Like a lot of teenagers in the early aughts, Kelli Schaefer escaped the suburbs of her hometown of Battle Ground, Wash., by crossing the Columbia River into Portland to visit the Meow Meow, the beloved all-ages club run by Todd Fadel. The only difference? Schaefer went there for a Sunday-morning church service.
"My parents felt more comfortable letting me go to punk shows in Portland if they knew it was affiliated with a church," Schaefer says about her teenage days seeing the likes of Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado at a tiny club. "I had no idea what I was walking into. It was dark, dirty and loud. And it was Christian. There wasn't much of a difference between Friday night at the Meow Meow and Sunday morning—you had an occasional drunk puking in the alley, a cloud of cigarette smoke outside the door and very, very loud music."
It was that blaring music at the Meow Meow and the community behind it that gave the soft-spoken and diminutive Schaefer the confidence to pursue her own art. And though the 25-year-old has shed much of the Christian belief system that influenced her childhood, you can hear traces of her past all over her new record, Ghost of the Beast, easily one of the most impressive and skilled debuts to hit Portland since Menomena made a similar jump from the church underground to the big time.
Recorded with her partner, drummer Jeremiah Hayden, and friend and labelmate Drew Grow, Ghost of the Beast is a delicate, versatile record that pushes Schaefer's agile voice past any notions of boundaries or genres. It opens with one of her strongest songs, the moody and dark PJ Harvey roar "The Fury," and makes stops for acoustic laments ("Better Idea"), full band stompers ("Sister K") and expressive, experimental pop tracks ("Our Makeshift Gears Grind Gracefully") that balance her soft croon amid a sea of white noise, horns and field recordings. You can hear all sorts of odd physical sounds—her cat, neighboring crows, kids on the street—encapsulated in the recording. "I put a mic out on the street and let people record whatever they wanted," Schaefer says. "It's the document of not just our lives this past year, but the environment it was recorded in."
Nothing reinforces that point more than the gorgeous "Home," which is composed almost entirely of vocals: It's just Schaefer's swirling, angelic voice doubled and tripled to make a mini-symphony of Kelli's. "I did that myself in about an hour one day," she says. "I don't really know how to record so I was just playing around with Pro Tools and trying out different things with my voice." It's a trick used by many other artists—Radiohead stretching Thom Yorke's voice until it sounds robotic, or Björk creating layers of percussive clicks out of "hums" and "oohs" on Medúlla—but it's still stunning, Schaefer's naked voice floating from channel to channel in a one-person call-and-response: "Could you be a little softer, a little kinder?/ Maybe if I had a glass of water?/ Maybe if I spoke a little louder?/ Are you with me or are you sitting on your hands?"
Schaefer's career is taking off because she has refused to sit on her hands. She's quick to point out that even though singing was always natural to her, it wasn't until the support of Fadel and the community (known as "the bridge") that formed around the Meow Meow that she had the courage to give it a fair shot.
"The bridge community taught me how to sing—and do just about everything else—with confidence," she says. "Todd always called it 'stepping though the door.' So I approach music that way, as having stepped through. If I have nothing to lose, I feel as though I'm already successful."
SEE IT: Kelli Schaefer plays Saturday, March 5, at the Artistery, with Aan and Campfire OK. 8 pm. $6 advance, $8 day of show. All ages.