Almost exactly a year ago, I by chance met Maiah Manser at a lovely performance by Hanna Benn and Kelly Wyse. I was immediately taken by her sense of style, which exudes intelligence, independence and confidence. She has been busy in the last year working with a range of local musicians including Zoolab and Mary Lambert. I was happy to be reconnected with her recently to learn more about her background and her recent collaborations with artists…and to be reminded that she is as sweet, sincere and smart as she is stylish.
Vanguard Seattle: Do you have a first “musical” memory?
Maiah Manser: When I was in preschool, I figured out how to get out of nap time by going around and singing to other classes. If I had to go to nap time, I would just stay up and pester the other kids around me. I’ve never been one to sleep much. It was perfect because if I could go and perform, it made myself and the teacher much happier.
VS: At what age did you become devoted to the idea of making music for yourself, especially as a singer?
MM: I became devoted to singing after I won a talent show when I was six. I know it’s hard to digest that a child would feel such a pinnacle moment at such a young age, but it was totally real for me. I made up a lot of songs throughout my childhood and would use big words—that I didn’t actually understand—that would sometimes get me into trouble… So, not really until I was seventeen did I start to analytically create and start recording my own songs.
VS: Did you play any other instruments first?
MM: I tinkered around on the piano for most of my life, but I started playing violin at the age of eight, later switching over to viola. This is why I focus so heavily on the usage of orchestral string arrangements in my music. Granted, the violin/viola/cello is supposed to mimic the human voice, but I’ve begun to believe that it has a huge impact on the way I sing and the tone I’ve naturally developed.
VS: In your compositional process, how does a song generally begin for you: with the music or the lyrics?
MM: I’ve gone back and forth with songwriting ever since I began. A couple years ago, I was much more into the repetition of a phrase than developing the lyrical content. I focused more on using strange chord progressions and rhythmic anomalies. In all honesty, I’ve really deviated from this method in the last year. I still love the sounds of dark chord changes, but I’ve started to focus more heavily on finding interesting ways to play with sound. In this way, I’ve gone back to putting more attention on my lyrics and usually write them first. I’ve discovered that not only do I feel much more connected to the song, but more true to myself as an artist.
I used to spend so much time on a hook, but now I simply write exactly what I am feeling in the moment. It comes out as honest and genuine, sometimes political, sometimes philosophical, but I know that it’s coming from this deep and subconscious state of my mind, which ends up teaching me something about myself.
VS: There is a visual aspect to performance, and you have a strong sense of style. When did you start creating a style for yourself and what are your inspirations?
MM: I grew up actively pursuing visual art almost as intensely as music and I was also involved in dance and theater in equal proportions. I like to incorporate many art mediums into my work because, for me, it makes it a more full art piece. I’ve definitely been admiring the clean yet slightly off-putting images by Tyrone Lebon, and the stylistic, vintage photography of Thom Kerr. I’ve become really inspired by the filmography of Hiro Murai and Nabil. I prefer slow-moving, impactful and artfully simple videos with an inherent grittiness, and these guys have it down to a T. Someday, I want to work with these established artists. I can say though, there is a visual artist I will be working with who will be painting the cover of my next EP/Album. Her name is Chloe Allred and she makes AMAZING surrealist paintings. Her color theory is off the charts.
VS: You recently played at the all-female Men’s Rights Club event. Can you explain a little about that project?
MM: I’m friends with some of the fabulous women of Men’s Rights Club. They are badass sweethearts. Yes, they exist. Men’s Rights-A-Palooza is an awesome all female music and art festival. In fact—to throw a name out there—a Seattle artist I would love to work with is Makenzie Stone. She had these amazing photos of a mutual friend wearing [Groucho glasses] in different ways. They were clean, but grungy all at the same time. The perfect amount of silly and harsh. I can’t wait to see more work come out of Makenzie!
VS: Tell us about your latest video. What was the process of creation with you and the director and how did the visuals evolve from the song?
