On October 24, the “banjo-inspired indie-rock band” Luray performed at the Ottobar for the Baltimore Folk Fest. Lead-singer Shannon Carey spoke to me about her roots, working with family and her influences in a deep and sincere interview.
I understand you grew up in a very musical environment. How do you think this influenced you to get into music as a profession and how has it helped to develop you as a musician?
Well, my dad was a music teacher and my brothers both got degrees in music, but I didn’t feel, at the time, that music was a sensible career path so I pursued social work as a career. But when I was in my mid-20s, I found a banjo teacher and began to learn and then found other musicians who liked to jam because, in Bluegrass, a lot of people just like to get together and play. I guess I felt compelled to try writing songs and seeing if I [could] perform. So four years ago, I quit my job in social work and took a few months to focus on writing music. In terms of my family, I think my brother being a part of Bon Iver and pursuing music and having success so quickly, it kind of was influential because I didn’t think that was possible.
Continuing with that, your brother, Sean, who is part of the band Bon Iver, actually produces for you. What do you think about working with family?
It’s mostly really great. I think we have a relationship that I couldn’t have with people outside my family. We can be really honest with each other when working on musical things and I don’t have to worry about impressing him or acting like I know everything because I’m the big sister. But he knows a lot more than me and it’s really great to have someone I trust helping me and, artistically, it’s really exciting too because we’ve always had similar tastes in music and it’s influenced different things that we’ve both worked on, so it’s really nice to have someone you speak the same musical language with too.
Going back to your influences, what initially attracted you to indie-rock/folk/classic country?
I think the Bluegrass really influenced the country part and really, the banjo itself influences the way that it sounds. But I think I grew up listening to more folk music. The big ones would be Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco – singer/songwriter stuff, Simon and Garfunkle, James Taylor, some of those ’70s folk people. The way that they wrote songs and melodies are kind of the most important things for me – the melodies and the way they wrote lyrics. One of the things that I didn’t like so much about country music is the melodies can be really catchy, but sometimes the lyrics aren’t as meaningful as folk songs, so I wanted to combine the folk music to some of the sounds of country.
Your signature instrument, which seems to be featured prominently on many songs, is the banjo. What attracts you to this instrument, and what made you want to learn to play it in the first place?
I like the timbre. I like the way it kind of hits your ear and you know it. Like, if you’re listening to a song on the radio, it kind of jumps out at you. I like how it was unique and that I could still play it as a guitar in some ways, but it had a different sound. And that’s what I’ve kind of done with it – tried to play it in a unique way so it’s not as Bluegrass-sounding as it normally is.
You have lived in a variety of places – Wisconsin and Northern California – both not really known for their country music. How has living in these places inspired your music?
[Laughs] I’m not from anywhere that is country, but my dad was in a old-school country band in the early ’80s when I was a kid, and I kind of grew up listening to his songs. I think that Northern California does have some Bluegrass going on so there was a community of Bluegrass that I kind of fell into.
I understand that the name Luray comes from the name of a Virginia town close to the Shenandoah mountains. What made you want to name your band after this town?
I wrote a song about a trip to Luray right before my dog died. It was [about] a weekend that we had with him and how it was just this moment that was very peaceful that was a special time. I decided to name the band after that because it kind of captured the connection that I have with nature and certain places that kind of move me. Also, I like the word itself and how it sounds. It’s kind of pretty and simple.
What do you attribute your success as a band to and what are some of your major motivators that helped put you where you are?
I always want to try to have fun, which is something my brother gave me as advice. He said, “you’re not going to be doing it for the money, you’re not going to be able to pay the band very well or make it worthwhile in that way,” so I think that one of the best pieces of advice he gave me is to just have fun. I play the gig for the experience and try to get the intrinsic value of performing and enjoying that or enjoying songwriting or enjoying when the band is together.
Last year you performed in Baltimore. What was your favorite part about performing here?
The people! They were such a great community. So far, everything I’ve seen about Baltimore [leads me to think] that there is a lot of pride about where you live more so than other places that I’ve been to. In the music community, there is kind of a tight-knit group, and when we come from out of town we can see that. It’s so nice how the Baltimore Folk Fest have made us feel at home even though we’re not exactly from Baltimore.
What goes through your head when you’re performing in front of a crowd?
A lot of the time, I’m listening to the other instruments and other things that are going on and making sure that everything is gelling. Sometimes, I’m watching the audience and seeing if they’re reacting and I’m kind of observing that.
So it’s not all energy? It seems like there is a lot of work.
Yes, especially when you’re leading the songs. You’re kind of the engine that’s running the thing.
What are your major aspirations as a musician and for the band as a whole, and what is planned for the future?
Major aspirations are to just keep playing music and to keep writing music. It’s always nice to play in different cities and different venues. It’s always great to play in a great-sounding room. A personal aspiration is to get more people to hear my music and get it exposed. [Also] getting to play with other good bands that I like. Having good music come to me is always good. [We have been working on an album for the past few years] we finally got focused this summer and now we’re doing the mixing part of it so in the next nine months or so, we’ll probably get that done and hopefully be able to release it.