mxmtoon is taking her music to new heights by delving deep and creating a guide for life.
Words: Abigail Firth. Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
When Dork first met mxmtoon, she was 19, embarking on her first tour in support of her debut album ‘the masquerade’, which she’d made in her room, mostly just using the ukulele. She was a proud introvert, but never shy, and equally as comfortable answering personal questions over the phone as she was oversharing on social media.
Shortly after touching down back home when the tour ended, it became apparent she wouldn’t be jetting off on another one any time soon. The isolation of 2020 kept Maia locked away in her childhood bedroom. For a bedroom pop artist, that doesn’t sound like hell, but Maia knew she always wanted bigger than what her four walls would allow.
Releasing two EPs, ‘dawn’ and ‘dusk’, in 2020, she actually didn’t spend any of that year writing, rather just getting to grips with what the bloody hell was happening to the world and figuring herself out. As it became safer to travel in 2021, she started work on her follow up record ‘rising’.
A musical boomerang, it flings us a million miles from the defining mxmtoon sound, from timid uke-driven confessions to bright disco-pop bangers, but it lands right back where she started, answering the questions she asked on her debut. Delving into themes of life and death, coming of age and existing online, self-perception and how others perceive you too, ‘rising’ is deeply personal, shedding the lyrical mask but building sonic walls of electro-pop to hide behind.
What better reintroduction then, than ‘mona lisa’, with its opening lyrics about hiding behind the ink and pen? The track details Maia’s imposter syndrome and desire to see herself as enough, something she’s grappling with on her whistle-stop Europe trip.
“I’m doing all these interviews and, like, in Paris, I was all too aware of what I was wearing and how I presented myself. One dude called me unstylish,” Maia recounts. “I was like, this is freaking me out. I just want to wear what I wear, which is pretty comfortable, plain clothing, like any person would wear – sneakers, leggings and a big t-shirt.”
That’s exactly what she’s wearing as we chat in her label offices. She’s just arrived in London and, like a true professional, cracked straight on with interviews.
“There are days where I’m like, is that enough for what I do? Being a musician that’s in the spotlight? I don’t want to change myself in any way, but there are days when I need to remember that I’m good enough as I am. That whole idea of wanting to be a Mona Lisa, do I need to be more to be perceived as beautiful? And I don’t; I can just be myself, but it has been a harder process to accept, and I’m not all the way there all the time. I think any person in the music industry probably looks at like, Dua Lipa, who writes amazing pop music and looks fabulous every single day of her life. I’m not her, and I will never be her. But you do wonder, do I need to be that in order to exist in this world?”
Granted, within a couple of hours, we’re in a studio getting ready to shoot the pictures for this feature, where Maia sits having her hair and makeup done while a stylist chooses from an assortment of poofy dresses and funky knitwear to pop-star-ify her. She’s happy to join in, the makeup artist commenting that Maia often does her own elaborate eyeshadow looks, but it’s hard not to wonder if she’d rather not have the fuss; it’s all still very new to her, after all.
It’s something she’ll have to get used to as she steers into poppier territory with ‘rising’. Gradually introducing more elements to her music over the past couple of years as she became more familiar with simply how to do so, the songs on ‘rising’ are the kind Maia always wanted to make.
“This project feels like the emergence of understanding what sort of songs I want to make for the very first time”mxmtoon
“I definitely realised early on that my style of music was made on ukulele and with my voice, so I felt like there might be some preconceived notions that I would continue to do that on all of my projects going forward. And it’s not to say that I don’t like the ukulele – I still love it, and I still play it in my day to day life – but that music was made out of necessity because I didn’t know how to make music other than that.
“This project feels like the emergence of understanding what sort of songs I want to make for the very first time and doing it without thinking too heavily about what people are going to expect of me. Just making songs for the sake of making them and loving them and enjoying them.”
Returning to her family home in the California Bay Area at the start of the pandemic, Maia wound up digging through old CDs from her childhood. Old favourites like the soundtracks of Mamma Mia and Hairspray – which she admits she still knows every word to every song on each – and a compilation of children’s music titled ‘Free to be You and Me’. It was in those songs that she first found comfort in music and wanted to recreate that feeling in her own.
Favouring uber-catchy melodies, ABBA-esque piano, the occasional horn section, and lyrics that pull from actual nursery rhymes (“if you’re lonely and you know it, clap your hands and show it,” goes ‘dance’), she used ‘rising’ as a chance to indulge her inner child.
Thematically, ‘rising’ is influenced by (any guesses?) the pandemic, more specifically, Maia trying to find herself during an incredibly confusing few years. Looking into her birth chart for answers, the record is based around the idea of being a Libra rising (that’s the sign that represents how other people view you, btw).
