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Portland artist MAITA speaks on new music and the importance of community

Portland artist MAITA speaks on new music and the importance of community

Introduction by: Henry Whittier-Ferguson
Interview by: Charles Trowbridge

MAITA is here to stay.

The Portland indie outfit, lead by namesake Maria Maita-Keppeler, released their second LP this month—I Just Want To Be Wild For You—on PNW based label Kill Rock Stars. Maita-Keppeler’s frank folk-inspired lyricism shines from the heart of the band’s sound. The music ranges from similarly folk-inspired strumming to a cacophony of heavy noise—often within the space of a single song. It’s within that dynamic range that MAITA shines, capturing the spread of emotion that exists within a day, an hour, or even a single moment—laying it out for examination.

Eleven sat down with Maita-Keppeler to talk about recording the new album, playing for people again, and fostering community here in Portland:

Photo by: Tristan Paiige

Eleven: What got you into the scene in the Portland area? What are some of the things that pushed you in the direction to make the kind of music that you’re making?

Maria Maita Keppeler: I grew up in Eugene/Springfield area and ended up moving to Portland to go to college. I was playing music all throughout college, but very privately. I did a lot of very small open mic stuff and started by making mostly folk music—solo, acoustic things—because that’s just what was available to me at the time. I ended up meeting Matthew [Zeltzer]—who plays in the band with me—in the Bay Area, when I went there briefly for an RA internship. We started playing a lot of music together in Portland, still very much in the folk scene, and spent a lot of time touring.

We did these self-booked tours all up and down the West Coast. Pretty much every month or so. We were spending a lot of time not in Portland, despite being Portland artists. It was a really great way to cut my teeth. But I will say that I started to feel a little bit distant from my community and decided to make a conscious effort to stop touring so much. [To] settle into our community, support our community, and build connections there. It allowed us to have a little bit more freedom to start building a band and investing more time in recording music [and] playing with other people.

We formed a rock band for MAITA that ended up being the sound that it is today. At the time, we were playing with Cooper Trail and Nevada Sowle from Idaho. We realized that the music really did call for that full band sound. That’s when we started digging into the Portland scene more and getting connected with other bands—connecting with local rock stars and other amazing local people who are making things happen in the music scene.

Eleven: That’s great. When you said, “return to the community and engage a little bit more,” what are some things that you mean by that?

MMK: I feel like we have to be part of the community. Like going to each other’s shows, showing up for other bands, supporting each other, liking each other’s music; being able to be in the audience and hearing what else is happening in your own community, in your own world.

Sometimes the best music out right now is just what your friends are making. They can end up being amazing sources of inspiration and your collaborators. When you’re on tour, you are giving your music, but you’re asking a lot of people. You never really get the chance to be the person that is showing up for somebody else. I think that is the definition of community. So, yes, it’s being able to go to each other’s shows, buy each other’s merch—and even just on a personal level—being able to foster friendships and connections with musicians and creative people. It’s something we’ve come to value.

Eleven: Obviously, the last year was super weird. A lot of venues closed, but it seems like a lot of bands, groups, and individuals—singer/songwriters, etc.—adapted to that by going online and offering subscriptions or opportunities for people to attend small “e-concerts.”

Did you do those? Did you see that happen in your network and your community? Has it been nice to return ‘semi-normalcy’ playing live again?

MMK: We did a little bit of that. We were supposed to go on a European tour that got canceled right when the pandemic happened. I think we were two weeks from flying out. So we ended up doing this virtual tour with four different venues in Europe where they hosted our video and live stream on their socials. It was kind of this “digital tour,” which I thought was pretty cute.

But at the end of the day, doing like four of those, it started to dawn on me how repetitive that ends up being. Because we’re in the same place every day. We’re not getting any audience engagement in real time. You get a little bit, but then you’re staring at a screen and there’s a little lag. It’s kind of fun, but also, after a while it just becomes a pretty strange substitute for what we really want to be doing—being with people and feeding off each other, sharing each other’s energy. It’s a very tangible thing to be in the same space as people and feeling the presence of bodies and hearing how people are interacting with you and interacting back with them. We didn’t feel like it was a great substitute for the real thing. 

We did one album release show at a studio where we recorded all the different parts live. That was really fun. A lot of work to get the video all dialed—to get the sound, the technology right. It honestly felt like putting on an episode of Saturday Night Live. Things were going wrong at the last second, and then we had to be live. It was something that we had promoted pretty heavily, so there were a lot of people watching and tuning in, which was amazing.

But if every show was like that, it would be so much harder than just driving seven hours and playing a show. We tried. We made the best of it. But we’re pretty grateful that there are opportunities now for us to get together in real life.

