MXMTOON interview – Evening Standard, 11 Sept 2020

“I’m a total introvert,” says mxmtoon, which on the one hand sounds feasible – she’s quietly spoken, thoughtful, unfussily dressed, and speaking to me via the laptop in the Brooklyn bedroom where she spends most of her time. Everything she writes is in muted lower case, and although you are invited to call her by her first name, Maia, she has never revealed her surname (that stage name is her long-term online username, pronounced “M-X-M-Toon”). 

On the other hand, introversion seems impossible. Close to 750,000 Instagram followers, 757,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel, over 380,000 on Twitter, 332,000 watching her live streams on Twitch and a gigantic 2.2 million on TikTok – surely these are the social media statistics of a crazed attention seeker?

“It’s complicated,” explains the 20-year-old. “I think the reason I gravitated towards the internet was because it felt like a place to vent whatever I was going through without anybody paying attention to me. Then I got really lucky – and unfortunately so – because people did start paying attention to the things I was saying. Yes, the internet is an extrovert’s realm, but it also feels like a safe place for introverts to talk. It’s a weird balance between interacting with the world and also not doing it at all, because it feels like such a void that you’re not really making a big footprint. It’s easy to minimise the weight of those numbers.”

In her early teens, growing up in Oakland, California, she wanted to be a YouTuber. It seemed more feasible than a music career for someone who had ditched formal violin, cello and trumpet lessons in favour of the more rudimentary sounds of the ukulele. It was on YouTube that she found people like herself among the bedroom video makers sharing the tiny details of everyday lives. “A music career felt like a much more traditional pathway, and didn’t seem like something that was approachable for me as a mixed race, bisexual kid,” she says. “On YouTube there were people with the same identities as me, openly talking about who they were and what was going on in their lives. Also it seemed like a place where you can be creative and do original things, and it was my dream to be able to make whatever I wanted at any point.”

Her music is what’s getting most of the attention at this point. She has progressed from making lo-fi, humorous ukulele songs about teenage love and loneliness, such as 1-800-DATEME, towards collaborating with bigger names. This week’s new single, ok on your own, is a moody duet with Canadian pop star Carly Rae Jepsen, and several tracks on her imminent EP, dusk, were produced by critically acclaimed Californian musician Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards. “I was freaking out about Carly Rae Jepsen – I’m a massive fan,” she tells me.

However, she describes herself as a “holistic creative”, which means that as well as singing she might be found making a graphic novel and animated short film to accompany last year’s album, the masquerade, or explaining the concept of “hostile architecture” to her TikTok followers, or, as of next week, producing a history-themed podcast which aims to put out an episode every day for a year.  “The only podcast I can think of that comes out every day is The Daily, which is made by a big team at the New York Times, and this is just me. It sounds impossible. I’m still wrapping my mind around it, but it sounded like a good challenge, and it sounded fun. It’ll be history facts, music facts, and personal facts about me, every single day for 365 days.”

In any case, one way or another she’s been broadcasting her thoughts every day for years now. “My level of involvement with social media is probably far higher than the typical person in any field,” she says. “I am literally a part of every single community possible.” For her, it’s all about being accessible. In real life she says she has stayed to talk to fans for up to three hours after gigs. They generally want a hug, or to gush, or life advice, not that she feels particularly qualified to give it. “All I can say is, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know, but I hope it gets easier,’ and they’re fine with that because they know that I’m only about two years older than them. Musicians can be put on this pedestal, but for me it feels very much like old friends discussing things.”

This wild enthusiasm for everything she says can be hard to compute. The other day she earned 35,000 likes on Twitter for writing: “give yourself a pat on the head , u did good job today !! u are alive”.

“It can get really overwhelming when you have thousands of people paying attention to you. I don’t think any brain is prepared for that level of involvement with others,” she says. “When I’m going through tougher moments with my mental health, I try and walk away from the phone for a day and refresh myself before I’m ready to go back in.”

For her parents, a Chinese-American mother and a father of European heritage, both teachers, it was even harder to comprehend why their daughter was intending to turn down a place at Seattle’s University of Washington, with a view to becoming an architect, and spend more time online instead. Then they attended her first ever headline show, at the Moroccan Lounge in LA in January 2019. “It was sold out, with 250 diehard listeners in there who knew every lyric. I couldn’t even sing very loud because they would just take over,” she says. “I think the weight of a room of 250 people feels a lot heavier than a tweet that gets 90 thousand likes.”

In a world without gigs like that, she’ll have to wait to enjoy that feeling again. But she’s in a better place than almost anybody to go on succeeding virtually. “I definitely can’t see myself as an Ariana Grande, this mega pop star. Being a homebody, who just likes to be in her own space, I like that I can create an intimate environment regardless of how big the audience is. In five years, if I’m exactly where I am now, I think I would be happy.”

The podcast 365 days with mxmtoon launches on Sep 15.

ok on your own feat. Carly Rae Jepsen is out now. The dusk EP is released on Oct 1 on AWAL.