“I was looking into astrology a lot over the course of the pandemic because I feel like I was pretty lost and just trying to find explanations for why I was feeling certain ways, or just looking for some sort of way to understand what I was going through, maybe in a more spiritual sense. Looking at your ascendant sign is all about the person that you portray to the world around you and the mask that you wear, which is kind of poignant because I’ve made an entire album called ‘the masquerade’ too, so it’s always been a topic of conversation in my music.”
Throughout the writing of ‘rising’, Maia confronted her tendency to overshare online. Growing up online was taking its toll, and after years of putting personal stories into songs and tweets in equal measure, it was time to take a step back.
As she watched her following grow, she became concerned with how much of her life she was sharing and the personality she was projecting, too. Her personal and professional lives had been intertwined since she was 12, and she needed to find who Maia was off the screen.
“I was talking about this yesterday with my manager. I was like, I think my brain is broken. I’m literally just destroyed from thinking about, how can my life exist as content for a day?” she confesses. “It’s not healthy for your brain to be thinking about how can I tweet about a situation, or how can I make a TikTok trend video about something that I’m going through. I try not to be too hard on myself because I recognise that’s a part of my job, and it’s also something that I do enjoy sometimes, but I definitely recognise that being online, while I think is natural for people around our ages, is also not something that you should do every waking second of the day.”
She continues: “It’s this self-deprecation. It’s like you immediately want to make it a joke or something that other people can be like, ‘OMG, I totally relate to that’, but it’s like, hold on, that was an experience that you went through, how do you feel about that? Not how can you make people laugh about it?”
It’s this holding back that gives us one of the most personal songs on ‘rising’. The track ‘florida’ recounts Maia’s trip to the state to visit her grandparents for her grandpa’s 81st birthday, just weeks before he passed away. It was a turning point; despite wanting to let her followers know she wasn’t in a good place and had lost a loved one, she channelled her emotions into creating and shared the song with family first, finding out how healing music could be.
“I didn’t want his life to be summed up in 240 characters, so let me write a song about it instead. Being able to share it with my dad and having a moment with it was way way more productive for me and way more healing than any tweet could ever be. But I did have to stop myself for a second where, the moment I heard that he had passed, I was like, oh my god, I really wish that I could tell people. At that point, I was across the country from my parents, and so I couldn’t even give them a hug. You really just want to find people that understand what it’s like to lose someone.”
For someone who’s only 21, Maia has been pondering getting older for her whole career. Finding it difficult to live in the moment, so to speak, she’s often looking back and into the future. Caught between reminiscing on the past and being terrified of the future, she’s also been coming of age for her entire career and writing about it as it happens.
“Having to grow up with so many people watching you, it’s really not a normal experience”mxmtoon
“So many of these songs from this album are about growing up and getting older and understanding where you are in your life with your age. What does your story become, and what will it be? I had two grandparents that passed away during the pandemic, and I had a lot of conversations with them about what they thought about their life; my grandmother got to her late 70s, and my grandpa was 81, but even at the end of their lifetime, they were like, ‘Oh God, I wish I had more time’, and I was like, wow, I’m 21, and I’m so tired already. I can only imagine getting so far down your life, and then you’re still like, oh there’s so many things that I want to do.
“A lot of the songs ended up having lyrics about getting older and my own story of growing up online and being a musician in the public eye, then also thinking about their experiences of being people who still feel like they’re 20 inside and wish that they had more time. That was definitely something that was really important in my brain, and family was very pivotal and what I was thinking about and needed throughout the pandemic.”
Some of the tracks on ‘rising’ end up mirroring songs on ‘the masquerade’, not intentionally, rather because Maia still has the same feelings and has grown into them. ‘seasonal depression’ on album one is responded to on ‘frown’, where Maia tells her old self it’s okay to be sad all of the time. Where ‘prom dress’ addressed feeling like you’ve missed out on teenage experiences, ‘sad disco’ relishes in experiencing joy alone.
“I’ve definitely taken this back and forth conversation with a younger version of myself, gotten older and then made music for her. That way, she can understand how to navigate through life,” she says.
As the world returns to some sort of normality, Maia is preparing to tour again. She’s in London to play a small show at Omeara, picking up right where she left off as her last pre-pandemic live show was in London too, but the official ‘rising’ tour kicks off at the start of May. With two years away from the stage to grow, she’ll be bringing the fully formed version of mxmtoon around the globe this summer.
“I feel like some days I wish I was a little bit older when I first started off doing this,” she says, “because I think having to grow up with so many people watching you, it’s really not a normal experience. There are definitely pieces of me that think, did I miss out on what my life could have been? If I had gone to university or just followed the pathway that I thought I would follow? But I think I’m in a place of acceptance now where I’m proud of the person that I’ve become in the process of this, and even though it has been hard and it’s gonna be weird. It’s just my reality and my story, and that’s okay. Nobody’s life is very standard in any way. I think it probably would have been weird in different ways if something else had happened.” ■
Taken from the June 2022 edition of Dork, out now. mxmtoon’s album ‘rising’ is out now.