Viral Songwriter and Performer Maiah Manser Tells the Story of How “With A Smile” Blew Up

What do you think your life would be like if a song clip you released on one particular afternoon exploded and went viral? What would you do next if millions and millions of people were seeing your video, hearing your voice, and reaching out to you through the internet?

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Well, longtime independent vocalist and songwriter Maiah Manser had to answer each and every one of those questions recently when her life got flipped upside down thanks to the great amount of attention on her newest single, “With A Smile.”

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We caught up with Manser, who has a big, beautiful singing voice and an even bigger, brighter future after signing with Arista Records. She answered our burning questions—like what’s it like to garner millions of views on TikTok alone?

American Songwriter: When did you first find music and what made you want to invest in it as a profession? 

Maiah Manser: I have always been so mesmerized by music. In times before I formed memories, my mom told me the only movies I would watch were the original Fantasia and old musicals on incessant repeat. My earliest memories are from singing to other classes in preschool and telling my mom I wanted to be a famous singer when I won a talent show at age 6.

AS: You spent a lot of time in Seattle—what did the city teach you about the art form and, perhaps more specifically, about being a working, hustling, independent creative person? 

MM: Seattle will always have a special place in my heart. I think the city allowed me to tap fully into my artistic brain and be a weirdo with it, so when I moved to L.A. I never let go of that.

AS: What took you from Seattle to L.A. and what was your introduction to southern California like—how did you work to make a name for yourself there? 

MM: I actually didn’t want to initially move to L.A. I was a pretty dark/depressed person after seven years in Seattle, not gonna lie! [Laughs] So, I thought L.A. seemed the exact opposite of how I felt inside. I moved because my partner at the time wanted us to move. When I first came to L.A., I was pretty moody and took to a lot of partying. Thankfully not my vibe anymore and stepping away from that world is how I started making real friends. One of my first friends in L.A., vōx, was someone I sent a cold email to because I thought her music was awesome. She ended up becoming one of my greatest friends and opened up her entire friend group of amazing artists to me.

AS: What was the genesis of your now-viral single, “With A Smile”? 

MM: I made it with my friend Joza probably over a year ago at this point. The first version was just a first verse and chorus and sounded sort of like The Weeknd! I didn’t really connect with it as my own music although I loved the lyrical content. I kind of forgot about it and let it sit in my email until February of this year. I listened to it again and I was like, “Wait!” I need these stems, I know what to do and need to change all the instrumentation into the orchestral pop sound that I love so much. Joza and I both had crazy busy schedules and I don’t think we landed on a full first demo version until May of this year.

AS: Can you walk me through the events that led up to “With A Smile” going viral—the video clip, the build of attention, SZA, and other shares? 

MM: Well, I started going viral earlier this year because I was working on a silent film re-score for a movie from 1921 called The Love Light. I wanted to share the pretty sounds I was making with people. Fast-forward to the end of July, and I’m performing a small 20-min set at Hotel Cafe in L.A. I decided to perform the demo version of “With A Smile” to test it out on the audience. I didn’t ask her to do this, but my girlfriend told me she had this weird feeling that she should take a video of it. 

A few days later I decided to post the part of the video where the vocals go into rage mode. Truly, I didn’t think anything of it to be honest. Within a couple hours it was reaching 200k views and I was like, “Ahhh this is amazing, ahhhhh what do I do this song isn’t really done?” Then a few days after it went viral on TikTok, it went viral AGAIN on Instagram. When I think back on it, it feels like a blurry dream, maybe because I was crying with joy and panic all the time!

AS: What was the aftermath after you started seeing so much attention? How did you wrap your mind around it and what were your next steps? 

MM: The most important step was figuring out how to finish the song, but Joza was out of town when it went viral and had all the stems on his home computer with no access to them. We weren’t able to dive into it until he got back. So I rushed to get an entertainment lawyer ASAP with all the emails coming in. Over two months, I spoke with about 12 labels, all while finishing up this song, trying to post and keep people updated and ultimately signing a record deal. Negotiations and signing a record deal usually takes 4-6 months in itself. 

I previously was an independent artist for 12 years and also ran a small business teaching private voice and piano lessons that I had to close out and end cold turkey in order to keep up with the demand. It’s difficult to wrap my mind around it all. I’ve only taken one day off since this all happened so I don’t feel as though I’ve quite processed the life-altering change yet.

AS: Now that you’ve signed with a record label, you have a new EP coming. What can you say about it? What do you hope it does for you and your audience? 

MM: The new EP will be called Fourth Wall. I use numbers for my releases to build specific concepts (“First Words,” “Second Skin,” “Third Degree”). Fourth Wall will touch on the human obsession with fame, success, and entertainment and how far we go to obtain it. The world is dark, edgy, and cinematic. It will have lots of ethereal vocals layered with moments navigating these topics and sometimes singing directly to the listener, breaking the “Fourth Wall.” It does make for a fun way to navigate the artistic process and I already know what the rest of my EPs and albums will be. I create art to help me navigate, question, or feel something and it’s amazing to have it reach people who get it.

AS: How did you land on your “noir pop” sound (and visuals)—has it evolved over time? Do you anticipate to keep evolving? 

MM:
I’m forever evolving and changing and personally feel more orchestral or experimental pop. Regardless, the categorization doesn’t matter too much, but the main way I decide if I like something is if it sounds like fairies dancing or fairies being torn apart.

AS: How do you feel today and what’s next for you? 

MM: Every day is a roller coaster of emotions, but what’s kept me the most sane is working on all the new music and finishing the EP. 

AS: What do you love most about music? 

MM: It’s boundless and limitless. It changes moods and develops the full range of emotions. It can change our perception in a matter of one note change and if you listen closely enough, music is in everything.

Photo by Luke Raymon / Courtesy Arista Records

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