Once a week, Katy Stephan dutifully flips through the five pop station presets on her FM radio. "I do it for research," the Emeryville-based singer explained, adding that if she had her druthers, she'd be listening to Sherlock Holmes podcasts, or 19th-century art music. But it still helps to keep abreast of the Top 40 du jour, Stephens said. After all, she used to supplement her income with a twice-weekly gig at Martuni's, a well-known cabaret club in San Francisco's theater district. The guests always demanded piano renditions of the latest Lady Gaga.
"I played 'Paparazzi,' 'Poker Face,' and 'Telephone,'" Stephan said, shaking her head. "I was a human jukebox."
Such was the fate of a young operetta singer who viewed pop music as a curiosity rather than a career path. Fortunately, Stephan wouldn't spend her whole adult life crooning at gay bars or memorizing the entire Gaga catalog. After five years she left Martuni's, limited her cabaret singing to one restaurant a week, and shifted her energies back to a song-a-week project she'd launched in 2006. She also cut a new album, set to be released in early January.
"I spent all of my twenties singing other people's music," Stephan said. "Like classical, jazz, sessions. I was a little singer-for-hire. I would just do what I was told." Now she's finally recasting herself as a songwriter. Economy is her specialty: She writes short, revealing a lot by saying very little. She records the way a blogger might, uploading songs to her web site and seldom editing them. Stephan's cumulative output is impressive, but each song is intimate and small.
In many senses, Stephan could have — or should have — been born in a different era. She's small and blond, with doll-like features. She likes to bake and crochet. She listens to old-time radio shows and writes in big, loopy cursive. She brought her knitting to a recent interview. Her debut album, Saints of the Lost Cause Saloon, came in two different handmade packages: a jewel box or a crinkled paper bag with a black lace bow. It features reed organ, baritone horn, and bowed glockenspiel, and most of the songs recall 19th-century opera. Stephan sings in coloratura vibrato.
And, yet, most of Stephan's current compositions show a voracious appetite for pop culture. She cannibalizes from the photo gallery at the San Francisco Chronicle, Dan Savage's "Savage Love" podcast, and the current climate-change debate. The songs that result are funny and quippy, often telling a simple story from a weird angle. Come out to your parents at the Cheesecake Factory/And then go to the gym, she sings, regurgitating Savage's advice to a young gay caller. I hope you have a super great birthday on Sunday/If the world makes it till then, she sings on a birthday song called "An Indie Rock Birthday Wish, By Way of a Few Remarks about Climate Change." Warm and frothy, with a vocal harmony drifting over spare acoustic guitar, the song sounds exactly like indie rock. But for the title, it could almost be sincere.
Such things help Stephan elude any type of broad-stroke definition. Is she a consumer, or just an observer and commentator? Is she earnest, or making fun of the rest of us?
"Like most people, I keep a notebook," Stephan said, assuring that her songwriting process is actually very methodical. "I'll come up with an idea — maybe it's a sentence, or a theme, or whatever. I'll sort of sketch it out. I try to do something quirky so that if you heard it, you'd know it was me."
But most people don't keep notebooks, and Stephan isn't like most people, anyway. She was already enamored of baroque and classical music before entering the vocal performance program at Cal State East Bay. She's retained those influences throughout her career, taking opera lessons, singing with Pacific Mozart Ensemble, and collaborating with jazz bands like The Nice Guy Trio or with her boyfriend, pianist Adam Shulman. She modeled her style of songwriting after a form that was popular in the 19th century: song cycles that weren't part of an opera or oratorio. Most of them clock in at under two minutes, and lack a traditional chorus-verse structure. Stephan's music is more a series of vignettes than a set of tunes.
That approach served her well a couple months ago, performing at the Red Poppy Art House on a bill that included several other left-field groups. The event was part of a quarterly series that Lisa Mezzacappa conceived called "The Eye and Ear Series." The theme was "dreams."
Stephan and Shulman sketched out an appropriately dreamy set, with tunes about all the generic Freudian setups: Flying. Taking a test you didn't study for. Being chased by dogs. Walking into a room naked. Sex with your uncle. Most of it was improvised onstage, Stephan said.
For their final number, the two wrote a song on the spot, based on audience suggestions. "Okay, what's the dream about?" Stephan asked. "Do we want major or minor harmony?" "Do we want it high or low?" "Do we want more consonance, or do we want more dissonance?"
The resulting low-high minor-key song about being underwater seemed hard to pull off, even for two professional improvisers. But Stephan said she loves that type of stuff. "It's honest, and it's handmade. It's gonna have flaws and be freckly and weird," she said. But, she adds, that's its charm.