The singular Maiah Manser on the viola, Kurt Cobain and staying true to her art

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"Maybe I write some weird, different songs," says Maiah Manser, "but they’ll still go together because they’re all me."

Musician Maiah Manser is a bit of a conundrum. The Seattle-based, Oregon transplant is simultaneously serious and light-hearted. On stage she’s a dynamo with a voice that thunders out of her like a freight train. Away from the microphone, she’s witty and self-deprecating, a talented perfectionist who's not afraid to chuckle at herself. Before discussing her life-long devotion to musicianship at a Greenwood coffee shop, she spends 10 minutes showing me Instagram pictures of extravagant fingernail art. She rarely paints her nails, she says, and then only black, but she appreciates the work of a skilled manicurist.

Manser is the frontwoman of a band who also works feverishly behind the scenes. When you watch the video (below) of her exquisite single, “Hold Your Head Up,” you'll notice a line of text revealing that Manser co-directed the film. She’s also a multi-instrumentalist who writes her own music and lyrics and self-produces many of her songs. As the inspired micro manager of her own destiny, she has the intelligence and complexity to produce intriguing music for years to come.

When did you start singing?

I was around three when I started messing around with it. I realized in preschool that I could get out of nap time by singing to other classes. It became my little magical weapon (chuckles). I didn’t have to do nap time … I could never sleep. It was impossible.

It escalated of course … When I was six, I won a school talent show. I sung "Edelweiss" (from The Sound of Music) and everyone else was singing Spice Girls. That really tipped me off that I loved performing. I never stopped after that.

Take us a few years down the road from that time.

By then I was also in orchestra, and I did a lot of multimedia art as well. Simultaneously, as much as I did singing, I was also doing visual art and dancing. I was doing all the artsy things that a kid could do, so there was no time for any sports. That was a little strange in the town I grew up in: Bend, Oregon.

I started playing violin when I was eight, and switched over to viola five years later, so that the orchestra could have a viola player. I was actually playing it last night. I was recording a string arrangement. I miss playing it, but I had to quit for the most part. It destroyed my back. Not violin, but viola, because they’re so heavy.

I’m really sorry to hear that.

It’s okay. I’ve always been this kind of frail thing. When I switched over [from violin], I didn’t know how to handle it, so I slouched.

Did you start playing other instruments after that?

I started playing piano then. I also had this tiny Yamaha keyboard with like 49 keys or so. One of the ones where you can press a button and it plays these really cheesy backing tracks. I would make up my own lyrics to those.

Do any of these instruments factor into your live performances these days?

How I see violin and viola is that I use them to compose. In my room. I don’t necessarily want to play them live, because they’re such fickle instruments. I could play it and it would sound pretty okay, but I could also hire a professional or a prodigy that practices for three hours every day.

You went to see the new Kurt Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck. What did you think of it?

Something about Kurt Cobain — this is why so many people loved him — is that you can connect with him. As fascinating as that is, it’s also terrifying. The way he went about living his life was kind of tragic. Here was this extremely talented person who kind of didn’t love himself. That’s what the documentary seemed to be alluding to, anyway. It really didn’t focus on Nirvana too much, which was nice actually. They had so much footage.

Apparently he used to get these horrible stomach aches, and he would use heroin to manage them. And there I am, thinking, “I get horrible stomach aches too.” I could connect with some of his diary entries too. It was kind of freaking me out, but it’s still fascinating.

That’s what drugs will do. I’ve had some friends that got heavy into it. It’s hard to watch. But there’s not much you can do, except to be a good friend.

I had a friend a couple years back who died, but he was a wild card. He was always trying to rebel, but at the same time be the kindest person in the world. Any time you saw this person, he would come hug you and be so sweet. But he was so dark inside. After watching the documentary especially it made me think about my friend again.

You mentioned making string arrangements in your room earlier. Can you tell me more about your songwriting process?

I’ve actually been inspired to start working with my friend Jason Cairati recently. He’s been helping me a lot, especially in getting things moving because I can take forever. I’ll take a year to write one song. It’s better to have someone there saying, ‘Maiah, stop. Don’t overthink this. It sounds good. Let’s move on.’ Just that one song, “Hold Your Head Up,” took a year to make. It turned out to be a masterpiece, but there’s ways to attain that without taking a year.

Mainly, I’ll just write lyrics that come to my mind and then go play piano and see how they fit. I don’t like to stick to one specific mode of composing, because when I do that I get bored. There’s so many different ways to write a song.

That’s good to hear. One of the biggest cliches in the music industry is an artist who claims to be really eclectic and versatile, but in fact all their work sounds very similar.

For a long time, I was struggling to accept that my sound is all over the place. I felt like I was writing all these different things that don't quite go together. But recently I’ve accepted that this is how I write. Maybe I write some weird, different songs, but they’ll still go together because they’re all me. It’s about accepting your art.

