It's easier than ever to find an audience nowadays, and then to perpetuate the myth that existing online is a perpetual, taxing performance. So, leave it to a gifted 19-year-old armed with a ukulele and a large fan base, built on YouTube and SoundCloud, to gently but firmly pull back the curtain, showing that there's power in admitting that it's all a game, that you don't have the answers, and refuse to simply make them up.
"I write these songs/ Singing like I'm an expert/ Teaching love in a lecture/ A broken heart collector/ And I'm fooling myself/ Over something I don't know/ Putting on a big show/ A single clap from the back row," mxmtoon sings on "my ted talk," a track from her debut album the masquerade.
For mxmtoon, born Maia (her last name is not publicly available), her childhood bedroom in the Bay Area has been a musical haven not only for herself but for the thousands of listeners and viewers who have been following her since she started uploading original music in 2017. With a commitment to covering topics she rarely hears addressed by other artists, and a keen understanding of how to bond with her audience, she's emerged as a charming and relatable singer-songwriter with a massive platform. On the masquerade, which features songs written over the last two years, she's offering the most polished picture of herself yet. And it's one that, like all of her music, succeeds based on her candor and intelligence.
"It's really about all the experiences and stories that have formed me into who I am today," she says. "I feel strongly that having songs from 2017 all the way to 2019 does a really good job of giving insight—to me, as well as listeners—into how I've changed over the years and the sorts of things that are important to me."
Throughout the record, she discusses everything from high school anxiety ("prom dress") and platonic friend drama ("high & dry") to her relationship with her grandmother ("unspoken words") and how something as simple as the weather greatly affects our mental health ("seasonal depression").
"It was the process of being like, 'Oh, that song doesn't exist. Let me fill the gap with my own experience, that way I can have something to listen to and then maybe someone else will want to listen to it too,'" she explains.
A few days before the album's release, we spoke to mxmtoon about expanding her sound, why she views herself as a peer to her fans, and the importance of keeping her songs approachable.
This album is your first time working fully in a studio and with a producer. What was that like?
It was really weird. The producer who I worked with, Robin Skinner [of Cavetown] has the same experience I do of being a DIY artist and doing everything out of his bedroom. It was funny being in the studio where you have the live room and control room and everything, because we could have made the entire album in a closet. The two of us are so used to living and being in small spaces to create stuff that I sat maybe two feet away from him the whole entire time. The only time we used the live rooms was when we did drums for the songs.
With those changes, the album's sound is bigger and more varied than much of your previous output. Did that affect the writing process?
Every song that I write starts off acoustic. Some of these songs were written in 2017, some of them were written a week before we were supposed to be finishing up the album. I think the earlier things were definitely just acoustic, because, at that point, I don't think I had a sense of what other sounds I could produce on my own, or even approach in an artistic setting. Later on, it was great just to test out things and have a different brain be in the creative environment to bring different ideas to the table.
You're really branching beyond the ukulele.
I started playing ukulele and writing songs on it out of necessity, it wasn't the instrument that I wanted to pick up necessarily. It was more like, 'I could play four chords on a ukulele with no problem, and I have RhymeZone!'
You can play and compose on multiple instruments now, but what is unique or special about the ukulele?
It just feels so much more approachable from a musician's and a writer's standpoint, as well as also a player's standpoint, it's only four strings and it's really small. Guitar—when I played it at least—oftentimes I wished I was super good at it, and I was mad that I couldn't play "Stairway to Heaven" after picking it up for two seconds. But, the ukulele felt like I could fiddle around on it and come upon something that sounded really good in a way that I couldn't with guitar. It allows this flexibility where it felt like I could mess up and that maybe there was some room for error because of the perception of the ukulele being a beginner's instrument.
Why is it important for you to make music in an approachable fashion?
I think there's definitely a portion of wanting to make sure that people feel like they can still play songs that I make. I think a huge part of the music that I make is its approachability for my audience. [I want them to] feel like they can play these songs themselves on their own time. Also, I wanted to make it for the people who have been with me and listening to my music for a while. I've made everything acoustic so far, and I think this album is definitely a huge step up from where I was and the music I was making. I didn't want that to be too much of a cultural shock to my audience to hear such produced versions of the songs I made… More ways for people to interact with my music is always the end goal.
When you look back on this album, how will you able to tell it had the impact you wanted it to have?
The things that always bring me joy when I come across them, are people's covers of my songs. I think that way of interacting with the artwork I make is so special, because I know people have taken the time to learn the chords and learn the lyrics. And they're also taking the time to share it with me and hope that I see it, which I think is so sweet. That's a lot of energy to put out there, and it takes a lot to be brave enough to put yourself out on the internet. That's a big step.
Do you feel differently about this album than your previous bodies of work?
I think this is the first project I've felt so proud of and confident about and just excited to share it with people. My hope is for these songs to be taken and loved just as much by my audience as I love them. For [the songs] to become the soundtracks of their day-to-day or their commute or whatever it may be.