MM: My latest video “Hold Your Head Up” was quite the process. I had a dream that I was running around a strange town where I had never been before, but all the people were actually just mannequins and they were missing eyes, mouths, limbs, etc. I woke up the next day really creeped out and knew that had to be the main aspect of the video.
I began making storyboards, mood boards, writing out the story line, and creating a color palette. About a year prior, I had befriended Domenic Barbero, who produces phenomenal film work, and we decided to work together on “Hold Your Head Up.” Since I spent some time at Cornish College of the Arts for a couple years, I had made friends with a great deal of different artists that really helped bring the video to life. I’m a very particular person, so the editing process took a long time, but Casey Sjogren really devoted his time to giving the video that final sparkle and flare.
On an insider note, I originally was going to have the eyes covered in a plastic film, but we decided that would drive people insane within the first 5 minutes. The eye make up actually created the perfect look and I really think it creeps people out, which is exactly what I wanted…sorry, not sorry. My dear friend Fantasia Oslund made all the female costumes and painted all the eyes. She’s really a genius that doesn’t know it.
VS: You have a new single coming soon and I hear the lyrics are “gutsy.” Can you give us a little insight into the theme and origins of it?
MM: The lyrics are straightforward. They don’t mess around or cut corners. The song originated from yet another dream! I dreamt a naked woman, glowing white, was standing front and center on the stage and I was the only person in the audience. She began to sing the most beautiful melody I had ever heard. I woke up with a start—it was 4 AM mind you—and I ran out into my kitchen and recorded the melody into my handy dandy phone. The next late evening, I just started writing without really thinking about it and those became the lyrics. The song is called “Sweet Hell” and focuses on the idea that heaven and hell exist in the real world and how we have the choice to live in one or the other. I’m already creating mood boards for a music video!
VS: If you could collaborate with any local musician, who would it be?
MM: I would love to collaborate with IG88…or maybe just maybe we already are…
VS: And if you could collaborate with anyone living or dead who would it be?
MM: Freddie Mercury would certainly be a treat. I think I really just want to sing next to him.
VS: And if you could have any designer create a special look, just for your next performance, it would be…
MM: If he were still alive: Alexander McQueen, duhhhhh.
Maiah Manser plays Friday, October 3 at Nectar Lounge (412 N 36 St) with Justin Froese, Nick Foster Band and the Local Strangers. Read more and buy tickets online.)
Local artist Juan Franco did the photoshoot with Maiah Manser featured in this article. I’ve been following his work ever since I saw his contributions to the Polari exhibit for Mo Wave 2013. Now was a perfect time to get some information about his process.
Vanguard Seattle: Audiences who follow the local art scene are probably most familiar with you as a visual and performing artist. How frequently do you do portraiture?
Juan Franco: My artistic practice involves the use of informal portraiture and self-portraiture of everyday and intimate experiences. Formal portraiture is a genre of photography that resonates with me when the subject has a compatible soul energy. I am a Taurus, double Pisces, so it doesn’t happen too often. I am always open in finding my next subject and collaborator.
VS: How did you and Maiah Manser meet and decide to do this shoot?
JF: Maiah and I have known each other for four years now: through school, through an ex(romantic)-lover, and finally as one of her roommates. We decided to do the portraits one morning or afternoon when I was sitting at the table in our apartment. Maiah showed me some images that did not resonate with her own vision. It was decided that we needed to collaborate and create images. We went to my studio in Pioneer Square, and had a great time taking off our clothes.
VS: Who are some of the other local artists that you want to photograph?
JF: Matt Drews, Alexandra Maricich and Lena Simon. All these souls are beautiful, talented and influential.
VS: We love the understated symbolism of the lily in Maiah’s mouth—but let’s be extravagant: What is a more exotic prop you would like to use in a future portrait?
JF: Gold made from the most recent supernova explosion or neutron star collision, depending on which theory holds true.
VS: For a stellar songstress—We approve.