By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
There is restlessness about Keli Vaughan. It shows up in the way she uses her hands to accent her conversation, and it's scattered through her transcontinental history, which has seen her traveling to India, China, Europe, and Great Britain. There is inquisitiveness as well: it's there in her clear blue eyes and the way they hold your attention, unafraid of a direct gaze. Her face fulfills the promise of those eyes, both keen and attractive at the same time, accentuated by a head of short blonde hair, which--although unsullied by mousse or gel--still seems spiky and gives her a stylishly punk air.
The 31-year-old singer-songwriter's gestures could be a reminder of the expressiveness of a little girl who loved to dance and avidly pursued that discipline until a teenage motorcycle accident rendered those dreams too distant to seriously pursue. Her restlessness could be the result of the confidence instilled in an only child who never saw any reason not to act on her desires. Vaughan--who has been singing in the Dallas area for the last year, mostly in coffeehouses like Cafe Brazil--is a searcher, a serious artist who has a Zen-like aversion to planning and has already walked away from what many would consider the chance of a lifetime: a musical career based in Europe.
Her steering-by-letting-go-of-the-wheel approach may be paying off. Although she remains detached from the local music scene, Vaughan has steadily been making a name for herself in the Dallas area by dint of her strong, distinctive songs, captured on a six-song EP titled The Quiet Earth and reinforced by the growth in popularity of the female voice, symbolized by the Lilith Fair.
Vaughan has just returned from Los Angeles, where she's been making a video for "It'll Go Now (If You Let It)," an opportunity that "just fell into her lap," she says, when Jennifer Giddens, a 25-year-old director who had been turned onto The Quiet Earth by a friend--offered to make a video for the song. Although plagued by troubles--a water tank burst, flooding the soundstage, and a crew member was injured and taken to the ER--the production wrapped up successfully. Vaughan, in her typical fashion, seems both excited by and removed from the finished video and what it might represent.
"Everything has its own impetus," she says over a plate of enchiladas at Sol's in Deep Ellum while explaining an interest in Buddhism that provided some of the momentum for her travels--but not all. "I went to China to follow a good-looking Australian nurse, this guy I met in London," she allows with a grin. China, however, did not provide much in the way of enlightenment. "It was hellish," she says. "All that pointy red writing--and smoke--everywhere."
Other stops worked out better. After bumming around Prague for a few months, Vaughan relocated to England. "I didn't know anyone," she explains, "so I just started answering newspaper ads for musicians, ads in [important British music mag] Melody Maker, and that sort of thing. I ended up in Liverpool, and there, it was like, I just went straight into the heart of the music scene." Vaughan made the acquaintance of the members of the band Top, players who "were established, who had record deals already. All they did was sit around and smoke cigarettes and make music, and we got along great."
Top mutated into Silverplane, with Vaughan singing. The band was surprisingly successful, touring with Ian McCullough (of Echo and the Bunnymen) and his most recent project, Electrafixion. "I didn't even know who he was," Vaughan confesses. "I thought he was some Irish folk singer." While in Liverpool, she wrote and recorded The Quiet Earth with her friends. Although she generated her fair share of music-biz interest there, it was always with the conditions that usually accompany other people's money. She still remains fond of Liverpool, but the cold British seaport wound up being another stop, not a destination.
"I've always been an outsider," Vaughan says. "It seems like with my music, most of my muse--most of my help--comes from outside." Eventually it was time to return to Dallas, where she had grown up, graduating from Lake Highlands High School. "I like Dallas," she says. "I know the streets, and I can work here." (Vaughan is a massage therapist.)
By the spring of 1996, Vaughan had re-activated old friendships here, including one with Paul Williams, familiar to most from his stint as the guitarist with now-defunct rock group Tablet. In the early '90s, she had performed with Williams prior to her globetrotting in a band called Silent World Divers. Now with the masters to Quiet Earth under her arm, it was time to make another run at playing. "I started out as a poet," she explains. "Performance art and all that; it was always the words that were the important thing. At some point it just seemed natural to try and learn to play the guitar." After her time in Liverpool, she had the chops to strike out on her own.
Her timing was fortuitous: Women making their own music was an idea that was beginning to catch on with the mainstream and expanding to include everyone from folk-punk Ani DiFranco to chanteuse k.d. lang. Being the ardent individualist, Vaughan had little patience for labels like "girl folkie."