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."
"Men have been emulating women in rock for a long time; just look at Mick Jagger," she says with a roll of her eyes at the mention of the subject. "I guess what I do is folk, or folk songs. If John Lennon were sitting on a stool playing guitar, I guess that'd be folk songs too."
Although she's been getting more attention lately, she still doesn't feel a part of the local music whirl. "I never really feel like I fit anywhere, although I'm sure I do. I go places alone, so that I can be alone. I guess I'd like to be a bit closer to things around here, but if I'm not, I'll just make do with what I can. I can get gigs--paying gigs--[with] just me playing the guitar."
Vaughan does, however, have plans for a band; she just refuses to allow the uncertain future to have much effect on the present. "I'm looking for good musicians," she says, "but everybody I'm interested in is already plugged into some project." So she soldiers on.
The Quiet Earth is a formidable entree that doesn't necessarily require the full-band treatment that Vaughan and her Liverpudlian pals give it. The star attraction is her voice, which--like Vaughan herself--is a blend of contrasting elements, managing to sound both hard and soft at the same time, like a piece of steel rebar wrapped in cotton candy. She likes to veer and bounce her voice's trajectory off in unexpected directions, like a drunk backing a car down a long driveway. The effect is engaging.
Her subject matters are the affairs of the heart, and her tone is street-level idealistic. This--when combined with her voice and chunky guitar playing style--might remind you of DIY posterbabe Ani DiFranco, but The Quiet Earth's provenance and any face-to-face meeting with Vaughan dispel such doubts. The best song on the disc is the first, "Everything (Until I Get Bored)," perhaps one of the most honest love songs ever written: "I'll give you everything/Everything until I get bored," she sings in between verses pledging eternal faith. Unlike many exercises in this kind of cynicism, Vaughan's not trying to shunt the blame for a pending sin by confessing in advance. Her experience involved more catching than pitching. "It's not me," she maintains. "I'm singing his part, a guy in Liverpool who promised all this shit--on his mother's grave--but he's a musician and a fuckhead, and now he's got a record contract and other women to string along. I wish he had told me that he'd love me until he got bored...
"The song is really about promises and how we keep them," she says. "I'm an expert on pitfalls, but I'm pretty clear on how to [manage relationships]."
Vaughan, who looks more resigned than irritated when she mentions the inevitable Joni Mitchell requests she gets when she plays, understands fandom: She gets excited when relaying her tale of recovering Exene's [of Los Angeles band X] guitar pick and handing it back to her at her last Dallas appearance. "I just looked up at her and said, 'I loved you when I was a kid.'" Vaughan--who also lists Nina Hagen and Chrissie Hynde as personal icons--isn't much inclined to labels or ideology either. "I don't understand why everybody puts Jewel down," she says. "Is everybody just that cynical and fucked up?"
Vaughan has definite ideas about what she wants out of the music industry: "A lot of people get signed, and the record company bilks them completely," she says. "If I'm gonna get bilked, then they can pay for putting my band together; it's that simple. If I found the right people, I'd put it together now. There are some really ace people here in Dallas who have said that they'll do stuff with me, but a lot has to happen before, but right now there's a lot of stuff to buy--a guitar and amp to start."
Just as she's about to sound like some determined construction foreman, Vaughan goes Zen on you: "There's nothing you can do about anything," she says with a shrug. "So I'm just going to do what I want, and I'll be damned if there's not a market for it." She's not going to stress over a timetable, which is fortunate, considering the rate at which things seem to be happening for her. "All my new songs are only half-finished," says Vaughan, who keeps close track of the songs she writes and still draws on a lot of material from the Liverpool days. "I don't know if it's because I've had to wear so many hats since I've been back: get the CD cover done, save enough money. All my creative time was like when I was living in Liverpool and doing nothing. I haven't really had that time lately.
"There are so many songs that I need to record, but there's a part of my psychology that's saying, 'Don't worry about pumping out a bunch of new songs; most people haven't heard any of these songs, and I'm not tired of them.'"
So far, her trust in karma or fate or coincidence seems well founded. "A lot of the help I get comes out of the blue, like this [video] thing," she says. "I have people in London and New York helping me. Hopefully, I can get to the point where I can do the things I want...I don't want to have a band so that I can be cool, or hang around heroin addicts or assholes."
Keli Vaughan plays Friday, December 13, at Cafe Brazil on Central, and Sunday, December 28, at the Dark Room. The Quiet Earth is available at Borders Books and Music.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.