“You looked like an angel with the streetlight halo around you/But I know better,” sings twenty-one-year old Schaefer Llana on the song “Angel,” a standout track from her debut album 49 Ceiling Tiles. As with all of Schaefer’s songs, the lyrics show a wisdom that belies her age.
Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, at age ten Schaefer Llana moved to the tiny town of Batesville, Mississippi after her parents divorced. She grew up singing in school plays and at church, the home stereo split equally between her mother’s love of pop and her older sister’s emo and punk music. Schaefer began writing songs on the piano in eighth grade, switching to the guitar her senior year in high school. She moved to Cleveland, Mississippi for college, where she cut her teeth in the fertile DIY house show scene.
“I was playing a lot of shows around town solo, and I started realizing it wasn’t enough,” says Schaefer. “I needed it to be bigger, because it didn’t feel like ‘me’ yet.” In order to realize her vision, Schaefer recruited a band from her local scene. This allowed her to highlight the extremes in her songwriting, enabling her to move deftly from an acoustic whisper to a full-band holler in a moment.
The first demo for 49 Ceiling Tiles was recorded for her friend Starlin Browning’s college production class. The results were so good they decided to make a whole record together, holing up with fellow musicians at Dial Back Sound in Water Valley, Mississippi, exemplifying the house show ethos of “playing music with your friends, for your friends.”
From the yearning, conflicted “Childlike” to the easy escape of “Dew,” 49 Ceiling Tiles is at turns wounded and vulnerable, fierce and loud. The songs wrestle with faith and heartbreak, mental illness and self-harm. But through every song there’s an undercurrent of hope, a belief that things can and will get better, and a refusal to stop trying.
“I’m always fearful and doubtful, but there’s a piece of me that has to hope for something” says Schaefer. “Growing up and constantly having your world rocked and your heart broken by family and by people who you think are your family, you always have to believe that something better is coming. For me, that better thing has always been music.”
It’s this belief that gives Schaefer’s music such power. Her songs revel in the strength of vulnerability and the raw urgency of honest emotion. There’s a ferocious hope to this music, an intimacy that comes from playing music with the people closest to you, and the shared knowledge that from all the pain and struggle something beautiful can emerge.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to play music,” says Schaefer, “even though it seemed unrealistic. Most of me didn’t believe that these things would ever happen. But here we are.” She laughs. “I guess the part of me that did believe was enough.”