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Interview: Shannon Hayden
Posted February 04, 2016 by Seth Johnson

If you’ve ever had the chance to catch cellist Shannon Hayden in concert, you certainly know how mesmerizing her multi-layered music is. Although born and raised in small-town Illinois, the charming 25-year-old is no stranger to Indianapolis, performing at places like the Hi-Fi, the Chatterbox and more on a regular basis. In addition to her solo gigs, too, she’s also a part of Lily & Madeleine’s band, recording and touring with the local duo.

During her most recent trip to Indy, Seth Johnson was able to catch up with the classically trained electronic/ambient artist, discussing her upcoming solo record (stream a recently debuted single over at The FADER) and much more.

Seth Johnson: So what brings you to Indianapolis?

Shannon Hayden: I was rehearsing with Lily & Madeleine yesterday and some of today. They have a new album coming out the week after I do. We have a show the day after its release at Deluxe, and yesterday was the first rehearsal for that.

SJ: I guess I’ll start out asking you about all of that then. How did you get involved with Lily & Madeleine initially?

SH: I did a remote broadcast with WFHB [Bloomington community radio] from Paul Mahern’s studio in Bloomington, like three years ago. I didn’t know him at all, and he didn’t know me. I just set up, and we had some time to kill before the radio broadcast. He kind of got an idea of what I did, and was like, “Hey. We’re working with this group called Lily & Madeleine, and they could use some cello on their EP [The Weight of the Globe].” I was like, “Cool, sounds good.” He was like, “We’ve got 15 minutes before we go on air. Do you want to do something?” And, I’m like, “Sure.” So I just laid down some tracks, and that’s how we got started.

I’ve been on their albums since then, and have been more and more involved as the albums have gone on. I tour with them as well. So I’m in the studio with them, and I’m on the road with them. It’s great. We double-bill each night. So I do my set, I leave all my gear set up, and then I play with them. They’re fun. I’m excited about the new album [due out on Feb. 26].

SJ: What have you enjoyed about playing with them?

SH: During my set, it’s probably much more focused on the diversity of the cello and that kind of thing. It’s very nice to be in a group situation, though, where I can set down one instrument, pick up another and be a little bit more diversified with the instruments that I play. This next tour will be the first tour where I’m standing up and playing more electric guitar and playing a little bit more mandolin. Going back and forth between mandolin and cello a lot quicker. So that’s kind of fun, and it’s a challenge.

But, they have amazing voices, and it’s just wonderful to be able to be a part of the process and to try to do the best I can to compliment their voices. They’re fun girls to travel with as well, so that’s nice.

SJ: Was cello the instrument you started out on then?

SH: Yes, when I was 7. So I guess 18 years ago now.

SJ: Was there any specific reason why you started out on that instrument? Did you grow up in a musical family?

SH: They played a lot of music in the house. The radio was always on, and my dad’s album collection was constantly being sorted through. But, neither of my parents were professional musicians. My dad’s a woodworker and visual artist, and my mom’s a health department administrator. But, my dad is just constantly playing music. And when I was 3, that was the first time I saw the cello on TV, and I heard “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles. I was like, “That’s the instrument I want to play.”

My parents knew I was super into music. They took me to lots of concerts. When I was 8 or 9, I remember they would take me up to Champaign-Urbana, which was the closest small city to us. At 8 o’clock, we’d go to a university concert or faculty cello performance. And then after that, we’d go to this underground electronic music cafe until the wee hours of the night. So I had a pretty diversified musical background.

SJ: Were you taking cello lessons at age 7?

SH: Yeah. It was very traditional training from the beginning with cello. It was kind of hard to find a cello teacher in rural Illinois, so I took lessons at the University of Illinois. And, I came to IU for five years for their prep program, which was super nice. Kids were flying in from all over the world each weekend to study, and I just had to drive two hours.

SJ: Where did you grow up in Illinois?

SH: So you know where Terre Haute is? It’s like 45 minutes west of there. I grew up on our family farm, which has been in the family since the 1860’s. My family was a little bit all over the place when I was really young, but we came back to that area when I was 6. And then, we just started making more of an established presence actually at the family farm after that.

The farm really played into my wanting to become a musician. I never wanted to be anything else, and my dad was a tiny bit concerned. He was like, “Well, you’re going to want to have some sort of security, and you’re not going to get that so much in the arts.” So when I was 14, we started building a house from scratch at the farm, and the whole project was to make it off the grid. We learned how to use solar power. We learned how to grow our own vegetables, which we had already done quite a bit. Really, just to be as self-sustainable as possible. And then, I’d always have a place to come back to off of the road, while I wasn’t touring. I could come back and not have to worry about rent. My studio [where she self-records all of her albums] is there as well.

SJ: I read that you were homeschooled. Were you homeschooled for the entirety of your schooling though?

SH: Until third grade, I was in public school. My parents were big believers in public school, but it was just impossible. It was a little tiny town, so there was only one elementary school. And, they were not lenient at all. When I was 10, I was asked to join the Eastern Illinois University’s orchestra, which was 20 minutes away in the local college town. But, it would’ve required me to leave 15 minutes early each Thursday, and they wouldn’t allow that. So my parents did not want to homeschool, but it worked out great. I ended up having to travel quite a bit for competitions and that kind of stuff, and it worked out fine. At least, I think it worked out fine. I wouldn’t say I’m normal, but…(laughs).

SJ: You mentioned the competitions. Was that something you were doing from a pretty young age too?

