Three years ago, Maiah Wynne, then a senior at Hellgate High School, saw the Portland Cello Project perform at the Top Hat Lounge. The aspiring singer-songwriter became enamored of the string players, who arrange pop, indie, hip-hop and more for their chosen instrument.
On May 13, Wynne will return to Missoula from her new home base of Portland with the cellists for a concert at the Wilma, part of a short Northwest tour they've undertaken together.
Making such a connection as a young musician "still feels like it was magic," she said in a phone interview recently. The tour is one of a few marks Wynne has made since moving to Portland, a city overflowing with musicians looking to be heard.
Earlier this year, she took second place in Sound Off!, a battle of the bands for artists 21 and under organized by the Museum of Pop Culture, once referred to as the Experience Music Project.
One her prizes, besides a limited edition Les Paul electric guitar, was a performance on KEXP, the indie-centric public radio station in Seattle with a nationwide audience.
Among the comments the judges sent her: "you took the audience to another place deep in their hearts. Love your courage, your soul, and your wings." (More on the wings later). Another note complimented her "beautiful songs and lyrics and love your voice and range of ability."
Wynne was born in Colorado and her family moved to Spokane when she was young. During high school, they moved to Missoula. She'd been writing and learning instruments — lots of them — for years by that point.
She won third place in First Night Spotlight, the annual New Year's Eve music competition for Missoula high-schoolers.
As a junior, she played her first show here in Missoula at Break Espresso. She'd seen a big pair of butterfly wings at Carlos' One-Night Stand and bought them — it ended up as her signature on-stage look. The management would let her play as long as she wanted — sometimes she'd hang out and play for six hours.
She steadily learned a lot of instruments, including mandolin, guitar, ukulele, dulcimer, organ, banjo, bass and some hybrid ones.
After graduation, she moved to Butte for about a year, where she shot a handful of music videos for her songs. She and some friends recorded her singing Radiohead's "Creep" in the white-tunnel entrance to the Berkeley Pit. It helped her win a competition put on by Claim2Fame, a website for musicians.
Since finishing school, she's also worked as a sound-utility intern for independent movies. Among the films she worked on was "The Ballad of Lefty Brown," a revisionist Western starring Bill Pullman. During the shoot, which took place in Virginia City and other locations around Montana, she wrote a song based on the characters and played it for the cast and director. They liked it so much they included it in the film.
About a year or so ago, she decided to take a crack at a bigger music scene. Portland, more than six times the size of Missoula, "felt like an ocean, there's so many more musicians here," she said.
The music scene felt more close-knit once she made enough connections and she's been playing gigs around town.
She entered the Sound Off! contest on a whim — she'd never heard of it before and had forgotten about it by the time she received an acceptance email. Out of 100 submissions, only 12 were selected for the finals.
After realizing that it had some prestige to it, she began rehearsing and teaching herself to play a few instruments at the same time, like a kick drum and a guitar.
The contest was divided into three semi-finals. In the first round, a youth advisory panel picked her as the wild card to advance to the finals. She made it into the finals and was tapped for second place according to the judges, comprising industry experts.
She won an enviable amount of new gear: that brand-new Les Paul, some new drums and sticks, plus slots at three music festivals in the area. She was invited to perform on KEXP, which has a popular YouTube channel for its in-studio live performances.
Douglas Jenkins, who leads the Portland Cello Project, doesn't check his Instagram messages very often. So it's another fortuitous development for Wynne that he saw a message from her and listened to some of her music.
In a phone call, he said he sees Wynne as something of a chameleon when it comes to style, which makes her a fitting collaborator for his group. They arrange all manner of music for multiple cellos — Kanye West to Beck to Elliot Smith to John Coltrane and straight-up classical.
He said her voice is "beautiful, that's the easiest way to put it," and she's able to capture the "character from a song or idea," whether it's a blues song or a dark, minimalist pop tune not too dissimilar from Lorde.
They were taken enough with Wynne that they recruited her for a short Northwest tour. She has a selection of four originals and two covers with the group.
This go-round, the Project is touring with five cellos, bass drums plus Wynne and trumpet player Farnell Newton.
They don't like to give away their entire concert plan, but expect variations. "If you don't like it, it will change in five minutes," Jenkins said.
After nine years, group has amassed a repertoire of more than a thousand compositions. With the aid of iPads, they can take their entire collection of sheet music onstage with them and vary the concert by reading the energy of a particular audience.
With Newton on board, they're more open to some improvisation — they're working on a modal-jazz tune, "Ole," by Coltrane.
For some songs the rhythm section will lay back and let the cellos perform alone.
Wynne will come out a handful of times through the show to perform some covers and a few of her originals. One of the things that struck Jenkins about her songs was the subject matter.
Once she's back from tour, Wynne will continue working on her an EP. While it's stylistically diverse, she tends to write thematically, with a preference for causes important to her. Expect both serious songs and some lighter material.
"Fearless Girl," which she arranged for keyboard, guitar, percussion and cello, explores post-traumatic stress disorder and how it can affect survivors of sexual assault. "Sleep" is about PTSD as well — Wynne suffers from night terrors. She often sleep walks and act out her dreams, although this isn't always bad. "The great ones are when I'm singing in my sleep," she said. "Take It All Away" is a "lullaby for children who have lived through war."
While they skip between genres, her voice and writing are a consistent through-line.
"I hope they still sound like me," she said. "I think that my voice and songwriting style still shows through."