When we last profiled Maiah Manser in 2014, the singer-songwriter was still based in Seattle. She has since relocated to Los Angeles, where she has released an EP, and multiple singles shot some stunning music videos, and experienced some major shifts for herself. That includes a crisis with a vocal polyp last year, from which she has fully recovered.
Vanguard Seattle arts writer T.s. Flock had a quick conversation with her in advance of her performance at Barboza on Wednesday, October 30, 2019. It’s one-stop of her west coast tour with fellow L.A.-based songwriter Claire George.
T.s.: It is so nice to hear your voice again! Especially your “new” voice.
Maiah Manser: I know! It’s a new voice, technically, huh? It’s like I’m a teenager again.
T.s.: And I’m so excited to see you in Seattle. How does it feel for you coming back?
Maiah Manser: I am SO excited to perform in Seattle again. I’ve been missing the PNW so much lately, too.
T.s.: So much has happened in the last few years since you headed out to Los Angeles, but last year seemed like the major turning point. Like, spring was really exciting, because there was the Met Gala and in the lead up to that, with all the buzzy short videos, we see Katy Perry strutting back and forth in haute couture to your track “Sweet Hell.” How did that come about?
Maiah Manser: So much has happened! Thanks for the reminder because sometimes you coast through time not acknowledging your achievements.
Well, the Met Gala videos were a super random experience… In fact, when I first received the email, I thought it was a scam! Haha, I guess director Gordon Von Steiner was a fan of my music and reached directly out about use. It was the most perfect timing since my whole EP was set to drop a few days before the Met Gala. The other funny part is that the producer I worked with on that Second Skin EP, Buddy Ross, is a big collaborator with Frank Ocean, and they used my song “Second Skin” for Frank Ocean’s Met Gala video!
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#metgala co-chair @katyperry stepped in to our Instagram booth in a @maisonmargiela look by John Galliano. Director @gvsgvs Producer @kelmcgee23 DP @toddbanhazl Digital Art Installation @silasveta Multimedia Producer @paulina_zakh Steadicam @yoshisteadiop 1st AC @rebecca.rajadnya Camera Red Weapon 8KS35 @reddigitalcinema Camera Lenses @abelcine Installation DJ @evahthaevah Editors @alvarocdc, @instaroth, @modern.post Music @maiahmanser
T.s.: You had the release for your single “YARDS” that autumn and then we get word that you had a polyp on your vocal cords. That was devastating for people who love your work, but I cannot imagine how you must have felt.
Maiah Manser: At that point I had known since early 2018 of my diagnosis, but learned it was truly irreversible without surgery in the summer. I knew I had to make plans to fix the issue and fight that fall/winter.
T.s.: It is the scariest thing for a singer to potentially lose their instrument, so I feel like if it were happening to me, I don’t know whether I would be paranoid and be checking immediately or thrusting my head in the sand, ignoring symptoms early on, out of fear for the worst.
Maiah Manser: The thing people don’t understand is that vocal injuries happen from a myriad of issues, and especially from overwork. I first got the injury in 2016 while I was still living in Seattle, but I thought it was a lingering sickness because I was constantly sick while I was living in Seattle. I moved to Los Angeles in early 2017 and this issue seemed to dissipate. Due to the California fires in fall 2017 and my partying habits, the issue came back tenfold. It had matured and there was no reversing it without surgery.
T.s.: What was the healing process like, then?
Maiah Manser: My doctor, Reena Gupta, is one of those angels on earth. She is so wicked smart and deeply looks out for her patients. She set me up with a voice therapist to see if that could reverse the injury. I completely relearned how to sing and speak through my therapist Karen Kochis-Jennings. She made it possible for me to still perform and record on occasion. She saved me from a hole of depression. Throughout 2018, I would have to take one full day of silence every week in order to not worsen my injury.
Once I got the surgery, I wasn’t able to speak for twenty days. At first it was meditative, then very cynical…haha…and finally uplifting. The silence truly forces you to listen. I think we often use our voice to hide our anxiety, awkward moments, or simply as what defines us. When you don’t have the noise or option of your own voice, you can hear so much more clearly. It made me dream of a religion, where it would be a rite of passage for every person to take a vow of silence for ten full days.
When I could finally speak again, my mind couldn’t compute what it was. It felt outside of my body—a separate entity. It didn’t feel real. It took me about two to three weeks before my voice was fully back to normal.
It was crazy because I always felt my voice defined me, defined every part of me. I think that sort of feeling…it’s kind of unexplainable.
T.s.: Did your register actually change as a result of all this?
