Name: Maria Maita-Keppeler
Occupations: Singer, songwriter
Current Release: MAITA's I Just Want To Be Wild For You is out via Kill Rock Stars.
If you enjoyed this interview with MAITA, visit her official homepage. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Emotion is always at the core of what I create. I am fascinated by what compels us to feel. When I’m overwhelmed with feeling, I am driven to attempt to distill that feeling down to its origin, to figure out why I feel a certain way, and then try to convey that emotion in the most truthful way possible.
For that reason, personal relationships tend to be a rich bed of songwriting fodder. There truly is something to be said for the fact that we show our best and worst sides to our romantic partners. This “worst” side is intriguing to me because rarely is it ever a product of malice. One of my favorite songwriting exercises is to write from the perspective of the other, both in my own relationships and in the ones of those around me.
“Boy” for example, off our last record Best Wishes is told from the perspective of a close friend’s bad boyfriend.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I don’t have a firm blueprint of how I write; some songs unfold in mere minutes and some get workshopped for months.
Most commonly, however, I stumble upon an emotional hook: something that feels singular, a core idea strong enough to carry an entire song. This could be ‘Loneliness’ as a lover, or two sides of an argument about nothing.
Whatever I write, the backbone of the song has to feel significant, without which I have a hard time writing.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Privacy is very important for me. The challenge of working with an audible medium is that my process is exposed to anybody who might be within earshot. I have always lived with housemates, so my process is driven by opportunity. I am prepared to drop whatever I’m doing when I have a significant window of alone time and start writing on the guitar, if only for forty-five minutes.
I am very resistant to revealing early drafts of my work to others; I craft songs with the intention of them being final drafts. When time allows it, I will book writing retreats for myself: 3 to 5 day excursions in cabins or cheap motels (incredibly inspiring places to me), which allow me to sink into less urgent stints of creation.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
It helps to have all my needs met before I sink into a long period of writing. In our current world, we are supplied with an endless array of distractions. I try to eliminate as many of those as I can by making meals that can be easily heated (soups, stews), exercising early in the day, or cleaning my space before I begin creating.
I am most easily derailed by a nagging sense of obligation, to myself, to my family, to my housemates, and try to prevent those intrusions: I should clean this room, I need to move my body, should I go out and get a bite to eat.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
As I mentioned earlier, my songs must begin with a core idea, an emotional hook. That emotional hook is usually a product of improvisation or reaction. I am an over-thinker and rarely speak without a filter. It is of the utmost importance that I remain in control over my words, which is perhaps why it is so important to me that a song orbits a moment in which control is relinquished.
The chorus of “A Beast” for example, was a product of an overflow of emotion that I stumbled upon alone in my room.
Once I knew I had found my emotional release, I could step back and fill in the verses with a more measured, introspective approach to the subject matter.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
I find that melody and song structure is important for emotional impact. While lyrics remain the most important part of a song, I never feel that a work is ready until it has a melody that can partner with the lyrical content.
I have dozens of melodies without words saved in my phone recordings, many more than I have lyrics without music. With my favorite songs, lyrics and melody usually emerge together, but occasionally I get stumped and can’t find a melodic home for my words. In such cases I can mine my recordings for something that feels like the right mood for the content.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
Truth. The least interesting lyrics to me are the ones that feel like a watered-down version of the truth, lyrics that seem as if they are omitting something beneath the surface. This truth can often be ugly or challenging in some way. It can force you to come to terms with something you don’t like about yourself. It’s not always easy; it can take a lot of courage to say what you truly mean.
Every time I write a line and have second thoughts about sharing it, I know I’ve stumbled upon something that needs to be said.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I follow inspiration where it leads me. I have never been much of a planner; even as a visual artist I resist mocking up art pieces before I start. I love having the opportunity to make things up as I go, which was why printmaking was such a difficult medium for me.
“Japanese Waitress” is one such example of my work taking an unexpected turn.
I was listening to “America” by Simon and Garfunkel and had this idea of writing a song about my own version of ‘America’ with the same cadence but in a more minor key.
