Conversing with the First Lady of space
THE SPACE LADY’s idiosyncratic blend of otherworldly psychedelic synth-pop first aired on the streets of San Francisco and on home-made cassettes in the 1970s, 80s and 90s before finally being released to a wider audience in 2013 with the release of The Space Lady’s ‘Greatest Hits’. This came off the back of her appearance on a compilation called Songs In The Key Of Z compilation put together by journalist and music historian Irwin Cushid, a celebrant of ‘outsider music’ and weirdo underground gems. This exposure brought The Space lady to the attention of some influential blogas and music websites, with VICE running a lengthy interview with her in 2014.
On 4th May The Space Lady lands at The Kazimier Cosmolodge, brought to us by Liverpool’s latest podcast/radio wizards, Listen & Learn Radio Show with Howard & Rob. Here, the self professed ‘outsider artist’ sits down with Listen & Learn to talk draft-dodging, UFOs, drugs, counter-culture and remaining true to one’s art in the most challenging circumstances…
Listen & Learn: I only discovered you recently. Following the death of David Bowie I stumbled across your version of Schilling’s Major Tom which beautifully continues the narrative of Bowie’s character from Space Oddity. I was immediately captivated by you, your music and, moreover, your story; 20 years ago we would never be in a situation where I could discover you in such a way, never mind be able to get you to come and play in Liverpool five months later. What is your impression of and feelings towards how information is dispersed in the modern age – particularly in regards to music and art?
Space Lady: I am a big internet fan and the virtual democracy it offers people all around the world. The Space Lady would never have had such wide recognition, not to mention her re-launch, without the power of the web. It gives artists like me an audience outside the boundaries of our own communities and countries… and as we all know, men and women are not prophets in their own hometowns.
L&L: You are an active advocate of veganism and you also have a song bemoaning the horrors of climate change; these days believers in such causes ‘meet’and share ideas across the internet. How does this compare to the 60s or 70s and would you say the counter-culture was a much more tangible thing back then?
SL: For me, activism is much more tangible and effective these days because of the internet. If not for my Facebook vegan pages I would feel very alone in Colorado, which exploits animals, particularly cattle, as one of its biggest economic ‘assets’. There are no vegetarian restaurants within 100 miles of us, let alone any vegan ones. My husband, Eric, often quips, “Where we live, they think veganism is a foreign religion.” But thanks to the internet we now know there is a huge and growing population of animal lovers around the world who can no longer tolerate speciesism, and who also realize animal agriculture as the biggest cause of climate change and ecological devastation, not to mention chronic diseases in us human animals. And even Eric and I didn’t go vegan until 2014, after we saw a couple of eye-opening documentaries, which we learned about via the internet – Vegucated, then Cowspiracy – and then it was a no-brainer to stop supporting animal agriculture on the spot. That term is a euphemism for an animal holocaust of unimaginable proportions – murdering trillions of innocent animals per year – going on right under our noses behind a curtain of self-imposed ignorance and denial. So there is no underestimating the power the internet has, possibly to save the planet. I’d say it’s our best hope, in fact. Back in the 60s and 70s there was much less connectedness for the various minority movements, much more alienation and suppression, and therefore, less effectiveness.
L&L: When you were ‘on the run’ with Joel from the army draft did you live in fear?
SL: Yes, we were both very fearful, and my naïveté and inexperience living in a city played into, and exacerbated, Joel’s fear. Once a hippie befriended me on the street after liking my music, and when I told Joel I had met an interesting guy from Virginia – which is where Washington, D.C. is located – he panicked. He was convinced the guy could be a spy for the CIA, out looking for him through me. We had many fights due to his fear of the government in our early years together, including over my objecting to cutting off communication with our respective families. But he was convinced they, too, might turn him in to the FBI, because at the time they all supported the Vietnam war and the ‘fight against Communism’, which it was purported to be about. Even after President Carter pardoned the war resistors in 1977, Joel still couldn’t believe he was safe, and we continued living underground until 1992, when I finally found the fortitude to demand we surface for our three kids’ sake, if not our own. I was disgusted with our repeated bouts of homelessness in San Francisco and saw the need to finally accept public welfare from the government, rather than continue living in fear – not about the draft by now, but fear of losing our kids to social services.
L&L: What kind of people did you meet when Joel was dodging the draft?
SL: In California we hung out with other hippies and artists, for the most part. When we arrived in Boston in 1971 we had a terrific culture shock, because there were far fewer hippies there, and most of them were college students, which we thought aligned them with the Establishment we were so against. So we ended up living around and making friends with working class Irish-Americans our age, even though they were very provincial, patriotic, and fairly oblivious to our stance against the war, etc. Joel had a magnetic personality, though, and was a great conversationalist, so he was liked by almost everyone we met, regardless of their background. I was very withdrawn and shy and found it hard to make friends, letting Joel do the talking for me. I had only a vague idea of what women’s liberation was about in those days. When I started busking, though, all that changed because people began to reach out to me, which really brought me out of my shell at last. But because of Joel’s draft status we still kept mostly to ourselves.
