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‘Synth soul’ ensemble Keeper masters the art of collaborative harmony

Vocal ensemble teams with beat collective Applied Pressure on ‘The Story of Trip Hop’

Staff Writer
Austin American-Statesman
Yadira Brown, Lani Camille Thomison and Erin Jantzen of Austin vocal trio Keeper photographed outside their rehearsal space on July 2nd.

The DJ drops a groove, a chilled out mid-tempo number with wistful chords drifting over a beat that splits the difference between eurocool coffeehouse and smoky nightclub. The three female vocalists, all stylishly clad in black, vibe to the music. They bob their heads, switch their hips and absently trace sinuous circles with their hands. One begins to sing, and the others join in, their voices lifting into heady swirls.

The set, a happy hour gig at an upscale hotel, moves at a leisurely pace, with the women effortlessly passing lead duties. They close their eyes and lean into one another’s harmonies. The songs mix in hints of hip-hop — they cover ’90s hits by the Fugees and Ghost Town DJs — but for the most part their sound fuses the soul of R&B girl groups like TLC and Destiny’s Child with a modern aesthetic shared by artists like Sylvan Esso and Chet Faker, who place sensuous vocals over ornate electronic sound beds.

The women are Yadira Brown, Erin Jantzen and Lani Camille Thomison. The band is Keeper. Though they only have a handful of singles floating around the Internet, buzz about the group has been building. Just before South by Southwest, their song “Happy To Be Sad” was prominently featured on the popular Comedy Central show “Broad City.” Their most recent track, “Next To Me,” premiered on the national outlet Complex and has been warmly received in the blogosphere.

They perform with the Applied Pressure Orchestra on Sunday and Monday at the Alamo Ritz as part of a music/film presentation called “The Story of Trip Hop.” (Sunday sold out in 24 hours, but tickets to the Monday show are still available.) Then Keeper will take the rest of the summer off to prepare for the release of their debut full-length, due out in September.

The three women have worked together for years, collaborating and backing one another in various projects including the Jantzen-fronted dance pop act L.A.X. and the soul outfit 10Yr helmed by local R&B wizard D Madness. In their downtime, they found themselves messing around with melodies and harmonies. Along the way, they became fast friends.

“It’s rare that you find two other girlfriends who just want to sit in the room and write music with you and harmonize and that’s like your hobby,” Thomison said. “It just worked out.”

They call their sound “synth soul,” a term coined by Orión García, a member of the Peligrosa DJ collective who’s also Brown’s cousin, Jantzen’s boyfriend and “band mom” to the group. The soul comes from both the lyrical content and the throwback harmonies, and they’re drawn to “a lot of melodic synth-heavy production,” Brown said.

When their other projects stalled, the three women decided to focus on the vocal collaboration. Instead of recruiting a live band, they hit up their DJ friends for beats to explore. They wrote to click tracks or programmed their own drum beats.

After years working in large ensembles, usually under the direction of one visionary or producer, the experience has been liberating. Each woman writes lead parts, and they all play support roles. “We can lift each other up,” Thomison said.

To finalize a song, they might hand off an a capella track, or write to a producer’s beat, but just as often they meet the producer in the middle. That’s the way it has worked on their upcoming album, a collaboration with San Antonio-based producer Antonio Mundaca, who goes by the name MoonDoctor.

Sometimes “we were writing off the chords he originally invited us to write on, but he changed the texture and the feel of the song around what we wrote,” Jantzen said.

For “The Story of Trip Hop,” they’ll be back in a band, the Applied Pressure Orchestra, which includes BoomBaptist, DJ Kid Slyce and drummer James Taylor with visual presentations by VJ 4th Wall. The event finds the ensemble exploring the work of four key artists who were cornerstones of the trip hop movement, a style of electronic music born in the U.K. in the ’90s. They’ll tackle works by Portishead, Björk, Massive Attack and DJ Shadow. The live performances will be spliced with documentary footage and archival performance clips.

For the women of Keeper, now in their late 20s and early 30s, trip hop, particularly the work of Portishead, was a soundtrack to their formative years. “It was our classic rock or our ’80s,” Thomison said. These were breakthrough sounds, opening their minds to a broad range of musical possibilities.

“It’s so important you never thought you’d cover it,” Brown said. “You sing along to Destiny’s Child in the car, but this was (expletive) that you never even tried to emulate … you just tried to absorb it. Getting to do it, learning how to trust each other and expressing it through our own voices is so nice. It’s such a blessing.”

Update: This article has been updated to note that the song “Next to Me” premiered on Complex and to clarify the band’s songwriting process.