Evocative music can be some of the best. And musician Shannon Carey, who performs under the moniker Luray, has a particular knack for doing just that. Her songs feel welcoming, yet elusive, like a long-forgotten photograph you find at the bottom of a box, a memory that gets hazier with each passing year.
“My songs tell me what’s going on with me, like my unconscious trying to get my attention,” explains Carey, who had plenty to unravel in her life leading up to the recording of her sophomore full length, Dig. “My marriage broke up while I was writing this album and the songs started to speak to me about my relationship and what I was hoping for and holding onto. What I wasn’t letting myself acknowledge. I moved to Richmond and set to finishing the songs for the record. I wrote more songs about how it felt to lose, and how it felt to be starting over.”
Although Carey has called Richmond, Virginia home for a number of years, her music has an inescapable imprint of her Wisconsin upbringing. And it’s back in Eau Claire, Wisconsin that she set about recording the album, enlisting her brother Sean Carey to produce. “The band drove out to Wisconsin and met up with Sean and engineer Brian Joseph, who had just completed building his own studio, which he called The Hive. It’s in the woods and feels very ‘Northern Wisconsin’ — feels like a little haven from the world.” The Hive became the perfect locale to capture such a personal collection of songs. “It’s hard to explain how intimate the recording process was, but it felt very insular and almost delicate. After the end of that relationship that had been so central, I felt a little fragile and obviously in transition. Sometimes you can hear something tentative in my vocals. I had been getting my new life together for the past year, but it still felt strange.”
The eleven songs that came to form Dig provide a stolen glance at a snapshot of Shannon Carey’s life, yet invite listeners into the story to explore for themselves. It also marks the closing of one chapter and the beginning of the next.
(Photo Credit: Jake Cunningham)
Siblings Sean and Shannon Carey perform as S. Carey and Luray, respectively. Sean performs solo and as the drummer for Bon Iver, and works as a record producer; Shannon released her first album as Luray, The Wilder, in 2013 and is set to release her second — Dig — July 26. Sean produced both albums, so the two sat down to talk about them (along with the importance of planning meals in the studio, and their dad’s love of Bruce Hornsby).
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Associate Editor
S. Carey: And we’re live! Welcome to the Carey podcast.
Luray: So one of the things we should talk about today is, a little wine talk. We usually do that when we talk on the phone. We both love wine.
S. Carey: What have you been into?
Luray: Well, I think you know that I’ve been obsessed with Rieslings lately. That’s my favorite.
S. Carey: Mosel or what?
Luray: Oh, definitely. I mean, sometimes I’ll have one from Washington or something, and it’s still good, but it doesn’t have as much acidity as the German ones. So that’s just been really cool, because over the last few years that’s been something I’m into, and before I never would have liked that.
S. Carey: If I’m going to pick out a white — and you know I drink a lot of white in the summer — I’m gonna go for either a Sancerre or some sort of White Burgundy.
Luray: Oh, my god. Those are both just so amazing! Oh, my gosh, yes. Those are delicious.
S. Carey: Yeah. So let’s talk about this record coming out.
Luray: Well, what’s crazy to me is, that was right after [Sean’s son] Sully was born. I can’t believe you did that at the same time. I guess a lot of it was pre-, too because I would send you the tracks. I remember you were kind of cramming.
S. Carey: Yeah. I mean, I think my role on this record was a lot more before and after, and then you guys as the band did all the tracking and stuff on your own at The Hive in Eau Claire. The songs and the production and everything — which you guys recorded — was, in my mind, such a nice leap from the first record. The first record’s, great, but, I mean…
Luray: For sure. I like the way that we did it, because we were just getting together as a band every week and then I would just send you the recordings if we made a big shift in the structure or something. It just happened a lot more organically this time versus the first record, when I just did everything. I wrote everything and then came out to Eau Claire, and we kind of put it together on the spot. This was, more thought out, and then we went to Eau Claire and executed it. [There] wasn’t a lot of writing and arranging at the studio, which was really good.
I was really excited because I had a big plan for meals during the recording. I don’t know if you knew about this, because you were busy, but I was, like, “Alright, we’re gonna take turns cooking, we’re gonna get all of our meals planned in advance, and we’re gonna have a million snacks and drinks so that we don’t have to get distracted by going out to eat.”
