Maddy Heide has found DIY success as Canary Room.
Canary Room Photo by Grace Daenen, Courtesy of the artist

Maddy Heide was supposed to graduate last year.

That was the plan before COVID-19 came along and prompted the 22-year-old Lewis & Clark College student to take a year off from school.

She spent a lot of that time outside.

“I worked as a gardener for a small company that did all kinds of garden-related stuff,” Heide said.

Not coincidentally, “garden-related” could also describe one of the special things about Christine, the five-song EP Heide released last year under the name Canary Room. At just over 14 minutes long, the collection is brief but beguiling, quietly potent, and so sparsely arranged, you can hear birds chirping and a breeze blowing through trees in the background. Indeed, Heide recorded Christine in a Southeast Portland backyard, with her friend Emmet Martin capturing the performance on a four-track tape recorder.

The location wasn’t chosen for its aesthetic or its ambient sounds, but out of necessity.

“It was still during the pandemic and we couldn’t yet be vaccinated, so we were just like, ‘Maybe we should try recording outside just to be safe,’” Heide said. “I was hesitant, but we did it and I ended up really liking the way it sounded.”

Nature’s noises aren’t the main reason Christine has received praise from places like NPR. The primary draw is the album's five compelling songs, all built entirely from fingerpicked acoustic guitar and Heide’s delicate voice, which sounds like it was made to channel stirring, English folk-style melodies. Lyrically, she unspools dreamlike stories to process experiences and family history, then calls in natural settings—song titles include “Calla,” “Lake Effect” and “Oaks”—to frame the feelings that fuel the tunes.

“When I first started writing songs, I didn’t understand that it’s useful to create a setting, even if it doesn’t actually exist and you’re just making it up. I didn’t like what I was writing because it felt placeless,” Heide said. “Eventually, I figured out that when you ground what you’re saying in a setting, you give it power that people can feel.”

Heide grew up in a musical household in Wisconsin, where she sang in choirs and loved the storytelling aspect of musical theater. By middle school, she had become “really obsessed” with the idea of playing guitar, and taught herself to play by watching YouTube videos—before discovering Joni Mitchell’s landmark 1971 album Blue.

“I was always fascinated by the idea of telling stories through songs,” Heide said, “and then when I heard Blue, I was like, ‘Oh, here’s music that’s driven by her voice and by the story. That’s kind of what I want to do.’”

Heide was drawn to Portland, in part by the opportunity to meet like-minded musicians and, once here, she got to know Martin, who not only recorded Christine but also released it on cassette through his DIY record label Bud Tapes.

The first two pressings of the EP sold out long ago, and a third edition is dwindling—an indication that Heide’s modest project is reaching people in ways she never expected.

“Before, I’d put songs online because my friends wanted to hear them or whatever,” she said. “But then when I moved to Portland and started playing shows, people were actually reacting to my music,” Heide said. “At first, I thought that was so weird. But then I was like, ‘Well, maybe I’ll put some effort into this and be more thoughtful about it.’ So that’s what I did (with Christine), and now I’m just seeing what happens.”

Canary Room, Vista House and Source Material, Turn! Turn! Turn!, 8 NE Killingsworth, Sat April 16, 8 pm, $5