L&L: Did you partake in the use of psychedelic or mind altering substances? If so, do you believe this has had an effect on your worldview or your music?
SL: During my three-year college stint I smoked a lot of pot and did a couple of very mind-altering mescaline trips, which instantly transformed my entire outlook on life, and led directly to my dropping out of college and leaving Colorado for California. When Joel and I got together in 1970 we tried getting high together the first year or so, but we had a hard time relating to each other while stoned. So I gave it up completely for many years, in no small part because I became the designated money-earner and had to interact intelligibly with the public. Nevertheless, the psychedelic experiences I had already had changed everything about my life, and gave me courage and determination to live outside society, which I saw to be false, violent, and in denial of reality. So you can’t underestimate how much my psychedelic experiences influenced my music, and those experiences certainly validated for me the necessity of ‘working outside the system’.
L&L: I have read reports that you have been abducted by extra terrestrials or that you have at least witnessed a UFO, would you mind telling me about that?
SL: What I have called my ‘UFO abduction’ was in 1969 during minor surgery that required general anaesthesia, and while under the anaesthesia I remained quite conscious of the experience of being lifted out of my body and taken up into space by some otherworldly beings who instructed me in profound Universal Truths. And although I couldn’t remember the precise lessons when I re-entered my body, the astounding experience was as real as life in the physical world, and I’m sure the lessons have remained with me on a subconscious level.
Then in the spring of 1971, when Joel and I had emerged from having spent the winter in a cave-like dwelling on Mt. Shasta in northern California, we made friends with a young man from Boston who was on a spiritual mission, and thus had traveled to the mountain, which was famous for attracting seekers. Joel convinced him to help us escape to Canada since he had some money and could afford to buy a car, not to mention food, which we were in sore need of. But on the morning we had planned to depart, the mountain was enveloped in a thick fog, too thick to drive through. So we sat on the mountainside waiting for the sun to disperse the fog – all three of us completely sober, by the way – when a warm shaft of sunlight fell on us, and we looked up to see an opening in the cloud, and enormous, silver, cigar-shaped craft gliding past it, just above the pine trees over our heads. It was moving slowly but steadily across the opening, and to say we were blown away is an understatement. It seemed no earthly aircraft that enormous could have been moving that slowly! We were convinced we had been scanned for some reason, and although we were shaken, we were also thrilled and felt very special.
L&L: Are the songs you choose to cover representative of your musical tastes? Are there any songs that you love but don’t think you could cover?
SL: Yes, of course, although there are plenty of songs I love that I wouldn’t dare to attempt on my minimal equipment, or with only my rather soft, fragile voice. On the other hand, I recently – and rather audaciously – decided to do my ‘take’ on Stairway To Heaven, and it’s on my new, exclusive 2016 tour CD, The Space Lady’s Back!, not available other than at my gigs.
L&L: I’ve read that you enjoy and have appropriated the term ‘outsider music’ or ‘outsider art’; how would you yourself describe the term?
SL: I understand Irwin Chusid coined the term, and it was from him that I first heard it when he asked my permission to include I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night on his 2002 compilation album, Songs In the Key of Z, Vol. II. He almost needed to say no more, I related to the genre’s name so well. He also calls it “incorrect music,” a term I love equally well. And when I heard some of the other outsider artists on his albums, I knew I had found my home.
L&L: Do you still consider yourself an ‘outsider artist’ despite the fact you now have a record deal and command performances fees?
SL: Of course! I will never go mainstream, be on cable TV, or sell out to do commercials. The venues I play in are small for the most part. I think my biggest audience so far has been 500 at Stockholm’s Tradgarten. My record deal was just for The Greatest Hits album. And I don’t do much more than break even with the fees, which is just workable. That I would like to expand upon, but being rich and famous “only looks that way”, as Eric The Space Manager often says.
L&L: Could you ever have imagined, back in the days of busking on the streets to make ends meet, that you would ever be in demand to play shows on a different continent?
SL: Yes, but rarely. You know, back then I would play for months on end seemingly to deaf ears, then suddenly I would find myself playing for wildly enthusiastic people at a street fair, or on a holiday, or Gay Pride weekend, or just for a few very appreciative people (usually from Britain or Europe), and I would get an inkling that my music meant a lot to a certain fraction of people. And those people were obviously hearing something everyone else was missing. And suddenly the little voice in my head would say, “Stick with it, you’re gonna make it someday!” The tremendous appreciation I’m receiving now is already my idea of making it.