S. Carey: That’s so smart.
Luray: I felt like it went so smooth. We could just stay in there and know what we were gonna eat because we already had the food. And Brian [Frederick Joseph] was so great letting us stay with him and use his kitchen and stuff — I mean, we definitely we tried to be really polite, but I’m sure we took up a lot of space.
S. Carey: That was just so smart because, I would say 90% of the sessions I do the food is is not thought out, and then you end up doing weird hours or you go too long and people get hangry, and then you have to go and get some take out that takes longer than it should.
Luray: Right, that’s what I was thinking. We all get really hungry in our family all the time, so I was like, I can’t I can’t deal with that.
S. Carey: I don’t know if it was before your time or maybe you inspired it, but now at Brian’s, part of his service as an engineer is he puts out this amazing snack tray every single day, every single session.
Luray: Oh, yeah, maybe we did, because I don’t remember that. I know that he was very excited to have us have some of his fancy whiskeys and stuff.
S. Carey: Yeah, now every time I’m there it’s a different array of nuts and dried fruit and hummus. He’s single-handedly keeping the co-op alive in Eau Claire.
Luray: So he gets fancy snacks too.
S. Carey: It is, it’s pretty nice. It’s a nice touch.
Luray: It was just so cool recording with Brian because you know how he is, just so encouraging and supportive, but also really honest in a way that if he thinks that you should keep doing takes, he’ll tell you. So when you think of being a producer, are you thinking that it’s more welcome to give creative ideas than if you’re just playing, or what do you see as the difference?
S. Carey: To me, I think most of the sessions that I am a part of, the creativity is really open between everyone. If someone has an idea, they usually feel comfortable bringing that up to the group and seeing what we think. But I think being the producer on the project is more like, you’re kind of the leader, the overseer. I guess I see it as like you’re walking someone through the process from start to finish. Most musicians that are working on their own music usually have a good idea of what they want the outcome to be, and you’re just helping them achieve that outcome. Sometimes it can be really hands on, and sometimes it’s a lot more hands off. They can bounce off questions to you, and ideas, and you give your input. I think when you do that, when there’s not someone that’s maybe taking the lead —
Luray: Is it harder if it’s a band versus just one person?
S. Carey: Yeah. If you’re just in a session and it’s all democratic, there’s potential there for it to be awesome, but there’s also potential for — and it’s probably a lot more probable — everyone’s varying idea of this brand new thing is not gonna line up. And then it’s just gonna crumble.
Luray: Do you think it’s made you more assertive in your communicating with people and bands? Or do you think that it hasn’t really affected how you communicate?
S. Carey: I think the older I get, the more confident I get, the more assertive I get, even though I don’t like that word. But yeah, I feel confident in my ability to play that role if the project calls for it or if I’m asked to do it.
Luray: Not assertive like you’re giving opinions without being asked, but just giving your opinion and not thinking about if you’re hurting the person’s feelings. I’m sure that you’re sensitive to that, but do you think it’s gotten easier to just feel not worried about that?
S. Carey: Yeah, probably.
Luray: Well, I definitely think, with us [for] the second record, it was easier to take feedback and to really not be taking things personally, versus the first record, I think because I’d never done it before, I was much more protective of it, you know? But the second one I was definitely like, most ideas were good and I trust you.
What do you think? Did it feel easier the second time to work together?
S. Carey: It was just a different process overall, and I think I had learned a lot between the two records. But also, I sort of had a different role — I think the fact that you guys tracked it, rehearsed it and tracked it all in your own —
Luray: Right, because I didn’t even have any bandmates the first time.
S. Carey: Yeah. I mean, you guys made it, and I was more just kind of overseeing the big picture of it.
Luray: But then there were songs like “Fire Sale” that you did a lot on, and that was so cool because that one I wasn’t even sure if we were going to record it. And then we had a little bit of time at the end of the session, and I was just like, “Let’s just do this,” and then you kind of made it work and added a lot to it. Then what we did was kind of interpret that live, which was more like what the first record was like, but I think “Fire Sale” was the only one that was like that. I had just done the banjo and given it to Brian, and then you kind of did everything else. So that one sounds so cool. I love how that turned out.
