The Portland Cello Project plays the Wilma Sun., May 15, at 8 PM. $25.
On the phone, Maiah Wynne has an extremely unassuming demeanor. The Portland-based musician talks about how much she loved going to high school in Missoula and speaks of her gratitude for venues, including Break Espresso, where she first honed her craft. She’s young, just 21, and still surprised at the opportunities she’s gotten in the last few years. But when you see her perform her song “Fearless Girl,” a #MeToo-era tribute that she sings in a strong, lucid voice while tackling keyboard, electronic drum kit and a bucket bass drum, it’s obvious why she’s a rising star.
Wynne recently won second place at Seattle’s Sound Off contest — a battle of the bands for musicians 21 and under held at the Museum of Pop Culture — which helped her land a spot on KEXP, a public radio station that has a reputation for showcasing the best independent music in the country.
“I performed there the same day as St. Vincent,” she says. “I was super excited about that.”
That experience garnered her slots this summer at Upstream Music Fest, Timber Musica Festival and Northwest Folklife. In Portland, where she’s lived since moving from Missoula a year and a half ago, she’s also created a buzz. The Portland Cello Project, a collective that has collaborated with artists including the Dandy Warhols, Mirah, and Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, asked Wynne to join them as a featured musician on their latest tour, which hits the Wilma Sunday, May 13.
Wynne’s first performance was in 2013 at the Break, when she was a junior at Loyola Sacred Heart. She wore a pair of butterfly wings she’d purchased at Carlo’s One Night Stand, which, she says, made her feel more confident. For a few years, she did the coffeeshop and contest circuit in Missoula, winning the Zoo Music Awards in 2015 in the 18-and-under category and, the following year, the Badlander’s Top of the Mic competition.
“I guess I’ve done a lot of these kinds of contests, but they’ve been really great for opening some doors for me,” she says.
Wynne also appeared in a few Montana-made films, mostly in supporting roles. That put her on the radar of the Montana Film Office, which asked her to perform at its 2016 event at Sundance.
“I went there and the show was super packed, with a line backed up around the corner,” she says. “It was a surreal experience.”
That same year, she moved to Butte — “I was intrigued by the place and I had a lot of friends there,” she says — and started performing at venues around town. One of her most striking videos is of her performance inside the tunnel next to the Berkeley Pit. The tunnel glows like a hallway inside the Millennium Falcon. Wynne, wearing a purple dress and black boots, strums a gorgeous Bohemian Honey electric soprano ukulele (the body of which is made from a Bohemian motor oil can) and sings Radiohead’s “Creep.” Who hasn’t seen that song covered a million times? But Wynne’s take on it is pretty-but-raw in a way I’ve never heard before.
Wynne also wrote an original song for the Montana-made film The Ballad of Lefty Brown, starring Bill Pullman, which we wrote about when Pullman toured it through Missoula in late January. It’s the title track for the soundtrack and it plays, in full, during the closing credits. In some ways, it echoes the film’s plot about a sidekick who seeks out his friend’s murderer in the unforgiving landscape of the old west. Wynne’s song is dark and unforgiving, too, but beyond the context of the film, it feels like it could mean a multitude of things: “There ain’t no light, there ain’t no sunshine today. I’m gonna stand my ground / and I’m gonna hunt him down / find the man who tortures me / the man who holds my dreams.”
Since her first show, Wynne has picked up a total of 25 instruments. And she’s continued to put herself into the world with a steady, humble confidence. She messaged the Portland Cello Project via Instagram almost a year ago. She’d seen them play at the Top Hat and decided on a whim to find out what it would take to play with them. Douglas Jenkins, who does musical arrangements for PCP, got back to her a couple of months ago to invite her on the road aftering checking out her work. “It’s been incredible to play with them,” she says. “I get chills at the rehearsals.”
Wynne will play guitar and keyboards, possibly dulcimer. She’ll also break out the Bohemian Honey ukulele for an original song she wrote called “Save You.” Wynne and the PCP will be joined by another guest collaborator, trumpeter Farnell Newton. Additionally, Missoula cellist Bethany Joyce, who can be heard on several of Wynne’s Missoula-era recordings, was asked by the PCP to perform alongside her at the Wilma show.
Wynne may or may not wear her butterfly wings for the Missoula show. She’s fond of them, and in some ways, they’ve become a signature look. But at this point in her rising career, she doesn’t need lucky charms to hold her up.
“I wear them when it feels right to wear them,” she says. “Sometimes they seem a little big or extravagant for a show. They’re very beat up now.”