Maia—known musically as mxmtoon—a 19-year-old singer-songwriter from Oakland, California, has adeptly used her social-media platforms to cultivate a following of queer teens and girls of color. While her fans might joke with her on TikTok or chat with her about Animal Crossing: New Horizons on Twitter, they’re also devoted to listening to her bedroom pop tunes and the soothing sound of her skillful ukelele. While her Instagram bio jokingly reads, “ANOTHER girl who plays ukulele & sings!” her devoted fan base knows she’s more than that.
Since releasing her EP plum blossom in 2018, mxmtoon has slowly carved out space for herself alongside other popular Gen-Z artists, including girl in red and Conan Gray. mxmtoon released her debut album, the masquerade, in September 2019, and it featured the viral single “prom dress,” which has been listened to more than 60 million times on Spotify. the masquerade was highlighted by the New York Times and NPR, who featured “Prom Dress” on All Songs Considered. Billboard called the music video for “Fever Dream,” a track from dawn, “super-cute.” She’s surpassed 1.6 million followers on TikTok, and has gained 180,000 followers on Twitter and 530,000 on Instagram. But while her earlier music is tinged with sadness (On “seasonal depression” mxmtoon sings, “Seasonal depression’s got me sleeping off the days/ And I’ve wasted all my time feeling grey”), her latest EP, dawn, shifts more toward hope.
After the release of dawn, mxmtoon and I discussed her first “big girl EP,” the pressure she’s feeling to be confident in her work, and what comes next for her as an artist and a person.
There’s something really lovely and calming about dawn. It feels like a welcome reprieve from all of the stressful murkiness of our current moment. How did you decide which songs to put on this album? How does this album differentiate from your previous efforts?
I accidentally wrote an EP that’s very relevant to what’s going on in the world, in terms of [having] songs that feel uplifting and positive. I wanted to give myself a personal challenge as an artist who has a narrative that exists around her and her music that is relatively sad. I’m known as the internet girl who makes sad ukelele music, and while I love that part of my music, I wanted to make music that felt like I could lift people up a little bit more. I wanted to make something that felt like it could have a positive impact on people and acknowledge whatever hardships they’re going through while still letting [listeners] know that whatever they’re going through, the day will go on and they will be okay.
Your music feels deeply thoughtful. In “quiet motions” you sing, “These quiet motions/ My favorite moments,” and in “almost home” you sing, “I was just a kid/ Dreams were looking big/ Then I had to grow up.” What inspires your music, and what does your songwriting process look like?
It depends on the day; every single day is a different focus in terms of what’s happening in my mind. With this EP, the main differentiator is that this is the first time I’ve really cowrote with other people and worked with a producer on every single song. Session work was really the first time I’ve done songwriting like this. It was interesting to be able to talk about what’s going on in my head and merge it with the experiences of two or three other people to make a song and a final product.
It was fun for me because the way I decide what scenes and topics to work on in a song [is based on] talking to other people about their experiences and asking them what they’re going through, and it helps me find the universal undertone of what my story might be and how I can put that into a song to share with other people.
You seem to be pausing and reflecting in dawn but also looking forward and thinking about who you’re becoming. In “fever dream” you sing, “I want something more than/ More than restless mornings/ Gettin’ by’s so boring.” What can we expect from your future work as you transition from a new artist to one with a more solid listener base?
Making externally facing music was something I wanted to challenge myself with for this EP. We’re going to have an EP coming out later this year called dusk, which will be more internal facing. Hopefully the progression that people feel when they listen to the [album] won’t be lost when it feels more reflection-oriented. I almost want to say dawn is my first “big girl EP,” and it’s my first time making a piece of work where my music can sit on an editorial playlist alongside all of these people that I look up to as a listener and [where I can] see myself as someone who makes music. That’s been the reality as someone doing this for the last two years as a job, but I feel like I can sit back and listen to this EP [and] feel like, Wow, I do this for a living, and fully believe [that] when I listen to these words. I think my own confidence is channeled into the music I’m making.
Like many contemporary artists, you exist in several digital spaces at once, including your music and social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. You’ve built an audience on TikTok, where you have more than 1.6 million followers. How do you think about your persona as an artist versus your persona as a social media creator?
