Seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years... Time never stops.
For Steff Koeppen, working on a new album with her band the Articles over the last several years, that insistent march of time weighed on her mind, framing her goals as a musician, her relationships and her day-to-day work in a way that brought more focus to everything.
It wasn't a conscious theme to the album until it became time to shape it all into one whole thing and by that time, the name Timekeeper fit it all perfectly.
"In the past, I've always taken a phrase from a lyric in a song to name the album," she says. "I was trying to do the same thing and I found the word 'timekeeper.' It helped me put the songs together, all in a place. For me, even though there's not a concept that ties these songs together, lyrically it was all during a time just after I graduated college and felt a lot of stress. I felt the anxiety of time pressing down on me and that's in a few songs. Like I'm my own timekeeper."
The songs were written over years—with two already released as singles to help promote the band on tours—and sprung from different origins, not meant to offer different perspectives on any one theme. But once they were all collected and titled, Koeppen began to see there was more to unite them than she'd thought.
"I started to look at the songs a little differently," she says. "There's my personal disposition, where I was coming from at the time, that was always hanging over the songs."
But that focus didn't mean rushing through the process. Timekeeper's 12 songs will sound familiar to those who've seen Koeppen solo or with the Articles. The vocal-and-piano-driven pop is both sweet and complex, with some jazzy rhythm that's augmented, as usual, by strings but this time by some guitar and horns as well.
"It felt like we've had to stick to the same ingredients: piano, vocals, drums, bass and some strings," Koeppen says. "This time, we let the song speak, and we started sneaking guitar onto the record. It was something I've been thinking about for a while. I don't want the songs to get stuck. I want them to come to life in whatever is the best way."
At first it was a production move, adding some overdubs in the studio. But as Koeppen continued to write songs for the album, she'd start hearing where the guitar could go, what parts would complement the piano, what another texture could do to enhance the mix. Now the piano-centric band has added a guitarist to the live lineup.
"It allows me to be a little more free performing," she says. "Maybe I'll be able to step away from the piano entirely."
Becoming more of a frontwoman has been a process for Koeppen, who started playing regular solo gigs a few years ago and continues, both in Tucson and Phoenix.
"I was very uncomfortable with it at first," she says. "I'm thankful for the gigs that kept pushing me because that really allowed me to be more comfortable and confident on my own."
Her other paying gigs include weddings, where learning and playing cover songs ultimately led her to analyze her own songwriting. The impact, she says, has been to write more confidently and be more willing to try different things in terms of style, melody and instrumentation.
"I've done so many gigs for weddings, with so many different musicians between here and Phoenix, that I've had to listen to all these hit songs to play them," she says. "Having to sing all this material, songs that are new to me, that's made me think differently. I've thought about what aspects I could incorporate into my own music. I started to realize that these hit songs I'm singing for weddings are always easier to sing than my own songs. That's made me think about writing, about the key, about writing songs for me."
One lesson Koeppen brought to her process for the new album was, for the first time, consciously and specifically working on "a single." That became "Keep You Around," a bright and "sugary" gem that cuts to the chase and was released as a teaser single in the spring.
"I've never sat down with this band before specifically to write 'a single,'" she says. "This time, I did sit with that song and say 'this is a song that will draw people in and hit them in the face.' That's the in-your-face pop single, and it had to have a video to match."
Timekeeper takes the band's strengths and expands on them. Amidst the catchy melodies are unexpected changes and weird chords to keep the songs unpredictable and exciting.
"The songs have always been pop songs, but never simple pop songs," she says. "I want everyone to hear the songs and the melody and sing along and have it stick with them. But I definitely want musicians to enjoy it too."
The rhythm section of Chris Pierce on bass and Tom Beech on drums has been with Koeppen from the start and work together closely in the songwriting. New violinist Jessica Muiseke and original violinist Alexandra Tuggle both play on the new record, representing the band's full existence.
"This go 'round, it was taking everything I learned from the past few releases. I took everything I did wrong or rushed over, and made sure not to cut any corners," she says. "We've been seven years in this band, and this record represents all time we've had to work together."