I’m falling hard for Diane Coffee. He’s the genre- and gender-busting singer who completely absorbed the Napster zeitgeist of ’60s and ’70s music and is descending on Velvet Jones on August 23 with his new Bloomington, Indiana–based band to fearlessly perform his new album, Everybody’s a Good Dog, a unique mash-up of psychedelia, Motown, and pure ecstatic theatrical flamboyancy.
Diane Coffee, aka Shaun Fleming, drummer of Foxygen and former Disney child voice actor, mines a double-edged persona that flips genders mid-voice at a drop of a hat. His singing effortlessly moves from feminine to masculine styles.
“I’ve always been heavily influenced by people who have multiple voices, multiple stylings. Like Tom Waits has three or four different voices; even Bob Dylan has a few,” he told me in a recent interview.
Fleming is kind of local, born just north of Los Angeles, hung out in Ventura and S.B., and then moved to Bloomington, Indiana, the mid-America musical capital and a new cultural oasis in the middle of a lot of corn.
“I’m a child of the theater, and the fluid gender thing is something I’ve been interested in for as long as I remember. It’s just a part of who I am, so it doesn’t come across as being campy. I like to play in that world, explore both the masculine and feminine, not as a crutch or a shtick. I don’t think about it too much,” he said.
Fleming has developed a creative space to write and perform in that resets our expectations about love songs. His lyrics treat sex as role and persona. His inherent open-gender approach freshens our understanding of male-female relationships.
His influences, meanwhile, range all across the musical spectrum. That’s likely because Fleming is a child of Napster, so the pastiche appropriation of styles and sounds is part of his nature.
“We were all of a sudden subjected to an infinite amount of music at a click of a button. That was a crucial part of my musical education,” he recounts. “It’s scary to think about, now being in a music career, how everyone else was feeling in the industry in that moment, but as a child I suddenly had the chance to hear massive amounts of music in every genre and every category. That’s why my styling is so eclectic.”
None of that prepares you for the sheer fun of his performances. “I have the most fun playing live. It’s always strange to me seeing people who seem so down onstage. I love bringing emotion to people,” he said. He’s known for his live gigs, where every audience member leaves grinning. “There is so much anger in day-to-day life, so I do like the idea of these shows being positive,” he explains
That’s what fuses all of his influences, his love of theatricality. The easiest comparison is Bowie, of course, but Fleming is way less mannered and probably more desperate to please. “I’m having a really good time. I’m also just generally a happy person, so I’m having a blast, and I want everyone else to have as much fun as I’m having,” he said.
Because of his early background as a voice actor in films and television series such as Kim Possible, he’s meticulous in his range of voicings and multifaceted. He made his first record, My Friend Fish, with a guitar, a bunch of iPhone apps, and a detuned guitar for a bass. “I had my iPhone on one side of the room and the computer on the other, and I’d email the files to myself to make a stereo image. It made everything sound really cool. Really unique. But it wasn’t on purpose. I guess I already got my crazy experimental record out of the way,” he said.
And what about the name, Diane Coffee? Well, it’s part of Flemings’s goal to honor unknown cultish singer/songwriter Nathan Pelkey’s song “Mr. Coffee.” There’s an odd, free-form partial documentary on YouTube about Pelkey if you care to check it out. The story goes that this young aspiring songwriter ran away from home with his accordion and tracked down Devendra Banhart, the subcultural hero of the freak-folk movement. He knocked on his door and wanted to play him a few songs. They ended up recording three songs together. One of them is called “Mr. Coffee.”
“They’re such amazing, childlike, innocent, silly and fun songs, unlike anything I had ever heard. So I felt someone should honor him. I might be one of a handful of people who have these recordings.”
Eclectic, flamboyant, joyful, and fresh, Fleming’s pure joy and madcap love of performing are guaranteed to make Diane Coffee worth watching.
Diane Coffee plays with Waterstrider and Royal Suns at Velvet Jones (423 State St.) on Tuesday, August 23, at 8 p.m. For more information, visit velvet-jones.com.