mxmtoon is an artist who knows that authenticity is the quickest way to an audience’s heart. While relatively new to the music industry, the 19-year old has amassed over 100 million streams and is set to open a few of Lauv’s Asia tour dates this summer. The secret to her success? Staying true to herself. In a world that bombards young listeners with pictures of lives they’ll never live, Maia, the artist behind mxmtoon, creates a painting of her own life, which is both relatable and authentic to the experiences of adolescents all around the world. The rising star chats with Pulse Spikes about her songwriting process, misconceptions of the music industry, and being a voice for others in our 16th issue.
If you could describe your life as a quote from a movie, what quote would you choose and why?
Honestly, I watch so many movies, and I can’t think of a single quote that would describe my life. I do know however that when Hermione says “We could have been killed, or worse, expelled!” Ron responds with “She really needs to sort out her priorities,” I really identified with that.
At what age and why did you start singing?
I started when I was ten, which doesn’t feel too long ago, but this year I’ll be going on a decade with voice.
As the daughter of immigrants, I am so proud to see an immigrant-born singer rise in the pop scene. How has being from a family of immigrants impacted your journey in life?
As someone from a family of immigrants, I feel like it’s important to share that part of my story. I’ll never know the hardships my grandparents had to face, or understand the experience of what it was like growing up for my mom as a fully Chinese person, but those stories still define my being and who I’ve become over time. I think trying to understand their lives has helped me appreciate what I’ve been privileged enough to have and also pushes me to work harder so that I can show the same support my family has shown me to future generations.
Growing up, did you see yourself represented in the music industry? How do you feel being that representation for others?
Not at all. There was no one even remotely in pop culture that I saw myself reflected in! Maybe Keanu Reeves was the closest I got as a mixed-race Asian-American, but I wasn’t trying to star in action movies and weigh the pros and cons of a red or blue pill. Now in the music industry, I feel like there’s more representation than ever with mixed-race Asians! I feel really lucky that I get to be a face on the screen or paper that a younger person sees. Hopefully, when they see me, they can see themselves, too. It’s a lot of pressure, but I know how important it is to see yourself reflected in pop culture, my only hope is that one day everyone can have their Keanu or whoever it may be that speaks to their story.
How did your parents feel about your success as a singer?
They were really apprehensive at first. Both are educators that put a lot of emphasis on minimizing their kids’ digital footprint, so you can imagine when they found out that I had an entire online persona: They were terrified! But they’ve been nothing but supportive since then.
How does it feel to reach such success at a relatively young age? Do you feel like you have to live up to some sort of expectation of a young star, or are you just doing things your own way? Do you feel like media outlets push the fact that you’re so young so much that it freaks you out?
It’s scary. I think young people are often underestimated in their ability to achieve greatness or enact change, but the reality is that we can pave ways regardless of how old we are. It is a lot of pressure though, and I feel an immense amount of responsibility to not “mess up” or lose the platform I have, but that doesn’t deter me from trying to march to the beat of my own drum. I know I’m young, but I also know what I’m doing. I think media outlets tend to romanticize the fact that I’m newer to the music industry and paint the rose-colored image of me writing music in my bedroom. While that’s not inaccurate, it’s also changed. I’m living on my own now in New York, I work with other professionals, and I’ve had to learn to navigate a new field along the way.
You’re part of a generation of digital natives, and social media has been integral to your success. Do you ever feel pigeonholed as a social media star or influencer? What are your thoughts on the term “influencer”?
Absolutely. My thought is that most of the time whenever someone has a hold on social media or an audience online, they’re stuck into the box of an “influencer.” I don’t like to think of myself that way, because I’m not trying to influence anyone, I’m just a person sharing her story or writing tweets that make me laugh. I think people in the game of defining the professions of others would probably see me as an influencer, but the reality is that I’m a musician who uses social media like any other teenager in the world. I just happen to be pretty good at making viral videos.
What is something that you wish your listeners knew about you?
I wish they knew how much I appreciate them! It sounds silly but I don’t think I can ever fully express my gratitude to them, and often I wish I could just hug each and every one of them.
What’s a misconception about the music industry you wish others knew?
That there are truly good people within it. I think any part of the entertainment industry is heavily thought to be filled with gross people who don’t care about an artist, but I know for a fact that even if you run into some bad individuals there are diamonds amongst them.
We live in a world right now that seems to look down on females who are overly emotional. What do you have to say to this judgment that girls (and boys!) who showcase their feelings are “crazy” or “too sensitive”?
Screw that! Emotional vulnerability is one of the bravest things a person can show. The ability to pen their emotions is not an easy task, and I applaud any person who isn’t afraid to express themselves in whatever way that may be.
