For most musicians, life has been a bit different lately. This isn't the case for mxmtoon, though. The 20-year-old Californian, also known as Maia, is pretty used to being tucked away in her room, making music and virtually collaborating, making, as they call it, 'bedroom pop'.
"I don't mind it at all. I could just sit inside and play video games or watch TV every single day if I had the choice to," Maia says from her apartment in Brooklyn, a place she's only just gotten back to after a few months quarantining in her hometown of Oakland with her family. "Right now I don't have a choice, I kind of have to do that anyways. But I am like a really big introvert, so I was optimistic going into this whole thing, like it'll be totally fine, I'll just do what I normally do."
In between playing Animal Crossing and making TikToks (relatable queen), she released EP 'dawn' in the spring, which thanks to her tendency to look inwards and love for spending time home alone came out just at the right time.
"Thematically it ended up being pretty appropriate and just having songs that felt like they looked a little bit more externally and hopefully gave people an optimistic edge to what is rather pessimistic and really negative and scary about our world right now. I think people felt happy that there was something that kind of reflected what they were feeling in the moment even though the songs when I wrote them were not what I thought they were going to be for later on."
So while plenty of musicians have spent the last few months mourning the loss of touring and partying, that hasn't necessarily been the case for Maia (who says she left her prom after an hour and ended up writing a song about it). However, she has been readjusting to her old ways of emailing collaborators about songs; obviously, a very annoying thing to happen after waiting so long to get into the studio with other people IRL.
"All I knew for a very long time was how to like email people back and forth on a song and collaborate that way." Yep, Maia was doing those overseas collabs long before 'all of this'. In fact, fellow Dork cover star Cavetown produced her hit 'prom dress' from his own room.
"When I finally got introduced to the in-person collaboration where you're sitting with someone, you can have a conversation with them instead of waiting for an email, after the time zone reaches the proper time for them to be awake, I realised how much I love that experience. I kind of grew less familiar with it after a certain time period, so now I'm back in it, and it's definitely a whole different way to use your brain and different style of collaboration."
mxmtoon's debut album 'the masquerade' was released in late-2019, and stuck to the stripped-back sound she'd cultivated in her YouTube videos and early self-released singles. Switching producers and moving the process to the studio naturally changed up her sound when it came to creating 'dawn', which followed a brighter, dreamier sound, but it was also the time where she pushed herself to pursue a more ambitious vision.
"I really wanted to make songs where, it's hard to explain it, but if I heard myself on a playlist, in the right style of what I was aiming for, I wouldn't feel so out of place." This is an interesting note, considering the soaring popularity of bedroom pop lately. She's pretty likely to be playlisted beside her contemporaries like Beabadoobee, girl in red, and Benee, as well as good pals Cavetown and Chloe Moriondo ("a lot of my friends happen to be some of my favourite artists, so I'm definitely a little bit biased," she says of the two). But if the sound Maia was going for on 'dawn' is somewhere in between Kacey Musgraves, Clairo and Conan Gray, she slides in perfectly.
"I think sometimes a lot of my journey as a musician is about this feeling of imposter syndrome and not really knowing if I belong within the spaces the music industry, as you know, a young woman of colour, a queer person, if I get playlisted with some other people that I really look up to, I'm like, well, I don't know if I belong here.
"I've come to accept that obviously, music is subjective, art is subjective and nothing is going to be the right thing, but I was really wanting to make music that felt like I could fit into a bigger sense of the music industry rather than the tiny kind of little micro world that I've created within mxmtoon."
Growing up online and spending the second half of her teens in front of the camera meant Maia's coming of age has been pretty well documented. Somewhere in those years, she stopped singing about her high school experiences and teenage emotions, and started looking outwards, resulting in a more mature direction lyrically on 'dawn' and upcoming sister EP 'dusk'.
Despite only just hitting the big two-oh, she's a self-proclaimed internet mum, and tracks on 'dawn', like 'fever dream' and 'lessons' speak directly to both Maia's younger self and her (very slightly) younger listeners.
"A lot of times when I speak to my audience, I feel like I'm just saying the things I really wish I could have heard when I was just their age, which is only a couple years younger, like, I'm a baby if I'm being honest, I've barely experienced anything. But I think I have matured a lot within the last year, I'm just taking a lot of time to think, and being in therapy and writing a lot more music and all these sorts of things.
"When I write songs, or give advice, or just talk generally, I think that my audience and I are so similar in the way that we experience life and view the world and think about things and the stuff that we worry about that when I try to comfort them or try to provide lyrics that feel like they can be there for them, it follows the lines of what I wish I could have heard when I was 16 or 17."
Maia's upbringing in the Californian Bay Area played a big part in her comfort in expressing herself honestly and authentically in her music. Oakland is a pretty diverse city, so, unlike how she might feel on a playlist, she wasn't out of place.
"I grew up around people who looked like me and different kinds of people too, to hear different stories and understand more about the world. So I don't know, I guess like, the best way to put it is that it felt varied. It felt like my own experience was different, but also similar enough to the people around me that, as a mixed-race person and somebody who eventually came out to be bisexual too like, it was just nice to be able to feel like I wasn't out of place in an area of the world. I feel very thankful because having a city that didn't make me feel alienated for who I was lent itself to me feeling comfortable enough to make art about who I was."