Maiah Manser: So my voice has changed a little, I will be honest. I mean, it’s cleaner. It’s clean. My voice has been cleaned, haha. I definitely now can sing higher again. I have access to all of those high notes and little bird-like sounds. Before I got the injury, I was working toward belting higher and higher and higher, and I wasn’t really able to do that once the injury came into play. I felt like I just couldn’t advance my voice. And now I’m back to it, trying to get up to a high E Flat right now.
T.s.: Ooo! I like the sound of that!
Maiah Manser: Yea, haha. I’m excited about that.
T.s.: The experience certainly reacquaints one with the fact that the body is the ultimate limit for our experience. Music is this rarefied thing, the Dionysian contra the Apollonian, and going digital had made it even more rarefied for the consumer side. Live shows are those occasions when we get to have a real sense that this ethereal thing is really happening between physical bodies. The performances don’t even have to be all that physical, like Prince jumping off a stage or Lizzo shooting flames from a flute. It’s the mere presence.
Maiah Manser: Absolutely.
T.s.: In your work, as early as “Hold You Head Up,” there is a keen sensitivity to the body. Like, in that video the figures are doll-like and not really in control, it seems. And now you have “DoLL,” in which the lack of control isn’t about being a literal doll or automaton but rather being reduced to an image, an idea, that rarefied, strangely disembodied thing. And “Second Skin,” there are these twitchy masked figures. Is this a conscious throughline for you in how these works are married to images?
Maiah Manser: You nailed it. I think I am always trying to seek the truth of who we are and who I am myself…like my own therapist. “How does that really make you feel?” Haha. I definitely have an obsession with fake-versus-reality. I try to match that in my lyrical content and sonically as well.
T.s.: Speaking of voices again, before I forget, what advice do you have for other singers in regards to taking care of one’s voice?
Maiah Manser: If you feel something is off with your voice, DO NOT wait. Find the best doctor in town. You must make sure the doctor uses a strobe light camera and not just a mirror. You will never regret spending money on the love of your life.
T.s.: As for live performance, who are the artists out there that have really inspired you as showpersons?
Maiah Manser: Well, clearly Beyoncé. I saw her a few years back in Seattle and it changed my life. I must have cried 15 times. Additionally, her sister Solange really inspired me to think more critically about my art direction. I love SIA’s performance art take on her live shows as well…for me, it’s the thought that goes into it and the message. Growing up, I did as much visual art, dance and theater as I did singing, so seeing that in a live performance is extremely valuable to me.
T.s.: You had a team of twenty, I believe, for this latest video [for “DoLL”), shot in multiple locations. Who is managing that process in your case, from generating the concept to executing and finalizing it?
Maiah Manser: I have to have a huge roll in the concept and art direction of everything regarding my music and brand. After I shared “DoLL” with Rachael Larkin over a year ago, she was so inspired to get her team Directed by MOM involved. In a week she had an entire concept and outline. Then, with her partner Matthew Plaxco, she put together a massive team and incredible locations to make this incredible video happen. Rachael and Matt may actually not be a real humans. They have advanced that.
T.s.: In the music video genre, there are these categories, I suppose. There are those that try to capture the energy of a performance, whether its of the music or a choreographic set. There are those that go the short, art-house film route, which is where a lot of yours lie. And for the pop idol type, you basically have editorial photo shoots, with simple narratives and lots of posing in super slick, brand-conscious sets. And I am not dissing anyone. Pop idols are a commercial brand, and what they do has to make sense with that, even if it is spun as something more art-house…or art pop. But despite the various sets and themes for the videos, I guess I see a character or characters emerging that all exist under the umbrella Maiah Manser. Are you treating each video as a separate project, or are you seeing a character emerge for yourself that you can revisit, re-embody?
Maiah Manser: Wow, this question. Each video becomes a separate art project and fully surreal experience for me. I get to experiment with different characters and emotions. It’s like making my literal dream world into image. If I could have it my way, there would be an art film for every single one of my songs.
T.s.: A bit off the subject, but would you ever like to branch into acting, too? Lots of musicians are doing it and you are in L.A. after all.
Maiah Manser: I’ve definitely considered it! To me, the cool thing with acting is that I don’t really feel you are ever too old to start so it’s something I have on my future radar. The music industry feels so ageist to me.
T.s.: L.A. gets a lot of shit for being a superficial place, but at a point I feel like we’re just kidding ourselves about how superficial people are in general. Saying, “Look over there! Aren’t they shallow?” when people are making snap judgments about looks all the time. Women are always being evaluated on their looks, and men are always being sized up as being sufficiently masculine. But the music industry, is its own thing, with a different set of pressures.
