Thriving online: mxmtoon navigates growing up

A social media success with a hardcore fanbase, the young artist shares her experiences in debut album the masquerade.

Live photos © Jodi Lawrence Photography

Press photo © Hannah Simpson

At just 19-years-old, Chinese-American singer-songwriter Maia, better known these days as mxmtoon, has developed an arduous and fiercely loyal fanbase with her refreshingly honest and candid approach to being an artist and social media personality. The burgeoning rise of social media has caused the lines been artists and their fans to blur, and the intimate relationship that mxmtoon has cultivated with her following has propelled a young social media personality, – who was once self-releasing songs created her parent’s spare room – into the unlikeliest of breakout stars.

The most startling thing that you find when first meeting Maia is that there is no larger than life aura surrounding her; the weight of having 442,000 Instagram followers and 123,000 Twitter followers doesn’t follow her around. From the off she is down to earth and likeable, laughing about how surreal it is to be touring the UK and the range of unique accents that the Californian is slowly having to get used to. This is a large part of the appeal that the young artist has. A carefree and genuine warmth radiates from Maia and all of her work, and this is abundantly clear to anybody that comes into contact with it.

“I haven’t ever tried to be anything more than I am,” she asserts. “I don’t know how to be anything else other than me. I try to be as real as I possibly can be and showcase all sides of my personality as I continue to become a musician and grow into being an artist.

“I think it’s really helpful for my audience to understand who I am and what my personality is. I’m just as much a teenager on the internet as anybody else is, I just happen to have 100,000 Twitter followers”.

© Jodi Lawrence Photography

This statement feels almost bizarre in isolation. The idea of being just a normal person or teenager with such a bloated follower count would be unattainable to most, yet with Maia, the rules seem to have been subverted. Her social media accounts aren’t run by managers or filled with promotions for her work, it just reads like a young person living their life and intimately documenting their experiences. Maia seems to have become an extraordinary presence just through being so undisputedly normal and relatable.

“A big way that I connect with my audience is just through sharing my own experiences, whether that’s through lyrics or through tweets or stories,” Maia elaborates. “It’s weird how much the internet can connect you with a group of people. I know growing up that I had my own individuals that I looked up to that I felt really connected to because of YouTube and they were talking about their stories and experiences.

“I know that it can be really lonely sometimes, and the least that I can do is be there for them, even if it’s just through lyrics”

“I find myself doing the same thing with my audience now. I do like the relationship that I’ve cultivated with them just because I have this practice of being honest and talking openly about everything that happens to me, whether or not that may be a good or bad thing; it is what it is. I just feel really close with my listeners.”

This level of closeness and honesty is showcased on mxmtoon’s huge single ‘Prom Dress’ that was released in May 2019. The track is based around a life event that Maia had where she couldn’t fit into her own prom dress and subsequently shared it with her followers on Twitter. This, while a personal experience for Maia, also evokes a wider discussion about the expectations that young people are held to aesthetically in the social media age.

“After any emotionally traumatic event I feel like I always go to Twitter and talk about my experience, which is probably a bad thing to do sometimes,” Maia laughs. “I tweeted something like ‘cried in my prom dress, what a mood’ and then ‘I’m gonna write a song about that, don’t steal my idea’ and then a year later ‘Prom Dress’ came out”.

© Jodi Lawrence Photography
© Jodi Lawrence Photography

This is the essence of what mxmtoon is about; she is not striving to be an idealised celebrity who is perfect and unreachable. The project seems to revel more in sharing stories and experiences that showcase vulnerability and real-life in order to let people latch onto them and take solace in them. Maia provides a voice for her fan-base at a time where it may not seem like they have one otherwise.

This is particularly true when considering more marginalised voices. Maia – an artist that identifies as a bisexual Chinese-American – wears her heritage on her sleeve, and takes the opportunity to provide a voice and be a role model for fans from different backgrounds and cultures with pride.

“If someone finds a song that I wrote a year ago and it fits what they’re going through right now or where they are in life at that point, I think that’s a win in my book.”

“I know what my fan base is, I know that the majority are young people who can be people of colour or come from different backgrounds, where often identities can be really marginalised,” she enunciates. “I know that growing up, I didn’t have a lot of people online who I could look up to and feel like they represented my experience so I have this really cool opportunity now where I have come across this really large audience that I can be a voice for, and help them realise that they’re not alone in their experiences.

“Even if I can only talk about my own experience – which I really can only talk from that perspective – hopefully, some of that resonates with the people that listen to my stuff, because I know that it can be really lonely sometimes, and the least that I can do is be there for them, even if it’s just through lyrics.

 “I make a conscious effort to write songs that can be applied to different experiences,” she continues. “I say all the time that I just try to write lyrics for people who can’t quite form the words for what they’re going through just yet. If someone finds a song that I wrote a year ago and it fits what they’re going through right now, or if I write a song that is going to fit exactly where they are in life at that point, I think that’s a win in my book.”

Maia’s honest and realistic portrayal of teenage life and her experiences as a marginalised voice have provided invariably remarkable results. Her acclaimed debut album, the masquerade – which she co-produced alongside her tour-mate Cavetown – has seen Maia ascend to new heights, whereas its accompanying graphic novel adventures of mxmtoon: the masquerade has proven her to be as inventive and ahead of the curve as she is prominent.

“Basically, I was a visual artist before I tried to do anything music-related, and I did these storyboard kind-of-comic-book things every single time we were going to do a music video, and it would always be an internal document that everybody would look at but none of my audience would see it. When we were thinking about doing an album, obviously you’re not going to be able to do a music video for every single song, so we thought, why not make a graphic novel that would be a visual aid for every single piece of the project,” Maia excitedly explains. “It becomes this really cool content piece where you can look at it and flip along as you listen to the album in real-time. It’s just a really really cool piece of the project.”

The overriding feeling that you get when you meet Maia is that she represents a new kind of star. She isn’t a heavily marketed or manufactured product of a major company, or a heavily pushed industry darling. She is an infectiously likeable young artist who is multi-talented and has snowballed in popularity due to the variety of platforms that she excels at. Whether that is Tik-Tok, YouTube, her music, her videos or her art, she is very much a shining example of the organic reach that you can achieve in the right circumstances.

“I would say that a lot of people stay [following] because of the other stuff that I do, but I do feel like my music is the main reason that people find me,” Maia muses. “The reason that people maybe get invested in my music so much is because I have so many other aspects around me that are going – whether its YouTube, or Tik-Tok, or Twitter or Instagram – any of these social media platforms where I am expressing who I am or showcasing my other interests outside of music. That’s what makes people feel like there’s a connection with me, but I do feel like my music is the catalyst for it.”

The album the masquerade and the graphic novel adventures of mxmtoon: the masquerade are both available now.