Oct. 26 2011 03:42 PM

Tijuana songwriter makes stripped-down electro-pop with an arsenal of vintage keyboards

You Schaffner, aka Dani Shivers, scours Tijuana's flea markets in search of cheap instruments
Photo by Luis Garcia

They don’t make keyboards like they used to. Back in the ’80s, Casio had a whole line of small keyboards with wonderfully cheap sounds and amusing features like samplers and modular settings. But, eventually, technological advances brought about a whole new breed of keyboard. Today, most of them have higher-quality sounds and tons more settings, but when it comes down to pure aesthetics, they just don’t sound as good.

You Schaffner, a young musician from Tijuana who performs under the name Dani Shivers, longs for the sounds of the vintage Casio. An avid keyboard collector, she regularly scours Tijuana’s flea markets looking for them. The way she sees it, she’s fighting to protect an endangered species.

“I had a cousin who gave me one for free because he didn’t use it. If it wasn’t for me, they would be forgotten,” she says in between sips of horchata at a seafood restaurant in downtown Tijuana on a recent Thursday night. “I see it like a challenge—like, how can I grab these sounds and transform them and translate them into our time?” 

Schaffner, a recent film-school graduate in her early 20s who has bright-green braces and a penchant for black dresses, loves vintage keyboards for many reasons. With their limitations, they let her focus on crafting good melodies and hooks rather than ornate arrangements. More importantly, the warped tones and chintzy drums help give her music its twinge of nostalgia and sadness.

Schaffner loves bedtime stories; she had a troubled childhood, she says, and they offered an escape in tough times. Her debut album, Jinx—which comes out on Tijuana’s Prima Crush cassette-tape label later this year—is plotted like a particularly frightening one. The album, she says, is about a girl who loses her cat one day and goes looking for it in the forest. She finds that a witch has kidnapped it and she ends up opening a gate to an alternate realm, letting loose a vampire and a ghost. In the end, the girl gets killed in a battle and becomes a ghost herself.

All of this sounds pretty grim, but it’s rendered in the bright colors and pixelated textures of a video game. Indeed, Schaffner had the classic arcade game Contra in mind when she wrote the lyrics to “Up,” a catchy track with simple chords and a crude dance beat. Singing in a childlike coo, Schaffner resembles a player climbing stairs to reach the next level, only to find herself trapped, “When you told me to go up / and up and up and up….”

Boand raised in Tijuana, Schaffner first got into keyboards when she was a teenager. In school, she took a class on electronics and learned how to bend the circuits in a keyboard to modify the sounds. She and her friend Gabriel Duprat, who plays with her in the band Ibi Ego and recorded Jinx in his studio, started collecting toy keyboards to mess around with, but they eventually grew bored of the sounds they were making. “They all end up sounding like you put really bad distortion on your keyboard,” she says.

A solo project emerged one day a couple years ago, when Schaffner had a melody stuck in her head. She grabbed a Casio keyboard and recorded it on her mom’s computer, using a cheap microphone from Radio Shack. In 2009, she recorded Power Naps, a demo of melodious instrumental vignettes she’d made with various instruments.

Eventually, she got around to writing fully formed pop songs, and she had her live debut as Dani Shivers last March. During the past year, she’s built a small but loyal following, partly with the help of rave reviews from the likes of Club Fonograma, a Latin indie-music blog.

Concertgoers often complain that electronic shows are boring because the performers aren’t doing much on stage, but Schaffner’s performance at a music festival in Tijuana last month was mesmerizing. Wearing a white shawl and dark eye shadow, her long hair hanging over her face, she laid out thick, warm synth chords and pumping beats on her Casio MT-40, which she’d bought at a swap meet for 70 pesos, or about $6.35. When she started playing “Up,” the audience squealed.

On stage, Shivers proved to be a complex character. Despite her simple music, her performance spanned a range of moods and emotions—she was sweet but also sinister, openhearted yet mysterious. Awestruck, an audience member crowned her with a new title after the show: Casio Queen.

Later, Schaffner reaffirmed that a cheap old keyboard is all she needs.

“I could have a $300 keyboard or a $1,000 keyboard, or I could have my $5 keyboard, and I still have a really good song,” she says. “That’s what matters.”

Dani Shivers plays with Chamuko at Tin Can Ale House on Sunday, Oct. 30. She also plays at Don Loope in Tijuana on Friday, Oct. 28. soundcloud.com/danishivers

Email peterh@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.