mxmtoon: “I dreamed of being a YouTuber. Music felt untouchable”

mxmtoon’s story is interwoven with the internet: before the teenager began releasing music, she was best known as a YouTuber. On her channel, Maia (who prefers to keep her surname private) would share drawings, talk frankly about her experiences growing up in Oakland, and record songs on GarageBand, aided by a pair of percussive hair straighteners and a ukelele. The plan was to take a year out to make music, and then study architecture but the music drew up blueprints of its own, going viral on TikTok. Soon, songs mxmtoon had recorded in the spare bedroom racked up millions of listens.

The musician’s debut album ‘the masquerade’ came out last year, defined by immediate, melody-grabbing songwriting, and crammed with relatable and specific observations about muddling through life without any of the answers. And with her new project, mxmtoon is widening the scope: setting down the ukulele in favour of lush, textural production and restlessly exploring.

While the majority of the world is effectively stuck inside, mxmtoon’s incisive lyrics about yearning for new experiences outside her front door take on an accidental new relevance. We caught up with Maia (and her dogs) over Zoom to get the scoop. (Side note: you pronounce it em-ex-em-toon.)

mxmtoon interview
Photo: Cesar-Balcazar

Hello mxmtoon! Where are you right now?

Well, I moved to Brooklyn in January this year, but I came back to Oakland for lockdown. I really miss Brooklyn right now, and it feels weird being back here with my family – right after I was trying to shift my mindset towards being in another place – but I’m just sending my love to New York at the moment. I’m glad to be with my family, and I know it’ll still be there when all of this is over.

In these weird times, what are your three lockdown items?

Oh man. I think I’ve realised that I have certain sanity pieces that I can’t do without. I have an essential oils diffuser, which I’ve used every single day for the last month and a half. Being able to smell lavender has been keeping me somewhat sane. Dry shampoo is another necessity. I’m not going outside often, so I don’t wash my hair that much, to be completely honest. My last one would be blue-light blocking glasses. I had to order a pair because I’d been looking at a screen so much, my eyes felt like they were a desert.

And how about your three desert island discs?

Right now it would be ‘Future Nostalgia’ by Dua Lipa. That has been one of my favourite albums. Rex Orange County’s ‘Pony’ is another favourite, still – I’ve been listening to that since October. And then there’s this Hawaiian artist, Iz [Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole] who does a bunch of covers. I listened to his music a lot as a kid, and it’s very nostalgic for me. I love his album ‘Facing Future’.

Do you remember the first song that made your jaw drop?

Actually, it’s by Iz! His cover of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. That was my favourite song growing up, and I realised the other day that it had ukulele in it. I didn’t make the connection before. It was my comfort song as a child with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. I think that probably inspired me later on, with my own music.

Like many people, you’ve been playing a fair bit of Animal Crossing – and even went to the lengths of ranking all of your favourite villagers in a Powerpoint presentation. But importantly, which villager are you most like?

I’m probably most like Isabelle. She’s not actually one of the villagers, she’s one of the characters from the Animal Crossing universe. She feels like a teacher’s pet, to me, and I relate to that, on a lot of levels.

Other than being a teacher’s pet, what were you like as a kid?

I was like a potted plant, as a person! Not very exciting, and I kept to myself. I was one of the well-behaved kids because I was nervous all the time and didn’t want to confront anybody about what I was thinking. It’s funny watching me now as an adult. I’m much perkier. Back then I just did what people told me to do.

Did you always want to be a musician?

It was actually never on the cards for me. I didn’t know that I wanted to do music. I had dreamed of being a YouTuber, which as a 13 year old, was the closest thing – in terms of what I knew – to somebody who had creative control and shared it with an audience. Music felt like a very far-off world and so untouchable. I never saw it coming and so now it’s a pleasure. I didn’t really believe it until I played my first headline show and I saw everybody singing along to my music.

Mxmtoon interview

Around the time that you first started releasing music, you had this platform already on YouTube, where you spoke very honestly about many of your own experiences. Do you ever feel daunted by the idea of people looking up to you, and perhaps hoping that you might hold all the answers? Surely nobody can hold all the answers…

It is daunting. I try to make it known as much as possible that I’m a 19-year-old person who is trying to figure out who she is. I can’t provide guidance, I can only be an ear and listen. And I can only voice things like the uncertainty of what I’m feeling as an individual. It’s damaging for people to feel like they’re supposed to have all the answers. That was damaging for me growing up, I had to learn that I’m not supposed to know everything.

Have you gone through any kind of readjustment when it comes to what you’re happy to share with your audience?

I find myself slipping back into the mindset of having twenty followers and just saying what I want to – but I’ve definitely gotten a handle on understanding what’s too much and what’s enough. It’s a learning process. Did I put too much of myself on the internet today? Do I feel drained from that experience? And if so, waking up the next morning, and thinking: I’m not going to do that again. I use the internet as my diary, and having your diary shared with hundreds of thousands of people is not a typical experience.

In a way, is your music like a diary too?

I never really wrote journals as a young person. I would constantly start diaries and fail miserably after three days. But with music, jotting down my ideas and experiences made sense. It’s my way of expressing and untangling what I’ve been going through.

Effectively, millions of people are also reading it by listening to your music. How do you even start to wrap your head around the amount of people following you? 

It would make my head hurt too much! I’m still wrapping my head around the hundred thousand marker and things have progressed past that. It’s hard for me to process. I think it’s a scientific fact that humans can’t process a number larger than about seven. I try to approach it as the person in her bedroom who’s making music – I think that’s what people appreciate, that feeling of intimacy. I like that from the artists that I follow, too.

Your new EP ‘dawn’ looks outward – you sing about escaping from the drudgery of your daily routine, and seeking out new places and experiences. Does it feel strange to be releasing a record like this, right now?

Yeah, it’s both appropriate and crazy that it’s working out this way. We released ‘quiet motions’ two days before California went into quarantine and there was this thematic relevance of being by yourself. Suddenly a lot of the world is faced with that. I was a little bit nervous. I wanted to make an EP which is supposed to be optimistic and hopeful and what if people don’t want to hear that? What if they want to be upset, sad, and scared. That’s completely valid. I’m in the same situation. A lot of days I wake up, and think “this sucks”. I just want to sit in my bed. I was worried that ‘dawn’ might shove positivity onto people. But then I was listening to the words I had written, and I thought actually this might be really helpful? I am talking about how there are hard aspects of life, but at the end of it, it’s like, I feel thankful that my EP can address the uncertainty people are feeling. Hopefully it can give people a pat on the back for getting up and getting through the day – what they’re doing is enough.

And everyone needs that, right? There’s no instruction manual for this…

Oh, I wish there was a Dummies’ Guide to Quarantine. ‘quiet motions’ is an accidental quarantine anthem. I’m an introvert, and I’ve written a lot about the joys of being alone, and also the hardships.

‘almost home’ and ‘fever dream’ are songs that seem to address a past version of yourself. Do you think this EP marks the start of a new chapter?

Absolutely. It’s a big progression, thematically. I wanted to make an EP that gracefully said thank you and goodbye to the past chapters of mxmtoon, and my debut album and first EP. I wanted to address the past versions of myself in some of the songs; that way it didn’t feel like I was totally leaving it in the dust.

What do you think is the biggest thing you’ve learned?

Be kind to other people, and yourself. I think we can be really critical of who we are, when we’re really nice to other people. We should remind ourselves to try and appreciate the small things we do for ourselves during the day.

Mxmtoon’s new EP ‘dawn’ is out now

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