I started filling in the lyrics during a shift at a restaurant where I was working at the time and found that the song had a much smaller scope than expected. There was so much to unpack solely within the confines of the restaurant, so many stories that begged to be told instead.
I always honor that which feels the most urgent.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
The creative state for me requires a lack of ego, which is perhaps akin to spirituality. I find that if I catch myself in a period of self-involvement, I am no longer listening—neither to my inner dialogue nor to the stories that are unfolding around me.
I find that the creative state requires an open mind that can receive, extrapolate, imagine, one that can draw connections between oblique ideas and understand the human experience in a deep, empathetic way.
Social media can be detrimental to this; it gives air to every spark of self-involvement.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
This is difficult as a perfectionist. Just as it takes courage to start an intimate song, it takes courage to finish it, to step away and say this is enough. Self doubt is usually what propels me to keep a song from its finish line and this process is even more limitless in the studio with a myriad of tools at our disposal.
As we’ve grown more confident as a band, as I’ve grown more confident as a songwriter, it has become easier to step away from a work. In the past I’ve had a tendency to try to cram as many words as I could into a song, to attempt to leave no stone unturned. I still do a bit of that, but I’m also trying to pick my moments and be more economical with language and production.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practice?
As a songwriter, I rarely make edits after I finish a song. I may tweak a word here and there, listen to a song a few times and pick out the moments that feel less strong, but for the most part my lyrics are final.
This process is a little different when we record in the studio with a full band. We usually record an album before we tour on it and have a chance to settle into the final version of what a full band arrangement will sound like, which means the production on the album are some of our first instincts for each song. On the one hand, I’ve always loved how fresh and inspired the albums feel to me. On the other, sometimes we tour for a while and wish we’d recorded certain songs differently, perhaps changed the time signature on a certain song, or slowed a certain song down.
We have settled upon a happy medium of sorts, in that now we track the basics for a new batch of songs together for the first time, spend a week listening to them, and make any corrections we may have with a follow up session a week later.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
In the last couple albums, I’ve come to realize how important production is to a record. It can suck the life out of an intimate song, or breathe life into what you thought was a B-side. I’m incredibly fortunate in that I have a very creative and inspired band and trust our instincts when it comes to production.
I have my own ideas, but believe it is very important to let the creative instincts of others flourish as well. This is especially important since I am so close to the songs; a fresh perspective is immensely valuable. I feel similarly about mixing, which also has a lot of creative potential.
We’ve worked with John Askew on all our records so far, and value his instincts. We give everyone an opportunity to run with their inspiration and then determine what is working and what isn’t.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I mentioned the ego being a detriment to creativity and think that is part of what makes up the ‘emptiness’ feeling after accomplishing something.
Every time I finish a song or an album, I feel a sense of pride in what I’ve created and might find myself basking in this pride, which is followed immediately by a very real fear that I’ll never be able to do it again. In some sense this is correct—you can’t write the same song again, you can’t record the same album twice, you can’t follow some blueprint for a successful song. This is usually how I return to a state of creativity: getting rid of expectations for another success. I can’t obsess over how I’m going to write my next ‘Japanese Waitress’ or I’ll never write ‘A Beast,’ an entirely different kind of song.
Part of getting rid of exceptions might entail taking a break, removing pressure, or changing environments. All of these have helped me get into a new headspace that isn’t constantly trying to measure up to my past creations.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
That truly depends on the person, I suppose. I personally don’t think creatively when I make coffee, don’t find any poetry in my movements … but somebody else may. Because I am so inspired by our most intimate truths, I find that most of the physical tasks in daily life don’t draw up any comparisons to songwriting. They feel like a means to an end or a good backdrop upon which I can get lost in thought.
That being said, I wonder how that would differ if I were, say, a dancer who might find that poetry in movement. My medium requires words, so if I am to feel any creativity in daily life it will be in conversation, in the stories I could potentially tell. I find creativity in the way I perceive the world, in the connections I can draw between entities in my life, in the patterns that I glimpse in the relationships around me.
It’s a fascinating question, the different paths that this integration can take based on the artist.