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Tone Talk with MAITA

My name is Maria Maita-Keppeler, and I play in the Portland project MAITA. I started writing songs and playing guitar in high school, strictly behind the closed doors of my bedroom, while nurturing a budding interest in indie-folk music. I fell head over heels for the melancholic melodies of Nick Drake and Jose Gonzalez, for the confessional lyricism of Elliott Smith and Bright Eyes, and for the emotive voices of Feist and Regina Spektor. I essentially was in a private, self-imposed musical development phase for a while, not wanting to unveil anything that was half-finished or unpolished. I coaxed myself to perform at my college poetry night when I moved to Portland, which was where I began to gain confidence as a songwriter and a performer. This eventually evolved into playing solo gigs and self-booked tours, where I was able to cut my teeth as a gigging musician. After a couple of years of that, I felt drawn towards the electric guitar, towards the wider sonic range that a full band allows. We started playing and recording as a full band, developing the sound that we have today. We released our debut record, Best Wishes, on Kill Rock Stars in 2020, and our next record Wild For You is out in February of 2021.

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
Today I think about tone as the sonic palette for a song. When I was first starting out, the concept of ‘tone’ wasn’t something that I was consciously aware of. What I played was determined by a mixture of urgency and convenience, which is to say whatever was physically available to me when inspiration struck. That quickly evolved into whatever felt goodwhatever made playing easy and natural: warm acoustic guitars with a rich low end that sound full when played at extremely low volumes (my songwriting process is very private, and I’ve always had roommates). When I started playing with a band, my conception of tone began (and still is) evolving. I started thinking more about the space that our various instruments occupy in a song, the textures we bring to the picture, and the colors that form with each of our instruments (perhaps this is my artist background speaking). Our songs have lots of variance in mood and energy from one to the next, and a rich sonic palette allows us to accentuate the emotional weight of each one.

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
I went through a rotating cast of guitars and amps before settling on what I use today. I play a Les Paul Special with P90’s for our heavier songs. I like P90’s because they are rounder and have more mid-range than other pickups. For the fingerpicked songs, I play a Harmony Monterey archtop with a Lollar Imperial Humbucker, which I like because it sounds good both acoustic and through my amp. I play an early 1960’s Supro 1690 2×10 combo amp. I settled on the Supro because it responds really well to my playing—staying clean when I play softly and breaking up when I dig in, and it has that same mid-range warmth and a lush tremolo. I don’t use many pedals—I use a Klon clone for light overdrive and an EarthQuaker Devices Dunes for heavier stuff, and I keep meaning to buy a reverb pedal but often borrow an EHX Holy Grail.

What about strings?
I use D’Addario 11’s because the added string tension helps my guitar stay in tune, and I like fingerpicking with heavier strings.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
We are fortunate enough to have a couple of engineers in the band so we can create environments that feel very comfortable and low pressure while sounding good. Our upcoming record, Wild For You was engineered in various locations in Portland by Matthew Zeltzer, who also plays guitar in the project. We aren’t very precious about where we record; we just want to be free to try out ideas and not feel like we have to rush to get the right take. We like to all be in the same room when we track basics so we can communicate our ideas naturally. Our band members are so creative and inspired; we like to be open to taking songs in new directions and pursuing sonic instincts.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
This is definitely a challenge as we don’t have our own front-of-house engineer on tour, but the more we play, the more we understand exactly what to ask for in our monitor mixes and how to communicate what we want our band to sound like to the audience. A large part of the process is growing more confident in our sound. If the sound system is particularly rough, we just have to trust in the band and listen to one another and believe that the audience can hear us better than we can. We love playing house shows and other DIY spaces where this is so often the case, and the more fun we have, the more fun everybody else has, so we try to remember that the spirit of the music is not defined solely by the technical sound of the space.

What does your practice consist of?
I have an opportunistic practice. As I mentioned earlier, I can be fairly private about playing and practicing. Whenever I stumble upon a window of time when I’m alone at home, I tend to drop whatever I’m doing and play. Because I never know how long I’m going to have, I grab whatever is available, whether it’s the Supro or a 20-watt solid-state practice amp. I’m usually not focused on learning any particular skill; I just try to find new chord progressions or riffs or fingerpicking patterns and let inspiration dictate what I play.

Favorite guitar riff or lick that inspired you to pick up the guitar and play?
I was really taken by melancholic folk fingerpicking when I was first learning how to play and would google tabs and learn the songs note by note. I remember first learning “Day is Done” by Nick Drake and “A Ribbon” by Devendra Banhart.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Help other women. Don’t believe that there is any kind of scarcity in the number of slots allotted to women in music. By working with each other, we can build more and more opportunities for women across all areas of the industry.

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