Each month, Billboard Pride celebrates an LGBTQ act as its Artist of the Month. Our September selection: Mxmtoon.
It’s a breezy, cool Friday afternoon in Brooklyn, and Mxmtoon is perfectly content as she sits in her stylish bedroom. “I’m pretty familiar with hanging out here, because that’s how I started all of this,” she tells Billboard over a Zoom call, shrugging. “I have, like, a handful of really extroverted friends who are like, ‘I don’t understand how this is what you do on your weekends.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t understand how you do what you do on your weekends.’”
On any given day, Maia (the singer’s off-stage, mononymous name) could be working on a stunning array of different projects. Between writing and recording new music, managing her extensive social media platforms, working on podcasts, hosting gaming or charity streams, or even doing interviews like this one, the 20-year-old singer says that she can occasionally find herself overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of work she’s made for herself.
“It’s hard to juggle every single thing, and to want to do everything well,” she explains. “I grew up as an overachiever, so having all of these different places for me to be an overachiever is a dream, even if it is horrifying sometimes to keep up with all of it.”
But on this afternoon, Maia is focused on Dusk, her brand new EP (out everywhere Oct. 1), a project that once again reshapes her sound as an artist, and proves once more that she is one of the sharpest minds making music today. Following her widely acclaimed Dawn EP from April, Dusk earns its title serving as a sort of mirror to Dawn. The new EP relies on darker, more melancholy themes, with a sonic palette that moves away from the shimmering indie-pop sensibilities of its predecessor in favor of moody orchestral arrangements and subdued R&B rhythms.
Maia cheekily refers to her two EPs in 2020 as “a little bit of me cheating the system”; following the release of her independent debut album The Masquerade last year, along with her signing to indie publisher Kobalt Music Group, the star says she didn’t feel like she could successfully pull off another full album in a short timeframe. “It felt like I could have fun with the different sounds and things on each EP where I make them their own things, but they could still kind of exist together, thematically, with each other,” she says.
Looking at the two projects together, Maia notices that they reflect the emotional states that she (and by proxy, the world) has experienced throughout 2020: At the start of the year with Dawn, the singer says she hears the “blind optimism” of a new decade starting, while Dusk’s tone reflects the more recent reality of the world’s state of affairs.
“Like, how did we progress from this excitement over 2020 as a year, to all of a sudden, here I am sitting inside of my house trying to figure out if I’m good enough to write this song?” she asks.
There was one moment, though, in creating Dusk during which Maia says she felt overwhelmed with pure joy: On the EP’s second track “Ok On Your Own,” pop sensation Carly Rae Jepsen appears as a featured guest, singing along with Mxmtoon about moving on from a past relationship. “I need some time to myself so I can comprehend,” the pair sing on the subtle single. “I’m not so scared to admit I could use a friend.”
Even talking about the collaboration after the fact, Maia still sounds as though she’s in disbelief. “I’m the fresh-faced, tiny teen who accidentally wandered into the music industry and got lucky!” she says with a laugh. “Carly is so established, and such a confident artist, and I was just so nervous to talk to her because I feel like I look up to her a lot. I remember FaceTiming her and trying not to sweat profusely since I had Carly Rae Jepsen on my phone screen literally talking to me about my song that I wrote.”
The single’s release immediately sent fans into a frenzy, particularly because the singer had posted just a few days prior that “I want to collab with @CarlyRaeJepsen” on her Twitter. In a matter of days, the song racked up millions of streams, with the accompanying quarantine-inspired video garnering hundreds of thousands of views.
That moment only further speaks to Mxmtoon’s undeniable presence as one of the savviest artists on social media today — the singer boasts a whopping 2.2 million followers on TikTok, followed closely by her 779,000 fans on Instagram, 411,ooo on Twitter, and 97,000 on Twitch, where the star streams herself playing video games, singing karaoke, and even writing songs live.
“I grew up in the age of the internet, and it’s been something that has just naturally been in my life and incorporated into my career,” she explains. “It doesn’t feel like I’m going out of my way to do all of these different things. I just feel like I’m doing what any other person is doing.”
Before her rise to fame, the star had her YouTube channel, where she would regularly post recordings of herself singing and playing original songs, while also performing ukulele and piano covers of tracks by artists such as Post Malone, Khalid and more.
It was with “Prom Dress,” her undeniably congenial anthem of teenage loneliness, that Mxmtoon saw her status change from a talented teen making ukulele tutorials for fun, to a bonafide star on the rise. The song spread like wildfire over TikTok, and Maia watched her follower count skyrocket.
Maia sees a valuable lesson in her sudden rise to fame — “Prom Dress” was a genuine account of her senior prom experience, and it’s that kind of messaging that immediately clicked with her audience. “I’ve found way more success just being genuine, rather than trying to being anything other than I am,” she explains. “Just be a person, explore your interests and explain those interests to your audience, rather than being like, ‘I have to promote this one thing all of the time!’”
Music labels have watched TikTok’s status grow into a new frontier for the industry, as the app continues to launch careers and propel singles to No. 1 entries on the Hot 100. But Maia observes that while labels have the ability to “shove these artists or songs down people’s throats,” the key to long-term success lies in accessibility.
“[Label-backed TikTok campaigns] will get numbers in the moment, but that’s just from all of the pushing that’s being done,” she says. “The most successful way is to actually have people genuinely approach these platforms out of a place of interest and involve themselves in the community. It’s a weird, counterintuitive thing, but the less effort you put into something on TikTok, the more rewards you typically reap in the long run.”
Take for example the star’s new podcast, 365 Days With Mxmtoon. Starting earlier in September, Maia began releasing short, 10- to 15-minute podcast episodes that delve into her love of history. She talks about everything from old anti-smoking campaigns, to the history of Nintendo, to more recent political events such as the impeachment of Donald Trump. The show may not have a direct connection to her music, but it does offer fans yet another chance to get to know Maia instead of just Mxmtoon.
“It’s like I said, explaining to your audience the other aspects of who you are so that they can get a well-rounded vision of who you are as a person,” she says. “History has always been something that I really enjoy. I’m one of those people who just goes on Wikipedia articles to fully deep dive into some random fact pattern, so doing a podcast about history felt like something that I was personally excited about.”
Outside of living on the internet as authentically as she can, Maia also makes a point of using her social media platforms as a way to give back. On her Twitch channel, the star regularly hosts live charity streams to raise money for organizations such as The LGBTQ Freedom Fund, NAACP’s Empowerment Programs, The Okra Project and much more. As she explains it, streams like this don’t only offer money to important causes, it gives her fans a safe place to come together as a community.
“We’re in a world right now where we don’t get those in-person connection points with people to build community,” she says. “So when I have the opportunity to go to a place and play video games, but also do this other amazing thing where I can sit down with people and we can get to know each other, it just feels really right.”
Despite describing herself as a “lifelong overachiever,” Maia says that she actually struggles with making long-term goals — she knows that she enjoys what she’s doing right now, and she doesn’t think she’ll stop any time soon.
“The only thing I have figured out for myself is this: I would really like to buy a home on the countryside, start a vegetable garden, adopt one singular cat and name them Bean,” she earnestly explains as a gentle smirk appears on her face. “That’s all I’ve got planned for my future. Fingers crossed.”