Maiah Manser: I think there is so much pressure to be young and thin and beautiful in the entertainment industry in general. You feel like you have to have that in order to get anywhere. I do think times are changing. I think they were really heavy that way in…oh, I’d say through the early 2000s. Things have been changing recently, but that stigma is still there. Some industry people won’t pay attention unless you look a certain way, and you don’t want them on your team.
The stigma that I think is still most there is the ageist mentality. You could be thirty—and I’m not still not even thirty yet, and I feel like I’m getting too old, and that’s a horrible feeling. I think the other part of it is if you come from a lower-income background, things do take longer, so it feels like a time game. And everybody in L.A. lies about their age. No one wants to admit how old they are.
T.s.: Of course, the landscape and culture being so different compared to the PNW, the inspiration is different, too. Your work seems to be going in a…not, “lighter” direction, because that might makes it sound less serious. But you seem to have embraced the sunshine, desert and beach vibes while still holding on to some noir sensibilities. Do you feel that the city and climate down there are changing how and what you create?
Maiah Manser: Yes. Yes, I do feel that, but I feel like—I’m gonna be honest—I feel like I had to get those styles of music a little bit out of my system. Recently, I’ve been feeling like going back to my roots and what I created on that Second Skin EP, and the darkness there that is such an integral part of what I create.
I had fun creating some more bops, and I will continue to create dark bops, but I don’t know…I feel like I had to take a walk down that road.
T.s.: Yea, sometimes you have to play things out for yourself.
Maiah Manser: When you get that much sunshine suddenly again, it, like, totally changes your world, haha.
T.s.: It seems to me that L.A. has been very good to you, but I’m sure you have advice for artists who are considering moving down there.
Maiah Manser: I would say that it’s really valuable to establish yourself first in another city. I’m really glad that I established myself first in Seattle, and had that experience of creating something there. L.A. is where the music industry is at, but if you are just starting, it’s kind of—it’s so vast, number one, and everybody wants to get paid. And don’t get me wrong, you should pay everyone, absolutely, if they are working for you, but if you’re just getting started you are trying to find your way.
When I started in Seattle, I had a lot of friends who were able to just help me out, and I’m super grateful to them. But moving straight to L.A., you have to navigate that alone, and that can be really hard.
I think also, moving to L.A. too young can totally change your mindset. I think you can lose some valuable human experiences, that you probably won’t find in L.A., because in L.A., people are legitimately different. It’s a different mindset, unlike anywhere else I’ve been in the world. And at first you’re like, “Ah, everybody’s so nice, so sweet, dadada,” but you learn a lot of people are just seeing how they can use you.
T.s.: It has a reputation for being very transactional.
Maiah Manser: I think that’s a great way to put it, and if you move their too young it can mess with your early development, of how you perceive the way people are. Even the people you date, so many times it’s all specific to building their career.
T.s.: I say a lot that I love L.A., and I do, but I’m so glad I didn’t move their in my twenties because it probably would have destroyed me.
Maiah Manser: Oh yea. I think about it a lot. Sometimes I say, “Wah, why didn’t I move here when I was 18.” I’ll have those moments, and then I’ll think, “Oh, I know why I didn’t move here then.” Haha! I’m a fuller person for it. Not to throw shade at anyone who moved there when they were 18. You just have to navigate a lot.
T.s.: Well, it sounds like you’ll still find plenty of inspiration for your noir sensibilities in the place.
Maiah Manser: Pop noir? Oh, there is definitely a dark side to such a sunny, beautiful place. I think I’m definitely ready to dive in and explore that dark side again, musically. I’ll keep making bops. They’re just going to be dark bops.
T.s.: At last, I want to ask how the tour is going so far?
Maiah Manser: The tour has been really great. As per usual, there are hiccups. In San Francisco, after the show our rental car wouldn’t start.
Maiah Manser: Because of the fires we didn’t know how we were going to get out of San Francisco or California, so…uh…that was really joyous, haha. But we made it out! We’re in Portland today. We’re good.
T.s.: So you are touring with Claire George. How did you come together for this tour?
Maiah Manser: I asked Claire to play for my birthday show single release “See Thru It” this last March. She is so incredibly talented and had the best energy. When her management reached out about putting together a west coast tour, I knew it would be a perfect fit!
T.s.: Will you have time to visit anything in Seattle outside of the Barboza area while you are here?
Maiah Manser: I have the privilege of being in Seattle on Halloween too! Halloween is one of my favorite holidays of all. I am keeping all my options open and taking recommendations actually…