I’m lucky because there’s a lot of overlap between my social media existence and my musical one. I try to keep them as interconnected as possible because it’ll help me in the long run; switching personas from one platform to another can be really exhausting. I hope people will have as much understanding of who I am as a person as they do of me as an artist. It’s not a huge challenge because I try to do everything as authentically as possible and allow myself to show all aspects of who I really am.
On social media, you regularly discuss your experience with being a woman of color. You recently tweeted, “pretty fucked how internalized racism and sexism has made it so hard for me to celebrate my accomplishments as a woman of color in a way that’s not sarcastic…but i am working on it and that’s all one can do.” How does internalized racism and sexism impact your music and the way you choose put yourself out there?
It is really hard to celebrate your successes as a woman of color or anyone with a marginalized identity. There’s a lot of doubt placed into your brain about your own validity and achievements. I hesitate a lot of times to be able to give myself that pat on the back where I’m like, You did this! Really good job! Even if it’s a small thing, it’s hard to get out of your head and [away from] that feeling of not being good enough.
Especially given the amount of content on the internet in terms of music and the entertainment industry, it can feel hard to figure out how your work can be special. But I’ve come to the [understanding that] everyone is unique, and having a similar experience [to someone else] shouldn’t stop me from sharing it. Showcasing similar experiences is what bridges us together. It’s difficult to overcome internalized racism and sexism because they’re so ingrained into the systems of the world, but if I can use my platform to discuss the ways that I [deal with] that and understand that it also applies to anyone in life, hopefully it can allow people the space to be proud of who they are and what they do.
Similarly, I noticed you had a TikTok where you jokingly said you were responsible for a number of trending TikTok songs, and then you later recanted in a second video where you apologized for seeming cocky. But you weren’t wrong, and white male artists aren’t penalized in the same way for being confident in their work and their reach.
I really hope that I can give less of a shit in the future. As a woman of color, and an LGBTQ member, and a young person, and someone who’s in a field where the opinions of people matter so much, I hope I can get to [being] the person [who knows her] own value. I stand by the fact that I had a few songs blow up on TikTok; sure, it was an egotistical view, but I was celebrating in the way that I knew how to. My hope for myself is that I can find a way to be confident that feels safe for me, and also that I can encourage people around me not to backpedal on the things that they say or the pats on the back they give themselves. I’m still figuring it out because I’m trying to juggle being 19 and being someone with a platform; I’m still gaining confidence on a personal level, alongside gaining confidence as an artist.
It feels like something you address in “no faker,” where you sing, “Like ticking clocks these people talk about who I’m supposed to be/ I’m still here and incomplete/ And it takes all my energy/ Just to find out what I need.”
That was the first session work that I ever did. I was working with Gabe Simon, who also prides himself on authenticity. You should never sacrifice yourself for someone else, but I also know I have my own insecurity about who I am and what I say. I wanted to make a song that felt like I could hear it, even though I was the one singing it. I don’t need to fake who I am for the sake of a person or a group of people. That song is just as much for an audience as it is for me at the end of the day. I want to remind myself that I have the [right] to take up space.
You told the New York Times in October 2019 that your fans are often “young women of color or young people that are LGBTQ or sharing a lot of the same identifiers that I do.” How do you think you’ve cultivated a fandom of people who are looking to you not only as an artist but as an icon and someone to learn from?
Music is really largely led by white guys, [so] I do feel really proud that I’ve created a space on the internet where my audience and I can unapologetically exist (as often as we can be unapologetic [laughs]). I’ve always had the underlying goal of having a positive impact on people and inspiring change, and I have this platform where I can see my own audience reacting to who I am and feeling safe to express who they are as well. I feel really grateful because I don’t think I had many people to look up to when I was growing up [or saw] myself reflected in the media. I am one of those people now [who allows] people to see themselves reflected onscreen, on a billboard, in music, or wherever it is. I feel like their mom or their older sister; I don’t want to let them down.
Animal Crossing is one thing your community has really rallied around. You’ve posted a few TikToks about it, and I saw that you recently bought bells on eBay. Who is your favorite villager, and why?
[Laughs.] My favorite villager is Stitches; he’s a little patchwork bear. He’s one of the only nonanimals on Animal Crossing. His favorite thing is bugs, and every single time you have a conversation with him he’s either talking about the bugs in his floor or walls or he’s talking about how he wants a snack. He’s very pure.
What’s your favorite track on the EP?
My favorite song to work on was probably “1, 2,” but my favorite one to listen to now is “Almost Home.”