She spent most of her childhood learning to play instruments and doing sports she says she didn't really want to do. She started playing the violin at six years old, and later learned to play the trumpet, cello, piano and guitar (phew), before turning to the ukulele, which led to arguably the most low-key rebellious phase any musician has had.
"I had a lot of structured music time where I was just learning how to formally practice and play sheet music or play chords. But I started writing music when I learned how to play the ukulele when I was twelve, and I think that the ukulele was something that I naturally really gravitated towards after having so many years of classical training, because classical music is all about rules, you have to follow exactly what the sheet music says. You know, if you do it wrong, it sounds bad because it's not how it's supposed to be played. But with ukulele, there are four chords. You can play it as badly as you want to. There are no rules. I think that I really loved songwriting because it was the epitome of what everything that cello and classical music was not, so I really enjoyed it just because it felt like it was something that I'd never done before."
Lots of those classical instruments she learned as a child weave their way back in on her latest material, especially on the 'dusk' EP due out in October, which she promises is a little darker. "If you're familiar with Pokemon at all, they always release these two versions of the same game, essentially, where it's like Sun and Moon, they literally have one of those. So it's like mxmtoon takes Pokémon edition where she does dawn and dusk."
While she wrote lead single 'bon iver' back in March, most of the EP has been written in quarantine, and getting back to writing solo after working with other writers on 'dawn' proved a little tough. "It was so odd to be back sitting on my couch trying to think within my own brain being like 'I can't believe I have to come up with songs in order to have music', it was so stressful."
Lyrically, she says this is the one where she's spent months thinking about her existential crisis (doubt she's alone in that), but there's positivity in there too. If 'dawn' was centred around the idea that the sun always rises the next day, 'dusk' is about how a day doesn't only begin when the sun rises.
She says, "You have control over whenever you want to start your experiences or decide when you want to live life or start something. It doesn't have to be defined by when something feels right. It doesn't need to be pressured upon you or placed upon you to feel like you need to begin something just because the world says you do. 'dusk' is about taking your time but also knowing that any time is the right time, like it's just up to you. Its self determined. There's no rush for anything but it also it doesn't mean that you need to wait for a moment either."
She echoed those sentiments when asked if there's anything she'd tell her 16-year-old self who was just starting out posting YouTube videos, as well as telling herself not to try so hard to fit in – "it's just such a waste of time to constantly try and be something that you're not, and being authentic is so much more rewarding. I think it's easier in the long term for a lot of us if we just express who we are naturally without having to stress so much about it."
Growing up as a child of the internet and rising to fame online, Maia has a pretty strong connection to her audience. She interacts with them daily online, sharing memes of herself, hyping up fans selfies, and sharing the most candid parts of her conscious, and while there are certain parts of her life she keeps private (her surname remains unknown, for example), she's got a lot of love for her stans.
"I'm so thankful for the people that spend the time like drawing me or supporting my music and sharing it with other people because I literally wouldn't have my job without them. The only downside is when it can get just a little bit too intense. You know, you never want to hold somebody on a pedestal and feel like they're untouchable or anything like that.
"With me, at least within my own platform, I try to remind people I'm just a peer. I'm not someone who is above you, I'm not below you. We're just people at the same level trying to experience life and understand it as we go through it. And so with stan culture, I think sometimes the artist can be held so high up that they just become no longer a person. And I think with me, I would hate that. I just want to hopefully be viewed as an individual as much as I possibly can and know that I'm flawed and human just as much as the next person."
She's been there, though. She says if she hadn't channelled her energy into an artist project, she'd definitely be running a K-Pop stan account now. "I was like, I should probably utilise my time working on promoting my own music instead of just feeding into these seven people, but you know, I will work on music and still stan BTS for the time being." And the stan still slips out occasionally on her Twitter now.
Maia's obviously grown up a lot since she first started uploading, but she often looks to her past in her music videos. 'almost home' recounts her mother's comforting words while children look to the sky and play pretend in their houses, and in 'fever dream', she's joined by both a younger and older version of herself, fans in the comments gushing over how she looks like a Disney princess, and that the song makes them feel like they're the protagonist of a coming of age movie.
They're definitely onto something. Maia's music certainly has the gazing-wistfully-out-of-the-car-window vibe, so it's no surprise she's a big fan of classic romcoms and Netflix specials. "I love To All The Boys I've Loved Before, and I also really enjoyed The Kissing Booth, whatever the crappy ones are.
"But there's one that I recently watched called The Half of It, and it's about this queer, Asian-American high schooler who is navigating her own emotions, and I was just watching it with my mom. I love them to death because I think it's so emblematic of my own experience, but I was listening to the score and looking at the themes in the movie, and I was like, this is my dream movie. If I could be involved in any project, it would be this one, where there's so much intersectionality with the themes and exactly what I hope to express within my own artist project." Netflix that's an official callout, BTW.
When it comes to what's coming up in the immediate and actual future, Maia is looking forward to getting back on the road and seeing all of her fans face to face instead of screen to screen. She hasn't been able to come to the UK or do her US show run, and she's missed out on touring Asia with Lauv, which is obviously a big sad face. "I would just love to be able to connect with a lot of the people that I love and listen to my music and be able to play them songs because I know that we all mutually really miss that."
Unfortunately, it's back to bedroom releases for now. (And TikTok. Definitely back to TikTok.)
Taken from the September issue of Dork. mxmtoon's new EP 'dusk' is out 1st October.
Featuring mxmtoon, Dominic Fike, Arlo Parks, Cavetown and loads more.