Susan Dietrich cut a striking figure when she’d perform on the streets of 1980s San Francisco. Dressed in playful garb (which included a domed, winged hat) and with only her beautifully clear voice and heavily phased Casiotone keyboard (complete with inbuilt,spluttering drum machine), ‘The Space Lady’, as she came to be known, would play captivating and ethereal interpretations of radio pop songs. The sets quickly earned her an enthusiastic following amongst the communities of The Castro and The Haight.
Years later, with her first commercially available album about to be released, Dietrich has become a celebrated figure in outsider music.
Initially performing to help support her and her husband, Dietrich’s first exposure outside of San Fran (and Boston, where she had previously performed) came in the year 2000, through her appearance on the classic compilation album of fringe music, Songs in the Key of Z, Vol. 2: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music. Alongside cuts by luminaries such as Captain Beefheart and Jandek, the album featured The Space Lady’s wistful recording of I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night, a track originally penned by ‘60s psychedelic rockers The Electric Prunes. Around the time of the album’s release, Dietrich stopped performing, something partly resultant from her marriage ending, and a move to Colorado in order to care for her aging parents. But the outsider fringe didn’t forget her, and, through the internet, The Space Lady’s profile gradually increased.
Now, after a return to playing live, and nearly 14 years after Songs in the Key of Z’s release, London-based label Night School Records are releasing The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits, a charming 16-track album assembled from material that originally featured on Dietrich’s self-released 1990 cassette The Space Lady: Recorded Live in San Francisco.
Largely composite of pop favourites - from The Sweet’s "Ballroom Blitz" to Peter Schilling’s "Major Tom"–, the album showcases how Dietrich brings an intimacy to the songs not present in a lot of her covered artists’ original recordings. Her unique takes on the pieces possess a character, aesthetic and appeal distinct from the originals. Indeed, the album is a heart-warming, eccentric, and unselfconscious affair that attends to the fact that you don’t need ego and fancy gear to make great pop music.
Greatest Hits might have taken years to reach a wider audience, but we should thank the stars now that it finally has. Hear a stream of the album and read a quick Q&A with The Space Lady, below.
Dazed Digital: How does it feel to start working musically again? What thrills you most about it?
The Space Lady: I am very excited! It all seems like a dream in a way…. or maybe it’s more like I’ve been in a dream since I gave up performing, and now I’m thankfully awake again, doing what I love most and do best. Many of the emails I had gotten over the years inquired as to where I was performing. I hated to admit I wasn’t playing anywhere, and probably would never do so again. I still had my keyboard and helmet, but I doubted I could even remember any of my old songs after so many years. In 2009, I married Eric Schneider, a singer/songwriter himself, and he was intrigued with the enthusiastic correspondence I was getting. Finally, at his insistence, I set up my keyboard stand, and gave a song called Ghost Riders a whirl. His mouth fell open, and he exclaimed, “I’ve never seen you so self-expressed and confident! You have to get back to this!” What excites me most about reviving The Space Lady is using my music to really be a stand for love and peace in the world, and to inspire other artists to “follow their bliss,” as Joseph Campbell would say.
"I guess as an 'outsider', being somewhat 'out of it' goes with the turf"
DD: John Maus and Erol Alkan have been among the people that have shown you support over the last couple of years (Maus and Alkan included material by The Space Lady in separate DJ mixes). Is it important for you to be recognised in this sense? Were you familiar with Maus and Alkan’s work beforehand?
The Space Lady: I wasn’t aware of John or Erol, but after reading about their many accolades, it is certainly a joy to know my music is appreciated by people of their stature. I guess as an 'outsider', being somewhat 'out of it' goes with the turf. For instance, when I was just getting started in Boston, a young man approached me, introduced himself as Steven Tyler, and said he liked my music. I had no idea who he was either at the time! I can’t say that it’s important to me to be recognized by important people, because I just play my music to put out a message of love and peace in my own unique way. And, really, I’m equally honoured when a destitute, homeless, broken down person is touched by my music.
DD: Do you consider The Space Lady to be more than just a stage name? Is she more like a character you inhabit?
The Space Lady: Yes. The Space Lady is a name that arose spontaneously from the public in San Francisco. Although I had invented the name Suzy Soundz myself, it never seemed to stick, or people got confused and concocted variations, like Suzy Tunes, or Suzy Songs. So at this point I’m okay with dropping it altogether in favour of The Space Lady. There is something strangely powerful with inhabiting the character. I’m much more than my ordinary self when I don that helmet! It was when my former husband Joel gave me the helmet that I really began to inhabit the role of The Space Lady and take off with it (pun intended), surmounting my own fear of performing in public, and having a good laugh at myself in the process.
DD: So would you say that inhabiting The Space Lady has had a broader effect on your mindset, outside of your music?
The Space Lady: Absolutely. The Space Lady transformed me from an insecure street waif, panhandling for a living, into a respected artist, which gave me self-respect for the first time as well. And, at the risk of sounding too new age-y, it does seem like I’m able to channel a creative force far beyond my normal capability.
DD: What’s next for The Space Lady?
The Space Lady: I’m very excited to say a tour to the West Coast is being planned for March, and a tour of Europe in late summer. As a side dish, I’m working on an acoustic guitar repertoire of the old English folk songs I grew up listening to – things like Richard Dyer-Bennet. When Joan Baez and Judy Collins hit the scene I was a bit jealous that I couldn’t sing and play like that. So I’m working on living out that dream, playing some coffee houses and such, although I won’t call myself The Space Lady in that capacity.