“I’m a total introvert,” says mxmtoon, which on the one hand sounds feasible – she’s quietly spoken, thoughtful, unfussily dressed, and speaking to me via the laptop in the Brooklyn bedroom where she spends most of her time. Everything she writes is in muted lower case, and although you are invited to call her by her first name, Maia, she has never revealed her surname (that stage name is her long-term online username, pronounced “M-X-M-Toon”). 

On the other hand, introversion seems impossible. Close to 750,000 Instagram followers, 757,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel, over 380,000 on Twitter, 332,000 watching her live streams on Twitch and a gigantic 2.2 million on TikTok – surely these are the social media statistics of a crazed attention seeker?

“It’s complicated,” explains the 20-year-old. “I think the reason I gravitated towards the internet was because it felt like a place to vent whatever I was going through without anybody paying attention to me. Then I got really lucky – and unfortunately so – because people did start paying attention to the things I was saying. Yes, the internet is an extrovert’s realm, but it also feels like a safe place for introverts to talk. It’s a weird balance between interacting with the world and also not doing it at all, because it feels like such a void that you’re not really making a big footprint. It’s easy to minimise the weight of those numbers.”

In her early teens, growing up in Oakland, California, she wanted to be a YouTuber. It seemed more feasible than a music career for someone who had ditched formal violin, cello and trumpet lessons in favour of the more rudimentary sounds of the ukulele. It was on YouTube that she found people like herself among the bedroom video makers sharing the tiny details of everyday lives. “A music career felt like a much more traditional pathway, and didn’t seem like something that was approachable for me as a mixed race, bisexual kid,” she says. “On YouTube there were people with the same identities as me, openly talking about who they were and what was going on in their lives. Also it seemed like a place where you can be creative and do original things, and it was my dream to be able to make whatever I wanted at any point.”

Her music is what’s getting most of the attention at this point. She has progressed from making lo-fi, humorous ukulele songs about teenage love and loneliness, such as 1-800-DATEME, towards collaborating with bigger names. This week’s new single, ok on your own, is a moody duet with Canadian pop star Carly Rae Jepsen, and several tracks on her imminent EP, dusk, were produced by critically acclaimed Californian musician Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards. “I was freaking out about Carly Rae Jepsen – I’m a massive fan,” she tells me.

However, she describes herself as a “holistic creative”, which means that as well as singing she might be found making a graphic novel and animated short film to accompany last year’s album, the masquerade, or explaining the concept of “hostile architecture” to her TikTok followers, or, as of next week, producing a history-themed podcast which aims to put out an episode every day for a year.  “The only podcast I can think of that comes out every day is The Daily, which is made by a big team at the New York Times, and this is just me. It sounds impossible. I’m still wrapping my mind around it, but it sounded like a good challenge, and it sounded fun. It’ll be history facts, music facts, and personal facts about me, every single day for 365 days.”

In any case, one way or another she’s been broadcasting her thoughts every day for years now. “My level of involvement with social media is probably far higher than the typical person in any field,” she says. “I am literally a part of every single community possible.” For her, it’s all about being accessible. In real life she says she has stayed to talk to fans for up to three hours after gigs. They generally want a hug, or to gush, or life advice, not that she feels particularly qualified to give it. “All I can say is, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know, but I hope it gets easier,’ and they’re fine with that because they know that I’m only about two years older than them. Musicians can be put on this pedestal, but for me it feels very much like old friends discussing things.”

This wild enthusiasm for everything she says can be hard to compute. The other day she earned 35,000 likes on Twitter for writing: “give yourself a pat on the head , u did good job today !! u are alive”.

“It can get really overwhelming when you have thousands of people paying attention to you. I don’t think any brain is prepared for that level of involvement with others,” she says. “When I’m going through tougher moments with my mental health, I try and walk away from the phone for a day and refresh myself before I’m ready to go back in.”

For her parents, a Chinese-American mother and a father of European heritage, both teachers, it was even harder to comprehend why their daughter was intending to turn down a place at Seattle’s University of Washington, with a view to becoming an architect, and spend more time online instead. Then they attended her first ever headline show, at the Moroccan Lounge in LA in January 2019. “It was sold out, with 250 diehard listeners in there who knew every lyric. I couldn’t even sing very loud because they would just take over,” she says. “I think the weight of a room of 250 people feels a lot heavier than a tweet that gets 90 thousand likes.”

In a world without gigs like that, she’ll have to wait to enjoy that feeling again. But she’s in a better place than almost anybody to go on succeeding virtually. “I definitely can’t see myself as an Ariana Grande, this mega pop star. Being a homebody, who just likes to be in her own space, I like that I can create an intimate environment regardless of how big the audience is. In five years, if I’m exactly where I am now, I think I would be happy.”

The podcast 365 days with mxmtoon launches on Sep 15.

ok on your own feat. Carly Rae Jepsen is out now. The dusk EP is released on Oct 1 on AWAL.

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