Mxmtoon is a new kind of artist – one that’s forgone the traditional music industry model and done things her own way, online, one viewer at a time. As she prepares to release her second album ‘rising’, Arusa Qureshi meets the confessional young star who is stepping out from behind the lens, for the first time. PHOTOS: Lissy Laricchia
“It will definitely never be something that I’m fully used to,” Maia says on the topic of photoshoots. The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter, known better as mxmtoon (pronounced em-ex-em-toon), is sitting in the light-filled offices of her record label, having just come straight from doing two magazine shoots. It’s her first time in London since 2019 and the last stop on an extensive promo trip across Europe and the UK ahead of the release of her second album, ‘rising’ – one that has involved the usual hubbub of interviews, meetings and more. But there’s not a hint of exhaustion in Maia’s eyes, she’s bubbly and full of excitement as she talks through her day. Naturally, being busy feels odd to her after this period of relative nothingness but perhaps this is even more true for someone whose creative journey began in the virtual sphere, behind a lens and in the confines of her own bedroom.
The internet first met Maia as a teenager armed with a ukulele, who spent her spare time posting covers of her favourite pop songs online. By 17, she was writing and sharing her own compositions on Soundcloud, speaking to and bonding with a generation living similar digital lives, who craved the kind of autobiographical soundtrack that expressed the complexities of teen life. What followed was a debut EP in 2018 called ‘plum blossom’, and then a full-length in 2019, ‘the masquerade’ – the latter of which featured her viral coming-of-age hit ‘prom dress’. Thanks to its popularity on TikTok, that track has now racked up almost 200 million streams, with over 500k uses on videos on the social media platform.
Maia is 21 now and though the past two years have been quieter for the wider world, life online hasn’t slowed down for her in the slightest. She now boasts around 2.7 million followers on TikTok and close to a million on Instagram.
“I’ve gotten more used to it,” she continues, “but it was definitely very strange to go from the progression of taking a selfie in my bedroom to having someone do my hair and someone do my makeup, and then someone chooses my outfit, and then someone takes my photo – there are so many more steps involved. But I think it’s so fun and I view it as if it’s like an art project, with everyone coming together to work on this one image.”
Album number two is a 12-song set of pop-and-disco-based soundscapes that explore the darkness of the past two years with a softness and sardonic charm that have become trademark mxmtoon. As is the case for many creatives attempting to work against the backdrop of COVID, Maia’s journey with this album has been anything but straightforward. In late 2019, she had finished her first full tour, she had two new EPs in the works and had just made the move from California to New York.
“I didn’t write for most of 2020 after we found out what was going to happen,” she notes. Following the announcement of lockdown, she moved back to her parents’ house, finding herself once again in the childhood bedroom that she had just left. “I felt very stuck in the day to day routine of waking up, popping on my computer and going to sleep every single night. This is the worst way to put it but it felt like I had creative constipation. I was just blocked up for a really long time and then when I finally had access to people and was able to work with producers and writers, it just happened. I’d been sitting on the edge of my seat for so long and needing that creative release, but there was no way for me to do that in 2020.”
For many artists that grew up knowing nothing but a life with the internet and social media at their fingertips, the transition to virtual living was pretty effortless, even if that didn’t necessarily mean that creativity blossomed naturally. Still, it’s fair to say that solo, bedroom-based DIY art is where Gen Z thrive and as mxmtoon, Maia is part of this new wave of artists that understand the power of the internet better than most, having been their own PR teams and content managers from the get-go. This generation has also managed to turn the entire industry on its head; removing gatekeepers that say when and where you can share your art while also attracting like-minded audiences without the need for big teams and even bigger budgets.
“These are new tools that not everybody is familiar with so I feel very lucky and thankful that I am naturally able to understand what I need to do in my own lane of artistry with social media. I think it’s interesting how many different ways it can happen for different people now.”
Maia was 12 when she started vlogging and 17 when she uploaded her first track to Soundcloud, although the sweetly tongue-in-cheek ‘1-800-DATEME’ wasn’t her first foray into songwriting, as she reveals.
