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The Best of Both Worlds: MAITA Talks About Her Japanese-American Culture and the Richness That it Brought to Her Musicianship

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Special Edition 2022 – I Belong

Maria Maita-Keppeler (better known as MAITA) is a songwriter and musician from Oregon. Split time between her mom’s Japanese-speaking home and her father’s English-speaking home pushed MAITA to find an expressive avenue, one where she would learn to push through her shyness through the lens of music. “I was getting so much out of songwriters like Elliott Smith, Feist, and Cat Power when I needed them.” She found inspiration in performing at college open mics to connect with other people through art. “I write songs by listening and watching, trying to get to the truth of it all.” Songwriting is a cathartic experience between her and the listener. Songs like “I Just Want To Be Wild For You, “WaterBearer,” and “Loneliness” are perfect examples of the indie-rock artist’s ability to take you to another place with her sound. Guitar Girl Magazine spoke with MAITA about sound and gear, her relationship with the guitar,  influences, and how her cultural upbringing shaped her as a musician. 

What drew you to playing the guitar over other instruments, and how has the relationship with your guitar evolved over time?
My first instrument was the classical violin. I remember being frustrated at having to play the same pieces repeatedly; I didn’t like the aspiration towards perfection, towards playing something exactly the way it was written. When I fell in love with mid-2000s folk music, I started venturing into songwriting myself and realized how natural it was to write music with a guitar. Initially, I thought of my guitar as a backup instrument to my voice and lyrics. I never played much lead guitar, which made me devalue myself as a guitarist. This relationship has changed over the years as I’ve grown more confident. I’ve come to value the way I use the guitar to write creative and off-center chords and riffs that shape the melody and emotions of my songs. My guitar playing is a part of my songwriting as anything else.

Let’s talk about your setup. What amps, guitars, pedals, and pickups are in your rig right now?
After cycling through several guitars and amps, I’ve finally settled on a setup that feels like my sound. I’m not a huge gear fiend; I just try things and wait until I get that ‘feeling.’ I play an early ‘60s Harmony archtop guitar with a Lollar Imperial Humbucker for my folkier, more fingerpick-heavy songs and an early ‘90s Gibson Les Paul Special double cutaway with Lollar P-90s for the heavier rock songs. My amp is a 1964 Supro Thunderbolt, and my pedal rig is pretty simple: Just an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb, a Klon Clone for light overdrive, and an EarthQuaker Devices Dunes for heavier overdrive. I love a warm, rich sound that can work for both full band and solo arrangements. 

What was it like to play for SXSW? How did you prepare for your performance?
It was our first time playing Texas, and we had an amazing time at the festival. We were lucky to play shows with incredibly inspiring line-ups and great audiences. It was a lot of work to get to Austin; we had been on tour for the three weeks before SXSW but ended up flying there due to our routing. Getting our gear to where it needed to be, navigating multiple flight delays, finding lodging, coordinating load-ins without a car, and budgeting for the trip — it’s not easy, and it’s not cheap. I commend all the artists who can make it over to SXSW. There is so much amazing music out there all week, and it’s because so many artists are willing to put in this hard work.

How would you describe your sound?
We try to honor the distinct emotional weight of each song, and the sound follows that. Some of our songs feel very intimate and folky, and other songs are louder and more in the rock vein. We used to worry that our albums wouldn’t sound cohesive enough but decided it was more important to be true to our instincts for each song rather than try to become a band with a certain ‘sound.’ We decided to embrace dynamics, both the softest whispers and the most desperate cries of the heart. I think it’s the best way to honor being alive. 

What inspired your passion for music? Who are some of your musical influences?
I was first inspired by indie folk of the mid-2000s, perhaps because it was the kind of music I felt I could one day write. I was fairly introverted as a teenager, and the introspective lyrics of Bright Eyes, Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, etc., really spoke to me. As I grew more confident in myself and as a musician, I felt more inspired by bands like the Yeah Yeahs, Nirvana, and Radiohead — music that used to feel too ‘loud’ for me to attempt to play. I realized that rock music was also an integral part of my expression. 

How did your cultural upbringing shape your journey as a musician? What was it like trying to find yourself and your identity while also discovering your love for music while growing up in culturally different households?
My mom is Japanese, and my dad is white, and they divorced when I was around nine. I ended up moving from home to home every three days. At my mom’s, we took off our shoes, slept on bedrolls on the floor, spoke Japanese, listened to Japanese music, and watched Japanese soaps after school. At my dad’s, we ate American food, watched American TV, and spoke English. I’ve come to value the split households because they allowed me to maintain my relationship with my Japanese identity. So often, in multicultural households, the dominant culture takes over. I feel very Japanese, and I feel very American. I think this has allowed me to have a broader perspective on lifestyles and allowed me to be a more open-minded and empathetic person, which for me goes hand in hand with songwriting. I write music to forge an emotional connection and am curious about the human condition. (I also think Japanese pop melodies may have unconsciously wormed their way into my songwriting.)

What was the inspiration for your music video “Loneliness”? What was the underlying message in your video and song?
I wrote “Loneliness” about a two-month period I spent living alone in Kyoto studying Japanese woodblock printmaking. It was a very lonely two weeks, as I lived alone, studied, and had no friends. I counted the days until the end of my time there. Today, I am never lonely; I’m surrounded by people every day, and while I feel very fortunate, there’s something almost romantic about loneliness, about the time I spent alone in the beautiful city of Kyoto. I found myself missing the rapport I had with my “Loneliness” and wanted to give it form, which is where the concept for the music video came from. We turned “Loneliness” into a creature I could dance with, long for, and ultimately feel abandoned by. 

