By its very nature, the psychedelic experience is an ineffable phenomenon. Roughly, though, an attempt can be made to define it as an occurrence in which the participant, whether via some form of natural meditation or the use of certain organic or artificial mind-altering substances, attains a detached state of inner and/or outer awareness that transcends all regular levels of consciousness. The essence of this untethered condition has been mirrored in the work of musicians and other artists since ancient times, and is often marked with a free-associative, out-there, dreamlike feel. To Sigmund Freud dreams were the key to unlocking the mysteries of the unconscious mind. “Dreams,” said the father of psychoanalysis, “are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.”
“I idolized crazy people,” says Shana Falana. “That’s why I majored in abnormal psychology at Montana State University. Originally I wanted to run a mental institution where I took all the patients off their meds, just to see what would happen.” Alas, Falana’s grand social experiment was not to be: After only a year at MSU, she dropped out. But what may have been modern psychology’s loss (we’ll never know) has turned out to be music’s gain, as Falana has become the creator of the most beguilingly entrancing—and the most dreamy—modern psychedelic pop now being made in the Hudson Valley. With only her effects-smothered guitar, keyboard, and voice, and her boyfriend Michael Amari on drums, the statuesque area singer-songwriter whisks up waves of watery atmospherics that envelop the mind and ears like the faraway beckonings of a raft of deep-space sirens. “Tonally, I like big,” Falana explains. “I love an oversaturation of sound. I like to challenge myself and see how much I can do in a live setting. With the songs, I like a combination of darkness and light; dark lyrics over light music, light lyrics over dark music.”
Falana grew up in the San Francisco area, and the city’s famously kaleidoscope-like creative vibes are palpable in her equally colorful stage presentation and personality. As with other only children of divorced parents, she was free to invent her own fairytale world, and music helped to fuel her pretend time. “I had an old record player and after school I would daydream while I listened to [Tchaikovsky’s] The Nutcracker Suite or Mozart or West Side Story,” she says. Her mother sang and played guitar in Bootleg, a locally popular country rock band, and her father, an active record collector, exposed her to jazz along with Liz Story and other meditative artists on the Windham Hill label. Falana briefly studied interior design in Long Beach before transferring to MSU in Bozeman, which, however unlikely, was where her career as a musician really began.
“I worked in this coffeehouse in town that used to have open mikes and one night I got up and just sang a cappella,” recalls Falana. “Everybody told me I sounded really good, which I guess was just what I needed to hear. Bozeman was great. I was there when [the 1992 movie] A River Runs Through It was being filmed in town, and one night my friends and I gave acid to Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer when they were at the coffeehouse.”
After her aborted studies in Montana the would-be singer was back in the Bay Area, helping her mother recover from brain surgery and managing Muddy Waters, a coffeehouse and musicians’ hangout in the Mission district. While at the café she met the organizer of a Bulgarian women’s choir and ended up joining. “I was listening to Kate Bush and a lot of her songs have that style of singing, that rising choral sound,” Falana says. “[Being in the choir] definitely influenced the feel of what I try to do now with my music. Like how when you put two different notes next to each other it can sound like much more.” She next became involved with the vital DIY performance space Star Cleaners, where her involvement with the music scene grew deeper as she picked up tips that still informed her style, like the technique of using duct tape to create a drone by holding down organ keys, a trick shown to her by the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe. She worked at another club, the Make-Out Room, and for a time had a band called Full ON! (the name an admitted reference to her exuberant personality), and via an odd crossing of fates became linked to acclaimed singer-songwriter Kelley Stoltz. “When it came out I was really into Antique Glow [2003, Beautiful Happiness Records; Stoltz’s second album] and I had started learning the drums by playing along to it,” says Falana. “It turned out [Stoltz] lived in the apartment next to mine, and when he heard me playing along to his record he knocked on my door.” The pair soon became a couple and Falana played in Stoltz’s live band for two years. When they split up, Falana decided it was time to move on, not only from her ex but from her hometown as well.
So in 2003 she made her way east to Brooklyn. After a year in Williamsburg she settled into a Bushwick loft, doing catering work while she tried to find her place amid the unforgiving tempo of the Gotham music world. “It was really competitive,” says the singer. “It felt like I’d gone from everyone just loving me back in San Francisco to being thrown in the fire.” Life took a more tangibly painful turn, though, when a freak accident during a film-catering job resulted in the loss of the tip of her right index finger. The mishap, however, pointed the way toward a tremendous creative surge. “My landlord took a lien against the lawsuit from the accident, which meant I didn’t have to pay any rent for two years,” Falana says. “So, with all the free time I suddenly had I ended up writing and recording a ton of music.” Much of it was released across several small-run CD-Rs like Velvet Pop (Independent), which documents five years (2003-2008) of Falana working out her sound, with tracks ranging from punky, four-track bubblegum to airy, free-floating trip-hop. Unfortunately, the productive free time would soon be eclipsed by destructive dark time as she became increasingly enmeshed in drugs. Once again, it was time to move on.