“I started playing violin when I was six years old and I went through trumpet and cello and all these different instruments before I landed on the ukulele. When I was 13, I had to write a song for a school project and that ended up being my first introduction to songwriting. The very first song I ever wrote was a song about not knowing what to write a song about! It didn’t have much substance to it but I loved it. I started using the ukulele and songwriting and singing in the background because it was an outlet for me to be creative and express myself without having to share it with my parents. So I would share it online instead and that was how I ended up creating mxmtoon.”
While mxmtoon was born on the internet, Maia’s musical project has certainly traversed the platforms that she grew up using as a teenager in Oakland. But the significance of something like YouTube remains a core part of her story, not least because it’s where she first found a community and a following.
“I’ve always found the internet to be an environment where I could find people that I could connect with and that was why I loved it when I began and why I still love it,” she says. “I think my generation naturally uses social media in a very intertwined way with the way that we share ourselves and exist. Posting on YouTube and Instagram was just something that I grew up doing, as well as Snapchat, Twitter, Tumblr and Vine. I loved doing all of those things, because it gave me a way to express myself creatively. The internet is such a large area and I am still amazed that for some reason my voice ended up being something that people picked up on.”
Being internet-savvy and innately familiar with the ins and outs of online culture helped her build these connections but what kept people plugged into mxmtoon was her musicality and the honesty and whimsy in her songwriting. Behind the internet sensation was this supremely talented artist, whose confessionals about loneliness and sadness in an era of over-connectivity spoke to many, especially those in similarly underrepresented communities. Maia is now able to reflect on the importance of her presence in these spaces as a queer woman of mixed heritage. But she admits that her relationship with the digital landscape that led her to almost a million subscribers on YouTube has also evolved.
“I’ve gotten a little bit older over the course of posting and being online and in that same vein, I’ve learned more about myself and what my limits are as a person. As with anything, when you have a larger audience, you’re more prone to finding people who might not like you and might not like your art. It was really weird to have the experience of being a 17-year-old and then having thousands of people become critical of who you are as a person and the things that you make. All of my thoughts and all of my personality are online for people to consume and to see. It can be very scary to have so much of yourself out there and have so many people watch you figure out who you are. But stepping back is just as hard to do when the only thing you’ve done is put yourself out there the whole entire time.”
Over the course of this conversation, Maia is extremely open and willing to share in a way that makes you feel like you’re speaking to a friend over a cup of coffee. It’s this exact quality in her music that people so easily relate to and find comfort in. From that first track on Soundcloud to her 2019 debut ‘the masquerade’ and the stunning EPs ‘dawn’ and ‘dusk’ that followed, Maia’s diary-like musings on love, loss and the conundrums of everyday life feel intimate and at the same time, universal. And nowhere is this more apparent than in ‘rising’, an album that acts as a reintroduction to mxmtoon at her most authentic self.
“Making these songs was such a comfort for me in a time when I didn’t really know what was going to happen,” Maia says. “A lot of these songs were survival music for me. I just needed to make them because I felt so sad and so expressing the sadness and the uncertainty that I was feeling while also being able to lift myself up was a huge point of what I wanted ‘rising’ to be for other people as well. So I think naturally, it ended up talking a lot about themes of loneliness, which of course I’ve done in the past, and also touching on how to get out of the feeling of sadness without ignoring it completely.”
Maia has always been candid about topics like mental health, anxiety and the intricacies of certain coming-of-age experiences in her music. In ‘seasonal depression’, a song she wrote about living with Seasonal Affective Disorder, she sings: “I just don’t see a whole lot of sun / And lately I just can’t seem to have any fun / I look outside my window / It’s so dark, I feel my eyes begin to close”. On her website, fans can visit a page that points to resources for anyone needing help with their own mental health. “My hope with my song ‘seasonal depression’ is to provide affirmation to those who find facing certain days beyond difficult, while simultaneously uplifting them from their stormy thoughts,” she writes on the page. “If you are having one of those days, please reach out for help.”
This sense of care that she has for those engaging with her music and content extends into ‘rising’, the process of which was like a therapy of sorts that she hopes others can find some solace in too. “I’m really proud, even in the creation of it, that a lot of the sessions that I went into to write songs, I did honestly feel really awful those days.” The track ‘frown’, she confesses, was written just as she started taking new medication because her depression had been particularly bad.
