When Maris Ward grabbed a bottle of soy sauce and began singing a tune by Frank Sinatra, she didn’t expect the results to get much attention. But in the days of overnight social media sensations, her rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” turned out to be a hit.
Within 24 hours, the Missoula woman’s jazzy version of the 1954 classic had gone viral, netting more than 50,000 retweets and 150,000 likes. The comments were so abundant they crashed her cell phone. Even Kikkoman joined the fanfare, posting the video to its Twitter account.
But the performance wasn’t the first brush with fame for the 17-year-old Hellgate High School student, who goes the her stage name Maris. In fact, she’s been invited to Carnegie Hall to perform in this year’s American Protege concert, one designed to place young performers on the path to success.
“I submitted a video to the talent competition American Protege and I didn’t really expect it to go anywhere,” Maris said while seated in a downtown Missoula coffee shop. “I figured so may people were submitting to it that it wouldn’t get noticed. But I did it on a whim and got first place, so I get to perform in Carnegie in the showcase.”
Maris submitted a song dubbed “Liar,” one of many she has written in recent years. But it was her version of Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene,” performed on YouTube as part of Scott Bradlee’s Post Modern Jukebox, that provided her initial breakthrough.
That act caught the eye of a Connecticut talent agent.
“For me, living the dream would be to wake up every day and do exactly what I love, whether it’s performing or writing, or maybe even teaching music,” Maris said. “I want to be able to wake up and be excited about the connection I’m getting out of music.”
For Maris, achieving celebrity status isn’t on her checklist. In fact, it’s something she tends to resist. To make her point, she cites a fellow musician on Twitter who signed with a record label and “gets paid every day to make music.”
But despite the woman’s success, Maris said, she recently complained that she wasn’t considered an A-list celebrity. That, Maris added, “rubs me the wrong way.”
“There’s so many incredibly talented people, especially here in Missoula who can’t wake up every day and do just what they love,” Maris said. “They have to have a side job. They have to do things they’re not passionate about to support their passions. I just want to do what I love.”
Maris traces her love for music back to watching Barney – the purple dinosaur – and humming along before she could speak. Her parents divorced when she was 6 and music served to dampen her disappointment.
“I really started to lean on music a lot when I was younger,” she said. “I’m kind of an introvert, and I started to lean on music for consistency and comfort. It’s what started my love affair with music.”
Over the years, Maris has become something of a local sensation, performing live on First Night and selling self-produced albums at Rockin’ Rudys. She appeared in a benefit concert with Huey Lewis and other musicians in 2013, and has garnered her share of local media attention.
She grins, recalling her first talent competition at Washington Middle School.
“It went well and I was excited about it,” she said. “I started taking voice lessons and I had a great teacher in Eden Atwood.”
Maris taught herself to play the piano and she picked up quickly on the guitar after lessons from a family friend. While she describes her musical tastes as eclectic, from old-time country to Motown classics, she’s mostly drawn to jazz, though she admits to listening to Johnny Cash the night before “while chilling” at home.
“Everyone who wants to be a musician, I think, should at one point train in jazz, because the chord structures are so complicated, so you have to learn how to cue them,” Maris said. “One of my biggest musical influences is Amy Winehouse. She kind of took jazz and integrated it into pop. It’s fresh and new, and people were drawn to that because she was a magnetic person.”
As for her upcoming trip to New York, Maris admits to being nervous, though she’s eager for the opportunity.
“I was born and raised in Missoula and have never lived anywhere else,” she said, asking if she can swear in an interview. “But I’m completely ready to get my ass kicked. I know that I’m going to. I’m scared shitless, but I’m also excited shitless.”