L&L: What kind of reputation did you have when you performed on the streets of San Francisco?
SL: I had a lot of loyal fans in San Francisco, mostly in the gay community and in the vestiges of the hippie community. I guess I had the reputation of a hard-working and tenacious artist who put her life on the line behind her work, which I was. Some thought I was a fearless, independent, liberated woman, which I wasn’t. Others simply considered me a flaky die-hard who should have given up years ago, and some simply disdained me for being an intrusion in their otherwise quiet, predictable neighbourhood.
L&L: Do you think people took you seriously when you were performing on the street? Do you think people take you seriously now?
SL: Most people probably did not take me seriously, and many who might have taken me seriously couldn’t afford the time to stop and listen during their daily bustle from place to place. There’s a famous YouTube video of Joshua Bell, the consummate classical violinist, playing in Grand Central Station, and barely being noticed. So even at his level of artistry and expertise, context is decisive. I think most people take stage performers more seriously, but there are many who respect and love street art more. I liked the fact that I could perform to all types and ages of people on the street, including children and the elderly, and the down-and-out. I really looked forward to playing on the trams in Helsinki this spring. I also miss the element of surprise of playing on the street.
L&L: Would you go back to your younger self on the streets and explain what’s happened to you recently? Would you tell your young self to “Hang on in there” or did you need no encouragement at the time?
SL: Boy, did I get discouraged at times! By 1991 I had given up on my Casio and returned to the accordion, playing folk music and old 40s tunes until I quit altogether in 2000. After I went into nursing I could hardly bear to think about The Space Lady; I thought it had been such a irresponsible way to make a living and raise a family. But my fans around the world kept TSL alive in spite of me. So yes, I wish I could go back and tell myself to “hold on, Susan…Susan hold on, it’s gonna be all right…you’re gonna make the flight…so HOLD ON!”
L&L: Similarly; what words would you give to anyone out there creating art? And especially to someone whose art does not attract recognition or an audience?
SL: Listen to your muse. Put your life into your work and it will put life into you. “Follow your bliss”, Joseph Campbell so wisely said. Remember, we each have a unique gift that only we can develop and share. Find inspiration in nature. We artists are like plants in a way, growing and growing and growing and then suddenly we burst into bloom! Your own personal blossom will develop almost of its own accord if you let it. Or caterpillars. You know what they become after spending those weeks in a chrysalis. Don’t try to conform, that won’t be the real you. And if your art doesn’t seem to attract recognition yet, refine it some more, and just enjoy it yourself. Look inside and find the message you’re trying to deliver, then focus on it, make it clear. And fill a deficit! This world needs more compassion and loving kindness, not more noise, harshness, and brutality. Make time for silence. Sit and breathe. And maybe the best advice I could give, I would tell them to read The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible by Charles Eisenstein for the best remedy ever for discouragement. True to his word and vision, he offers it for free on his website.
L&L: Everything about your act is somewhat idiosyncratic. From the blinking Viking helmet, the vocal manipulation, your disarming demeanour and you are often referred to as a ‘one-off. With this in mind, can you tell me the greatest artistic influences on your music and act?
SL: My late ex-husband, Joel, was certainly my greatest influence, even in that he insisted on buying that first beat-up old accordion, even though neither of us could play one. And he definitely was The Space Lady’s co-creator as I transitioned to electronic keyboard. The helmet – which isn’t actually Viking, since they used horns, not wings – had been his trademark as he tried to develop a solo, spacey guitar act he called The Cosmic Man. He also gave me his delay and phase-shifter pedals (which I still use) and suggested many of my early cover tunes, including Radar Love and Major Tom. And of course, he wrote five or six original songs for me to play, including Synthesize Me and Humdinger. I have also revived his song You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down, and I have just recorded it for the first time. It’s on my new CD, The Space Lady’s Back! on Eric’s and my own label, Audible Love Recording Co.
L&L: And environmental or circumstantial influences?
SL: My parents were my earliest influence with their classical training, making sure their children got trained as well. So I played piano and flute from around age six through college. We played recorders as a family ensemble, as well. Then came folk music, by way of Richard Dyer Bennet, and I was excited to finally have some refreshing, story-telling narratives to listen to. My siblings and I had all his songs memorised in short time, but like our parents held the new rock and roll music in disdain… until the Kingston Trio came out with the cross-over hit Tom Dooley, and I was liberated from my narrow-minded condescension. By the time I was in high school I was all about rock ‘n’ roll, listening in secret late at night with a transistor radio hidden under my pillow. And after the unbelievable shock of Kennedy’s assassination, the Beatles came to the rescue with their lovely, British, working-class gentility. They opened the door for dozens of other British invaders, and I loved them all! Off to college I went in 1967, riding on the coat tails of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Donovan, the Mamas and the Papas, and countless other singers and bands that made the 60s come alive with social consciousness and innovative musical breakthroughs. In 1969 – the night of the moon landing, in fact – I saw Laura Nyro perform solo on Public TV, and I was mesmerised. I immediately went out and bought every album of hers I could get my hands on, and listened to nothing else for months. Then in the 70s, Joel introduced me to the incredibly sophisticated creations of prog rock bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Electric Light Orchestra, the Moody Blues, Yes, the Kinks, T-Rex, Amazing Blondel, etc., etc., and I thought I was hopelessly primitive as a musician myself. Nevertheless, I was definitely influenced and enriched by the exposure.