Your debut album is called the masquerade. Explain the concept of it. Did you ever feel like you had to put on a mask? Why?
Often times in my life, I’ve felt like I’ve worn a mask to shield myself from outside criticism or even shelter myself from my own emotions. I think a lot of people do this all the time, and so the concept of a masquerade where we’re all just people going out into the world every day with walls around our hearts and masks upon our faces was really intriguing to me.
Walk us through your songwriting process: How do you start out writing and how does the idea fully form into a track?
Usually, a melody will appear in my head if I find a chord progression that I really like! From there I fill in the tune with some words about what I might be going through and organize my thoughts via the structure of a song. I’ll put the overarching emotional theme into the chorus, the extraneous details in the verses, and the afterthought or resolution in the bridge. Eventually, a song comes out! Sometimes after ten minutes or sometimes after four months.
How do you fully capture an emotion through a song, and what is your favorite headspace in which to write?
I think simplicity is key. Not trying to circle around a theme or topic will be your best friend when trying to capture a feeling. My favorite headspace to write is actually when I’m profoundly sad, which is, well, sad!! But I find it most productive, albeit very dramatic.
Your songs read a lot like diary entries. Did you read a lot of poetry/books growing up? What are some of your favorites?
I didn’t do much reading growing up, but I wish I had. I also didn’t keep a diary, so songs became my version of processing my emotions. I’ve read more in the past but none that would really be related to my songs. I did write one song based entirely off of a book called Caucasia though, and that book is incredible.
Is there an artist right now who you’re super inspired by?
Rex Orange County!
What does your ideal collaboration look like?
I want to collaborate with Lizzo on a conversation (haha!), I admire her a lot as an individual. Maybe we could collab on a tweet too. Let her know I’m open!
Do you keep a journal? What does it look like?
I don’t keep a journal! I’ve tried a couple of times in the past but I’ve always found the writing to be pretty tedious. The ones I’ve attempted have read more like data analysis where I’ve recorded how much sleep I’ve had, what I ate, and three things I did during that day.
What is the most personal song you’ve ever written?
Probably “unspoken words.” It’s about my grandma, and I didn’t tell her until a week before it was set to release. It was a big step for me to do that, but I’m proud that I wrote a song that my family could be proud of and one that I could dedicate to her.
Your tracks are warm and invoke the type of nostalgic intimacy that only one’s inner thoughts have. What is your favorite part of invoking that emotional connection with fans?
I think because of my writing, a lot of my audience feels like old friends. Every time I play a live show, it feels like a homecoming. They’re all so sweet, and to know that they resonate with my songs means that we all share the same experience.
They say that neutrality in the face of oppression is taking the side of the oppressor. How do you feel about having a platform at such a young age, and what sort of issues are you looking to lift up?
I agree. I think having a platform to talk about issues is an incredibly huge privilege that I’ve been afforded, and while it’s a lot of pressure to be someone that people look to to speak on world issues, I also know that’s something I signed onto when I decided to pursue music. As a bisexual mixed-race woman color, a lot of world issues impact my identity, so I look to speak on issues of sexuality, race, gender, and other topics like climate change and the safety of youth in America.
How do you deal with self-care within your busy schedule?
I’ll let you know when I figure it out! Most of the time it’s making sure I have time in the evening to watch an episode of a TV show and time in the morning to make a cup of tea. If I can keep routine with me in the slightest bit while I’m traveling or working, I can usually stay pretty sane.
Congratulations on the upcoming tour with Lauv! Were you a fan of his before? What’s your favorite one of his songs?
Thank you! Honestly, still wrapping my mind around the fact that it’s happening, and I don’t think I’ll believe it until I’m actually there for the first date. I was totally a fan, and I still am, so I’m stoked that I even get to watch him perform each night. My favorite song is probably “Drugs & The Internet.”
What is the most exciting thing about touring? What’s the scariest?
The most exciting thing is playing the show every night, but the scariest is probably all the travel. I really like being stationary and having alone time, so touring is the pure opposite of all of that. Also, the bathrooms in the venues are usually really dark and smelly so that’s another thing.
Any advice for your younger self?
To be patient and enjoy the moment more. So much of my time was spent worrying about what would happen in the future, and while I still do that, I was constantly dwelling on the “what-ifs” rather than enjoying the present.
How do you want to be remembered?
Hopefully as someone who was able to speak about experiences and sing the stories of the people who couldn’t. Think of me as the Lorax, but instead of trees I speak for the angsty teens of the world.
STORY ISABELLA VEGA
PHOTOS JERRY MAESTAS