By Sam Manzella
Mxmtoon’s Maia is one of the busiest young women in the indie-pop world, but you wouldn’t know it from a cursory glance at her space. Zooming in for a video call with MTV News from her apartment in Brooklyn, the 20-year-old social media star-turned-pro singer-songwriter readily accepts compliments of her lush surroundings. Cascading houseplants and small trinkets adorn the white shelves on the wall behind her. “I’m an introvert,” she says, “so I'm fine with just hanging out in my room, taking care of my plants.”
The serene setup is a stark contrast to Maia’s jam-packed schedule: She dropped her second EP of 2020, Dusk, on October 1, less than a year after releasing 2019’s Masquerade, her first full-length studio album. She’s been churning out daily 10- to 15-minute episodes of her history-themed podcast, 365 Days With Mxmtoon, since September 14. Twitter, Instagram, Twitch — you name it, Maia uses it, and the digital native’s 4 million combined followers are a captive audience.
Maia (who goes by her first name to have a semblance of privacy in the digital age) describes Dusk as the “sad but beautiful” companion piece to April’s Dawn EP. She wrestles deftly with feelings of loneliness and depression, pairing ukulele and piano instrumentals — both nods to her internet origins as a teen uploading ukulele tutorials to YouTube — with the diaristic lyrics her young fans have come to know and love. “I just wanted to make something that felt like I could progress as an artist but not leave behind my roots,” she says.
Dusk is also an ode to introversion in the time of COVID-19. It might sound counterintuitive while quarantining or social distancing, but for Maia, alone time is a pillar of her self-care routine. “I think the more comfortable we can be in our own company, the easier it is for us to recharge and face the world head-on again,” she says. Most of Dusk was written pre-pandemic, including the cello-laden “Asking for a Friend,” Maia’s personal fave off the new EP. Other tracks like “Show and Tell,” a wistful piano ballad, are unmistakably the product of quarantine (“Waking up each morning / And I'm gazing outside of my windowsill / The world is so wrong, I hope that we're strong / But I'm still mourning”).
But being alone doesn’t necessarily mean being lonely. Dusk also features "OK on Your Own," a collaboration with none other than Carly Rae Jepsen. “[Carly and I] Facetimed, and she was like, ‘What do you want me to do on the song?’” Maia remembers. “I was like, ‘You're literally Carly Rae Jepsen. You can do whatever you want and I will be happy.’ And she was like, ‘OK.’” She points to a shelf that’s slightly out of frame: “I have a little note from her up here, and it says, To Maia, happy release day. XO. Carly. And I look at it and I'm like, ‘What the fuck?’ I just can't believe it.”
The mellow, ukulele-backed friendship anthem is a point of pride for Maia, who counts CRJ among her personal pop-music heroes. It also cemented her evolution from a YouTuber recording covers and lo-fi originals on GarageBand to a fully fledged recording artist. Maia released and promoted 2018’s Plum Blossom, her first EP, completely independently. By the time her first full-length was in the works, she’d already toured internationally and had a string of viral moments on social media. The internet fame scored her 21 Days With Mxmtoon, a podcast with Spotify documenting her creative process while writing and recording Masquerade. It also landed her a publishing deal with Kobalt Music Group, whom she signed to for administrative and creative support last November.
Maia tweeted flippantly that “OK on Your Own” was “for the girls and the gays,” but there’s some truth to it. She points to similarities between her and Jepsen’s followings: CRJ has “an insanely large LGBTQ+ community of people who love her and think about her as their queen.” Maia herself is openly bisexual, which resonates deeply with her 411,000-plus followers on Twitter. She came out in 2017 during the earlier days of her social-media fame. “I don't think I've experienced many obstacles besides the hate comments where people will be like, ‘It's so weird, why is she talking about her sexuality?’” she says. “I think the bedroom-pop space, and indie pop too, has been very open and accepting of queer artists.”
If anything, owning her sexual orientation endeared Maia further to her fans, many of whom are also members of the LGBTQ+ community. “I think that was always one of my goals when I started having a platform, to make a space that felt comfortable enough for people to be open about who they are, and for me to be open about who I am too,” she adds. “So I'm thankful I don't need to shy away from this aspect of who I am.”
Maia is leveraging her platform even more ahead of the presidential election in November. On Twitter, she reminds her 411,000 followers to register to vote; on Twitch, she hosts charitable live-streams for an audience of 97,000. As a bisexual Chinese-American woman born to an immigrant family, Maia feels the current administration’s attacks on civil rights personally. “You look at the news, and when your identity and its validity is constantly being questioned by a guy who's president and everything, it's exhausting,” she says. “It's just terrifying that people's basic human rights are being threatened and have been under fire for so long.”
What’s next for this self-professed perfectionist? 365 Days of Mxmtoon is ongoing through 2021. Maia also plans to continue streaming herself writing songs and playing video games on Twitch, an imperfect but necessary substitute for connecting with her fans in-person on tour. With Dawn and Dusk out now, though, Maia has one thing on her mind: “Hopefully I'll get some sleep. That’s my next goal.”