A chat about chasing creativity and connection with MAITA

Maria Maita-Keppeler of MAITA connected with HighClouds to talk about the songwriting process, growing into your confidence, and the inspiration behind the tracks on their sophomore record I Just Want To Be Wild For You.

MAITA have just returned with their sophomore album, I Just Want To Be Wild For You. The band’s 2020 debut record, Best Wishes, rocketed the Portland-based group into indie stardom, as the project inspired the founder of the legendary Kill Rock Stars label, Slim Moon, to return from hiatus to sign MAITA and shepherd their first full-length release into the world. I Just Want To Be Wild For You is just as breathtaking as their breakout record, solidifying the group as masters at captivating storytelling, fresh-sounding musicality, and intense intimacy. While the group routinely gets (rightfully) compared to Mitski and Lucy Dacus, this new release puts them in a league of their own.

HighClouds sat down with lead singer and songwriter Maria Maita-Keppeler of MAITA to discuss the process of making their sophomore record, hopes for their upcoming tour, and her love for My Chemical Romance. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

HighClouds: Congratulations on creating a stunning album. Can you talk about the title of the album, I Just Want To Be Wild For You? What does this sentence mean to you and how do you think it sums up the record?

Maita: I Just Want To Be Wild For You comes from the final song of that record. To me, that song on the record is about the final stages of a relationship before it ends. There’s a lot of apathy, mixed with nostalgia, mixed with desperation. It’s a pretty potent time. One of the things that I noticed is this feeling of wanting to feel something that you don’t feel or wishing that you felt differently. At that point, your own feelings are the thing that are getting in the way of something working. That’s a pretty fascinating phenomenon for your own feelings to be the barrier.

One thing about this record that I’m exploring with every song [is] moments of disconnect and trying to figure out why something doesn’t feel right. I like I Just Want To Be Wild For You for the title because it implies that there’s this inner turmoil that you might want something, but the fact that you want it means that you don’t have it. I felt that was a neat way to wrap all of these thoughts together.

HighClouds: The album has a through-line of loneliness, anxiety, and dread. What was the process like making this album? Did the pandemic affect the creation of this album at all– Emotionally or logistically?

Maita: Those are all things that run through these songs. A lot of these songs are not about relationships or romantic relationships. They’re about other things as well– Just trying to exist in this world and feeling that things are not right.

I wrote all the songs pre-pandemic and we tracked the basics of this record pre-pandemic. We snuck it in right before the lockdown because we had the songs already. Even though our last record, Best Wishes, hadn’t been released yet, we decided to go ahead and get started on this one.

After that, during the pandemic itself, we just had some overdubs to do. There were some extra challenges, but it wasn’t too difficult because fortunately we’d already done a lot of the full band tracking. I was able to do a lot of the overdubs at home with Matthew Zeltzer, who produces the album with me and manages the project with me. We were in the same pod so that was really easy. The writing itself was pre-pandemic so I guess these feelings were always there.

HighClouds: That’s interesting because “Light Of My Life,” a song about being dedicated to your phone, is a track that feels very relatable in a COVID world. The idea of our phones being a vessel of escape but also anxiety seems to come up a few times on the album. What are your views on technology and how its recurring presence furthers the record’s themes?

Maita: I’m glad you got that [the song’s subject is a cell phone]. I try to make it clear. I put “Cell Phone Song” in the title, but some people are like, “Oh, it’s about a toxic relationship.” I’m like, “Yes. It is, but it’s not the relationship you think it’s about.”

There are times when I see a lot of good things about technology. But lately, especially after two years of the pandemic and being able to reach people pretty much exclusively through technology, I’ve started to get weary in this final stretch before we head out on the road on tour. It does get difficult to continuously think about how what you’re creating– a multi-dimensional thing– can be boiled down into two dimensions, or three dimensions, or whatever dimensions you need to present it on a tiny screen. That’s a really hard way to go about your life.

I love talking to people one-on-one. That’s my favorite way to talk to people. With technology and with social media, we’re constantly having to share ourselves with people. It’s not really one-on-one. It’s you talking to an unknown and undetermined audience that you don’t share specific memories with. You’re not reacting to their body language or to things that are happening in real time. I really love and miss real-life interactions. I think it’s the most important way that we can connect with one another.

The pandemic has made a lot of the reliance on technology a lot stronger. While it’s been great to have that when we have nothing else, I truly hope that, as we emerge from the pandemic or into a new phase of the pandemic, we don’t forget that we have more analog ways of communicating with one another.

HighClouds: What books, pieces of art, or memories inspired the album?

Maita: I always take inspiration from the things around me– From books, from art that I’m seeing. I get inspired by strange places a lot. I get inspired by strange hotels, or strange cities, or cities where I don’t feel at home. That feeling of not being connected to a place brings up a lot of fascinating emotions that I find are really good for songwriting. A lot of the songs on this record are tied to a place where I felt kind of strange.

HighClouds: Somewhat conversely, you grew up in Oregon and you’re still based in Portland. How has the Portland music scene shaped you as an artist?

Maita: I got my start playing music in the open mic scene in Portland. We have a bunch of open mics. There are a lot of creative people here, even if they’re not technically accomplished. You never know what you’re going to get, but [at] every open mic I’d be like, “Wow, they have something that I really admire. Or, “They’re saying something that I really haven’t thought of before.” Or, “They’re expressing their feelings in this way that’s very raw and creative and truthful.”

I lived in San Francisco briefly during the middle of the big tech boom. I was there for an art internship after school and I went to a couple of open mics there. People had nice guitars and they were really good at playing, but I wasn’t getting that raw unfiltered intensity that I got in Portland at some of these open mics. This isn’t a knock against San Francisco as a whole. It was just the pocket that was at this place.