“For me to make a song that’s literally about feeling sad, but to make it one of the craziest, most pop-oriented songs that I’ve ever done to date – how cool is that? I was able to translate something that has been so hard for me to get through into something that feels so much bigger than that. I think I’m able to be more positive and at least uplift myself in the process of making songs, and I hope that that translates to people who listen.”
While back at home, Maia was surrounded by the music she grew up loving – CDs her six-year-old self played on repeat including the Mamma Mia soundtrack and Hairspray the musical. This fed into the entire therapeutic progression of ‘rising’. “It made me realise that I missed being a little kid who’s listening to these songs in my bedroom and playing dress-up and dancing around to this music. That’s the moment I really experienced joy with music for the very first time and this is what I needed to do in this next record. It wasn’t even a want; I just needed to make music that could make me feel that way.”
‘Sad disco’ is the first song that Maia wrote for ‘rising’ and its starting point is emblematic of her thinking across the whole album. “I remember walking into the room with Gabe Simon, who co-wrote and produced the song, and I was like, ‘I really want to make a song that makes me feel the way ‘Dancing Queen’ by ABBA makes me feel.’ And he said, OK, let’s do it. So we did.”
For Maia, ‘rising’ felt like the first time she was really making music that was reflective of the kind of music that she herself loved listening to. And in many ways, the record highlights two versions of mxmtoon – the 19-year-old version that wrote ‘the masquerade’ and then the 21-year-old ready to reflect and move forward into this new territory.
“‘Sad disco’ feels like it’s a response to [viral 2019 track] ‘prom dress’ and the person who wrote that song. It makes me so happy to listen back to ‘prom dress’ and think OK, I’ve grown up and I’ve moved on from the things that I was talking about in the song. What would I say to that version of myself? ‘Sad disco’ feels like an answer while showcasing my own growth as a person, telling people that you’ll still experience some of the same things, but you’ll change in the process and that’s okay.”
Overall, Maia believes that her approach is probably more positive now, which some people might view as cliché or cheesy. But, as she explains, there is power in being able to acknowledge a sadness that you may feel and also understand that you will get through it.
“I listen to so much of my early music and I’m like, Oh, my God, it’s so cringey. Like ‘feelings are fatal’ is a wonderful song but I was a 17-year-old kid who didn’t go to therapy and quite clearly needed somebody to talk to. I have so much empathy for that side of myself that wrote that song and didn’t feel like anybody would listen. But I think now that I’m older, I really understand that there is beauty in vulnerability and there’s also so much strength in being able to know that you can overcome your hardship. To claim your strength is not something that’s cheesy; it’s just cool.”
As well as ‘rising’, the next big thing on the horizon for Maia is a North American tour, which begins in Montreal in May, and is then followed by a string of UK and European live dates in October. She’s nervous, having only toured for about three months in her entire career before everything locked down. But having millions of viewers has surely prepared her for that, right?
“Not at all,” she laughs. “It is such a different experience to be in a room full of people. It’s funny, I’m more terrified of a room of 150 people than I am of 20,000 people watching me on a live stream. I remember the very first show I played, I forgot nearly all of my lyrics, I was a nervous wreck. It’s so different when you have people’s faces right in front of you, and you can see their reactions. But I think it is so much more rewarding being able to hear people and actually interact with them and have a conversation with them face to face because it cements the fact that these are real people that are taking the time to listen to my music. In the past two years, I haven’t been able to have that moment.”
It may still take Maia a minute to get used to the idea of a photoshoot or a live audience full of eager faces, but beyond the four walls of her bedroom, the mxmtoon project has given her the tools to experiment without restriction. Mxmtoon has always been very diverse as far as Maia’s output goes, with podcasting, streaming and video creation all under her belt. She even provided the singing voice of Alex Chen in the videogame ‘Life is Strange: True Colors’ last year, something she considers a dream come true as an avid fan of the series.
“I think any avenue that storytelling can be done in and creativity can be expressed in, I hopefully will be able to try it out at some point,” she says. For musicians like mxmtoon, who are carving out their own identity via the internet, the future is open-ended and full of possibility. “So if you can think of something, I probably am thinking of it too and I might just try my hand at it next.”
‘rising’ by Mxmtoon is out May 20 via AWAL.
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