Mxmtoon: From Ukulele’s & YouTube To Arenas

It’s springtime, which means high school seniors are prepping for the “end of an era,” with prom and graduation quickly approaching. It also marks the period when mxmtoon (pronounced em-ex-em-toon), an introverted Gen Z’er with extrovert qualities and whose real name is Maia, unlocks her phone to notice that her 2019 lo-fi catchy pop song “prom dress,” about a teary teen ruminating on high school regrets, is once again trending and is now up to 43 million views on YouTube and 280 million streams on Spotify.

She doesn’t hide that she relishes this time of year when emo teens discover her melancholic song. “Yes! Let’s fucking go!” mxmtoon says sardonically on a TikTok video captioned, “mxmtoon when she sees someone have the most depressing time at their prom but the likelihood of her song being streamed increases.” She also has 2.9 million TikTok followers and 158 million TikTok likes, for those keeping score.

It’s good exposure for the sometimes awkward but incredibly witty 23-year-old, but she is not looking to be the trend of the month. Maia is ready to conquer every season and connect with new audiences in person and on bigger stages, an opportunity she’ll have this summer supporting smart pop trio AJR on their Live Nation-promoted “The Maybe Man Tour.”

“It feels so surreal. I can’t wait to join the guys on the road” Maia tells Pollstar. “This is going to be the biggest tour I’ve ever done, and certainly something that I never anticipated to ever do is open for somebody at Madison Square Garden for two nights. It just feels like an insane bucket list item, and I’m so grateful the guys were interested in having me join them.”

It’s a massive leap for a young artist who acknowledges her social anxiety and is now acclimating to performing before larger audiences. According to Pollstar Boxoffice reports, mxtmtoon played before 1,100 at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club grossing $27,375, and 875 at Portland’s Wonder Ballroom grossing $23.5K.  A subsequent spot as a special guest on Cavetown’s “Bittersweet Daze Tour” mini-fest hit larger sheds like L.A.’s Greek Theater grossing $260.5K and selling 5,517 and Indianapolis’ Holiday Park earning $123.7K before 2,500 fans.

INSIDE PHOTO 1 mxmtoon press photo pollstar 2 PC Sophia Juliette
LIGHTING IT UP: Finding her comfort zone performing on stage, an introverted mxmtoon, who started making her own music as a teenager and uploading videos on YouTube, is ready for her biggest year yet as she preps to tour with pop band AJR and puts the finishing touches on her third album. (Photo by Sophia Juliette)

True to her change-things-up ethos, mxmtoon then went on a solo acoustic tour in 2023 playing smaller rooms (L.A.’s The Echo, Brooklyn’s Roulette and London’s OMEARA) performing songs off her first EP plum blossom, which she re-recorded on ukulele with a female producer after a series of life changes, including the tragic loss of her grandmother, a visual artist, to cancer and moving to Brooklyn. The pandemic was also a difficult period full of existential dread for Maia, but the Oakland-born artist managed to find her comfort zone during last year’s treks, helping her not only recapture her mojo as an artist and performer but also building some much-needed confidence as she progresses in her musical journey.

“It just felt like summer camp in the best way possible, and I think there’s something so special about summer shows specifically like festivals,” says Maia. “I’ve really grown to love live shows, as a result of just spending more time with them. I just have a better grasp on who I am, and so bringing that on the road is a lot easier and makes the whole process so enjoyable.”

As someone who nudged herself into the music industry via social media, going out on the road consistently wasn’t something Maia envisioned as a 17-year-old perfectionist posting ukulele covers of her favorite songs on YouTube. She was only a teenager when she began writing angsty anthems of loneliness, hidden feelings and being misunderstood. Maia was thrust into an industry that requires constant travel for income and development, and it wasn’t an easy transition for her when she went on the road for the first time in 2019.

“It was the most terrifying experience ever; it was also the most exhilarating thing in the world,” Maia says about her first shows in 2019. “But when you’re going in every night and you’re having the most exciting and also the most anxiety-inducing night of your life every single day for months on end, that can really take a toll on a person. I barely went to live shows growing up. Concerts weren’t something that I was familiar with from an audience perspective, and so to suddenly be putting them on was definitely jarring.”

Going from performing songs from her first two albums, the masquerade and rising, in clubs like Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club to Inglewood’s Kia Forum, can be even more jarring. Thankfully, mxmtoon has a support system in managers Max Gredinger and Kirk Ellis of Foundations Music and Wasserman agent Zac Bluestone, who are accommodating and respectful of Maia’s journey while pushing her just enough to help her conquer her touring anxieties.

INSIDE PHOTO 2 mxmtoon press photo pollstar 9 PC Sophia Juliette
FINDING HER VOICE: Six years into her music career, mxmtoon, whose real name is Maia, has gained confidence and agency in her work and makes an effort to work with women and allow other voices to shine in a male-dominated industry. (Photo by Sophia Juliette)

“When we’re going into arenas, the show has to be about winning over new fans,” Ellis says. “It’s a totally different set of weapons in our arsenal. It comes with its challenges, but if there’s one thing Maia is really good at, it’s going into a room and crushing it.”