S. Carey: I’m excited to hear that one, how you guys approached that as a band.
Luray: Yeah. We always do all these different configurations. Sometimes lately it’s just me, or sometimes it’s me and Scott [Burton], and then sometimes it’s me, Scott and CJ [Wolfe]. Obviously it’s different in all those, but I’m glad that we’ve been able to adapt everything. I mean, you do that too — you travel with all different configurations all the time. Maybe everybody does that, I guess, unless you’re always solo or something. But that’d be hard. I mean, are you more nervous when you’re playing solo? Cause for me, it’s like a whole different thing when I’m up there by myself.
S. Carey: Yeah, it is. It’s just really hard, and I haven’t done it a lot, but when I have, I’m probably a little more nervous. It also has felt really rewarding at the same time when you get into the energy. And you can make a full sound with one person, but it’s not my preference. To me, so much of music is about the interaction and about improvising and what the other players are going to do and how you respond to that, and that’s what I truly love about music. So it has its place, but I wouldn’t want to do it a ton.
Luray: Are you working on songs right now? Because I think you’ve been recording recently. Where are you in that process?
S. Carey: Yeah, I’m somewhere towards the beginning. I’ve got I think five-ish song ideas, and then kind of a bunch of other things that aren’t songs but could be. It’s at a snail’s pace right now, but starting to see the outline of something. So that’s fun. That’s one of the most exciting times for me — the very beginning and seeing what’s gonna come of it. I’m in no rush, but I think later this fall when we have a longer break at home, I will dive in more. I’m just going to keep collecting small ideas until then.
Luray: Are you recording any so far, or are you just working on drafts at this point?
S. Carey: We did a session in the winter, but we just worked on a couple tunes. There’s some stuff that’s recorded.
Luray: OK, that’s nice. That must feel good.
S. Carey: Yeah. One song’s done, probably done-done. But then there’s others that are probably going to transform quite a bit the next time we go in.
Luray: And you’ve been doing that at Justin [Vernon]’s studio, or the Hive?
S. Carey: Both, actually. Yeah. How about you? You’ve been writing anything.
Luray: I’ve got songs that were written after this record, so they’re not on any other albums, but I don’t know if I have, like, new ones I’m working on right now. Those are kind of, I guess, in draft and I have to figure out which ones that I would wanna record.
But no, I haven’t been writing anything recently, and I’m definitely still figuring out how to write songs with a baby. It’s almost the creative part that is hard, because you have to have that space to think of things, have time to have thoughts. I feel like if I sit down with the banjo, usually I mess around and I have ideas, so if I took it to that next step of writing a song with it — because it’s easy to come up with little ideas and little lyrics and things, but to make it into a song I need a chunk of time. So that was definitely one of my questions for you: Just in general, I’ve always wondered, how do you write? Usually when the kids are in bed, or while they’re at day care? Like, when do you have that chunk of time?
S. Carey: I have time when I’m on the road — you can’t obviously sit down and write a song usually, but I can work on things, hack away at lyrics. You have time to kind of just envision things. Then when I’m at home, [it’s] more of a day-care thing. It depends. I have some time during the week when the kids are gone, but it’s been really kind of up and down creatively. Since the last record came out and we toured that, for a while there I just wasn’t inspired to write at all.
Luray: Yeah, but that’s not that long ago, Sean. Wasn’t that only, like, a year and a half ago that you were touring?
S. Carey: I guess so. It came out last February.
Luray: Depends on how you view time, if that’s long or short.
S. Carey: I’m usually working on something, but there was maybe six months where I knew I should be writing, but I just didn’t want to. I think you have to just wait for it and when it comes, it comes. I have the luxury of not having to crank out things.
Luray: Can you say what you travel with? You said that you had a travel rig with you to work on music.
S. Carey: I just have my little interface, my Apollo Twin, a little keyboard. That’s about it. I’m in Spain, so I brought a power adapter. I plugged everything in today and my power strip started smoking, so that wasn’t a good thing.
Luray: Oh, no.