I do think there’s something creative and scrappy about this place [in Portland]. There are so many songwriters here. There are a lot of creative people here. Everybody’s in a band. It’s really easy to find a community of other artists that you can play shows with, that you can bounce song ideas off of, that you can collaborate with. I feel lucky for being in Portland for that reason.

HighClouds: Back to album specifics, “Ex Wife” is a standout track, with its angsty opening that erupts into a giant sound that ultimately crashes into static. Could you talk a little bit about the process of making this track?

Maita: That one was the hardest one for us to do. I had the idea of it all acoustically, and then I had the idea of what I thought the band should sound like. I’m getting better about this as I play with the band more and more, but in the early days of recording, I lack a bit of confidence when it comes to trying to articulate what I want the sound of the drums or band to be because I don’t play those instruments. This was a battle of me trying to communicate what I wanted from the song because the song itself was really important to me.

It started out as being about a wife of a coworker of mine. I never met the wife, but he would come to work and complain about her. It felt [like a] very classic American marriage trope– Complaining about the wife when you’re in the office. I started to think about her side of the story a bit. That turned into thinking about her as an ex-wife because they did eventually get divorced. [I started] thinking about how that word “ex-wife” is so charged in American society. It’s got this negative connotation to it. I wanted to explore the idea of that.

Of course, your own story starts coming into it. I started thinking about my mom. Since my parents divorced when I was 9, my mom was the ex-wife as well. [I started] thinking about the role of an Asian woman in an American marriage, which was the case for both of the women I was writing about. [I thought about] the expectation that comes from that layer of cultural norms in the US. I began thinking about my own feelings as well within relationships. It was this amalgamation of all those things.

We wanted to end it with something that felt cathartic. But the thing is that I think I would really hurt myself if I scream at the end, which is what it seems like it’s leading into. We loved this idea of the anti-climax. You think you’re going to get this thing, but you’re actually not. That abrupt silence can speak wildly as well.

HighClouds: Whether they’re inspired by you or someone else in your life, the songs on the record feel very personal. Tracks like “Road Song” even get into music about making music. How did you come to write such confessional songs? What is it like to share such personal feelings?

Maita: I was pretty shy growing up. In later years, I’ve become less so. I’ve become more confident in myself. I think part of that is realizing that I’m not a very private person. Being an introverted or quieter person doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re private. My favorite way of bonding with people, and perhaps why I had a harder time bonding with people as a kid, is talking about how I feel and being candid about my emotions. I love hearing about how people feel and getting to the truth of our emotions. I don’t think people are very good about that in middle school or high school.

Once I discovered that I love doing that, music and songwriting became a place where I could do that with this extra layer of separation and control that’s really helpful for me. Everything is kind of separated because there is this idea of, “I’m on a microphone in front of an audience and the song is playing.” So you can’t stop me and say, “Wait. What do you mean by that? How could you say that? Stop and tell me about this feeling that you’re feeling.” There’s a bit of security in that I don’t have to explain more than what I’m saying. That distance allows me to say things that are very personal.

HighClouds: It’s essentially indie lore at this point that Slim Moon returned to Kill Rock Stars because of your debut album. How is it different releasing this sophomore record now that your relationship has deepened with the label?

Maita: It was so wild doing that record before because there was a hiatus for Kill Rock Stars as well at the time so we were all learning how to do everything again from the start. It felt really fresh. There was a lot of learning as we go. This time around, it feels like we already know how things work.

The label has been really great. I truly respect the way that they prioritize the artist’s view and their vision for their artwork. They never request any changes. They just want you to be able to express yourself. They love to prioritize the artwork as opposed to numbers. They release the music that they’re excited about. Because of that, I love working with them.

HighClouds: You have epic music videos. I love the video for “Honey Have I Lost It All.” I was very impressed with your cardio. What was the idea behind the video and the process of filming it?

Maita: That was my vision. We released so many singles this time around and we wanted a video for every single to have something to work with. That meant a lot of low budget videos because you can’t throw down on six or seven different videos. I had to get creative with what we were doing. I had the idea of this running video. Originally, I wanted it to be a huge cast of people, which just never happened.

The song is about chasing creativity and trying to preserve creative success and how futile that is to try to hold on to a nugget of inspiration sometimes. It’s kind of a rat race. The video accompanies that. I’m chasing after this thing that’s always eluding me a little bit.

It was easy– We got a truck and got a camera. I know the running seems impressive, but it’s just a two minute song. We did a lot of cutting.

HighClouds: Let’s do some rapid fire questions. What did you listen to as a child?

Maita: Before I started finding my own music, I got my music from my parents. My parents were listening to The Cranberries, and Natalie Merchant, and The Beatles, and Queen, and Alanis Morissette, and Eurythmics.

HighClouds: What is your guilty pleasure album?

Maita: I love My Chemical Romance, Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge. That was a big middle school album for me. It’s very dear. I still play that record sometimes in the car.

HighClouds: If you could collaborate with anyone on Earth, who would it be?

Maita: This would terrify me, but let’s say Thom Yorke. I love Radiohead and I love that they stay super interesting. I’m always excited to see what they do next and it would be awesome to collaborate with them.

HighClouds: Let’s manifest that for you. I see you have some upcoming live show dates. What are you most excited about in terms of returning to touring?

Maita: I’m excited about playing shows with real people, with other bands, with real audience members, and having those fun conversations with people that you never would have met. One thing that I really missed about being on tour is that we don’t meet strangers in the pandemic. You only talk to people you already know very, very closely. I’m excited to meet some strangers.

Claire Greising