AJR fans will find it difficult not to be charmed by mxmtoon’s humor, intelligence and honesty. She manages to convey her feelings and personality through her music by creating sorrowful yet upbeat songs that start off simple, with her trademark ukulele, and build up to incorporate layered, complex sounds.

“It was so raw, intimate and personal,” Gredinger recalls hearing her music for the first time. “It felt like — I wouldn’t have referenced it then, but I am now —  (Big Thief’s) Adrianne Lenker-type of writing that is so personal about her sexuality and where she fits in the world, etc. It’s just shocking coming from such a young person.”

mxmtoon also has a knack for storytelling and manages to weave a compelling narrative within whatever she does, whether it’s through her music, a TikTok post or a graphic novel (she’s written two). It’s a talent she may have picked up from her voracious consumption of pop culture and countless hours of watching anime and movies and playing video games such as Overwatch and Valorant. Maia has a vision for the entire project – not just the sound. She is emblematic of the post-Y2K generation that grew up with Vine and Instagram, learning editing, lighting and even comedic timing through such platforms. Ellis was impressed when mxmtoon presented a scene-by-scene treatment for the “prom dress” music video.

“At age 18, that’s pretty incredible,” Ellis says. “It’s always been a core piece of who she is and what the project stands for.”

Fans appreciate that attention to detail. It’s why mxmtoon has garnered millions of followers across different platforms.

“It feels real like you can actually connect with that human being and with their lyrics in a way that maybe would be more difficult to do with artists that are churning out sounds that are similar to each other,” Wasserman’s Bluestone said of Maia’s work. “That is why this DIY scene was able to flourish because of that direct-to-fan connection, but also because artists were just being themselves.”

Maia has a Peter Parker-like quality to her in that she openly voices her struggles of balancing multiple lives, one of everyday normal life and that of an artist, and you can’t help but root for her like you would for the web-slinging superhero. As she learns more about herself and the music business, Maia has grown more comfortable in doing what she wants and starting a new chapter in her career.

One big request she made in the past year as she recorded her upcoming third album was to work with only women in the production process, and she recently accomplished it. As a half-Chinese and self-described queer artist, representation is important to Maia, and she wants to see the same diversity in the studio she sees when playing a show or visiting her hometown of Oakland.

“I thought about a lot about those earlier parts of my career where I was sitting in rooms with people, making songs about my life alongside people who could never fundamentally understand what my life has been like so far,” Maia says. “… I think there’s magic that happens when you’re in a room full of people that inherently understand each other.

INSIDE PHOTO 4 mxmtoon press photo pollstar 6 PC Sophia Juliette
A BROCOLEUR EXTRAORDINAIRE: mxmtoon began performing cover songs with her ukulele at 17 and incorporated sounds from the objects in her room such as trash cans and books. (Photo by Sophia Juliette)

“When it comes to racial identity, we need desperately to find more voices in a writer’s room or in a production space of people coming from different backgrounds, because the music industry is very predominantly white, and I’m very lucky to have a spot in this larger world, but certainly I’m one of many people that could benefit from having their voices be heard.”

AJR fans will now have that pleasure, too, of experiencing the wildly creative and inclusive world mxmtoon creates beginning June 25 at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. Maia’s 25-city run with the pop band includes stops at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Field House, Atlanta’s State Farm Arena and two nights at Denver’s Ball Arena before concluding at TD Garden in Boston on Aug. 3. She also sprinkled in four headline shows while on the road.

Gredinger and Ellis hope to keep the momentum going following the AJR shows and the release of Maia’s third full-length album with a global tour next year, a move that the young singer is open to despite having a complicated history with touring.

“Sometimes you need someone else to give you that nudge to get on stage, and it feels like every time she has, she’s really appreciated it and been so happy she’s done it,” Bluestone says. “She has a complicated relationship with touring, but I think it’s a net positive one, and she really understands the value her fans get out of it.”

After a 2023 that Maia said “sucked,” she’s entering prom season as the best version of herself with boldness and agency that didn’t exhibit before, no longer hiding “behind the ink and pen” as she wrote in her single “mona lisa” and taking charge of her own narrative with a willingness to play the role of the main character like the ones in her favorite movies (one of which is 2022’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a film about a middle-aged Asian woman who channels newfound powers to fight off a multiversal threat). It’s only fitting that such a movie resonated with Maia, who much like the Best Actress Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn is learning to harness her powers but approaching it all with empathy.

“If I learned anything last year, it’s that life just really does not have any straight pathway and learning how to do things because you want to do them but also just rolling with the punches and continuing to kind of adjust as things happen,” Maia says. “Just being flexible is a really important skill, and I’m trying to apply it this year.

“My hopes and dreams are that I get to continue connecting with people on stage and off the stage, sharing music – connection being the theme of the whole entire thing,” she adds. “That’s why I’m so glad live shows are fully back in swing because I think there’s nothing like it, and I’m really excited to just be in it more.”