The debut album from 19-year-old singer/songwriter mxmtoon, the masquerade delivers what she calls "rhyming diary entries": an off-the-cuff account of her most private thoughts and feelings, usually dashed off very late at night, straight from her brightly lit brain. In her deliberate refusal to hide behind metaphor, the Oakland-based artist otherwise known as Maia achieves a quiet bravery, an unrestrained honesty that gives voice to those who often go unheard.
"When I first started making music it felt like an escape from my day-to-day life, where I'd have to put on a mask to hide what I was really feeling," says Maia in reflecting on the title to the masquerade. "Writing songs was a way to express all the things I couldn't talk about in face-to-face interactions, and share them with a community of people who maybe also needed to put up a façade to get through the day."
Maia has built a remarkable bond with her audience entirely on the strength of her resonant songwriting and unaffected presence. Her 2018 debut EP plum blossom clocked more than 100 million streams on Spotify alone -- not bad for songs recorded by herself in her parents' guest room. Less than a year later, she's now amassing millions of followers and subscribers across YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram, making a point of using her ever-growing platform to speak out on issues close to her heart. "As a young bisexual woman of color from a family of immigrants, a lot of current events directly affect who I am," says Maia, who's mixed Chinese-American. "I firmly believe it's my obligation and opportunity to speak on issues that affect us all."
In bringing the masquerade to life, mxmtoon crafted most of her songs on her ukulele, adorning the album with occasional sonic flourishes -- effervescent beats, gauzy guitar tones -- created in collaboration with musician/producer Robin Skinner (aka Cavetown). First introduced to Cavetown's music by her dad, Maia selected the 20-year-old Robin based on their mutual admiration and unique kinship as emerging artists. "I didn't want to make my album with someone who's been in the music industry a long time," she says. "I wanted to work with someone close to my age, who exists in my world and can understand where I'm at right now in terms of this transitional period of being an artist."
In the recording process, Maia and Robin purposely preserved the warm intimacy that's always defined mxmtoon's material, including her 2018 debut EP plum blossom. "Robin and I are both artists who mostly work out of our bedrooms, so even though we had this gigantic studio, we made almost the entire album sitting right next to each other in the control room," she says. "Looking back, we probably could've just recorded in a closet."
In each track on the masquerade, mxmtoon turns her detailed narrative of the most mundane moments into songs with deep meaning, a transformation propelled by her delicate melodies, disarming vocal presence, and utter aversion to self-seriousness. On lead single "prom dress," she offers a layered meditation on expectation and disappointment, blithely showcasing her self-effacing sense of humor. "I wrote that after I ate a Double-Double from In-N-Out and then couldn't fit in my prom dress and started having a panic attack," Maia explains. "I think it's so funny and stupid how when you cry you're supposed to shut yourself off from the world, so I posted a tweet that said 'crying in my prom dress,' and then I made it into a song."
Another song sparked from a tweet ("my seasonal depression b hittin different this year"), the paradoxically breezy "seasonal depression" again reveals mxmtoon's rare gift for illuminating experiences typically unrecognized in pop music. "I realized there was no song about seasonal depression, so I decided to make one to fill the void," says Maia. "I wanted to be honest about the feeling of waking up and having no desire to do anything with your day -- but then also maybe help people feel a little better and lighter when they're stuck in that gray moment."
Meanwhile, for the showstopping centerpiece to the masquerade, mxmtoon presents a particularly confessional track called "my ted talk." "I find myself writing all these songs about romantic relationships, which is ironic considering I've had very little experience with that," says Maia. "That song came from me asking, 'Am I even allowed to write something I barely know anything about?' But I've realized that my songs are a way for me to untangle my emotions and try to make sense of what I'm going through, even if I don't fully understand it in the moment."
All throughout the masquerade, mxmtoon matches her lack of artifice with the graceful musicality she first honed by studying violin and cello as a child. After writing her first song with two friends for a music class at age 13, she continued writing on her own but mostly kept her output to herself. In 2017, Maia began posting her music on SoundCloud, first only sharing her comedy songs but eventually uploading a heart-on-sleeve track called "feelings are fatal." "At the time I was like, 'Whatever -- I have 200 followers, I'm just gonna post it,'" she recalls. "But then people really responded to it, which made me realize that I needed to keep my music as candid as possible, because that's what people connect with."
In her constant questioning and engaging with the world around her, mxmtoon has attained an undeniable solidarity with her listeners, ultimately providing some much-needed solace for the shy, the sensitive, the routinely underrepresented. "When I listen to the album, it feels like a musical of the things I've gone through and the life inside my head," says Maia. "I hope people come away from it feeling like the songs belong to them too -- like now there's a piece of art in the world that speaks to their own experiences, even if they'd always felt like they were alone."