Susan Schneider's ethereal synthesizer arias as the Space Lady hearken to distant planets, supernatural planes, and psychedelic journeys. Such phenomena haunt the core of the 66-year-old electronic musician's sound, an aesthetic honed over a lifetime of busking, travel, and isolation. Orbiting the fringes of society, living in caves, or hiding from the federal government, Schneider focused more on feeding her family than artistic validation. Now, with an acclaimed reissue of Schneider's sole album, The Space Lady's Greatest Hits, and a first proper tour, she has both. As Schneider says of her life's most important terrestrial locale, "In San Francisco I was acknowledged as the authentic artist I had become without even realizing it."
At 18th and Castro in 1984, Schneider set a Casio keyboard on top of a camera tripod, duct-taped a microphone to a music stand, donned her signature winged helmet with a flashing ping-pong ball, and beckoned donations from passersby with a red velvet suitcase. "The response to my music was overwhelming," she remembers. "People even asked me my name, and how much I charged to play a party — questions I had no good answer for." On account of her presentation, cover material like Peter Schilling's "Major Tom," and nebulous originals like "Synthesize Me," audiences in the Castro and the Haight Ashbury dubbed Schneider "The Space Lady."
Conceived in 1947 in fabled UFO hotspot Roswell, N.M., Schneider attended college at the University of Colorado in Boulder. There, speaking to a rapt Schneider and her collegiate peers in 1967, acid guru Timothy Leary uttered his famous imperative: "Tune in, turn on, and drop out." Schneider obliged, moving to San Francisco immediately. Shortly after, Schneider says she was abducted during surgery and given knowledge from otherworldly beings. The details of that formative experience elude her to this day, but Schneider considers them buried in her subconscious. In a recent interview with The Quietus — one of many high-profile features surrounding her album release — Schneider said that music is a way to mine her subconscious for the elusive information received.
Fearing arrest for draft evasion, Schneider and her partner, Joel Dunsany, moved into a cave on top of Mount Shasta in the early 1970s. After a UFO sighting in the wilderness, the couple believed that extraterrestrials were protecting them from draft enforcers. Later, the couple hitchhiked to Boston, where Schneider began busking with an accordion to support Dunsany and their children.
"My first impression of early electronic music was hearing the theremin in sci-fi films and The Twilight Zone on TV," she says. "It was so perfectly expressive of the alien and supernatural." She retired the accordion for a Casio keyboard and developed a palette of enchanted electronic sounds to reflect her extraordinary experiences. Paranoid, Dunsany still feared the government, which kept Schneider isolated. She amassed an array of effects pedals, building a distinctive, haunting ambience according to only her own whims during long shifts on the street.
"I hardly knew what I was doing there in Boston, compared to the young students at Berklee [College] of Music, Harvard, and University of Massachusetts. I was really feeling my way in the dark, with no formal education and real knowledge of what was going on in the pop music world," Schneider recalls. "The bulk of my time was spent playing on the street and in the subway, not listening to other people's music."
Schneider describes audiences in Boston as callous and uninterested. She struggled to support a family, let alone accrue self-esteem as an artist. That changed dramatically when her family moved back to San Francisco. "I didn't have a clear idea of the value of my music until I played for San Franciscans," she says. "Not only was I much better paid, but I was also protected from would-be thieves, given places to live, [and] offered indoor gigs."
Still, living expenses in the city mounted. Once her children matured, Schneider left town for Colorado, but not before recording her songs in a friend's studio in 1990. Throughout the decade, the Space Lady amassed a small but avid fan base through mail-order and eventually the Internet, but Schneider's reputation was bolstered in 2000, when her cover version of the Electric Prunes' "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)" appeared on archivist Irwin Chusid's compilation, Songs in the Key of Z. As Schneider says, "I realized that there was a legitimate place in the world for what I had created. I loved the other artists on his compilation, especially the Shaggs, and it helped me understand what people see in 'incorrect music' like mine.
"The concept of a futuristic female alien playing music dovetailed perfectly with my UFO experience on the mountain, and psychedelic-induced close encounters with alien beings in parallel universes," says Schneider. She considers the Space Lady to be fate, prophesied even by the city of her conception, but receptive San Franciscans coaxed it into fruition. To speak of her "home" on Earth seems wrong in this case, but the Space Lady's landing pad is definitely San Francisco.