Quick, what’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word banjo? Probably something out of the duel in the film Deliverance, but that’s okay, Shannon Carey won’t hold that against you, even if that is the impression many have when they show up to see the Washington D.C.-based banjo player and her band Luray.
“When I do a show, people are like ‘yeah, banjo,’ (Laughs) and then I get up there and play something really slow and depressing, and they go, ‘oh, okay,’” said Carey. “They’re a little confused, but they understand what I’m trying to do after a couple songs, and they’re like ‘okay, she’s playing it in a different genre and it’s not like other banjo I’ve heard.’”
It is far from other banjo you’ve heard, and on Luray’s recently released debut album The Wilder, it isn’t an instrument that stands out above the others and becomes the focal point of the ten track collection. Instead, it’s part of a greater whole, with that whole being the atmospheric and mood-setting songs that steal the show both musically and lyrically and take you far from what you would expect from a frontwoman wielding a banjo. Carey does see the instrument making a comeback though.
“It’s definitely coming into more of a pop culture consciousness,” she said. “I hear about it so much more than even a few years ago. A lot of bands use banjo, it’s in a lot of commercials and documentaries, and while I think there’s definitely more expectation that it’s gonna be straightforward bluegrass or a hillbilly sound, I love that stuff.”
And while she loves the traditional forms that feature the instrument and has played them, that wasn’t what she was aiming for with Luray. Not to say that she was being different for the sake of being different either.
“I wasn’t trying to surprise anyone; those were just the sounds I was trying to make,” she said. “I like atmospheric, broody, depressing music, and so it just happened to be that I also play bluegrass banjo. And I played and liked bluegrass, and I loved it and it was fun, but I felt that it didn’t really touch the emotions that I sometimes wanted it to. With bluegrass, it’s fun and you get a sense of joy, but it’s not a very melancholy music, and so I wanted to marry the two things that I really was interested in.”
She nailed it, and while there is certainly a melancholy feel to several tracks and a downright depressing one in tracks like “Tidalground” (“That song is about death, so it’s supposed to be depressing,” she said), Carey says that writing and singing about such topics can be cathartic.
“The more that I’ve done these songs and the more that they’ve lived in me, the less sad I am when I play them,” she said. “When you write a song and you’re in the depths of something emotional, that’s what you needed to do, and that does express that feeling. And later, as you’re playing it live, you might be in a different space. I can struggle with making my songs too serious live, versus just being like ‘well, it’s okay if I smile a little bit during this one.’ (Laughs) So it is a challenge when you’re writing sad songs and reinterpreting them live. But I know that my energy isn’t really sad when I’m singing these songs live now, just because I’m in a different place.”
And that place may be one on the verge of something big. Currently on the road supporting The Wilder and hitting New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall on Thursday, Carey and company (Sarah Gilberg, Gabriel Wisniewski, C.J. Wolfe, Brian Cruse) are looking forward to a life that is likely to change significantly for them in the coming months and years.
“I think the music’s good, so I’m not scared about that,” she said. “I’m excited to share that and I feel very ready. And obviously that’s the best case scenario if it (The Wilder) got a lot of positive reviews and people liked it and there were always more things to do. So I think I’m just preparing myself for the fact that this is the norm – constant change – and starting to accept that and relax into it.”
Luray plays Rockwood Music Hall on Thursday, September 5. For tickets, click here