SH: Yeah. Competitions are such a necessary evil with traditional training. As a youngster, I never had any of the psychological traumas that other people did. I would be doing 30-and-under competitions as like a 13- or 14-year-old, traveling to Germany for them and stuff. So for me, it was like, “Ah, this is cool, no stress. You get up there, and you do your thing.” But, it becomes stressful when you’re 27, and that’s your last time you can do this competition because it’s only every four years. And if you don’t win, you’re not going to get this position with such-and-such orchestra. So you’re up against people like that, and there’s a lot of stress. But for me, it was like, “Whatever. This is cool.”

I was very serious about my traditional cello training through college and everything. But honestly, I wasn’t just into “classical music.” Even that term…there’s so much baggage associated with that term. It shouldn’t even be called “classical.” That’s like calling it all baroque. For me, I just wanted to play the music I wanted to play and also write the music that I wanted to write. So I took the training seriously, but I never really took all the stress and baggage that went with it very seriously.

SJ: While you were going through your training both at IU and at Yale, were you also exploring your own sound too?

SH: Yeah.

SJ: What was it like for you to be in these classes, but also be doing that?

SH: When I started picking up the guitar, I was 12, and it opened up a whole new world to me. I’m biased, of course, but I’ve basically always believed that the cello is actually more versatile than the guitar. You can sustain a note, you can bow it and you can pluck it. It’s got a great frequency spectrum. So at first, I thought guitar might be slightly more limiting, until my dad was like, “Okay this is what you can do with the guitar.” It was like an “everything goes” mentality. Creativity, writing and improvising were encouraged, anti just made me look at the cello in a completely different way. My classical teachers always hated the fact that I played guitar. But for me, it only helped my love for music in general.

I started playing in bands and was in a pretty serious band in high school. In that band, actually, I started incorporating more of the cello. At first, the band was like, “Ugh. Not the cello. Don’t break that thing out.” And, you could tell the audience, when I would pick up the cello, was like, “Ugh.” But, there was such a heavy sound with the cello going through these massive club PA systems, and people just dug it. It was a whole different experience, ya know? So I started experimenting more and more and writing more for that kind of thing with cello. The cool thing is that with cello, you have the freedom to become your own solo project. It just has such a wide frequency spectrum where I feel capable of being on my own.

SJ: I saw you play this past summer in Indianapolis, and you seemed to be doing a lot of complex looping. Is that something you’ve done for a while?

SH: As far as my own stuff, yeah. I’ve always incorporated it quite a bit. I also perform a lot with contemporary classical composers, performing their works and working with them on compositions, so that’s a very different kind of performance. But as far as my solo stuff, it’s going to be electronic-based sometimes and stripped down other times, but always within that same sort of feel.

SJ: What adjustments did you have to make when you first started performing your solo work?

SH: It was so gradual. I was really developing my style while working in bands, even when I went off to college. I just started slowly developing it more and more. I’m so used to trying to throw myself into so many different musical situations that might otherwise feel uncomfortable that doing my own thing has always felt very comfortable. Oftentimes when you work with other people, that’s when musicians get freaked out around each other. But, you’ve gotta get over that. When I was in college on the East Coast, I remember I would just pack up my guitar and go to all kinds of blues jams in Boston and New York. Throwing yourself into all those different situations sure does make you feel more comfortable when suddenly you’re in control.

SJ: It just seems like you have such a knack for looping, and also making a wide array of sounds with your cello too.

SH: I never really set out to be a “looper,” ya know? I think it’s just about the mentality and how you approach it. I’ve always kind of considered it to be one of my effects, instead of, “This is my loop station. Here are my effects.” So I’ve never wanted to just rely heavily on that. I always want to try to start with doing everything I can just on my own, and then, “Okay. If you want to build on it more, use the loop station.” I’ve never wanted to be the artist who loops a little something, and then loops a little something else. I’ve always wanted to treat the looper like another musician. In fact, a lot of people ask me, “Weren’t you just triggering backing tracks?” Because they don’t hear the repetition as much all the time. And, I’m just like, “That’s good! That’s what I want.”

SJ: Talk to me about some of the influences that went into your upcoming album, You See The World [which will be released on Feb. 19]?

SH: For that album, I can’t really remember, but I can mention some constant influences. One would be 20th century sacred minimalism. The obvious ones are always Philip Glass and them. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. Just the fact that he goes between Radiohead and being the composer-in-residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra. Bridging those two worlds is really interesting. But to me, they’re not really two worlds. So those are constants.

Actually, one of my favorite influences is Ichirou Agata, who’s the guitarist for the Japanese punk band Melt-Banana. What he does with guitar has always been an influence for how I approach the cello. It’s just like you wouldn’t know what he’s making most of those sounds with. So he’s not limiting what he can do based on his instrument, and I’ve always tried to have that mentality a little bit with the cello.

SJ: You mentioned that you occasionally do session work as well. Do you have any of that planned for 2016, in addition to your solo touring and touring with Lil and Mad?

SH: Yeah. I want to spend some time on the West Coast, probably this summer. But, everything is kind of up in the air right now. I just don’t know what will happen week to week. With my album releasing and with Lily & Madeleine’s album releasing, more tour dates are being added all the time, so it’s a little hard right now to schedule. I want to spend time in L.A. I always really enjoy my time out there. The whole West Coast has always been a great experience. So I’ll probably spend some time out there, but my farm will always be home base. Indianapolis is the closest actual city to us, too, so this is always kind of like home base as well.

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