When asked how her relationship to music has changed over the nearly two years since she released her little-heard debut EP, Portland singer/songwriter Kelli Schaefer replies: "I used to worry about writing in a specific genre, but now I don't feel that pressure, as long as what I'm coming up with is good. If I let my voice be the thing that is constant, sooner or later a common thread will appear."
Schaefer's newfound comfort with following her voice to whatever stylistic shores it may lead is manifested in the broad swath of aesthetic territory bounded by "City Morgue" and B-side "Better Idea," the two contrasting but complementary and impressively well-developed songs that mark the end of a period of silence and the beginning of an ongoing singles series with freshly minted local label Amigo/Amiga.
Schaefer's trust in her compositional instincts and measured voice is well placed, guiding her along perhaps the only musically coherent path through the night of "City Morgue," with its dark brass swells and menacing toms, to the rarified air and soft morning light of "Better Idea," with its restorative organ and gentle upright bass pulse. As strong as Schaefer's writing and musicianship are, it is the smart arrangements that ultimately distinguish these songs. Schaefer has written strong songs, and crucially she has found collaborators that play to those strengths in Drew Grow, Jeremiah Hayden, Kris Doty, and Bryan Free, her rotating, multi-instrumentalist backing band.
Schaefer, now 24, grew up half an hour north of Portland, in Battle Ground, Washington. As a child, her encounters with the big city were limited to weekly trips to a downtown church and family outings to Burger King. Things changed, though, Schaefer recalled: "I started to take an interest in Portland at about 15 or 16, when a group of friends from high school started going to this music club called the Meow Meow. It was the only all-ages club in Portland that played good music, and made us youngsters feel like we were part of something. My friend Mickey started volunteering there and so we got into shows for free. I met Todd and Angie Fadel, who ran the Meow Meow, and through them started attending a crazy church called the Bridge that was affiliated with the club. The Bridge soon became my community and for years, although stepping back and forth across the line of Christianity, was my safe haven. I owe my life to that place and to the Fadels."
It was the Meow Meow that exposed her to influential shows by fellow not-just-a-folkie songsmiths Damien Jurado, David Bazan, and Calvin Johnson, and also to the Fadels who most actively encouraged Schaefer's music making. It was through the Bridge that she met her musical foil and engineer, Grow, with whom she and Hayden currently share a house. What's more, it is Hayden who runs Schaefer's new label, Amigo/Amiga, which is also home to her brother band, Drew Grow and the Pastors' Wives, featuring guess who. Amigo/Amiga expects to release a single from either Schaefer or the Pastors' Wives every six to eight weeks for the foreseeable future–a daunting pace of production, but one well in tune with current listening patterns.
Schaefer explains, "As soon as we send off two songs to be mixed and mastered, we will have just played a CD release for the previous one, and then the process starts all over again. Write, record, release... write, record, release. It's just demanding enough to keep you on your toes, and it never gets boring. And the songs have to be good. There are only two of them, so they have to be good." She's right, they do. And, so far, they are.
Kelli Schaefer celebrates the release of the "City Morgue"/"Better Idea" single at the Woods on Saturday, November 7.