“Geist” is the German word for “spirit.” Indie-folk songwriter Shannon Lay stumbled upon this word as she was leafing through a vintage music terminology book, and the word struck her. After she discovered its meaning, she realized that the word epitomized the experience of making her fifth record, so she decided to name the album Geist.
“The idea of spirit flows evenly through this record,” Lay tells SPIN over Zoom. “As I was making it, I was going through an intense moment and seeing the way that the human spirit finds peace in all of this chaos. It was really cool to admire how resilient we can be.”
With Geist, Lay has come closer to finding her true frequency. She embraced her insecurities and found comfort in discomfort, especially as a folk artist coming out of the punk scene. Lay used to play guitar in the garage-rock band FEELS, and she left the band in January 2020 to focus on her solo career.
“When someone would say, ‘Oh, that was so beautiful,’ it would put a bad taste in my mouth,” Lay explains. “I was like, ‘No, it has to be edgy and tough and cool.’ I wanted to embrace what is so special about the music that I create, which is that it requires a certain amount of stillness.”
Stillness is one of the enduring qualities of Lay’s music, and it’s particularly true with Geist. Opener “Rare to Wake,” inspired by Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune, centers on the interplay between Lay’s hushed, contemplative vocals and her finger-picked nylon-string guitar. The following track, “A Thread to Find,” chronicles a déjà-vu experience that Lay had when visiting an old Swiss hotel. Her music is deeply ruminative, and it requires a certain amount of thoughtfulness to truly appreciate it.
Geist often blends reality and fantasy in a way that can feel heavy despite the music’s gossamer tones. It’s why Lay felt compelled to close this album with the instrumental track “July,” which provides a moment of respite after the nine songs that precede it.
“I hope it encourages people to feel the way that music hits their body,” Lay says. “I would love for that song to encourage people to take a breath and have a moment to appreciate the stillness that, hopefully, you were encouraged to experience while listening to the whole thing.”
The focus of Geist, musically speaking, is Lay and her guitar. It’s a relationship that she has cultivated throughout her career, but it reaches its apotheosis on this album. Similar to the record as a whole, the guitar drew Lay into music as a form of healing, and it’s where she’s found the way that she absorbs her surroundings.
“It’s not always about being technically good at something,” Lay says. “Do you see the pattern in this? Do you hear the tones in this? There are so many different forms of intelligence, so it helped me discover mine and feel better about who I was and who I was becoming.”
Through this process of self-discovery, she realized something important: “I want to do it for myself,” she says. “I’m sick of trying to impress everybody. It’s really exhausting, and I think everyone can relate to that feeling.”