TikTok's Max McNown Stars with His Girlfriend in 'Strong as Iron' Music Video: Watch (Exclusive)

"It's definitely one of the more emotional tracks for me on the album," McNown tells PEOPLE about the song, which explores a prior relationship

Max McNown had no intention of making music.

“I was working at a coffee company,” recalls McNown, 22, to PEOPLE of his life not so long ago. “I was also playing a lot of video games.”

But McNown needed a change of scenery, so he moved in 2022 from his home state of Oregon to the star-studded state of California.

“I had all my stuff packed up and I was ready to go,” the rising folk-country-pop singer/songwriter remembers. “My dad opened the door, and he handed me his old guitar that he's been playing forever. And he was like, ‘people love to hear somebody that can strum.’ And I was like, 'OK, sounds good.’”

Granted, up to that point, McNown had not attempted much of a guitar strum, much less learn more than a mere chord. But he took his dad’s advice to heart and proceeded to spend his first night down at the San Clemente Pier, singing and strumming his way towards a possible future in music.

“I sang for about an hour and a half,” he remembers. “I made $90, and I got a free taco, and I also had a girl give me her number hidden in a $5 bill. At that point, I knew that music was my direction.”

Around the same time, McNown also began posting his music onto TikTok, with a goal of a post a day. “I remember the first video got 12,000 views, which was a lot for me,” says McNown, whose breakout single, “A Lot More Free,” recently snagged the number one spot  on the TikTok Breakthrough USA chart. “I remember thinking, ‘that's more people looking at me than ever in my entire life.’ And then I kept on posting and one of my original songs (“You and the Pines”) got up to 12 million views. And so, I was like, ‘I can just keep promoting my own music like this.’ And that's what I did.”

<p>Benjamin Edwards </p> Max McNown

Benjamin Edwards

Max McNown

Last fall, McNown says he even turned down the chance to appear on a popular singing competition show. “It was all about how they could truly make you a star, but I already had upwards of 600,000 people listening to me every month, and that was already more than all the winners,” he says. “So, it was just a logical choice that we had to make.”

And while it may be easy to put McNown into some sort of box where TikTok artists go viral and then go fade away, there is a good chance that this one is different. The clues seem clear enough on McNown’s striking new single “Strong as Iron.”

“It's definitely one of the more emotional tracks for me on the album,” explains McNown, who wrote the song alongside AJ Pruis and Mike Walker. “I was kind of in this sentimental state thinking about a past relationship that I had. We went long-distance and then just mutually just stopped taking care of it, stopped putting the effort in, and it just kind of hit me in that moment that most things in life, if you leave them completely alone, they will decay over time. Time destroys all.”

<p>Photographer credit: Benjamin Edwards </p> Max McNown's Wandering

Photographer credit: Benjamin Edwards

Max McNown's Wandering

It's a sad song whose music video now premieres exclusively on PEOPLE.

“The laid-back living room set was very similar to where I was sitting when I wrote it,” says McNown, who moved to Nashville last month and then released his highly anticipated album Wandering on Friday, April 12. “Iron is so strong and seemingly invincible. But if you leave them completely alone and you let 'em get beat up, they're going to rust and break through.”

Joining him in the music video filmed in Georgia is none other than McNown’s current girlfriend. “She has acted in a couple of videos,” says McNown, who's currently on tour with Australian artist Blake Rose. “I've loved being able to have her act with me because every scene that I get to be next to her, it's really easier.”

This couple that knows firsthand about long distance love, and the amount of intense work it takes to make it work. “She's up in Kentucky, and I'm down here in Nashville,” says McNown. “We were 2,000 miles away and now we're three hours away. It is much better now. The long-distance thing was something that was very real, and that song is almost like a warning just to take care of it. And I believe we're doing that.”

And come to find out, his girlfriend can sing too.

“She's a phenomenal violinist and she just has a very smart musical sense,” McNown says. “I've just learned recently that she can sing harmonies so beautifully and her voice goes on mine. So maybe you can look for a little bit of collaboration in the future.”

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