S. Carey: [Laughs.] So I might not be able to do everything all at once, but I can at least do a couple things at once. The keyboard can run on batteries, so that’s a nice thing.
Luray: I mean, that’s gotta be one of the best things about playing keyboard versus, for me, playing banjo — [a banjo’s] not that portable. I mean, it’s portable, but I wouldn’t probably bring it if I wasn’t gonna be playing it, you know?
S. Carey: Yeah, this is just if we have a day off. I like to maximize my time out here.
Luray: Especially because you’re so busy at home. I mean, it makes sense if you’re not at home to try to write songs if you can.
S. Carey: Yeah. The amount of free time here is usually a lot greater than the free time at home, so I have to try to be productive.
Luray: You ever feel like — and I feel like I struggle with this now — if you have a little bit of time when you’re not watching the kids, this sense of, I need to be doing something. Or, it’s hard just to figure out which thing to do. The free time you have there, does it just feel like, Ah, I’m wasting this, I’m just sitting here for two hours waiting for soundcheck. Are you able to relax into it?
S. Carey: I’m able to relax [Laughs]. I mean it’s comical how polar opposites they sort of are — life on tour and life at home. But I guess I just try to enjoy both as much as possible for what they are.
Luray: Because it’s kind of a waste if you can’t enjoy it and have that time, because it’s right there for you and you’re having that experience. If I do have time that isn’t watching the baby, or if I am, just being really present — I feel like that’s something I’m really working on
S. Carey: Yeah, I always try to balance it. And obviously the older [Shannon’s son] Isaac gets, the easier it will get. It’s not forever.
Luray: Right. I mean, he’s just starting to get into the stage where it’s like, if you’re not watching him for a second, he’s putting something in his mouth that will choke him. He just started walking and running and he’s just getting into things. I think we’re also just in a space where we have some stuff childproofed, but not everything, because he’s not used to getting into things. So we’re just like, “Oh, shit. He realized he can open that drawer.” [Laughs.] He’s in a phase of change. But it’s exciting, it’s fun.
S. Carey: What other questions you want to get into?
Luray: Well, I do want to talk about [Bruce] Hornsby just a little, because I think it’s just so cool that you’re going to play with him. And he was just such a central figure to our childhood with Dad. When you told him, what did he say?
S. Carey: Dad is like — I mean, he’s very excited, but I always imagine that he’s gonna be even more than he is.
Luray: Right, he takes it in stride. He’s like, “Oh, yes, you’re playing with Bruce.”
S. Carey: Kind of, a little bit. Just sometimes he won’t react exactly how I think he will, but he’ll still say things like, “Oh, that’s awesome. He’s the best.”
Luray: He has to have a little time to think about it, I think. Process it away from us.
S. Carey: Yeah. I think one of the coolest things was after I got to meet Hornsby, and he knew who I was, then when him and the Noisemakers were playing in Phoenix, I reached out to his manager and got dad a couple tickets. I think that more than anything was just so big for dad. He had great seats.
It’s been so cool. I was thinking about this the other day: I’ve met a ton of famous musicians and people and stuff, but I think the only person I ever took a selfie with was Hornsby. [Laughs.] That’s not my thing, but how can you skip this chance? He’s just a really, really cool dude. It’s been such a treat to stay in touch with him a little bit, and I got to sing on one of his songs. And now we’re doing two shows in August.
Luray: I just mostly remember listening to him on the way to and from our backpacking trips, and that being the soundtrack of going around the turns in the mountains.
S. Carey: Oh, absolutely.
Luray: And then also listening to him and swimming out in the pool, and dad would have the boombox cranked up and just be so into it.
S. Carey: Yeah. I mean, our time with dad out in Arizona — the nostalgia is just hopped up. It’s crazy, and it’s almost too much sometimes. Like I have to scale it back because it’s hard not to get sad about it. You know, life’s different, now, things have changed. But absolutely, that’s the soundtrack. Every time I go out there, I want the same things: I want to listen to those Hornsby records, I want to eat at the same specific restaurants, I want to camp at the same spot, or some spot we’ve been to. There’s other parts of life that are like that, but nothing quite like that.