Maria Maita-Keppeler ’14 and her band MAITA are making a splash with their debut album Best Wishes.
Maria Maita-Keppeler ’14 and her band MAITA are making a splash with their debut album Best Wishes.

MAITA’s New Album Rocks the Critics

In her debut album Best Wishes, Maria Maita-Keppeler ’14 is intimate but never fragile.

By Casey Jarman | September 15, 2020

A favorite songwriting exercise for Maria Maita-Keppeler ’14 involves sitting in the back of the room at a particularly egalitarian open mic night until she hears the kind of cheesy lyric that makes her bristle. “I wait for those lines,” she says via telephone. “And I think, what feels so fake about this? And what would my version of this be? Then I write that.”

Open mic nights have long been a helpful piece of her process. First in her native Eugene, then at Reed’s student union poetry nights and at open mics throughout Portland, they were instrumental in developing the introverted—but not shy, she stresses—musician’s craft and her confidence. “In high school, extroversion really gets rewarded, and I just tried to stay out of the way,” she says. Arriving at Reed, she suddenly felt seen. “If I holed up in my room and played guitar all night, people weren’t like ‘Why didn’t you come out?’ They were like ‘Oh, that’s cool!’ It was a world of like-minded people for the first time, for me.”

Though some of her fondest memories come from taking Russian for a year, she studied visual art at Reed. Her studies would eventually lead her to a three-month stint in Kyoto learning to make Japanese woodblock prints, then to an internship in San Francisco. That’s where she met Reed grad Matthew Zeltzer ’10, who would become her partner and frequent tourmate. After settling back in Portland at the end of 2014, the two set off on regional tours together every three or four weeks, self-booking good shows and bad ones with equal enthusiasm. “Because I was so green with performing, it was a good way to learn,” she says. “We can handle disappointing gigs now, because we’ve had gigs where people weren’t even looking at us.”

The “we” in question is Maria’s band, MAITA, which signed to the influential Kill Rock Stars label (Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney) in September 2019 and released their debut full length, Best Wishes, this May. It’s an intimate, patient record that feels more like a private conversation than a manifesto. MAITA is as comfortable with candied licks and distorted guitars (“Can’t Blame a Kid”) as with a slow-burning waltz (“Boy”), making them a hard band to pigeonhole. The through line, though, is Maria’s engaging vocal delivery—often sweet but never delicate—and her open-journal lyricism. Best Wishes is an album about growing up, about the urgent and immature relationships that form us. But it’s also an album about the ways unchecked capitalism fails artists: about working crappy jobs, living in expensive cities, and running up debt in order to do the thing you love. All of this is delivered with a sneaky sense of humor, tension, and real vulnerability.

Maria says she writes her songs with her own younger self in mind, attempting to give listeners a line to something as personal as the indie music that first excited her as a teen. “I guess I’m not very private,” she admits. “But that’s advice I’d give any songwriter: if there’s something you’re scared to put in a song, you probably should put it in. I think our hidden feelings are extremely similar to other people’s hidden feelings. And music is such a great tool for expressing that.”

There are, of course, some particularly complicated feelings that come with releasing your band’s well-reviewed debut album in the midst of a global pandemic. And like most touring bands, MAITA has been grounded since March. But the same open-hearted spirit that allows Maria to find inspiration from a cheesy open mic performance has her bullish about MAITA’s future. “I really believe that an album can be a snapshot of a period of your life, and every one can be different,” she  says. “This [period] is so different. It would be a waste to not write about it in some way. Some creation should come out of it.”

Tags: Books, Film, Music, Alumni