THE TITLE of Kelli Schaefer's new EP, 601, seems arbitrary until you spend a little time with her. The number's history as a computer error message—most notably in the 1971 sci-fi film The Andromeda Strain—indicates an information overload. The EP's cover shows Schaefer's head split into two directions while staying connected by a third eye. It drives home that, despite her respectable fanfare, the Portland artist's psyche is a fragile beast yet.
"I don't wanna talk about what the songs are about," says Schaefer, sitting across from me in the driver's seat of her white van. "Something I feel like we all struggle with, and maybe myself especially, is that fractured psyche of a million things happening all at once, and not being able to spend too much time on one thing long enough to get any results from it. It's just these little bits and pieces."
601 maneuvers through the random excesses of a wandering mind. Schaefer recorded its four tracks in her basement, mostly alone, dredging up stream-of-consciousness noises using percussive trinkets, vocal layering, and ambient soundscapes to craft an abstract art-pop listening experience. The opener, "Giants," is a vast, explosive sort of track that displays Schaefer's brilliantly expansive vocal acrobatics, and her ability for a kind of skewed perfection in terms of honest musical performance.
"I'm not going to release something unless I think it's really great," says Schaefer. "When I recorded the songs, I didn't really have any intention of releasing them; it was more just being creative. But it felt like I couldn't move forward until I put these songs out."
"Inside the House Where Nobody Lives," the EP's epilogue, pulses in a spiral of overlapping sounds and Schaefer's overdubbed harmonies. The song's super-extended, lone-note ending relishes in its repetition, providing a surreal bookend to the record.
Anyone who's seen Schaefer live can vouch for her willingness to let go, to become one with the room and the song. On her debut LP Ghost of the Beast, that resilience was relatively tame, though still notably tough. On 601, it's completely unsheathed and wild. Schaefer's nervous tension is palpable in her songs, made all the more topical, perhaps, due to the timing of our interview being the one-year anniversary of her sobriety from alcohol. Her day also consisted of stressfully trying to track down money for rent.
"A lot of time has gone by [since Ghost...] and I'm definitely in a completely different head space," says Schaefer, who admits that there's only been time enough to schedule two release shows—one of which already took place in Seattle—and no touring around the EP release. "I have so much social anxiety, sometimes I feel like the only place in the world I'm comfortable is on stage. I feel confident because it's something I'm good at, but then fucking everything I'm holding in just comes out, and gets crazier and crazier.
"What I would like in the future to be known as, music-wise, is that I create an experience for people," she continues. "I feel like I can get there sometimes, but getting people to step through the door with you is a challenge."
With Schaefer's transitional spirit intact on 601, perhaps that door is growing wider.