Stefanie Keys, a soulful singer and an Inverness native with a larger-than-life presence and a passion for personal transformation, died on July 11 in Santa Rosa, after a battle with ovarian cancer. She was 51 years old.
Stefanie operated a massage studio above the Old Western Saloon for years, but she spent much of her life on stage. Her family and friends described her as an inspired performer from the outset: at a young age, she was known to jump up from the audience to steal the microphone from whomever was singing.
In addition to playing with her own band, Stefanie toured with many others, including in recent years with Big Brother & the Holding Company. (She sang in Janis Joplin’s place.)
“In reflection of her life now, she was larger than life,” said Heather Thornton, a longtime friend. “She was a unique, powerfully energetic human, sometimes facing some big challenges and struggling to be seen in the music scene. She really had the most powerful, soulful voice that would just bring you goosebumps and bring you to tears—a good, funky, rock ‘n roll, soul thing happening that was infectious.”
Ms. Thornton said that Stefanie “had a gigantic reach. She touched a lot of different people, and she showed up for every single one of them. I don’t know what the definition of a rock star is, but she was a rock star.”
Stefanie was born on March 30, 1968, in Denver. She had two older brothers, Peter Keys—who now plays keyboard for Lynyrd Skynyrd in Nashville—and Alex Pisarczyk—a contractor in Tiburon. Their father, Michael Pisarczyk, was a cardiologist and playwright; their mother, Carole Fisher, was a publisher who moved her family from the East Coast to West Marin after her husband died in the ‘80s.
Stefanie and her brothers attended schools in the Shoreline Unified School District. After graduating from Tomales High, Stefanie often supported herself with trades while pursuing her music talents. In her mid-20s, she married her first husband, Martin Schepergerdes, and moved to Laytonville to help him with his family’s Christmas tree business.
Nina Fisher, her stepsister after Stefanie’s mother married Bob Fisher, a former veterinarian in Point Reyes Station, said it was there, in Laytonville, that Stefanie said she learned “a work ethic.” Later, Stefanie got a massage therapy license to pay the bills, blessed with “naturally good hands,” Nina said.
Stefanie married her second husband, David Sindal, about a decade ago and lived with him in Vacaville, though she continued her massage business above the Western. The couple parted ways in recent years, and after receiving her diagnosis, Stefanie moved to Petaluma to be closer to family.
Her sickness did not keep her from her music. “She was learning new songs up until the very end,” said Van van der Maaten, a collaborator. “Even in the week before she died, her voice was as strong as ever.”
Stefanie’s brother Peter described a close bond with his sister. When he changed his last name to Keys—a better stage name—in the early 2000s, Stefanie did the same. He played on and helped produce her four albums, and said they were always in communication about the songs she was writing.
“She was powerful, fierce, fearless—the best singer that I know,” Peter said. “I know a lot of musicians and a lot of singers, and she blows them all away. We were writing partners as well as siblings, and she was very big in my recovery, in my personal transformation.”
Peter went on, “We would share different metaphysical readings that we would find, different ways that we would look at life, philosophies. She wanted everyone to elevate their lives and step into a more empowered being. She challenged us all to level up—everything from finances to personal relationships to creative endeavors to spirituality.”
Peter described his sister’s sound as “soulful Americana” and her lyrics as “reflective of her point of view: proactive, humanist, activist, women-powered, transformational and all about personal growth and reflection.”
“Her lyrics were how she saw the world, how she was in the world, and how she wanted to become in the world as well. It wasn’t the mundane stuff: she spoke from the heart,” Peter said.
Several of Stefanie’s songs had to do with life in West Marin. On her 2016 album Open Road, her song “Amos Crane” recounts the 1992 Western Weekend, when Amos was gunned down on the back steps of the Grandi building just 20 yards from the festivities. Though it took place in a crowd, his death remains a mystery. “Small towns have a way of keeping secrets in the dark/ At the end of the day, we all play a part,” she wrote.
Peter said music was an integral part of his family, with the three siblings often playing music together, a talent that stretched back several generations.
Dave Shul, a San Franciscan who has played with both Peter and Stefanie since their teenage years, played guitar for The Stefanie Keys Band and co-produced her albums.
He recounted the days when he didn’t take Stefanie seriously.
“She would jump up on stage, and we would kick her off,” he said. “It’s an amazing thing, perseverance. She said, ‘Eff you guys, I’m going to do it.’”
Sobriety was another key element of Stefanie’s life—and music. In her early 30s, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and over the years she was a sponsor for many, both formally and informally.
“She was the person I called,” said Sandra Coutts, Peter’s ex-wife. “She changed me back to the woman I was meant to be, and the mom and everything else. She saw potential in me when I gave up hope on life: she pushed me so I got it.”
Sandra said Stefanie, who never had children of her own, played an integral role in raising her own twin daughters. Supporting friends and family was central to her nature.
“Every person was special to her,” Sandra said. “I would call her and ask her how she was and she would turn it around, try to take care of my problems. I hated that, but that’s how she was, that’s what kept her going. She was a listener—and definitely a talker, too—but she was a problem-solver. She always had a solution or a suggestion.”
Sandra added, “She was gorgeous inside and out. And she also looked tough, like someone you wouldn’t want to mess with because she carried herself with so much confidence.”
A musical celebration honoring Stefanie’s life will take place on Sunday, Aug. 18 at 6 p.m. at the Mystic Theater in Petaluma. There will be a suggested donation at the door.