mxmtoon — aka Maia — is a 19-year-old who has built a small digital empire by using the internet for self-expression, not “branding.” She grew up in Oakland learning violin and cello from a young age, but describes her early experience with music as a “chore” more than anything else. It wasn’t until she began playing ukulele and singing in her bedroom, and then secretly uploading these homemade covers and original songs to followers across various platforms, that Maia was able to begin forming her own musical identity. Eventually combining her heartfelt, extremely tender ukulele anthems with the digital empire she’d quietly amassed across numerous online platforms became a no-brainer, and a gap year after finishing high school was spent building the team necessary to legally and financially support herself an independent musician.
This route isn’t as rare as it used to be, especially for artists who have already created loyal, dedicated fanbases on their own, and don’t really need record labels for promotion or recognition. Sweetly singing about betrayals and trials without a trace of bitterness, and commanding the same kind of gentle deadpan that made Kate Nash a sensation a decade before her, mxmtoon traces the line between indie pop, stringed twee, and electronic production with quiet precision. Her lyrics are wise in their simple depictions, and her vulnerability is similarly straightforward, making her relatable to not only her Gen Z fans, but listeners of all ages yearning for something that’s direct and still serene.
As the daughter of an immigrant (she is Chinese-American) who has been proudly open about both her heritage and her bisexual identity, Maia is the epitome of a new generation of musicians, not only born online but raised there, and intent on making both the internet — and the music industry — a better place. Following up her initial plum blossom EP in 2018, and a full-length, the masquerade, released in 2019, today she’s sharing the first half of a new two-part EP, dawn, which will be followed later in the year by dusk. To mark the occasion, she took some time to conduct an email interview with me about the new music, her career so far, and what her experience has been with the tumult of 2020 so far. Read our conversation below and check out her new EP here.
As someone who started interacting with music at a young age, what was your perspective on it as a child? Did you think about having a career in music when you were 6, or what was your relationship to it back then?
Music was an obligation to me for a very long time until I was 13. I played violin from the age of 6 and then eventually cello, and classical music training felt more like a chore than it did a hobby. When I was introduced to the ukulele and singing though, I think that was when I really started to enjoy it. The idea of a career in music wasn’t something I ever dared to even think about though, and I don’t think that the possibility hit me until after I graduated high school and started working with my now management. The entertainment industry just seemed so untouchable and faraway, it never crossed my mind I could be working in it one day.
You’ve launched your own career as an independent artist at 19, can you talk about why remaining independent is important to you and what has gone into the process of becoming a musician?
Remaining independent is important to me because it means I still have creative control! As an artist with so many avenues of expression for her project, I’m still figuring out really how I want to express who I am and who that even is. Independence gives me the space to continue figuring that out, and helps me feel okay as I navigate things!
My introduction to your music was “Fever Dream,” which is still one of my favourite Mxmtoon songs. Can you talk about the process behind that one? I love how it reminds me of Imogen Heap.
So glad you like it! It’s one of my favorites too. The process was remarkably fast. It was my first session with my co-writers Luke Niccoli and Micah Premnath, and I had never met them before I stepped into Luke’s studio that day. So, I explained my story and how I took the risk to chase music. They thought it was really interesting, and it had never crossed my mind to write a song about it before, so we did! “Fever Dream” was written in the course of an hour and a half and done within the next four. We caught lightning in a bottle that day.
Now that I’ve heard the new music I went back and listened to your debut album and initial EP. How would you say these new EPs differ from that first album and EP?
I would say that dawn sounds a lot more classically pop and produced. I’ve been self describing it as my first “big girl EP.” Meaning when I listen to the songs on it I can truly see myself in the same landscape as my musical peers. Sometimes looking at a playlist I’ve been added to doesn’t really feel real and that sensation of dreaming occurs in my mind. Yet, with this EP and all of the songs on it, I can feel really confident about my place in the world’s musical landscape in a way I haven’t quite been with my album and first EP even though I love both so much!
Your songs deal with a lot of anxiety, and that has become a much more resonant theme in the wake of the global pandemic of COVID-19. Can you talk about how you’ve been dealing with the current crisis and any advice for people who are maybe newly encountering anxiety?
It’s been tough for sure, I’m just trying to take it a day at a time. It’s hard to experience anxiety and then also add a pandemic on top of it, but the best thing I think we can do for ourselves and for others is to be kind. Practice patience with yourself and with the people around you when you can, and give yourself the space to be scared or sad, but try to find moments that you can feel happiness to.
dawn is part of a two-part EP series, with its sister EP titled dusk. Why did you decide to break the songs into two releases in that way, and how are the moods of each EP different sonically?
I wanted to make two separate projects that could stand alone but also work in tandem with each other! Kind of like pokemon but music edition. dawn is much more optimistic and “sunny.” I think the notes of optimism that dawn has continued into the second EP, but allowing myself to make music more similar to the origins of how I started writing.
There’s been a spotlight on the stories of immigrants due to insensitivity and prejudice America’s current president and the policies of his administration. What has your reaction been as a young person with that heritage who is living through this moment?
It’s heartbreaking. I’m really lucky to have white-passing privilege during this period of our world, but it’s so maddening to watch the racism that people of my background face every single day, and even Asian-Americans in general. I try to champion kindness as a way to interact with the world, and so seeing such blatant hate and xenophobia be spread makes me really angry. Being horrible to other people is no way to solve a problem, and I just hope that asian peers worldwide know I’m rooting for them and that millions of others are too.
You’ve also been open about identifying as a bisexual woman, why has it been important to you to speak openly about your queerness?
It’s been incredibly important to me to be transparent about all aspects of who I am. I didn’t have role models to look up to as a little kid, and I have this incredible opportunity to be able to speak on issues that affect me and in turn also affect my audience. Bisexuality is a piece of what makes me who I am, and I hope if I can unapologetically show that side of myself, I can inspire others to do that too.
How does the songwriting process generally unfold for you? Did you work with new collaborators on dawn?
It’s usually very individual for me, which is why dawn was so exciting to work on! It’s the first EP that I did with co-writers and so it was a really new experience for me to navigate the session environment. All of the songs were done in sessions, and I couldn’t be happier with the process and final product.
I’d love to hear about some of the music that influenced you growing up and also some current peers whose music you turn to during anxious times or just find inspiring.
I never really listened to the type of music I make now actually! My childhood was filled with funk and classical music, and obviously I ended up doing neither. Inspiration musically is something I think about a lot more now that I’ve started to develop my sound as an artist more, and out of all the artists I listen to I think Rex Orange County would be the biggest idol I have in the indie pop space.
Do you have a timeline for when the second part of the EP, dusk, will be released? What can fans expect from the second half of this release?
No plans yet, but the waiting time hopefully won’t be too long! The second EP will pair really nicely with dawn and if anybody ends up craving the more introspective type music I’ve made in the past, I think they’ll be excited for what’s to come.