The Space Lady, back to earth

The Space Lady, California, 2014

Order the new seafoam green colour vinyl repress of The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits here.

In 2013 I was living in London, working in record shops, cycling two hours a day to save money on public transport and running my small DIY record label at night and on weekends. It was going OK, just about breaking even if you didn’t factor in my time, which I never did. Mostly I released my friends’ music on short runs, often hand-making things and carrying records around town. In 2011 I heard The Space Lady on a mix CD and, I don’t know, it kind of felt like time stood still for a few minutes. It felt like this was music from another dimension, like a loving presence charged with looking after humanity, a benign alien who’d taken the pop music of the 20th century and reimagined it sublime, blissed out, shorn of machismo and ego rendering it as a direct communication between souls. You might find it a bit rich or incredulous to think a 5 minute cover of Peter Schilling’s Major Tom by a woman on a Casio could do this to someone, but then perhaps you’ve never heard Susan “The Space Lady” Deitrich Schneider’s music.

Upon hearing it, I went on a fact finding mission and eventually tracked down an email address for The Space Lady. I found out that The Space Lady had been a busker in Boston and then San Francisco in the 80s, dressing up as a kind of hybrid space age viking angel and instantly becoming part a legend of the Castro during its heyday as an epicentre of gay culture in the USA. She’d set up on the same spot and play for tips to feed her family of three who invariably slept in cars, squats, hollowed out trees and eventually more stable lodgings in San Francisco. She’d recorded all of her repertoire for a CDr she handmade around 1991 and then hung up her blinking helmet and Casiotone to retrain as a nurse. I had an idea to reissue this CDr, to share this special music with people if I could. I just felt more people should hear it.

At the time my label, Night School, had released three 7”s and a couple of tapes so the idea of an album reissue was pretty exciting, if probably a little out of my reach financially. I fired off an email at the tail end of 2011, more as an introduction and exploration than anything. 2 years passed by and while I listened to The Space Lady a lot the idea of releasing her music drifted to the back of my mind. I ended up putting albums out (by Molly Nilsson, Julia Holter plus a few things that were perhaps a little too niche for mass consumption but those are beans I won’t spill right now). At some point in 2013 I got an email reply from The Space Lady – or to be more exact her husband Eric Schneider – saying they were interested in working with the label to reissue The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits. Floored, I arranged a long distance Skype call.

On the phone, Eric explained that around the time I emailed they had been receiving other emails from fans around the world asking when The Space Lady was going to come back. Susan was also on the call, a gentle voice charmingly confounded as to why this guy in London would be interested in her music. Eric said that following all these emails he asked Susan what they were about as she hadn’t spoken about The Space Lady and when she explained it he asked for a performance. So in their living room in Boulder, Colorado Susan dusted off the space helmet, the Wizard of Oz lunch/ tips box, the Casiotone and did her first Space Lady performance in 25 years or so for her husband. It was this performance that prompted them to think maybe there was a point in responding to some of these emails.

What followed was a whirlwind emotional and geographical trip for Night School and, I’m sure, for them also. I wanted to present The Space Lady not as some novelty or curio but as what she was, a brilliant musician with a dry sense of humour, an incredibly intelligent artist with a unique gift to transcend so many boundaries to touch people. Earnest, human, relatable, her takes on these classics are like transcendent messages between souls. It’s a testament to her sense of humour that she wanted to call the album “The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits” because they were, of course, other people’s greatest hits. Personally speaking, I’d take her versions of any of these songs over the originals any day of the week.

On top of this, there were originals on the album written by her first husband Joel Dunsany which are probably my favourite Space Lady songs. I remember her introducing Synthesize Me at an instore in a record shop in San Francisco while their grandson played with toy trucks at her feet. She explained that Joel had become terminally ill around 2012. A life-long collector of pretty much everything – including records – he never got to realise his dream of seeing his songs released on an album as he passed away the month before the release of The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits. Synthesize Me was a love song he’d written about her, for her to sing and then she played it. I’m getting emotional just writing this story down if I’m being honest with you.

It’s my firm belief that music shouldn’t only be accessible courtesy of the expensive music industry PR machine. I wanted and will always want to present the music I believe in as a on a par with “the classics” that get pushed at you day in, day out. This was the ideology behind presenting our release of The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits the way we did, almost like a Numero Records release, with archive photos that captured the jubilant, sometimes down-at-heel reality of life on the streets of San Francisco in the mid 80s, with some liner notes from Susan about her experience. I felt this music was important, too, and deserved to be taken seriously.

It was taken seriously and to heart by so many people. Following the release of The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits, Susan’s music took her on several world tours, releases on other record labels including Castleface, Mississippi Records, TV features, articles in every publication you could care for. Susan had never played a gig before 2014, when we’d arranged a tour of the West Coast USA. I flew over for the occasion and to this day it remains one of the most rich, albeit at times stressful, endeavours I’d ever set out on. In upstate Washington, Susan played her first ever Space Lady “gig” to some noise fans. Hearing Synthesize Me through a large PA for the first time, she said on the microphone “wow, that’s power!” I reckon there’s a lot of stories I could write about that tour but I’ll save them for now.

The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits is, to date, the biggest selling release on Night School. Eventually we licensed it out to sympathetic ears who could help keep it in print when we didn’t have the cash flow. I went out on that first Space Lady tour after quitting my job at the London record store and when I came back from that tour I managed to land a job at the record store I’d always wanted to work in, Monorail Music. Monorail had made The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits their album of the month on its release in 2013 and it’s been a steady seller ever since, whenever we can get a hold of it.

It’s 2020 now and I’m basically doing the same thing I was doing in 2011 when I first heard The Space Lady. Working days in Monorail, writing e-mails like this one, working nights and weekends putting records out that some people buy, some people don’t. That’s the nature of things I suppose. Greatest Hits has been out of print for about a year now so we decided to repress it on a new colour, on a small pressing of 500. We’re anticipating it being ready for November. Hopefully, hopefully, Susan will be able to make it out to play again when the world has healed sufficiently but in the meantime I hope you take the time to listen to The Space Lady’s music beaming out from 1991 to you now, online or on one of these records.

Michael, Night School Records

6 November 2020