, Lay repeatedly asking the listener, "have you always been who you are?"


"Rare to Wake" explores courage as being linked not only to finding and seeking growth in things new, but also the courage it takes to figure out and accept the person you are now, who you've always been. It's the narrative of Dune's Paul (the book is subtly featured sitting next to Lay in Kai McKnight's beautifully directed music video for the track), but on a personal level, taking the idea out of the large, sci-fi epic, and into the life of Lay herself, finding helpful for her own journey into self-understanding. It's the story of recognizing one's spirit as something that is always new, but always there. And the song does this through lush and loud vocal harmonies accompanied by Lay's quietly plucked nylon-string guitar and an upright bass.


Much of this seems to stem from Lay's experience of stillness during the beginning of the pandemic and the ways this allowed her to explore polarity and the presence of spirit in the world. "Considering how much duality is in the world is interesting," says Lay. "It's this constant balancing act we find ourselves in. And so to feel a lot of anxiety as I slowed down, that was interesting to feel the restlessness with stillness, and to hold them both and see how they relate to each other." But it's more than that: "It happens with innocence and wisdom; be proud but also be humble" - Lay found herself enamored with contradictions of this nature.


The fifth song of the album "Awaken and Allow" is a full exploration of these contradictions as they relate to one's self-understanding. The mostly a cappella track features Lay singing about discovering "the nature without, the nature within." But this, according to Lay, is a process that reveals as much as it obfuscates, saying, "The more I learned, the less I knew."


"Awaken and Allow" is a wholly mystical song, in which Lay observes parts of herself real and unseen to grow and emerge herself, understanding both the stillness and the movement engrossed in the process of self-awareness. But there is a melancholy in this process; to become yourself is also a loss, a rupturous task, which takes an overcoming of fear and comfort. She sings, "do not stop change in favor of comfort / a bud cannot resist to bloom.

"This amazing, full-bodied trust that everything was okay... that is at the core of life."

Lay found this bravery in unexpected places. When I asked her how she avoided cynicism during the early days of the pandemic, she responded, "weirdly acid." And though she was laughing when she told me, it was no joke. She elaborated by saying, "I had started doing acid for the first time in my life in 2020 and every time I did it it was this amazing, full-bodied trust that everything was okay, and that is at the core of life. And that is the feeling that will last forever, that's the feeling you can trust and hold on to. Not an ounce of fear lives within."


She speaks of her experience with acid in the way that "Awaken and Allow" claims we understand ourselves; acid is not some foreign source of external exploration, but instead, is an opportunity to shed away the excesses of oneself to find the enduring and true spirit within, an engine of persistence and bravery. That is what we hold on to but "can't see," as the opening of that song suggests.


But acid is only one avenue that Lay began to explore to get to this spiritual core; tarot cards offered her another source of understanding. "The archetypal journey of the major arcana is so relatable," says Lay, referring to the first twenty-two cards of the deck. What fascinates Lay is the way that the cards tell a relatable narrative as you move from one card to the next, with the order of the cards being incredibly important.


Though it is all subject to interpretation, the cards generally tell a story of regeneration - of birth, life, loss, rebirth, and so on. One sequence in particular that interests Lay is The Tower before The Star, The Tower being associated with sudden destruction and danger, while The Star suggests hope and new beginnings.

"We're always going though one of those things," she says. "It's this amazing succession where if you skip a step you miss so many beautiful things. Tarot became a great way to connect with things that are hard to grasp. I just feel so connected and trusting of the ground I am standing on." Like this, Tarot becomes a way to see yourself in the universe, where you may become a part of the world-spirit, the order of things. It's a way to look out to look within, which, for Lay, is how this all operates. "The journey to get to know myself lead to me discovering a world which was much bigger than me... Whatever you want to call it - God, the universe, the Goddess - all of it is talking about the same thing, which is this thing that is bigger than you, that supports you, and you are it."


We can hear this influence on the album, especially on a track like "A Thread to Find," which features stormy seas, stars and signs, astrological imagery, and makes the claim at the end of each chorus that, "there hasn't been a story... that's not worth telling twice." During our interview Lay described another track using imagery from the tarot deck saying, "I pictured ['Untitled'] as when The Fool has jumped off the cliff and falls into the ocean and is trying to navigate this new realm." "Untitled" - which serves as the emotional peak of the album -

features Lay at her most surreal, singing some of her most abstract lyrics over a quiet, repetitive guitar lick and strange ambient drums and sounds.


The following track is "Late Night," a Syd Barrett cover off of his 1970 album The Madcap Laughs. "'Late Night' pulls you out [of 'Untitled'] and onto the shore and says, 'welcome to the new world.'" But what is this new world? Perhaps, it is the feeling of being "connected and trusting of the ground" you stand on, and the acknowledgment of both the seriousness and the silliness of the position. This spiritual journey, this venture into the unknown and known of both the worlds within and beyond you, stems from something rather simple and maybe even corny: love. "Late Night" was what Lay needed to convey this simplicity.


"I love Syd Barrett for his balance of wisdom and innocence" says Lay. "[The] song struck me because it's so human, it felt like a five-year old having a fifty-year old's twenty-year marriage... In the album it's kind of a moment to come up for air and sort of exist in that human realm for a moment and have these feelings that are existing in you - the aloneness, the unrealness - we've all been there."


Then comes "Times Arrow" on which Lay reminds us of the unrelenting movement of time, but that there is something hopeful inherent in that movement. She sings, "remember tomorrow / from here on in it's nothing but a downhill run."


The final track on the album - "July" - is an instrumental, one that seems almost a part of the natural world, as if Lay did not write it but instead plucked it out of the ether, preexisting and wholly-formed - the sonic voice of the world-spirit. It's a lovely end to a deeply personal yet wildly grand artistic statement.

 

Geist is an album full of love - self-love, romantic love, and a love of spirit, the human-spirit. It is an ode to the enduring conviction of humanity, to difference, to hope and encouragement, and to helping one another through difficulties.


"I wanted to be helpful during this time - I think we need all the encouragement and all the kindness and warmth we can get," says Lay. "More so than before I really recognized the amazing ability that music has to impact people, and so to be conscious of what you're putting out into the world and to imbue it with a kind of healing ability - I wanted this record to be that."


And Lay doesn't do this by inspiring fantasy or by avoiding the world itself, but by jumping into the unusual paradoxes that layer our lives. Maybe this explains the fracture in the wall behind Lay on the album cover. She is not covering the crack but instead drawing our attention to it, standing in front of it not to conceal it but instead to acknowledge it as a part of the structure she stands by. There's no shying away from the problems and contradictions of the world, but instead, there should be a "full-bodied trust" in these things, and that they are what make us beautiful and human.


Ultimately, Lay claims that things are always moving, always changing, yet always staying exactly the same, and maybe that's the entire point. What you want to be, what we all want to be, is already here, and that's the hardest part. "It's like the Paul thing" she says, "I'm still trying to convince myself I am who I am."


Geist is one of the best albums of 2021, and it tells us to feel ourselves as part of the world. It tells us that there are things that care and things worth caring about. That we are on our own but not alone. And that, maybe, is how we are all connected.

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