After visiting to cut two tracks that appear on Velvet Pop at Jimmy Goodman’s Leopard Recording Studio in Stone Ridge, she explored other areas of the Hudson Valley—and very much liked what she saw. In 2008 she left her Brooklyn loft and addictions behind for a spot in New Paltz, where she revived the Full ON! moniker for a heavy/ambient rock project that played locally and issued one self-distributed CD-R. Eventually, though, Full ON! was switched off when Falana grew weary of the sound. “People loved that band, but for me the music was starting to feel too dramatic,” she says. “I’ll revisit that side of myself later in my career, but at that time I decided I wanted to do something else.”
That “something else” would be the sparse, angelic, blissed-out solo project that bears her name. More or less concurrent with a short move to neighboring, musician-nurturing Rosendale, Falana devised the act’s minimal, her-and-a-percussionist format (there were two drummers prior to Amari), along with another of its key elements: the surreal, trip-a-delic visuals she films and edits for the backdrop projections at live gigs. The lazily morphing eye candy dovetails beautifully with the duo’s colorful sounds, and has proven to be a rare and unexpected bonus at cozy area venues like Rosendale’s Market Market Café, Hudson’s Spotty Dog Books & Ale, and Kingston’s Backstage Studio Productions (BSP), where Amari does the booking. “People tell me [the projections] make them experience otherworldly spiritual feelings during my sets,” Falana maintains. “To me today it’s like we’re back in the 1940s and it’s wartime, so when we go out to a show we need to escape ourselves and get fed another world. We need to feel our feelings, explore ourselves through music and dance, and then go home and create. Be transformed, even just a little bit.”
Falana’s former ’hood has also been getting a dose of her transformative powers, thanks to her frequent performances in New York. One of theses shows left a deep impression on Jen Turner, the bassist of Brooklyn indie pop quintet Here We Go Magic. “Shana and I have a mutual friend [erstwhile New Paltz musician], Erica Quitzow,” says Turner. “Erica was always bugging me to check out Shana when she played in town, and I’d never gotten around to it. But one night I was at [Brooklyn venue] Pete’s Candy Store to see some friends who were playing there and I heard this great music coming from the other room. I didn’t even know there was anyone else on the bill. I went in and there’s just this chick and a drummer up there making this perfect sound, just all-encompassing. All these great rising and falling melodies, like tidal waves. I couldn’t believe all the sound that was coming out.”
Determined to get her newfound sound down on tape, Falana booked time with producer Kevin McMahon (Swans, Titus Andronicus) at Marcata Recording in Gardiner and emerged with this year’s “official” debut, the six-song In the Light (Independent). Mixed by Gareth Jones (Grizzly Bear, Interpol) and featuring cellist Jane Scarpantoni (R.E.M., Lou Reed), the EP is easily the songstress’s most fully realized effort, both sonically and compositionally. For evidence, listeners have only to open their lobes to the swelling, near-cantorial “Light the Fire” or the title track, which hijacks the featherweight ’70s AM fare of 10CC and Alan Parsons and somehow, impossibly, remakes it into a soaring anthem for the post-lo-fi generation. As far as 2010’s local releases go, the bright-shining In the Light hovers high toward the top.
One of the disc’s, and Falana’s, latest fans is producer John Agnello (the Breeders, Kurt Vile, Dinosaur Jr.). “We got in contact through Facebook and she sent me some mp3s, and I just loved the way her voice floats over this beautiful pillow of ethereal, shoegazey music,” says Agnello. “It’s pleasing to the ear, but not what you’d call ‘light’ stuff at all. When I was visiting New Paltz I saw [the CD] in a record store and right away I bought it. Shana’s got a great sense of melody, and I think what she’s doing is wonderful. We’ve stayed in touch, maybe we’ll work together at some point.” Should it take some time before that happens, though, Falana has a substantial backlog of material in the can (“about six or seven CDs worth”) to consider releasing.
While she and Amari are currently in the middle of packing for a move to Kingston, the couple is also busy preparing for a month-long national tour to kick off in late June. Isn’t that kind of a drag, splitting for the road before you even have the chance to get settled into your new place? “No way, I’m excited to dig in to what I do and to be traveling,” says Falana. “I want my home to be the van and the stage. Really, though, home is anywhere you are.”
Shana Falana will perform with the Tins and Lovesick at Backstage Studio Productions in
Kingston on May 11. In the Light is out now. shanafalana.com.