L&L: Can you tell us how you met your husband, Eric Ian, and how he convinced The Space Lady to return?
SL: Eric & I met online. He calls us “a Yahoo Personals success story.” I had been single for seven years after leaving Joel, The Space Lady, and California behind in 2000. Eric had described himself in his profile as a song-writer with “a small Buddhist practice,” both of which intrigued me… and I liked his looks. He also mentioned he had some songs posted online, so I contacted him, loved his songs, and I drove down to Santa Fe to meet him on his birthday weekend. After a rocky start due to our stubbornness, old ideas about relationships, and habitual angry reactions, we broke through – largely with the help of the Landmark Forum and Buddha’s teachings – and here we are with a happy marriage beyond our expectations, and a powerful partnership. After a few years our partnership really took shape when Eric convinced me to re-create my Space Lady music for him. When he heard me sing Ghost Rider (the only song I could remember how to play, and the only song from my CD he knew), he urged me to come out of retirement and play in venues, not on the street. He declared he would manage me and it would all work out… and it has.
L&L: Are you enjoying your relatively new lifestyle of touring? Is there a different emotion inside you when you perform to people who have specifically come to see you as opposed to performing for any and everybody on the street?
SL: Yes, I love traveling abroad, seeing all these legendary places, meeting the wonderful, welcoming people, and playing for folks who appreciate my music. I especially love playing for them through big sound systems that make my little keyboard and soft voice sound so powerful. And the appreciation people show makes me feel like Major Tom: weightless, floating in space, elated and humbled at the same time.
L&L: What are your hopes for the world? What are your fears for the world?
SL: My hope for the world is than there is a sudden, global awakening to universal compassion, extended to all sentient beings and to Mother Earth herself. Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says compassion should be extended to all sentient beings and minerals as well, which doesn’t sound so far-fetched when you consider the whole universe is alive. Our bodies are made up of minerals in part, so we are not separate from anything or anyone. My worst fear is that we will cause, and undergo, a massive extinction of life on the planet, such as it experienced at the end of the Permian Age, when 90% of all species were obliterated. Still, in a Cosmic time-frame, life will probably recover, even if we humans don’t.
L&L: You’re playing in Liverpool for the first time. Do you have much of an affinity for The Beatles? What is your impression of the city from afar?
SL: I adore the Beatles! I have played any number of Beatles tunes over the years, and open every show with Strawberry Fields. I cover it and Imagine on my new CD, and Across The Universe is on my latest LP. Does that answer that?!? As to my ideas about Liverpool, I know it is, or was, an industrial town, and the people there have a very sexy accent. Otherwise, touring for me is a learn-as-you-go operation.
L&L: Is Susan different from The Space Lady? Is The Space Lady a character or role you play similar to Ziggy Stardust or Billy Shears (Sgt. Peppers).
SL: Yes, kind of like Superman vs. Clark Kent, or Wonder Woman vs. Diana. When I put on the helmet I become much more powerful, intelligent, and courageous than the small-town, girl-next-door Susan, who is very shy and insecure, and would never go up in front of an audience to sing.
L&L: The great Sun Ra employed “being from another planet” to make statements about race and the ridiculousness of man’s material orientation. Do you find that being “The Space Lady” gives you a detached view of the world?
SL: No, I wouldn’t say it gives me a more detached view of the world. The Space Lady’s intention is to better connect with the world, but as if I were channeling ideas and instructions from a more cosmically evolved world in a loving and pleasing way.
L&L: When you go back to space will you tell the people of the galaxy to look favourably upon the inhabitants of earth? How will you describe earthlings to them?
SL: Yes, indeed. The Space Lady knows one earthling quite well – her name is Susan. And this is what she has asked me to report back to space:
“I am committed to giving up my judgments of my fellow humans, and I would implore you space beings to do the same. We are spiritually and physically ill, and we are addicted to our various poisons. And because of that we are merely oblivious, and not as treacherous as we seem. I hope you will understand that everyone here has been dealt a bad hand from innumerable previous generations as far back as our history. We lost our way back before our collective memory, and we are now paying the price. Please share your infinite wisdom and show us the way forward!”