Back in 2018, at this publication’s fourth birthday party, Maria Maita-Keppeler finished a set with her eponymous group to rousing applause. “We’re MAITA, and we love the ’90s,” she said with a laugh.
This likely wasn’t a shock to anyone in the audience. With their oscillation between introspective, confessional songs and more cathartic, driving tunes, buoyed by a supportive (but never overbearing) rhythm section, the band would fit in just as easily 25 years ago as they do now.
Asked if we can expect more of this sound on the band’s forthcoming debut LP, Best Wishes, Maita-Keppeler says, “It’s not something we’re consciously trying to achieve.” But, as a child of that decade, she acknowledges, “The music we first connect with always has a prominent place.”
And the ’90s affinities don’t stop with the band’s sound. In September 2019, Portland-based, Olympia-founded indie label Kill Rock Stars announced its signing of MAITA, and that founder Slim Moon would be returning to steer the company after a 13-year hiatus. In an official press release, Moon noted that even before president Portia Sabin had committed to her new role as CEO of the Music Business Association, he had decided to return in a limited role “to be the label’s liaison with [MAITA] and to shepherd the whole project,” driven by his “love of MAITA and [his] belief in Maria’s genius.”
Being the band that brought an indie label legend back into the fold is enough to conjure fairytale images, but lead guitarist Matthew Zeltzer provides a dose of reality to the band’s seeming kismet.
“What people don’t really tell you is that there’s this mystified [perception] of signing,” he says. “We started shopping the record a year ago, and then it took six months to find the right people. It just takes a long time for anything to happen in the music business.”
“The timing has to be just right,” Maita-Keppeler adds.
And Maita-Keppeler and Zeltzer are very conscious and deliberate in their approach to getting MAITA’s music to their audience. After the band’s last European tour, over two years ago, the pair fully committed to finding a community in Portland for MAITA’s music. Having also collaborated in The American West, an Americana outfit with Zeltzer taking on more of the songwriting and vocals, the two decided to focus their efforts on MAITA.
“Since we’ve known each other, we’ve played in each other’s projects. And during the first bit, we were doing both and it was hard for one of them to stand out. I’m not on a record cycle right now and it works really well for me to put more of my energy into MAITA,” Zeltzer explains (and he does, both as a musician and an engineer, working alongside Bart Budwig and John Askew on the production side of the new album).
These choices have clearly paid off, with the band (which also features Nevada Sowle on bass guitar and Cooper Trail on drums and piano) collaborating with the likes of Portland Cello Project’s Skip vonKuske on the record and The Helio Sequence at a New Year’s Eve show. More recently, their varied sound earned them a spot at Portland’s Folk Festival, a who’s-who of the local scene that diverts into pop, rock, Americana and more.
These choices have also allowed Maita-Keppeler’s multifaceted genius to shine. “Japanese Waitress” recounts Maita-Keppeler’s experiences in the service industry in a bare-bones, honest way.
“In the moment, a lot of things don’t seem that bad. In the moment, peacekeeping tends to be priority one. And it’s not until you stop and write it down that you think, ‘Oh!’” Maita-Keppeler says of some of her interactions with customers. “Anyone in the service industry could write that song.”
For the first official single off the album, Maita-Keppeler opted to release the “complete 180” from “Japanese Waitress,” the quick, catchy “Can’t Blame A Kid,” the video—watch below—for which shows the artist practicing in her first medium: visual art.
An art major in college, Maita-Keppeler says, “That’s what I always thought I was going to do, from elementary school on.” Returning to paint and a blank canvas for the video to recount a childhood insecurity provides an even deeper level of catharsis, punctuated further by Maita-Keppeler’s admission that she shot the video in one take, by herself. “If I failed I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see that,” she confesses. “But it worked out. It could have easily not.”
Speaking about the final single, “A Beast,” before the album’s official release in April, Maita-Keppeler actually sums up what seems to be the operating principles of MAITA: “I feel like it’s not a blend, sonically, but it showcases the energetic, cathartic side and the introspective—both sides are really important to us.”
UPCOMING RELEASE: Best Wishes out April 3 via Kill Rock Stars