Maiah Manser evokes powerful magic.
You know “I Put a Spell on You.” The creepy, woebegone ballad originally performed by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, popularized by Nina Simone and canonized by Creedence Clearwater Revival is soaked in decades of deliciously bad vibes. You don’t know Maiah Manser’s version, though—and hers might be the best of all.
How does a 24-year-old upstart make a certified classic all her own? Like her predecessors, Manser approaches the song as a stylist and mines its witchy sensuality. She starts by electronically sampling a tongue-rolling purr and percussive mouth pop below bluesy whoa-oh’s, layered and played on loop. Then she launches into the vocal.
Manser’s voice is spectacular. Clear and strong, burnished with soul and shade, immediate and unmistakable. She builds tension within her own stark arrangement, big voice and swelling electronics. By the climactic final verse, she’s crafted a true invocation, so magnetic it’s frightening.
“I’m not keen on doing covers but I love every part of that song,” she says. “And I love Hocus Pocus,” she adds with a laugh, “so I took some influences from that version as well.” This may be the first time a Bette Midler tween comedy has inspired great art.
Manser grew up a self-described “artsy kid” in Bend, Ore., playing Beatles songs in her bedroom on a tiny Yamaha keyboard and practicing violin. She came to Seattle five years ago to study jazz vocals and composition at Cornish College of the Arts. There she befriended Mary Lambert, with whom she has performed as backup vocalist since 2011. Now Manser’s looking for a replacement to tour with Lambert while she works on releasing a new EP this summer.
Manser’s breakout came last spring with a song/video combo: “Hold Your Head Up” is a strings-laden, baroque-pop epic. The video, co-directed by Manser, is equally dramatic. The whole package blends Manser’s classical training and avant-garde leanings for a potently original result.
“I like all of these things and I want to be all of them. And I can,” she says. “But what is the image that I’m going for? For this one EP, at least, I think I finally figured that out.”