Bay Area multimedia phenom mxmtoon hits the Regency

The 21-year-old singer-songwriter keeps conquering new entertainment worlds

She didn’t feel like Alexander, exactly, weeping because there were no more worlds to conquer. But at the beginning of 2020, the Bay Area-bred bedroom pop artist known as mxmtoon — Maia to friends and family — had amassed quite a sprawling entertainment empire.

As a teenager back in 2013, she started with a ukulele-strumming YouTube channel. She parlayed that into a quirky, self-released 2019 debut, “The Masquerade,” and a parallel graphic novel. Then: She designed a eco-friendly Sugar Rover shoe with All Birds; became the singing voice for Chen, a character in the PC video game “Life is Strange: True Colors” (who, like her, is queer and Asian American), turning out a “True Colors” EP of Chen compositions; and began collaborating with stellar pop peers like Tune-Yards and Carly Rae Jepsen. She also finished two bookend albums, “Dawn” and “Dusk,” and — after a “Masquerade” world tour — planned a permanent move to Brooklyn, where she had rented an apartment.

But in early April 2020, she got a call from her mother in Oakland that changed everything.

“I was on a shoot for the over art for ‘Dawn’ and ‘Dusk’ when she called and said, ‘You need to come back to California right now — we just don’t know what’s going to happen.’

“And I was like, ‘Well, OK.’ And the next thing I knew, I was there for six months, when I was ready to start this new chapter of living in New York. But I was glad that I did, even though I wasn’t happy about how much rent I paid for a place I wasn’t occupying.”

The decision led to some of her darkest days ever, and then a flurry of uplifting projects, including her new hook-happy sophomore set, “rising.”

mxmtoon, now oddly wise at 21, curtailed her globe-conquering campaign and occupied the lock-down time watching old John Hughes movies and studying how retro soundtrack songs worked with particular scenes. For instance, who could ever disassociate Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” with the celebratory closing “Breakfast Club” footage?

Soon, she was imagining her new material as video clips while composing. The charging punk-propelled “Coming of Age” was first imagined as an opening anthem for a Ferris Bueller-energetic character, she explains, whereas the syndrum-rattling “Haze” was inspired by the Bay Area’s customarily dense marine layer.

“My grandma lives in Sausalito, so the fog was always something that was universal to my understanding of the world,” she says. “I wanted to write a song where you could feel that mist rolling in at the end of the day.”

Living out by Lake Merritt, Maia experienced some good times, like watching vintage horror movies with her father, studying the texturally complicated ABBA catalog (especially last year’s surprise “Voyage” comeback) or bopping to her mother’s old funk compilation CDs while cooking with her in the kitchen. But there were dark moments, like the harrowing day in 2020 when Northern California forest fires turned the ash-filled horizon a thick Martian red.

“I woke up that morning and I was like, ‘I think that I might die!’ — it actually felt like the end of the world,’ she recalls.

She captured her nadir in the shimmering “rising” ballad “Florida.” The song was informed by her grandfather, who was seriously ill when her family flew to Florida to see him. She said goodbye, and two weeks later he was gone. At which point she says she realized, “I need to make music that can help me get out of this. So I started writing songs that could help me find an ounce of joy in what was a very, very dark time.”

More multimedia worlds appeared on the horizon for mxmtoon (pronounced Em-Ex-Em-Toon) to explore. She launched her own artist-interviewing podcast, and challenged herself to do one 15-minute show per day for a full year. It caught on, and soon she was sharing thoughts with the likes of Jon Batiste and Julien Baker.

She re-recorded her signature song “Prom Dress” for the classic video game “The Sims,” in the characters’ own imaginary Simish language, and applied her sonic aesthetics — which grew ABBA-grand on “rising” and ventured far from basic ukulele — to covers, like Radiohead’s “Creep” and The Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.”

Now finally residing in Brooklyn with her architecture-student brother, she’s contemplating her first film script and the possibility of storytelling on other formats. She turns 22 this July 9, but Maia has always been considered an old soul by her family and fellow musicians.

“I have these different worlds that I occupy, because there are all these 20-year-olds that I play video games with in the evening, after work,” she says. “So I like to say that I wear many hats. And it’s fun for me to learn all the inner workings of all these different worlds, whether it be shoe design or making these podcasts. It’s all very entertaining to me.”



Where: The Regency Ballroom, 1300 Van Ness, S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday & Wednesday, May 17 & 18

Tickets: $27.50 to $40


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