NME Radar: Breakout

mxmtoon: alt-pop star examines the light and dark of modern living on duelling EPs

The 20-year-old's double EP release – 'dawn' and 'dusk' – showcases a songwriter blossoming into something truly special – and comes with added Carly Rae Jepsen

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Having initially built her following as a successful YouTuber, making music in a virtual world is something that comes naturally to Brooklyn singer-songwriter mxmtoon. But as the global pandemic forces her back into her bedroom, Maia refuses to see this as a step backwards. Instead, she has embraced the challenge of Zoom meetings and solo writing with a tenacity evident on new EP ‘dusk’.

The companion piece to her previously released EP, ‘dusk’ sees Maia showcase her maturity and natural intuition as a songwriter, as well as a new confidence to broaden her sonic palette beyond the comforting familiarity of the ukulele.

Where ‘dawn’ was packed with sunny optimism for a hopeful future, ‘dusk’ is a deeply reflective exploration of the darker side of the human experience. Written before the pandemic hit, this duality is particularly poignant and, filled with sadness and shade, is strikingly symbolic of what we are all experiencing at the moment.

“I think we all find ourselves in a point of reflection over how our lives have progressed or stalled over the past months”, Maia says. “One thing I’ve found myself stewing on throughout the course of this year specifically, has been the idea of new beginnings, and trying to remind myself that you can always start new stories despite the dark. ‘dusk’ is meant to serve as a reminder that life is cyclical.”

NME jumped on Zoom with Maia to talk pandemic-bedroom pop, female empowerment, and her curious ability to predict the future.

You’re an artist who started out primarily in the online world. How have you found adapting to the challenges 2020 has thrown our way?

“It’s been difficult because everybody went into this year thinking it would be more traditional with touring and being able to go to meetings, so I was definitely looking forward to a lot of that. But, as somebody whose origins started online and can exist naturally in those spaces, it’s been nice to feel like making music in my bedroom, live streaming and being on Zoom calls hasn’t been too forced.”

Does it feel like taking a step back?

“I think in the beginning I was a bit hung up on that because it felt like I’ve made all this progress and all of a sudden I’m being thrown back into my room. But at the same time, everybody is having to do that. It’s not a step back, it’s just adjusting to the circumstances and knowing that even when the in person element of music is gone, there’s still so much other work you can do online to really build who you are as an artist.”

‘dusk’ is your second EP of the year. Why did you choose to release the music in this format as opposed to a single album?

“I released my first album last fall, so it felt like a bit of rush to go straight into making another and I wanted to give myself more time to explore my sound. Doing two EPs felt like I could cheat my way around making an album and have the room to mess around with different production styles. ‘dawn’ was more pop-heavy with the way it was written and produced, while ‘dusk’ was more stripped back which allowed me to explore more with classical strings and piano.”

“‘dawn’ is very extroverted and is all about looking forward to the future without being afraid of what is ahead of you, whereas ‘dusk’ is about the other end of the emotional spectrum. It is the introverted, retrospective, internal EP. The two explore different aspects of myself and how I interact with the world, so I wanted to create space for both to exist.”

Credit: Blythe Thomas

“Going back to recording in my room is not a step back, it’s just adjusting to the circumstances”

In a lot of ways, it’s quite symbolic of what’s going on in the world at the moment.

“Definitely. I had no idea that any of this would be happening, but somehow I managed to predict the future on a lot of these songs, which is a little bit embarrassing.”

How have the events of 2020 impacted the EP?

“I was really excited to do more sessions with different artists and writers, so not being able to sit with the people you’re working with was the hardest part because you lose that back-and-forth where you can just throw ideas around and immediately interact with it. It’s been a while since I had to do everything virtually and it was a little bit daunting, but also it’s really encouraging to know that it’s still possible to make something you’re really proud of despite whatever may be happening in the world.”

Sonically, ‘dusk’ feels much broader and more complex than your previous work. What musical influences did you draw on?

“When it comes to inspiration, whoever I’m listening to at that moment influences it. When I was making ‘ok on your own’, I was working with producer Pom Pom, who has a lot of R&B experience, and I was listening to a bunch of R&B-influenced artists like Daniel Caesar and Tom Misch. I had no idea if I could fit into that genre, but we found this middle-ground where we used the ukulele element that I was familiar with and then figured out how we could make it more R&B. I walk into every single room with a producer with no expectations and I’m completely fine with letting them shape the way they feel it’ll naturally work.”

You also collaborated with Carly-Rae Jepsen on ‘ok on your own’. How did that come about?

“I feel like it’s a lot less crazy than you might imagine! I had written the song and we were thinking of a possible feature, and my managers suggested Carly Rae Jepsen. I didn’t even know that they had her contact details, but they reached out to her and she ended up really loving the song. I was just over the moon. She FaceTimed me and, at that point I didn’t know she would be working on it, so I was just sitting on the phone with Carly Rae Jepsen trying not to sweat profusely and she was like: ‘when do you need the vocals by?’ I almost screamed. It was all a very natural progression and she’s the sweetest person ever, so I’m just so happy with how it turned out.”

Your creative process is very female-focused. Why is that so important to you?

“I think as somebody who started out in the music industry at 17, I was very focused on making sure I was working with women, both out of comfort and to feel empowered. You look at the entertainment industry and it’s so male-dominated, and there’s a lot of people in power who couldn’t relate to my experience of being a young woman of colour. I definitely try to involve as many female producers and writers in everything I do because I think that has really helped me feel confident in finding my voice. If I can do my part to involve a bunch of strong, kick-ass women, then I think that’s the first step in driving the music industry towards more inclusivity.”

Where to next?

“I would love to do something like this again. I love being able to give myself the opportunity to work on things in doses, but I also really want to do another album. I’m currently working on 365 with mxmtoon, which is a podcast with episodes going live every day for the next year unpacking the music industry and my experiences within it. It’s just a way for people to feel like they can interact with the world and stay curious in a palatable format.”

mxmtoon’s ‘dawn’ and ‘dusk’ EPs are out now