You said that sometimes you start with your lyrics and move forward from there. Could you discuss some of the themes you like to develop in your songwriting? Maybe talk about “Hold Your Head Up”?

“Hold Your Head Up,” goes deep. It’s actually about somebody else, and their relationship with another person. It’s not actually about me. I had someone thinking I wrote it about my situation with them, and I was like, “Nope!”

That reminds of a certain song… [singing] “You’re so vain…” [laughs].

What I like about [“Hold Your Head Up”] is that it’s not so lyrically detailed. It can be up for interpretation for a lot of people. A lot of the songs I’ve been writing more recently are very detailed. There’s a lot of words fit into one small little four bar section. It’s almost like I’m rapping, but I’m not [chuckles]. I feel even more connected to those songs, because it’s like here’s everything I feel!

Lately, I’ve gotten into this mode of writing lyrics where I just spew it all out and cut things later. When I write that way, I don’t even know what my brain was just thinking. I have to go back and figure out what I meant by all of that. It’s fun.

You write your music, arrange, it, sing it and produce it. But you have a band you play with live. Could you talk about how you translate your songs to a live setting, and what it’s like working with other musicians?

I love my band, and I can’t wait for the day when I can pay them a million dollars. Jason Cairati plays synthesizers and presses all kinds of buttons. James Squires is hitting big buttons, and we just incorporated more real drums too, which I’m really happy about. The more real instruments I can include, the better. I can’t wait until the day I can have a string orchestra playing with me. That would complete me.

It does become difficult to translate some of my songs, to include all the instruments we actually use. We have to put some things on back tracks at the moment. I worked for a pop artist for a while, and they do that. Some more than others.

It’s super common these days. It’s amazing what you can sneak into the sound mix sometimes.

It’s a little too far for me. I want to make it as real as possible. I love the organic. I like to make electronic music organic, that’s what I strive to do. The live shows inherently have more energy than a recorded track, just because it’s live. So there’s room to cut things, and [the sound] feels just as big.

There’s something to be said for choosing a stripped-down rock 'n roll aesthetic for live shows.

Sometimes I wish we could eliminate some of the [live] computer work that we do, because it can really disrupt our performance. Computers aren’t always reliable. It’s just so much nicer to have a real instrument being played.

Have you fallen prey to glitches?

Absolutely. But what’s awesome about them is that you learn to improvise with electronics … It keeps you on your toes.

It can take some serious time to learn not to show that you just messed up like crazy. At my last show, I played with Allen Stone at the Triple Door. Two hours before that, I lost part of my range. I was having a really hard time hitting my mid range. It kind of sounded like Chewbacca … It was this rumbly, weird sound. I was left with no choice; I had to sing with it, and my voice was going to pop out on many of my songs. So whenever it did, instead of being like “oh no!” I acted like I was crying. [laughs] I was a little upset after the show, but I did the best I could.

You’ve mentioned the EP a couple times. What can you tell me about it?

It’s big — as in orchestral. It’s very lush. It’s dark. I’m composing an intro and some interludes as well. I can tell you that my next single will be [a cover of Screamin Jay Hawkins’] “I Put a Spell on You.” I’m in the process of writing one more song. I’m not even sure we can sell, “I Put a Spell on You” because of the royalties.

Are you signed to a record label, and if not, do you want to be?

It depends. I’ve seen a lot of the repulsive side of the major label industry. It’s all about the money. It’s like you’re taking away a musician’s artistry, and forcing them to become this marketable object. I might sign to an indie label. It would have to be so particular. I would really have to feel like I wasn’t being taken advantage of. My plan has really been to create my own team. I have a hard time trusting a label.

Someone I always look at is Janelle Monae, who created the Wondaland record label around her as she rose to fame. I really admire that form of action. It keeps the art alive. It keeps the artist's intention very true and genuine. I think that gets lost a lot in pop culture.

You left music school to pursue your career as a musician. Why did you decide to do that, and how did it turn out?

I’m very happy with my decision. At the time I did it I was not. A lot of the reason I left was money issues, but there was a part of me that didn’t feel okay with being told what art is. I was going to school as a jazz vocal major, but switched over to composition in my final year. That was eye-opening for me, because it was like, wait, you’re telling me this song I wrote isn’t good enough? I could have taken it more with a grain of salt, but it was good for me to leave because I was almost starting to hate music. I was analyzing art too much. I’m all for thinking about what you’re making, but for me it can really take away the magic.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Joseph Sutton-Holcomb

Joseph is a full-time landscaper, part-time journalist and full time culture junkie discovering the hidden joys of life as a UW graduate in Seattle. When not taking care of plants or writing, he spends his time in the company of good friends enjoying film, music and the great outdoors.