- By Deborah Sengupta Stith American-Statesman Staff
This story originally published in October 2016
“Corners,” the new EP from Keeper, is a departure from the slick mix of eurocool club grooves, swirling harmonies and ‘90’s R&B throwback vibes that established the self-described synth soul outfit as one of the most promising acts on Austin’s vibrant electronic music scene in 2015. Downtempo and brooding, the new release has the ominous atmosphere of a fractured fairy tale. It’s a turbulent dreamscape where imminent heartbreak lurks in the shadows as slow moving chords linger over sparse beats. The harmonies are still there, but this time, the women’s voices emerge as beacons, ribbons of light filtered through a haunted darkness.
While the lush soundbeds provided by local producer Bird Peterson pulse with discordant hints of latent menace, the women’s voices shimmer with plaintive beauty. Tension between the two fuels the EP’s power. This is an emotionally weighty release, a lost innocence tale, a lyrical meditation on separation and letting go.
The EP has the feel of a breakup album, but Yadira Brown and Erin Jantzen, the two women behind the project, are both in solid relationships. They say the four-song suite was a broader rumination about the difficult process of personal evolution. “There was a mourning process that we were going through with just life in general,” Jantzen says.
On the surface 2015 was a very good year for Keeper as the group began to build heat in Austin and beyond. Just before South by Southwest, their single “Happy To Be Sad” was featured in the Comedy Central sleeper hit series “Broad City” and later in the year, their eight-song debut, “Moonhigh,” earned them blog looks from around the country.
But the group’s ascent was not without growing pains. A creative disconnect led to the departure of Keeper’s third original member, Lani Camille Thomison. (She sings on the release, but she no longer performs with Keeper.) For a brief period, the future of the project was uncertain and Jantzen and Brown, whose musical collaborations stretch back to 2009, faltered. They began to feel overtaxed and emotionally spent after seven years grinding on the music scene for little financial pay off.
“It’s challenging to work full time and ride super hard for your creative process and feel detached from your home life,” says Jantzen, who holds down a day job as a hair stylist. “When you’re hustling and meeting roadblocks on lots of fronts, it’s hard to focus and not feel bummed about the sacrifices you’re making.”
Brown was working in a management position for a small business where she felt taken advantage of and undervalued. She’d seen enough glimpses of success that the dream of a sustainable musical career was beginning to seem plausible, but she also felt weighed down by real life pressures. She found herself at a precipice, gathering the courage to take a leap of faith.
“It was a really challenging span of time,” she says. “Deciding to stop accommodating, living in fear of losing a source of steady income, and value myself as an artist.”
In summer 2015, Peterson gave them a collection of 12 beats. The material was so moody and evocative, they initially weren’t sure how to approach it.
“We had been doing all this really high energy, kind of sexier dancey (stuff),” Jantzen says.
But the timing was serendipitous. These beats demanded the women dig deep into their feelings to explore them. As they did, a narrative that loosely reflects Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief began to emerge.
Lead track “Fire” is entrenched in the feeling of “fury, frustration, that this is not working,” Brown says. The second song moves to a shaky resolve of accepting change. “Then the third song is being like blown out and really in your feelings about it and the last one, really letting it go.”
“It was not planned but once we kind of cued in on the theme it just sort of made sense,” Jantzen says.
The foray into the darkness has a sense of ceremony that is not accidental. Thematically “Corners” is built around “pagan, witchy esoteric archetypes,” Brown says.
“The four directions have elements attached to them, fire, earth, water, air that sort of govern parts of your life,” she says.
“You go through things with people and you absorb their energy and hopefully, if it’s negative, you have some way to, like, transmute it or make it positive within yourself.”
Feeling emotionally unmoored, they wrote these songs to ground themselves. In the process they created a relatable set of songs that move with the power of a quiet ritual to offer catharsis.