Interview: San Franciscan busker The Space Lady
The iconic outsider musician is experiencing a revival since her 70s/80s heyday
Walk through San Francisco's bohemian Castro district in the 70s or 80s and you might come across a street musician dressed in a winged helmet and futuristic robes, singing celestial lullabies over the cosmic tones of a modified Casio keyboard. This was The Space Lady, aka Susan Dietrich Schneider, whose futuristic covers of rock classics and original compositions made her a firm favourite with locals.
Her story is a remarkable one. To avoid the Vietnam draft, Schneider and then-husband Joel Dunsany went underground. Quite literally: at one point, they lived in a cave on Mount Shasta, California, where Schneider recalls seeing UFOs in the night sky. With regular employment out of the question, busking became the means by which she would feed her family. Together with Dunsany, who had been a rock musician himself, Schneider devised the Space Lady concept.
Following the breakup of her marriage, Schneider stopped performing and worked as a nurse. However, the Space Lady's music lived on, reaching a wider audience in 2000 after her self-released 1990 tape found its way into the hands of music historian and radio presenter Irwin Chusid, who included her spectral cover of the Electric Prunes' 'I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night' on his great compilation of outsider music, Songs In The Key of Z.
Fast forward a decade and the Space Lady is back in orbit, touring the USA and Europe and enjoying her first commercial release, Space Lady's Greatest Hits, on Night School Records. She'll play four dates in Scotland this April, including an outdoor set at the bandstand in Queen's Park, Glasgow as part of the experimental Counterflows festival. The List spoke to Schneider about her interest in space and spirituality, the development of the Space Lady concept, and her return to music.
How have UFOs / extraterrestrials affected your life?
I have a fascination with UFOlogy and a sense of wonder about what exists in the universe. And it’s no less awe-inspiring what exists here on earth. Maybe having a strong reverence for the things we know about but will never understand. As John Lennon said in one interview, 'I believe in everything!'
Is there a spiritual message in your music?
Yes, that peace, love, and compassion are the most important things. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh includes animals, plants and minerals as things we need to have compassion for. If you consider Mother Earth as a living being, you can see the sense to that. I also want to encourage people to follow their bliss, as Joseph Campbell famously said. I had given up my music to become a nurse several years ago, and was miserable trying to fit myself into that square hole. Thanks to my loyal fans – old and new – I’m back, following my bliss.
How did you devise your set-up?
I intentionally chose the Casiotone MT-40 because of the 22 voices it has, like piano, clarinet, celesta, violin, banjo, guitar, etc, although the clerk at Boston Music Co tried to sell me a brand new model with more rhythms but fewer voices. Then I added the effects Joel and I had around the house, which consisted of only the Small Stone phase shifter and a Radio Shack reverb. It was Joel’s idea to donate his Small Stone to my act, because the Casio has a very flat tone without it, even with all the voices. So that sort of became my signature sound, along with the echo on the vocals. The cheap reverb outlived its usefulness quite quickly, around the time I arranged my version of 'Ghost Riders In The Sky' because I wanted a more dramatic sound for the ghosts on the chorus. So I saved up for my first real analogue delay pedal, an MXR with three knobs that made weird sounds when I twirled them. That led to experimenting with additional sound effects, but it took me a little longer to find an application for them. 'Radar Love' was the first song that called out for sound effects, then 'Major Tom'. So the concept of space music sort of evolved right along with my equipment.
How important was your then-husband Joel in helping create the Space Lady persona and sound?
Joel was instrumental, no pun intended, in helping create my presentation. First of all, he insisted that I play standing up, not sitting, as I had planned. So he devised a keyboard stand from a camera tripod with a plank of wood bolted on top, and even went so far as to glue hundreds of coloured rhinestones all around the edges of the board to create a sparkling effect. Then he devised a blinking plastic daisy to wear in my hair, using the same mini-bulb he had used in several of his sculptures and paintings on plywood, back in our San Francisco days (my busking career actually began in Boston). And of course, he ultimately gave me the winged helmet, which he had worn for his one-man-band he called The Cosmic Man. He also wrote several songs for me, and chose some of the cover songs I did.
Did you choose cover songs for their lyrical themes or were you guided more by what you thought would work musically?
I chose songs with positive messages, outer-space or supernatural themes, and lots of songs that I just liked.
I find the way you turn swaggering rock songs like 'Born To Be Wild' and 'Ballroom Blitz' into strange electronic reveries quite magical. Do you consciously try to cast such songs in a new light?
Actually, I was doing my best to recreate the songs as I heard them by the original artists, and it was just a happy accident they came out the way they did through The Space Lady filter.
The Space Lady originals are wonderful too. Are you working on new songs of your own?
Funny you should ask! I’ve actually just written a song for the US West Coast tour, a love song to Mother Earth, and a call to action to her inhabitants. It’s called 'The Next Right Thing' and the American audiences have loved it so far.
Are there any contemporary artists or songs you'd be interested in covering?
I’d like to cover 'I Wonder' having just seen the movie Searching for Sugarman for the first time a few weeks ago. I still have my work cut out for me just reviving the songs on the album, and I also plan to continue writing more songs.
How does it feel to have your music reissued and reaching a new audience?
How many synonyms for ‘ecstatic’ are there?!!
You must have many fond memories of San Francisco, whose residents embraced you and your music. With the dot com boom pushing long-term residents out of areas like Castro and Haight Ashbury, do you feel a sadness at the passing of that era or do you think the spirit will live on?
I haven’t been to San Francisco on this tour as of yet, but I have heard things have changed. I guess I’ll find out when I get there. But the spirit is alive and well up here in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve come to find out. The towns I’ve played around Seattle, where I’m touring right now, all have thriving counter-cultural communities of artists, musicians, and ecologists, not to mention Space Lady fans.
You're playing club dates on this tour, but in Glasgow you'll be performing at the Queen's Park bandstand (a lovely park, very popular with families and dogs!). Have you performed outdoors much since your comeback? How does it compare to playing indoors?
Yes, I’ve played lots outdoors since my comeback, mostly in Santa Fe New Mexico on the Plaza, and I love it… especially when there are families and dogs! However, I’m bowled over by the sound systems I’ve been wired through indoors, and I can hardly believe the power of my sound when I start to play. The audiences love it too!
Thank you for bringing me to your readers. I can’t wait to play for them in person!
The Space Lady plays Garnet Hill Multi-Cultural Centre, Glasgow with Ela Orleans, Fri 4 Apr, and a matinee bandstand performance at Queen's Park Arena, Glasgow, Sun 6 Apr, both as part of Counterflows Festival; she also plays the DCA, Dundee, Sat 5 Apr; and The Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh , Wed 9 Apr.