Maita’s Cathartic Indie Rock Attempts to Capture Fleeting Things, Including a Quickly Changing Portland

“Wherever you are, whatever city you’re in, for most of us, we don’t really have any ownership over it."

Maita (Aaron Wessling)

1. Maita

SOUNDS LIKE: Mitski covering introspective indie-folk ballads of 2005.

A few years ago, Maria Maita-Keppeler found herself in the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. Her dreams of working as a visual artist in the city had been dashed by the cost of living them.

"I just started thinking about the brevity of a city and a place," Maita-Keppeler says. "Wherever you are, whatever city you're in, for most of us, we don't really have any ownership over it. They just kind of change and you kind of have to say goodbye."

Since returning to Portland, Maita-Keppeler has channeled her childhood dreams of becoming an artist and a writer into her indie-rock band, Maita. The singer-songwriter's music creates permanent places for fleeting feelings, and its resonance seems to lie in how mercurial the songs are: Maita-Keppeler's songwriting is fragile and folky, but her sound is rooted in rock, with unexpected moments of toughness and eruptions of fiery energy.

Maita's debut LP, Best Wishes, was released in May by Kill Rock Stars, the Pacific Northwest indie imprint best known for releasing the likes of Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith. In the months leading up to the album's release, it seemed Maita-Keppeler was destined for a breakout. Without an album out, she'd already accumulated buzz from outlets like Billboard and National Public Radio and booked a European tour.

Then, the pandemic hit. Maita-Keppeler and her band canceled their tour a week before they were scheduled to play in Germany, putting them out more than $5,000 in expenses and about $8,000 in earnings. The initial April 3 release date was pushed back until mid-May, and instead of playing a long-scheduled gig at Polaris Hall, Maita ended up playing their hometown album release show on a Facebook livestream.

So it's perhaps fitting that Best Wishes sounds as willful as it does wistful.

"I'm very drawn to writing [folk] ballads," Maita-Keppeler says. "But I'm also very drawn to a heavier, more cathartic, energetic, burst-of-emotion kind of sound."

To record Best Wishes, Maita-Keppeler met up with bassist Nevada Sowle, guitarist Matthew Zeltzer, drummer Cooper Trail and engineer Bart Budwig in the tiny, cow-centric town of Enterprise, Ore. The band rehearsed the songs one day and recorded them the next. The whirlwind of the record's creation seems fitting, since the album itself is about impermanence.

"Most songs I write come from a very singular place, a moment in time and space where I felt a certain set of emotions that I may not feel all the time," she says. "These emotions can be overwhelmingly ugly or sad or angry, but they don't exist forever. Music has always been a way for me to capture [those feelings], and in some ways, to return to [them] whenever I want."

These days, Maita-Keppeler is feeling the weight of an anticipatory nostalgia, the knowledge that where she is now will be a memory soon enough. With the Best Wishes tour canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she has been thinking about her role in the current wave of change. While distancing at the Sou'wester Lodge, a vintage trailer park in Long Beach, Wash., she has been thinking about how Portland is evolving faster than ever and how she wants to evolve with it as an artist.

Songwriting is Maita-Keppeler's way of navigating that ever-changing landscape. The nostalgia she felt in the San Francisco MOMA, for example, became the lyrics for Best Wishes' closing track, "Best Wishes, XO, Hugs and Kisses, Goodbye."

"Your city is dead and my city is dying," she sings. "It's all fair I guess, it never really was mine/Home always changes, it's the nature of life/All I have is my body for a place, for a time."

"Here is a place driven by small businesses that are facing mass closures," Maita-Keppeler says about Portland. "Here is a city that houses a rich music scene that is about to lose all of its venues, with no safe day for concerts in sight. Here is a city where many of us are coming to terms with our own racism and the ways that we have failed the Black community. It is evolving into a different place, and we have to be a part of this evolution to make sure that we can make it better."

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