KELLI SCHAEFER Trying out for Lady Justice’s job since 2007.
Robertsen Ashman

KELLI SCHAEFER'S original ambition was to change the world. "When I was a kid, I wanted to end world poverty," she says. "I loved music, but I don't think I wanted to be a rock star. I wanted to do humanitarian stuff. I think I made a decision at one point that I was going to either pursue music or dedicate my entire life to service."

At the time, it was Schaefer's health that kept her from humanitarian work. Suffering from juvenile diabetes and other serious health issues, she spent her teen years gravitating toward music, eventually moving to Portland from Battle Ground, Washington, and finding a community of likeminded musicians and artists. If Schaefer's ambition to serve fell by the wayside, she's found a role capable of enacting a subtler but just as potent change: Her striking songs won't feed millions or clothe nations, but they have the profound ability to deeply affect those who hear them.

Surprisingly, Ghost of the Beast is the songwriter and performer's first full-length record. Its maturity and assuredness is fully evident from its opening track, the imposing, beautiful "The Fury," a goth-tinged anthem that resonates with emotional cataclysm. Guitars echo and a choir shivers over a rutted drumbeat, before the song resolves in a gorgeous, hymn-like coda then vanishes in the whirr of an organ.

Schaefer hesitates to explain the song's meaning. "When I was younger I was kind of a basket case. I was the kind of kid that would get really, extremely emotional about what appeared to be nothing, and I couldn't understand why I was that way," she says. "I had to give a name to it, so I just called it the Fury. I was 12 or 13 and dealing with really difficult health issues, and this weird heaviness that I didn't feel like I should have to deal with at that age." That shadow hangs over other songs on Ghost of the Beast, including the title track, which finds its rhythm in the sound of a shovel scraping the ground, and the voluminous horror-synth chords of "Black Dog."

"The Fury" is the newest song on Ghost, whose other tracks are culled from the excellent series of two-song releases on Amigo/Amiga—the label run by her drummer, Jeremiah Hayden—from the past year and a half. The album was recorded in the house she shares with Hayden and labelmate Drew Grow, who co-produced the record and is responsible for much of its inventive sound, inverting pop-song expectations for a darker vein of emotional veracity. "It's literally a record of my life over the past year and a half. Our life," Schaefer adds. "We record in the basement, and there are field recordings from things around our house and sounds of the neighborhood."

For the record's release show, Schaefer and her band—including Hayden and bassist/vocalist Kris Doty—play the Artistery, where Schaefer once lived, for its final week of shows. "It's such a bummer that it's closing down," she says. "For this show we wanted it to be all ages, and we wanted it to be small. Our idea was to try to see if the old, original Meow Meow—we drove by it and it had a 'For Lease' sign on it—if they would let us in for just one show. But that didn't work out. So the next thing was either a house show or the Artistery, which we're really happy we decided to do."