City Arts Magazine: Whatever It Takes

During the two years it took to record her second album, No Identity, Kelli Schaefer hit some major roadblocks. One of them, familiar to any artist working in a gentrifying city, was keeping reliable studio space. The Portland singer-songwriter and her band—drummer Jeremiah Hayden, guitarist/keyboardist Ryan Lynch, bassist Damon Karr and longtime collaborator and producer Drew Grow playing a little of everything—recorded a few songs in a Vancouver, WA studio, but when they lost that space, they passed from one to another to another. The lack of grounding fragmented Schaefer's creative process.

A more significant setback came six months into recording, when Schaefer's father died unexpectedly. On her Facebook wall, she posted a moving letter, writing, “He. worked. so. hard.”

The work that eventually emerged is a concept album about a “broken trampoline in the backyard” family of four, focusing on the father, “a middle-aged, overweight man” who eats a lot of meat. Where her 2011 debut, Ghost of the Beast, was an open diary, No Identity is ostensibly about other people. Schaefer says the album’s characters are fictional, but she acknowledges her own life seeping in. In one instance, her songwriting proved startlingly clairvoyant: Looking back through her notes, Schaefer discovered she wrote the song “Big Black Box” five days before her dad passed.

“Which is just so bizarre,” she says. “Not to say that I have any prophetic powers or something, but it's pretty odd, just thinking heavily about mortality and then losing your dad. It’s kind of crazy.” The song opens with what sounds like a drumstick bounced lightly off a guitar neck, while Schaefer considers death, singing “I listen for the song that the earth plays/I used to have an ear for that/I gotta get it back.”

“I've been obsessed with death for a long time,” Schaefer says, “probably even more since I left my Christian background.” Although she's wary to talk about her Christian roots, she says she’s “obsessed with what is life after death.” No Identity is appropriately rife with tension as Schaefer's characters considering mortality, ambition and failure, alternately embracing and fighting their fate.

No Identity is more rocking than Schaefer’s first album and less experimental than the 2013 stop-gap EP 601. The band recorded five of the 10 tracks live, and that collective energy comes through on songs like the punkish “Moonstruck,” which leaves room for a ripping guitar solo, and the menacing family portrait “Shiny Black Feathers,” in which Schaefer tours her characters' psyches with revelatory details: “Brother do you see me/skinny little pre-teen/keeping my teeth clean” and “Mom's in the bathroom/rolling in the gold dust/Dad's in the backyard cooking up a cold cut.” The song contains the closest Schaefer's yet come to a straight metal riff and ends with a harrowing flute solo.

After enduring the struggle to complete No Identity, Schaefer is ready to share the album with the world.

“I'm right where I want to be,” she says. “It's loud. There's distortion. It's rock n' roll.”

Kelli Schaefer celebrates the release of No Identity alongside Fine Prince and Colorworks on Saturday, April 22 at the Sunset Tavern.

Jeremiah Hayden