Oakland’s mxmtoon has been writing songs since she was a child, but in the three years since the now-19-year-old began posting her songs, as well as personal vlogs, she’s amassed millions of fans around the world.
The capitalization-averse artist, whose first name is Maia, has been sharing her life and her thoughts on the world, and has connected with people with who have lived similar experiences and come from similar backgrounds. She’s a first-generation American from a family of immigrants and is bisexual. She recorded her 2018 EP, plum blossom, at her home with just her ukulele. It quickly found an audience, racking up more than 100 million streams on Spotify alone. By the time she released her full-length debut, masquerade, in September, her entire 20-date tour was on its way to selling out.
Mxmtoon’s unassuming face shone brightly from billboards in New York’s Times Square and in New York.
“It was weird to think about how there was a gigantic billboard on the other side of the country that had my face looming over the thousands of people that walk through New York on a daily basis,” mxmtoon said in an email exchange last week.
She said she was ecstatic to see her face so large, but not for the obvious reasons.
“I feel like I have such a wonderful opportunity to diversify the types of faces that are in modern day culture,” she said. “I didn’t have faces that looked like me to look up to—both literally and figuratively—and now it’s my face that could possibly be there to reflect someone else’s identity.”
Being able to use her platform to connect with others has been not only her goal, but her plan.
RIFF: How do you balance having a large internet presence with combatting bullying and negativity? How do you work to make all of your fans feel safe?
mxmtoon: I’m really lucky, personally, to not be exposed to as much online negatively as I think other people unfortunately can be. I have a really protective audience who usually pounces on people who say hurtful things to me, so it almost feels like I have an army of internet moms looking after me! When there are peaks of cyberbullying, though, the best thing I’ve found is to just ignore it. Turn off your phone, walk away, and spend time with people who know you for who you are and not what you post. As for my audience, and what I do to help them feel safe, providing almost a “safe haven” on my own pages for individuals to interact with me is the way I personally do that!
What is the funniest or most awkward experience have you had with a fan on social media?
This story always makes me laugh, but I got this DM from someone one day that just said, “Hey I’m down to hang,” as if I had asked them previously if they wanted to hang out. But instead it was just this really weird out-of-context message. I didn’t respond, but I think a lot what I would’ve said, and I think it would’ve been along the lines of, “Oh thank goodness, I was really worried you weren’t; unfortunately kinda busy right now but I’ll let u know when I’m free!!!!”
You’ve been outspoken about mental health issues on social media. Why do you think this is an important topic for artists to cover?
Mental health is something that every single individual has to cope and deal with at some point or another in their lives. I personally know that people on the internet openly talking about their struggles and overcoming them helped me a lot growing up. Trying to erase the stigma that mental health has in our society is going to take a long time, but if I can play a small part in making sure my audience knows that what they’re feeling isn’t a solo experience, I’ll do what I can to make sure they’re aware we’re all going through it together.
What role do artists have in social issues? You have tweeted about climate change, as well as LGBTQ+ rights.
I definitely don’t feel as if people in the public eye are obligated to speak on issues, but I know for myself that having a platform makes me feel like I can do a lot more beyond just writing music. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to speak on issues that are important to me, and being aware that my audience is largely individuals that share a lot of common core identifiers with me pushes me to fight for the issues that affect us all. At the same time, it’s definitely a lot of responsibility for artists and people with influence to almost feel obligated to have answers and opinions on everything that’s going on in the world. I can only speak for myself, but I’m 19 and still understanding who I am. I don’t have the answers to everything and am still just a student of the world, so I’m figuring it all out with my audience along the way.
How do you think you will be engaging with your fans online in 10 years’ time? Do you think you will be as engaged the further your career takes you and the bigger you get as an artist?
I feel like the way I interact online in 10 years will most likely be the same, but maybe not as often. I’ll be 29 then, which isn’t old at all, but at that point I hope for myself that I’ll be developing other aspects of my life that don’t revolve around the internet! So, I’ll definitely always exist online in some way, but by then maybe I’ll have some more balance between my real world life and my virtual one.
You collaborated with Spotify to create “21 Days,” a podcast that follows three weeks in your life. What was the experience like and did it feel strange to give listeners such an open look into your daily life?
Podcasting was an entirely new adventure for me. … It was really weird to adjust to wearing microphones for 80 percent of the days, every single day, but so utterly cool to hear the end result. At first I was definitely worried about how much information I would be sharing, but because I’ve historically been such an open book on social media when it comes to my thought process, it wasn’t a giant leap to do a podcast that got into the nitty-gritty.
What were your emotions and mindset following the release of your debut album, the masquerade? What are you most proud of?
I slept for so long the night after the album was released. It felt like I could finally rest after the months of working, and years of writing! I am so incredibly proud of the project and I think the piece that really brings me so much joy is the fact that other people seem to love it just as much as I do. With any music I make, I hope the people who listen can claim the songs for their own experiences even though they’re written off of my own. My main hope for the album is that the songs on it become mainstays or bookmarks for other people and the places they’re in with their lives.
Your writing and singing style on the masquerade is reminiscent of a diary in its vulnerability. The spoken word delivery of “my ted talk” comes to mind. Is this something you intentionally tried to create?
I think it’s more intentionally now that it originally was. I never really knew how to write songs with structure or had formal training for it all, so I think writing in a way similar to a diary came naturally. I try to write music the way that I talk, and I think that makes the lyrics more accessible. Also doing spoken word type songs like “my ted talk” are just pure fun!
Was “blame game” about somebody in particular?
“Blame game” was sort of an amalgamation of different experiences I’ve had with relationships. So, it wasn’t necessarily about one particular person, but a common theme I pinpointed within myself and the way I interact with the people I’ve loved. I tend to have really rosy expectations of the world and life, and in the past I’ve blatantly ignored red flags or signs that another person didn’t want the same things that I did. So “blame game” is about that. [It’s] about not wanting to take responsibility for holding high expectations, and instead occasionally shoving culpability on another.
What prompted the decision to release all of the songs on the album in an acoustic format?”
Acoustic songs is where I started! All of my early music is just a vocal and a ukulele, and the album was such a vastly different project with production. I wanted to make sure that we still honored the way my music had been made prior. A lot of my long-time listeners really love the simplicity of my older songs, and so I wanted these acoustic versions to be for them, too.