Muna on Rejecting the Term ‘Girl Band,’ Tori Amos’ ‘Top Energy’ and Working With Mitski

Muna on Rejecting the Term ‘Girl
Courtesy of Muna/Isaac Schneider

Muna is not the band it was three years ago. Of course, the world isn’t the same, either.

When Muna’s second studio album, “Saves the World,” was released in 2019, COVID wasn’t a household word, Trump was still president and, notably, Phoebe Bridgers had not yet started her own record label. Fresh off the release of a self-titled album on Friday, the band — made up of USC alums Katie Gavin, Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin — is re-introducing itself, with the hopes of reaching a larger audience than ever before.

Muna has been popular as an underground pop act, known for its careful construction of extremely sad music with a penchant for wordplay and queer anthems, for a while now. But ever since the band was signed to Bridgers’ Saddest Factory Records last year, its messaging has gone both indie and ironically mainstream. That mostly started with a song that dropped in September, “Silk Chiffon,” a collaboration with Bridgers that muses on the experiences of feeling high and anxious at CVS, rollerblading, and generally being gay. It’s the opening track to the new album, but it’s only a starting point for how far the band is willing to go in the deepening of its sonic and thematic language, where the inspirations include everyone from the Backstreet Boys to the Talking Heads and Shania Twain.

The trio’s new music is bigger than ever, but its contents is also more complex (and largely happier) than the band’s previous projects. Muna is embracing contradictions, like the push-and-pull of desire, relationships to gender and the central paradox of crying on the dance floor. Speaking to Variety a few days before the album was released, the three bandmates explain why they reject the term “girl band,” finding inspiration in academia and why Tori Amos has “top energy.”

You’ve said this album is a lot more joyful and self-assured. Would you say it took more or less time processing real-life experiences and then setting them to music?

KATIE GAVIN: I would say it’s the latter. Our second album was songs that were literally reflective of my entire life, like “It’s Gonna Be Okay, Baby.” And this album is a lot more in the body and in the world and in relationships. It has this kind of sprawl that happens when you’re just having experiences and writing from inside of those experiences. Some of these lyrics contradict each other and the emotional range of the record is pretty big and not extremely cohesive. But I think that just comes from writing from whatever moment that we found ourselves in.

In regard to what you just said about being more in your body. This album has these insane beats and you just want to dance to it. Is that part of it? Like when you’re writing from that place of the present and being in your body, it just becomes more dance-filled — does that happen naturally for you?

JOSETTE MASKIN: I think that was the intention with the music that we’ve made since the start of Muna. We definitely come from the flock of trying to do what Robyn did for us, of wanting there to be some sort of emotional catharsis that can happen in a live setting where you’re hearing a kick-drum and you’re crying because you’re hearing lyrics that make you feel seen. So I think with all of the music we make, we try to embody that ethos.

Do you all collaborate on the lyrics or do you all take different aspects of the songs?

GAVIN: We definitely take different aspects of the songs. I am the main lyricist and the phrase would be top-line, so lyric and melody. I know that Naomi and Jo laugh at me saying I’m the main lyricist because I really write all the lyrics, but there have been exceptions. And I also think that my lyrics are very informed by the feedback from Naomi and Jo and the conversations that we have around the music. Part of what makes us a good band is that we’re each different puzzle pieces. I can’t help but write songs; I’ve always done it and it’s just something I’m really drawn to. But I’m not as compulsive about the sonic world, like finding exactly the right kick drum that matches the emotion that I’m feeling in the song or exactly what part to play on a guitar. That’s really the world that Naomi and Jo inhabit. So it’s very symbiotic.

Speaking of collaboration, you got some help from Mitski on “No Idea.” Her album this year has some similar tendencies towards really sad dance music. What influence has she imparted to you directly or indirectly and how do you see your musical worlds interacting?

GAVIN: I just want to say, first of all, I’m always inspired by Mitski, because Mitski’s one of my favorite living songwriters, and I just learned so much about myself from listening to Mitski. But we did talk about disco when she came over. It was January of 2020. I don’t know how far into making her record she was. We didn’t hear any of her music, but we knew that she was listening to a lot of disco. Josette and her bonded over ABBA. It was kind of funny that we ended up working on that song together, but she was definitely encouraging of us going down that route with that song and making it really dance-y and some combination of Daft Punk, Zapp & Roger and the Backstreet Boys.

NAOMI McPHERSON: And kind of like Talking Heads, too. It started off being way more like disco Backstreet Boys, with strings and stuff and then the orchestra hits. That song had been around probably for the longest as a complete thought. The structure hadn’t changed at all since it was first made. But I think we were just feeling like it didn’t exactly sit within our general sonic universe. It was quite bare and had just live bass and drums and it just felt a little incongruous with the rest of the music. So we had to go on our own journey with how to pull it a little towards the synth-y Muna universe a little bit more, and that really happened in the midnight hour.

To get into some of the themes that you tackle on this album, let’s talk about “Kind Of Girl,” because you’ve said, “It was really poignant for us as a group, people who have had to let other people know how we want to be perceived.” How have you seen gender as a storytelling device evolve for you and what have you learned from exploring that?