Eleven: What did the recording process for the new album look like? You mentioned that you realized at one point you needed “that full band sound.” How did those things come together to create the form and the music as it exists now?

MMK: Our last record, Best Wishes, wasn’t even out yet. We recorded the basics for this upcoming album, I Just Want to Be Wild For You, in the fall of 2019. So, we didn’t have the pandemic then. We’ve always tried to be one step ahead, just figuring that by the time you record an album, then mix it, master it and send it to vinyl, it’s several years old. We tend to start that process really early. 

Luckily, that’s what we did. We didn’t have to record during a pandemic. We recorded with Cooper and Nevada before, in a studio that Matthew had helped build and was working out of—Room 13—which no longer exists. He engineered it, and Nevada assistant engineered it. We all just worked on it together, the four of us. It was a great experience. 

Circling over to the second part of your question, the very first time we played with those guys was for the recording of Best Wishes. We just sent them the songs and we showed up. The moment we started playing with them, we were just like, “Oh, wow, this is a rock band.”

It was just one of those things where the moment we all started playing, we were like, “This is what this is like.” It just felt right. That’s why it’s been really important for us to do our records with the same team of people. We can’t always tour with the same people, but at least forming the songs and recording them.

One thing that I really like is that all four of us are songwriters, and all four of us listen to really eclectic, different kinds of music. The MAITA sound is formed on the intuition of the four of us. Like, what does this song need? What is the content of the song? What feels right for the song?

Eleven: With the four of you being songwriters: what does that look like, when someone brings an idea, some lyrics, or an instrumental part to the group? Are people adding bits and pieces, or does each person tend to have most of the creative control?

MMK: I do all the songwriting. I’ll write all the lyrics and the melodies and if I like the song, then I’ll bring it to the band

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images used Courtesy of Harry Smith Archives

The songs are very fully formed when I bring them. Over the recording process, I pretty much just give creative freedom over them to the group. We have ideas, what we think the song should sound like before we start recording, but a lot of what comes out becomes a first impression. Like, “Okay, here’s this song, how does it feel?” I really trust it. 

Eleven: One of the themes that you targeted for the new album was the “oxymoron of modern times” and “the bombardment of communication paired with utter disconnection.” What was the impetus for this kind of overarching theme?

MMK: I think about it, but I definitely didn’t start off thinking, “This is the theme.”

I started noticing currents running through all of them, which hinged on disconnect and miscommunication—or lack of communication. I’m really fascinated in human emotion, how we feel and why certain things make us feel a certain way. How the chemistry of two different people can create these really strange weather patterns of emotion and communication. 

For me, the most inspiring things to write songs about tend to be when things are not going well. Then, going on this quest to figure out what is not working. What’s the missing component?

Basically, under every crest of disconnect and apathy, there was this rich bed of actual intense passion. That frustration that’s born from wanting to close that gap and not being able to. That juxtaposition of “We’re disconnected, but why?” and “This is so hard.” That’s exactly what I wanted to tackle in these songs.

Eleven: Do you have a favorite song from the record? And do you have one that, as it was coming together, you were on the fence about, and it ultimately ended up being one of your favorites?

MMK: I think “Ex-Wife” is a song that is both, for me. I have always really believed in that song.

That song was born out of when I was working this job and my coworker would come in and complain to me about his now ex-wife. I would get his side of the story, and it was just very clear that there was a huge range between them. Things were not really working. I’m fascinated by this idea of what her side would look like, because I heard so much about his side.

I wrote this song from her perspective, around this idea of being in an office—a nine to five job—that felt very male-dominated. Just like any kind of tech-y sort of office. It felt like a very male-dominated world. It felt like this thing of coming in and complaining about the “ex-wife.” Then it turned into this meditation on desire and what it means to be the woman in a marriage that’s falling apart, and the kind of cultural prescription that people have for the “ex-wife.” I’m thinking a bit about expectations. I started to think a little bit about my mom, who was also an ex-wife.

A lot of your own personal things come into it, too. It ended up feeling very emotionally important to me. But it just wasn’t coming together. It starts off with this kind of slow, melancholic vibe, and then it goes into this cathartic release for the second half of the song. It was really hard to put together. It wasn’t really working. At the end, there’s this moment of release that’s supposed to happen—you would think—with a scream.

We ended up coming up with the idea to just cut it off. Right when you think [the scream] is going to happen, kind of like an anti-payoff. Which feels a little bit topical when you think of the silencing of women, or the women’s perspective; the cultural trend of suppressing women, calling them too emotional or too unhinged if they have opinions. It ended up turning out to be one of my favorite songs on the record.