Who are your band members, and what is your favorite part of going on tour?
Currently, I play with Matthew Zeltzer, who manages the project with engineers and me for the bulk of our records, our drummer Elly Swope, our bass player Matthew Thomson, and our keys/bass player Nevada Sowle. My favorite part of touring is getting to meet and forge connections with new people and places. I missed that element of being a musician during the pandemic — the privilege of meeting kind strangers and sharing stories and meals with them. 

You mentioned that climate change is important, especially for touring artists. In what ways has climate change directly impacted the way that artists tour?
I think we can see a few things now, and I can only imagine the symptoms will continue to grow. The wildfire season has gotten worse, which makes touring and playing shows unhealthy or dangerous and can lead to cancellations. The road becomes more difficult and dangerous as more extreme weather events occur. But more than that, I think we see the impact of climate change as we travel while acutely aware of our own footprint. We see a lot of forest destruction due to fires and invasive species, and we hear from locals in every town — winters have changed, summers have changed. We see the staggering beauty of the wilderness and the way it has been altered by colonizers and by corporations. It is devastating to understand how poorly the land, which had been cared for so well by the Indigenous tribes, is now being treated.

Can you talk a bit about how the music world has shifted (if at all) to be more inclusive towards women, non-binary, and trans artists of color? In your opinion, what ways can the music industry do better by providing opportunities to underrepresented artists?
I think some gains have been made in inclusivity in terms of artists. More and more, we are seeing women, non-binary, and trans artists of color get the recognition and opportunities they deserve, opportunities that were not available to them before. This change, however, is only the beginning. Role models are really important, and I think that as younger artists see people like themselves in the music world, they will be more empowered to pursue it. I remember growing up and listening to the mainstream rock station in my town and noticing zero women were played on the channel. I didn’t make the connection that I could play rock music until much later; it just didn’t seem like there was a place for me in that world. This brings me to my next point: I think huge gains can be made in every other part of the music industry. We need to see more women, non-binary, and trans people of color as radio curators, bookers, managers, recording engineers, label heads, playlist curators, etc. The artists are just the tip of the iceberg, and true change can only come when every aspect of the system becomes more inclusive. 

Songs of yours such as “Waterbearer” and “I Just Want To Be Wild For You” give the listener an audible journey into some real-life experiences that many can relate to. What is the difference (if any) between your songwriting and creative processes? Can you give our readers a glimpse into your process(es)?
I work on songs for a long time before I feel comfortable sharing them. Usually, I can’t start a song without some kernel of truth that I feel needs to be expressed. This becomes the hook or the heart of the song. “Waterbearer,” for example, was a song about the kind of person who gives more than they should or can. “I Just Want To Be Wild For You” is about the potency of a stage just before the end of a relationship. Once I knew what the heart of each song was, I was able to care deeply about expressing that truth, and the emotion and lyrics followed. I’ll often improvise for a while with my guitar, playing the chords and singing until I unconsciously find myself saying exactly what needs to be said. This usually ends up being the chorus. I then go back and craft a more careful, alternate side of that feeling, which ends up making up the verses.

You are a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Why do you think a movement such as this is needed, and in what ways do you think artists and musicians can help inspire social change?
I think Black Lives Matter was incredible in that it was a movement that inspired people not only to show up physically, but in the case of white and non-Black individuals of color, it forced us to reckon with truths about our world and systemic racism that we perhaps hadn’t wanted to face before, and to do the inner work to educate ourselves. I think artists can and should help to inspire social change by leading as examples and sharing information through our platforms, but also by sharing that platform and making decisions that empower others. Part of the activism we can participate in as artists might not be to say anything but to give somebody else the space and platform to say what needs to be said. This ties into the answer to the last question: helping to create more opportunities in taste-making and influential positions within the music industry for women, non-binary, and trans people of color, who can speak their truth better than anyone else can. 

What do you want your fans to feel and remember when experiencing your sound?
I want them to remember the journey. I want them to remember the emotion and what it means to be human and alive.

Photo by John Rominger

Your album Best Wishes was released two years ago. How has your sound changed over the last two years?
Recording Best Wishes was one of the first times Maita played as a full band, and I think we were surprised to find that we were a rock band during that session and almost cautiously allowed ourselves to explore that side of us. By the time we recorded “I Just Want To Be Wild For You,” we’d toured a lot more as a band and more confidently understood that the rock sound was a definite part of our identity. We now feel secure in the dualities of our sound, in that we oscillate between soft and loud, between folk and rock. We’ve come to relish the sonic journey.

Guitar Gabby

Gabriella “Guitar Gabby” Logan is an Atlanta Native and proud graduate of Spelman College and Vermont Law School. Her background in environmental and music law fueled her desire to start and manage the international all-women touring collective, TxLips Band, LLC. Logan believes it is important for artists to be well rounded and versed in many areas of the music business, thus inspiring women worldwide to be an unstoppable force. She is the Diversity Editor for Guitar Girl Magazine and the Board Chair for Girls Rock Asheville. http://www.txlips.com

Guitar Gabby
Guitar Gabbyhttp://www.txlips.com
Gabriella “Guitar Gabby” Logan is an Atlanta Native and proud graduate of Spelman College and Vermont Law School. Her background in environmental and music law fueled her desire to start and manage the international all-women touring collective, TxLips Band, LLC. Logan believes it is important for artists to be well rounded and versed in many areas of the music business, thus inspiring women worldwide to be an unstoppable force. She is the Diversity Editor for Guitar Girl Magazine and the Board Chair for Girls Rock Asheville. http://www.txlips.com
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