mxmtoon (pronounced em-ex-em-toon) is the moniker of 18-year-old Maia, an Oakland-based singer, songwriter, and ukulele player. Maia is like any other teenager, playing sad songs from her bedroom and making goofy youtube videos. But her videos have reached a global audience that have helped rack up over 75 million aggregate streams across all platforms
Growing up in Oakland, music was a constant for this rising star as she took lessons in violin, cello, trumpet, and guitar before being introduced to the ukulele in middle school. “i picked it up by learning four really basic chords and playing ‘riptide’ by vance joy (a quintessential ukulele song) over and over again cuz i thought it was really cool,” Maia explains.
Maia realised she could be a singer when a friend told her that her voice was “pretty good, even with a retainer” – a big confidence boost when you’ve got a metal cage locked to your teeth.
After trying her hand at writing comedy songs, Maia decided to share something a little different – genuine, vulnerable feelings. When she uploaded a demo called ‘something’, which later became ‘feelings are fatal’, Maia realized she could do whatever she wanted. “I’ve gone through all types of things,” she says. “I can be as ridiculous as i want but I can also be an emo teenager and people like both sides.”
Since then, Maia has written about a host of subjects, from being a burden to her friends (the sweet ‘please don’t’), the trials of love (‘cliché”s head-over-heels moment, or the bubble bursting on ‘don’t play your card’), and her connection to the Chinese side of her family (the wistful ‘hong kong’). Maia does not stick to the expected norms of songwriting, although she does concede writing love songs is “so much fun”, despite not overflowing with experience in the romance department. “I think it’s good to bring variety to the experiences that are sung about, for the people who are trying to find something that resonates with them,” she says.
Resonate is exactly what Maia has done so far. The aforementioned ‘feelings are fatal’, an ode to bottling up your feelings so as not to bother the people around you, has clocked up over seven million streams on spotify, suggesting her sincere lyrics are connecting strongly with her listeners. It’s not just fans her work is clicking with either, but musicians too. Already she has collaborated with the likes of peachy!, and takes the lead on his biggest song so far- the breezy, jazz-tinged ‘falling for u’ (its streams are now past the 15 million mark). Meanwhile, Maia has also been lauded by the likes of I-D, Hypebeast, and Revolt TV, and appeared on the cover of Spotify’s ‘Sad Vibe’ playlist.
The main aim of mxmtoon’s work is, she says, to make people feel less alone and realize others feel the same as they do – something that has also helped her feel less alone, in turn. “There’s few things that can reach people the way music does. There’s a veil placed over everyone walking in the world where you can’t see what they’re going through. What’s cool about my music is, just by seeing the likes or the comments, you automatically know, ‘ok, i am obviously not the only person that’s trying to cope with this.'”
Catching the internet’s attention has helped her feel more comfortable in herself too. “Seeing that people gravitated towards me helped me feel a lot more confident in my ability to be genuine with other individuals,” she says, expanding on her point with a laugh and a slight eye roll. “On a superficial level, it’s definitely helped me to see that, if people like what i’m doing, i must be doing something right, or my face must not be that bad if people like these selfies.”
In august, she got to meet her supporters for the first time when she played her first live show at LA’s Moroccan Lounge. She was given a typically 2018 reaction from the crowd, who eagerly filmed her set on their phones as they sang along to every word. “It was great and such a weird experience to be sitting on a stool and then somebody shouts, ‘queen!'” she explains.
On her debut EP ‘plum blossom,’ out now, Maia comes good on that royal title and shares even more of her perspective with the community of fans and friends she’s built around her. A big focus for this time around is body confidence, with one track detailing her own experience with the issue, written when she was “in a really dark place with my physical appearance.” “it’s such a universal thing but i don’t know a whole lot of songs that just flat out say, ‘here’s what’s happening and i’m not happy, what can i do about it?'” she says of one of her motivations behind writing the song.
Of the whole ep, she assures, “it’s still sad but it was definitely more thought about and thoughtfully put together,” teasing “new elements” that show more range and exploration than just her trusty uke. The days of her creating percussion tracks with her hair straighteners might be gone but she’s not forgotten her roots yet – the ep was still recorded in her parents’ guest room, just like everything else. Its title, meanwhile, symbolizes both the emotional themes of her new tracks and connects to Maia’s cultural background.
Ask Maia what she wants to achieve with her music and she won’t give you a list of glitzy awards, astronomical headline shows, and mansions. Instead, her answer is fittingly more selfless. “I get really sweet messages from people about how my music has helped them and i think my end goal in everything that i do is to have a positive impact,” she says. “to get those messages and to know what i’m doing is [helping] is super powerful.”