Is it nerve-racking to release a song like "prom dress" where you're sharing a vulnerable story of yours about a situation you know has been a struggle for lots of other people?
Thematically, I've never been super concerned with what my audience will think about the stories that I'm telling, because I've come to the realization that I could talk about pretty much anything, and at least one person will probably be like, "Hey, I think that too." I think starting from a base where my first song that I wrote about an emotional experience I had ["feelings are fatal"] was straight-up talking about depression in relation to my friendships, has set me up to be confident enough in my voice and in my stories, in the way that I talk about my experiences.
What was the reaction to "prom dress?"
The comment section was just all these people sharing these experiences and going into more depth about what they've gone through, and I just feel so lucky that I can be part of a space where people feel comfortable enough to share their experiences with a larger audience. It's important to me that I build that sense of community with a lot of people who have gone through the same things and [we discuss] these silent experiences that are so universal but no one wants to talk about.
I don't think I've ever heard a song tackle the issue of seasonal depression like you did. Where did that record come from?
Last winter was really tough; in January and February, I was really depressed. I was thinking—and as you've probably come to realize—I tweet a lot of my thoughts. I wrote, "My seasonal depression b hittin different this year" or whatever. I was thinking about it, and I was like, "That isn't a song so maybe I should make that song." It was the process of being like, "Oh, that song doesn't exist. Let me fill the gap with my own experience, that way I can have something to listen to and then maybe someone else will want to listen to it too."
When you write songs about these heavier topics, do you find yourself realizing things that hadn't occurred to you before made music about them?
"Seasonal Depression" is a good example of that. The last chorus I shift it over to a collective perspective where it changes from an "I" to a "we." And I wasn't writing that to try and speak for other people, but just because I'm definitely not the only person going through this, and maybe I can write about it from the perspective of being like, "Oh yeah, there are a lot of people going through this same experience."
"Unspoken Words" is this song about my relationship with my grandma growing up, and trying to piece together different thoughts that I've had scattered around in my mind and then organizing it into a song and something that I feel eventually comes to this conclusion where I'm like, "Yes, I am content with my current understanding of this relationship, and I can move on from it." I think sometimes, I go into those sorts of songs like, "I have this concept, but I don't feel like it's resolved." I don't think I always have resolutions to the things I approach on songs because I think the process of trying to understand it is definitely something I feel like everybody goes through. It's okay to leave it as this open-ended thing.
That makes a lot of sense.
A lot of times, I take the perspective of being a peer to my audience rather than a mentor. I would hate for people to look to me for answers, because I don't know anything. I'm trying to make that abundantly clear all the time. I'm just someone going along the same lines that they are.
So much of your musical and personal growth can be witnessed in real-time online, but did you ever think about taking down some of your earlier work now that you're in a different place emotionally and as a musician?
The biggest song I have from that earlier era is "feelings are fatal," and I think if that song hadn't taken off at the point it did and was maybe more unknown, I probably would have taken it down. I look back on that song, and I'm like, "Would I want to be sharing this information with an audience of people who don't really know me? Am I comfortable having this online? Is this representative of the space and the sorts of messages that I want to be spreading to my audience?" Now, I'm very appreciative of that song, but there were definitely moments where I went through it, and it was like, "Does it feel right to have this many people be interacting with the words that I'm talking about on this song?" And I was just feeling bad about it being so sad. I'm hoping to spread something more positive to people, but starting off on a note like that kind of makes me wish I'd started off differently.
You're active on YouTube and social media platforms in ways that other artists aren't necessarily. How has that helped you connect with your fans?
Because I've always posted content across platforms about all sorts of things, it has helped me gain an understanding of who my audience is in a way that maybe not all other artists or sorts of people do. For me, I was just a kid who was on the internet all the time, watching people on YouTube. Viewing other people's content was my escape from my day-to-day life. Now becoming the person who makes the content, I try to reach out to these people and feel a sense of community. It all comes from where I started.
Being in this position now where I have a much larger audience, I still try to interact with everybody. A lot of the people who interact with me on Twitter, Instagram, or wherever it may be are young adults trying to navigate their lives, and I'm the same way. I'm 19, I graduated from high school last year, I'm now being thrown into this industry that I know little-to-nothing about because both of my parents are teachers. I'm in this situation where I don't have all the answers, these kids are still going through school and not having the answers for what that experience is supposed to look like… The universal experience of trying to understand who you are is something everybody goes through. I'm trying to continue to make that known and verbalized to my audience.
There are going to be some listeners who will be discovering your music for the first time with the masquerade. What do you want their takeaway to be?
If someone were to listen to it never having heard my music before, my hope is something resonates and they can walk away with it, even if it's just one song on it. I hope they can walk away feeling like it's theirs, just as much as I feel like it's mine.