Even with an artistic alias as outlandish as the Space Lady, Susan Dietrich Schneider might have one of the most relatable stories in the American music canon.
Born in Colorado, Schneider came of age during the flower-power movement of the 1960s. After moving to San Francisco and meeting her soon-to-be-husband Joel Dunsany, Schneider began peddling knickknacks on the street to make a living.
Following a move to Massachusetts, and after Dunsany’s musical career petered out due to social anxiety, Schneider soon began performing in the streets of Boston with little more than an accordion in order to provide for her family. Clad in a helmet pulled straight from pulpy science-fiction illustrations of yesteryear, she soon became known as the Space Lady.
Although she gained her distinct, sparse, and otherworldly sound after upgrading to a Casio keyboard in 1983, Schneider would not garner a reputation or build a following as the Space Lady until she and her family returned to San Francisco.
According to Schneider, the move “really breathed life” into her street music career, primarily owing to support from the city’s LGBTQ+ community.
“The Castro District became my kind of home away from home because I could always count on the gay community to support me emotionally and artistically and financially,” Schneider tells New Times in advance of her performance at the Anderson this Saturday, September 8. “I would've played there exclusively, except I did kind of wear out my welcome with a few residents and merchants in neighborhoods, so I had to find other places to play... It was just a constant struggle."
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In the 1990s, Schneider hung up her winged, lighted helmet, worn out from the demands of street performing and navigating the perils of public transit, as well as performing on electronic equipment in inclement weather and other logistical challenges.
However, even after a move back to Colorado, a new career in a new town as a nurse, and a divorce and subsequent remarriage, Schneider continued to receive emails and correspondence from fans of the Space Lady.
Finally, she busted out her old gear to show her new husband her past life as a street performer. As Schneider recalls it, his jaw dropped within one stanza.
“He said, ‘Oh my God, I've never seen you so self-expressed! This is a different you than I've ever seen. You've got to do this again!’” Schneider recalls. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. It's been 20-something years since I played electronically.’ And he said, 'You can do it. You sit down at your computer and you email all these people who have emailed you and tell them the Space Lady is back!’”
Since the 2013 release of The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits — a compilation of material recorded in 1990 such as her haunting covers of “Major Tom (Coming Home)” and “Fly Like an Eagle,” as well as original tunes like “Synthesize Me” — Schneider, now 70, has embarked on several tours of the United States and Europe and garnered acclaim from the likes of Vice, NME, and the Guardian.
For as much of the world as she’s already seen as the Space Lady, Saturday’s show will mark Schneider’s first set in Florida. Even though she has traveled to the state several times, she's looking forward to returning as an artist as opposed to a mere visitor.
“I'm hoping it's not too humid,” Schneider says with a laugh. “I don't really know what to expect, except that it seems everywhere I go... there's a nucleus of people who, like I say, seem to be my tribe. I’m looking forward to experiencing the diverse cultures that inhabit and commingle in that very southern tip of our country.”
Though it might have taken several decades for the Space Lady to reach the wider audience and affirmation that eluded her on the streets of Boston and San Francisco, Schneider says she was always aware of the unique ambiance her music and appearance would conjure.
“I have these memories of playing on Fisherman's Wharf [in San Francisco] and a fog would roll in,” she recalls. “It would be getting dark, and I'd turn on my twinkling lights, light up my helmet — my helmet has a red ball on top that lights up and blinks — and a blinking ring on my finger. And it would all just kind of diffuse through the fog.”
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She notes that those who’d stop to watch and speak with her often had a European accent. But regardless of whether they were tourists or if they stuck around long, Schneider was cognizant of the strong reactions she elicited from people.
“I could see it in their faces: Their mouths would kind of drop open, and they were either scared or hustled by, dragging their kids as fast as they could,” Schneider chuckles. “I scared people!”
“But that, combined with my ethereal music... I was quite aware that I was creating a little sphere of influence that extended some 50 feet beyond myself. I never dreamed that it was going to travel the world.”