“Thank you, New York!” calls mxmtoon from the stage of the Gramercy Theatre after finishing her final song. She throws up the devil horns and sprints off stage and towards the dressing room leaving her four-piece band laughing. What’s so funny? Well, there’s no-one in the venue – this is only the soundcheck for tonight’s gig. It’s a relief to see that she’s as earnest and hilarious in front of an empty as she is in a full room of teens.
Her fans are devoted, so actually pretty surprising none have managed to weedle in. When we meet budding rising artist mxmtoon – aka 19-year-old Maia from the Bay Area, California – around the corner from the venue earlier that day, a queue is already forming around the block. Many of them found Maia on YouTube, where she started out covering songs with just a ukulele in her bedroom and being a general goofball. As of November 2019, she’s clocked up 478k followers on her YouTube channel, as well as hundreds of millions of streams on Spotify and beyond.
“It took me a while to connect the fact that there were real people behind the numbers,” she tells NME. “It’s still insane to me that people will spend their money to buy a ticket or spend a couple hours to listen to me sing for a night.” But of course, they do. Her recent 22-date across the USA was a sell-out, and next month she’s coming to the UK for her first run of shows on this shore.
Maia had grown up in a time where becoming a personality is easier than ever. Social media channels and splintered youth subcultures has resulted in intense fan groups being cultivated in less traditional methods. Becoming a YouTuber and an entertainer was always the goal for Maia, now she’s using it to elevate a music career.
“I wanted to be a YouTuber as my profession and my mom would just laugh at me. In the back of my mind I really wanted to make it into a job. I didn’t know how to vocalise it, but I wanted to make content for an audience and feel like it was impacting people in a good way,” she says. “It was more of an outlet for me as opposed to a stepping stone towards a greater goal. I just had a lot to say and thought I could use YouTube to scream it into the void.”
The scream into the void turned into original songs. Her influences include Arctic Monkeys and The Black Keys, though her work falls in line with more of her introspective heroes like Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith. Early compositions like ‘1-800-DATEME’, ‘life online’ and ‘hong kong’ were windows into a songwriter who wanted to reach out to the people behind the numbers. Those tales have now manifested themselves into a debut album, ‘The Masquerade’, which pairs more open-book anthems about seasonal depression, mental health in high-school (‘prom dress’) and family ties (‘unspoken words’) and full-band production, a new phase for her career.
It put Maia in a tough position, however. She was lauded for her openness in her songs and it helped grow an audience of teenagers across the planet, but the personal toll of putting emotions and problems out in the open there grew uneasy with Maia. “At the beginning it felt like my responsibility to provide answers and guidance to all of those people, but that got overwhelming. I get messages where people need answers for problems in their life, but that’s so much pressure for me to take on! I used to respond to every single one, then I got to the point where I physically couldn’t do that anymore. That feeling of responsibility was really overwhelming at points.”
It is now a balancing act for Maia. She’s still open and emotionally vulnerable online, but making an effort to stop and hold back where necessary. “I’ve got to the point where I’m more of a peer, instead of a God for these teenagers. I don’t have all the answers. I can be there for them to make songs about my own experiences and hope that it resonates with them, but I’m just learning about myself as much as they are. I want to be a comforting voice among the chaos.”
“I want to be a comforting voice among the chaos” – mxmtoon
She’s done so in many ways. To coincide with her album’s release in October, she launched a podcast series that detailed the process of making her debut album – it included original demos and commentary from Maia and her producers. Sometimes, she listens to various episodes to tap back into her mindset like you would with a diary. Now, there’s a graphic novel, designed by Maia herself, being released to accompany the songs. Then there’s an acoustic version of every song on the album. Maia simply gives and gives.
These are just the latest manoeuvre from an artist outsmarting men in suits at every turn. Much like Clairo, Beabadoobee and more, she’s built a loyal fanbase through new methods and platforms, and using it to bypass traditional labels and power structures in the music. YouTubers, in particular, struggle to be viewed as “authentic” and are routinely disregarded as “industry plants.” Their talent and power is not recognised, though it has little impact night-to-night for Maia.
“I don’t know if people took me seriously in the beginning. In the beginning people dismissed my work because it’s so untraditional and to not pay attention to what I was doing,” she says. “I just did it ways that I wanted to do them ended up working out really well for me. Now, I think the world caters to people who think outside of the box.”
Later on at the Gramercy Theatre, the queue to get in stretches around the street. Ellen, 18 from New Jersey, says that Maia’s songs give “subjects like SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) a platform that I hadn’t heard before”. Another, Adam, 19 from Long Island, says that her songs are important for his own self-acceptance, and “vocalises how so many people feel in this country right now.”
‘The Masquerade’ provides solace for a generation still understanding and processing their own emotions. It’s being used as a guiding post for issues like anxiety and heartbreak in a confusing and often toxic world. At the live show, she’s draped in a rainbow flag and is joined by an inflatable Peppa Pig. Her stage presence is mixed: half the assured pop star she’s on her way to becoming, and the other like an overly-enthused camp leader, just happy to be with people on the same wave-length.
The gig is full of contradictions too. There’s humour from the stage (“I write sad ukelele music – can you believe that?”), mini mosh-pits populated by 15-year-olds attempt to form during the more upbeat songs but tears immediately after with some punishingly honest lyrics. This is her audience: America’s disillusioned but hopeful youth – their time will come, and it will get better. The rest of the world will likely fall in line.