Q+A with Shannon Hayden, Ground-Breaking Musician + Self-Sufficient Farmer

We first discovered Shannon on a dreary Saturday night in Cleveland, Ohio. She was opening for the pop-folk sister duo, Lily & Madeleine, at a local hipster-cool, retro-inspired dive bar that also doubles as a performance venue and bowling alley. Perhaps augmented by the unique setting, Shannon’s performance seemed to transport us to another dimension — where conventions and rules are not just broken, but utterly rejected and rewritten. Her ambient, emotionally-charged music is a combination of her classical cello training, her mesmerizing vocal talents, and her unprecedented, skillful electronic manipulation, with a little guitar thrown in for good measure.

As we’ve gotten to know Shannon better, it’s become clear that her innovation doesn’t stop with her music. She’s a determined, impassioned artist who values independence, originality, and genuine connection. We love all those things about her, but most of all, we respect her creative approach to living, challenges and all. A perfect example of this? She’s based out of her family’s self-sustaining, organic vegetable farm in Illinois, which she and her dad have outfitted with a recording studio fueled entirely by alternative energy. Talk about a liberating, out-of-the-box approach to the 20-something creative lifestyle.

The Basics

  • Age: 25
  • Location: I am based out of my off-the-grid, organic vegetable farm in south-central Illinois. I do all of my recording and writing there. The farm has been in our family since the 1860’s.
  • Education: Yale School of Music
  • Field of Interest: Rollerblading, film, helping my dad with his vintage car and motorcycle restoration projects, alternative energy, organic farming, reading, long walks while listening to RadioLab, and, of course, endlessly  listening to and playing music.
  • What’s Your Favorite Thing About Yourself? My ability to be independent. It’s occasionally both a blessing and a curse! Pursuing a career in original art requires a self-reliant, strong and, sadly yes, stubborn personality!  As long as those traits are used for the greater good I think they can be very beneficial for artists, or really anyone who is pursuing something they are passionate about. You just always have to keep in mind why you are doing what you’re doing – ultimately, for me, it’s about connecting and communicating with an audience…setting a vibe and bringing people together.
  • What Inspired You Today? I watched the opening scene of a favorite film of mine this morning – Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders. Always a source of inspiration for me.
  • What Are You Currently Listening To On Repeat? FKA Twigs “Figure 8″, also Ravel’s “Miroirs”, the third movement in particular finds itself on repeat a lot on my Spotify 🙂
  • What Are You Currently Reading That You Can’t Put Down? Thomas Pynchon – Vineland
  • What Is Something That You’re Really Excited About? I’m excited to release my third album You See The World in February. We are currently working hard on promotion for the release, touring to support the album, etc. Mostly, I am just looking forward to sharing it with folks and hitting the road to support it!

Questions + Answers

You’ve been classically trained in music at Yale School of Music, one of the most prestigious schools in the country. You play both cello and guitar and also dabble in vocals. You’ve taken an alternative path to success with these talents, creating new age music, which is so atmospheric and mesmerizing! When did you realize that you were destined for a path outside of the traditional classical music scene?

My initial inspiration for wanting to learn the cello came from hearing The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” — the cello lines are so haunting in that song! Also seeing Bjork perform with the Icelandic String Octet on TV when I was three years old was a big deal, that was the first time I actually saw a cello. So I didn’t really start out thinking I was only ever going to do classical music with the cello. I’m inspired by many different musical genres, as we all are nowadays. I grew up playing different styles of music, on various instruments and in many different settings. I played lead guitar in bands starting in my teens, all the while continuing serious training with the cello.

My main goal with music has always been to create something new and to push the boundaries of not only what I or my instrument is capable of, but of what people expect from music and its place in today’s world as well. So, for me, there wasn’t much of a transition from music school to what I’m doing now. Traditional training has been an invaluable tool that has helped enable me to put forth my musical ideas.

You’re currently touring the country to promote your upcoming album, You See The World, which is scheduled for release in February. What has been your favorite stop so far?

Every place has been pretty unique and special. I can’t think of a single place we’ve played that was just sort of blah. It really comes down to the audiences. If the crowd is fun and receptive, that takes the whole performance up several notches. I think we have been very lucky with the wonderful audiences we have had.

We loved your cover of Little Dragon’s “A New” that you performed at your show with Lily & Madeleine in Cleveland, Ohio. What other musical artists do you look to for inspiration? Are there certain musical elements that you love that seem to surpass genres?

I love acoustic work, but find I often look to the world of electronic music for inspiration. Electronic artists are often on the cutting edge of music today, there are very few limitations to what they can do. I like it when people take those ideas and then apply them to real instruments, collaborations like when Jonny Greenwood writes for the BBC concert orchestra, or when Mica Levi (of Micachu and the Shapes) performs her compositions with the London Sinfonietta.

We couldn’t help noticing your rad, fun-loving vintage style. Dressing for a show seems a bit of a daunting task to us! Do you curate this look or do you just do you?

Oh man, I feel like I’m really bad at the whole visual thing. You must have just caught me on a rare good day! I pretty much just do me, whatever that happens to be that day. On tour you’ll generally find me sporting whatever I bought while shopping in whatever city I was in the day before 🙂


Your music, like photography today, is a fusion of manual traditions and technological editing tools. Do you treat the technological manipulations (looping, etc) as an entirely different instrument, or is the knowledge that you will be manipulating considered in your playing and writing?

Every song is different, but I do try to treat my pedals as potential “collaborators” haha. I never want to sit down and think “okay, I’m going to write a song for myself and a looper.” When I’m writing and find the need for another line, I try to write the part as if it is for another instrument or player, not just a 4 bar lick that will be looped over and over again. It’s like writing for a string quartet, rather than just myself. For me, it helps push the limits of what my looper is capable of.


You were raised and still live on an organic, self-sustaining vegetable farm in south central Illinois, which we envision as being quite a tranquil, almost utopian lifestyle. How has this connection with the environment, this solitude, influenced your music and even worldview?

I’d say the most important thing I’ve learned from our lifestyle here at the farm is that there is always an alternative to the status quo. Living off the grid forces you to think outside the box a bit. I think that mentality has influenced my creative process greatly.

Back to the farm for a couple days and planting potatoes!

A post shared by Shannon Hayden (@shan_hayden3) on

On that note, a common theme among the stories of young creatives is the disheartening realization that there is always rent to pay, food to buy, and a certain materialistic lifestyle standard to live up to. Does the liberating knowledge that you’re successfully (and happily!) self-sufficient influence the way that you approach creativity? Challenges?

For sure! Actually one of the main reasons we began working toward a self-sustainable lifestyle at our family farm was because my dad knew I was intent on pursuing a career in music and, as he is a visual artist and understands the difficulty (and lack of security) that often accompanies a life in the arts, he wanted to help build an “artistic” lifestyle for me. A way of living that could provide some security, a sense of stability. The farm has really enabled me to focus on and pursue exactly the kind of career I’d like to have. I’d love to eventually start an artist colony at the farm, I meet a lot of struggling artists on the road who could really benefit from it 🙂


Living your creative future requires constantly taking thoughtful, intentional risks and undoubtedly requires some sacrifice. When on your personal journey did this ring most true for you?

I believe I’ve actually been lucky in the fact I have a pretty stubborn, one-track mind when it comes to my career in music. I have always wanted to be a musician, so there was never any moment where I was thinking to myself “Wow, I really did think about becoming a doctor at one point, why didn’t I do that?!!”. I kinda feel that I’ve always been on this one track, for better or for worse!



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