Banjo likely makes you envision the creepy scene from Deliverance. You think Ozarks, hillbillies, trailer parks, meth heads. Singer/songwriter Shannon Carey decomposes and reconstructs traditional bluegrass into gorgeous songs for her alt-folk band Luray. Unusual, evocative and diverse melodies. sometimes melancholy, sometimes effervescent. always unexpected.
After earning her master’s degree in social work and working in the field, she realized she missed playing music. She’s surrounded by many musical influences in her family. Her father taught music. Mom played guitar. Brother Sean is in S. Carey and Bon Iver and brother Collin is a jazz drummer. A trip to Vermont turned her on to the banjo so she took lessons. After moving from California to Washington, D.C., she formed Luray.
Luray released its debut album The Wilder last year. The band begins a winter tour in Pennsylvania on January 29. Shannon and I spoke by phone from her home in Maryland.
Amy Steele: How did you write songs on the banjo?
Shannon Carey: With bluegrass you follow the form of the song. I had a teacher who was very traditional. I had to break the habit of playing in the traditional way. Play it differently. There are certain rolling patterns and playing chords in order. “The Crying” is straightforward bluegrass. Lyrics are more challenging. So I wrote a story. It’s hard to make bluegrass lyrics not sound cheesy and not overdone.
Amy Steele: Where did you come up with the name Luray for the band?
Shannon Carey: Named after a town in Virginia. The song came first. It represented the feeling of the album. Just liked the way the word sounded. It’s simple and calming and the place itself is very simple. It’s a small town. It’s famous for small taverns that are surreal. It’s about being outside and being inspired by nature for the song.
Amy Steele: The album is named after title track “The Wilder,” which is about?
Shannon Carey: About place. We lived in Alexandria, VA. There was a green foresty area. You’d walk through this path. There’d be trash and then wildflowers. Also it’s about my spiritual journey to uproot my life and become a musician. That undeveloped space and it was in transition.
Amy Steele: Can you tell me about the song “What Becomes?”
Shannon Carey: I experimented on the banjo. Repetitive and rhythmic and then something jarring. The lyrics came to me in one day. It’s about if you’re quiet and let things come to you.
Amy Steele: How did you come up with the song “Already There?”
Shannon Carey: Seems too personal. Like a diary entry. I struggled with a lot of doubt. That came to me from the universe as a boost. I really like playing it. It’s fun to play. It’s the only song I’ve written on ukulele. I was feeling hopeful when I wrote it. I feel exposed when I hear it on the record.
Amy Steele: One of your songs, the beautiful “Kalorama” is about the street in Washington, D.C. I lived there for a year and it brings back lots of memories for me. What do you like about that particular neighborhood?
Shannon Carey: It’s a vibrant area. I was trying to capture the energy of living in that area.
Amy Steele: What makes a good song?
Shannon Carey: It has to have a good melody and has to evoke something. It has to have something memorable or different about it.
Amy Steele: What challenges do you find for women in the music business today?
Shannon Carey: I think it’s still a disadvantage to be a woman in this industry, though a lot of female-fronted bands are popular right now, we’re still in the minority both on stage and behind the scenes. I know I consider things like appealing to both genders, and not being a ‘chick’ band, whereas men don’t really have to think about that- men are just musicians, while women are ‘female’ musicians.
Amy Steele: How was it working with Sean to produce the album?
Shannon Carey: Working with Sean was really positive, and he was really helpful to me as someone who had a lot more experience recording and arranging- what I gave him were raw demos with all the tracks recorded on banjo and voice, and then we discussed what parts could be played on different instruments. We’d give the demos to the various musicians (most of which are members of S. Carey and amazing musicians and composers)…overall we agreed on most things, but sometimes I heard it in my head a certain way and had to keep going to him and saying that something needed to come out more, etc. But he was very patient with me, and overall I felt a great amount of gratitude to him for producing the album. It was a ton of work!
Amy Steele: Both brothers play music and your husband’s in Luray. What are the positives and negatives? What kind of control do you have as a singer/songwriter?
Shannon Carey: Having my husband and brothers play and sing on the album was really special- and having Gabe continue to play with Luray was also unexpected and it is really fun to play together. When he recording guitar on the album, we didn’t really know what the band would consist of- how many people, what instruments, or any of that, and adding Gabe on guitar at some point happened organically. There have been a couple of tours that he hasn’t been able to make (like this one, coming up), because he has a full-time job at Greenpeace here in DC- but to have him onboard, when he’s available, is really fun – plus he is our van driver and logistics expert when he’s along on tour! As far as my role as songwriter, it’s been my project and vision from the beginning and I think everyone’s comfortable with that- in the future, I could see it being more collaborative with the band- it’s evolved so much since I was writing the songs in my basement three years ago. It’s exciting to play with the band we have now- they are all amazing musicians too, and bring a whole new set of ideas and qualities to the table.
Amy Steele: What can audiences expect when seeing Luray live?
Shannon Carey: We’ll be playing as a five piece, and instead of my husband on guitar, we’ll be joined by Richmond jazz guitarist and experimental/ambient specialist, Scott Burton. He plays in an experimental jazz group with Reggie Pace (trombonist and percussionist in Bon Iver, and also from Richmond) called Glows in the Dark.
My other bandmates are from Richmond as well- Brian Cruse (bass) and CJ Wolfe (drums) play in multiple other groups together in Richmond, which is how they know Scott as well. And lastly, Sarah Gilberg I met in DC when we first moved to town (Kalorama area in fact), and she lived only a couple blocks away from me, and had sang backup vocals with other bands and musicians in DC. The live show is slightly different from the album, though we try hard to reproduce the effect and feeling of the song. We incorporate CJ’s love for African instruments by adding the mbira, a thumb piano, on a couple of tunes- it pairs well with the banjo, which is also an African instrument, originally. We tend to keep the songs a bit more upbeat, and straightforward (less ambient and layered) than on the record, though we do have a couple songs that stay in that style.
January 29 | NEWTON SQUARE, PA | Burlap and Bean
January 30 | NEW YORK, NY | Joe’s Pub
January 31 | BROOKLYN, NY | 17 Frost
February 1 | HOLYOKE, MA | Dark Dining Room Series
February 3 | BOSTON, MA | The Middle East Upstairs
February 4 | BURLINGTON, VT | Radiobean
February 5 | PROVIDENCE, RI | 150 Carpenter
February 6 | HAMDEN, CT | The Space
February 7 | ARLINGTON, VA | The Iota
February 8 | CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA | The Garden
February 9 | RICHMOND, VA | Gallery 5
February 15 | MADISON, WI | Mickey’s Tavern
February 16 | CHICAGO, IL | Music Means Family House Concert