GAVIN: It is a really interesting question. There’s been an opening up that’s happened. We’ve been involved in this band for the majority of our 20s, and when we first came into the band, even though we were already out as a queer band, gender was a lot more tricky — and in some ways traumatizing — in terms of how people understood it. We do have a history of being called a “girl band,” and it’s only really in this era where we’ve felt comfortable being like, “Hey, we don’t actually identify with that.”

We’ve definitely moved with the world. There is a lot more consciousness around that stuff these days, but it’s still very rare and very lucky to have spaces that we work in where there are a majority of queer people who have a shared experience and a shared understanding. It’s little things like haircuts that have helped us feel like more of ourselves, and it’s different for each of us too, as individuals. But I like messing around with that stuff. It makes me think about my idol, Tori Amos, who is a straight cis woman. But she’s talked a lot about her representation of sexuality, even being kind of like this… I don’t want to use too crass of a terminology, but Tori has top energy when she performs. And it’s just such a joy to be able to play around with that stuff and be celebrated for it.

You’ve also talked about the ownership of desire in this album, in the song “What I Want” specifically. What does it mean for queer people to own their desire in the ways that you’re exploring on this album?

McPHERSON: The queer community is often seen as hyper-sexualized, and we live in such a puritanical society that I think we’re all taught to be ashamed of our sexualities. Shame can be so deep-rooted and it can be the task of a lifetime to get free from that. Trying to act in defiance of that paradigm is what the music is attempting to do. A lot of what our music does is imagine realities that don’t necessarily exist for everyone yet. “What I Want” is a song about agency and desire and freedom and sex and sexuality and all these things that we’re taught to be ashamed of, as queer people, especially. Also, it’s just a fun pop song to make.

“What I Want” almost feels like a sister song to “I Know a Place,” because of what you’re talking about with the queer imaginary.

McPHERSON: We took a class with a professor named Shauna Redmond at USC; she’s no longer there. In the class that we took, which was about Black music specifically, she referenced this piece of writing about the radical imaginary and how much music has served as a prism through which to imagine alternate realities. That probably subliminally affected the lyrics of that song. It’s interesting that you said “What I Want” is sisters with “I Know a Place,” and I would kind of agree with you. It’s like an evil twin.

Your last album has a song called “Hands Off,” and this album has a song called “Handle Me.” What would you say about that thematic evolution — not that they’re necessarily in opposition?

GAVIN: I haven’t even thought about that. “Hands Off” was written at a time when I was trying to step away from a relationship that wasn’t good for me. I needed to have this empowering [moment of] “I’m just going to be by myself and don’t fucking touch me.” But then with this record I was interested in when I am in relationships where the person is safe and we have a connection. I was coming up against, still, this fear or hesitancy to be open and vulnerable and involved. Hilariously enough, I got the idea from reading about pruning different plants, because I was dating at the time, but I was also gardening a lot. I’ve learned that it’s helpful for the health of a fruit tree to have some of their fruits plucked and to be pruned and handled by humans. And so I like that idea of: We actually need each other’s handling of each other. That’s a healthy thing.

Apart from the album, you did a cover of Britney Spears’ “Sometimes” for the end of the film “Fire Island.” [Co-star/screenwriter] Joel Kim Booster said that it happened just because he DM-ed you. 

McPHERSON: He DM-d me on Twitter. I’m such a big fan of his standup. And we all we love [co-stars] Bowen [Yang] and Matt [Rogers] as well. So when he came through with the ask, it was just like, if we can make it happen, we’ll make it happen. We kicked into gear and turned it around pretty fast so they could include it, and it was a little hectic race to the finish, but we’re so stoked to be involved in the movie. It’s just so cool to see so many queer people who are in the L.A. creative scene get so much shine.

Did he ask you for “Sometimes” specifically?

McPHERSON: He did. There was there was another synch in place in that moment, prior. And I think because they had filmed the karaoke scene with Bowen singing that song that they wanted to get someone to cover it. And he was like, “You guys are the first people that I thought of. I’m a big fan of your music. And it would be lovely if you guys could do this.” And we were just like, all right, let’s do it — you know, “Free Britney” shout-out. We’re stoked.

Where do you see your style going after this album?

MASKIN: I really see no limit to what genre or what sounds because we all like so many different styles of music. We all are just now starting to feel fully capable of making whatever style of music we want to make and to feel free. That doesn’t have to sound a certain way to be smooth. So let us actually have a break and make something and then ask us this question. I guess. Who knows?

McPHERSON: It’s interesting because there’s part of us that’s like, “We should do an album that’s an acoustic folk album, like a Lilith Fair record.” And then Katie will send this massive, banging pop song that she wrote and it’s like, well, shit. It’s freeing to not go into an album or a song having a preconceived idea of what it should be and just make good songs, because people like that.

MASKIN: The song always decides. So maybe that’s actually the answer. Whatever the songs decide they’re supposed to be, it’s what it will sound like.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

From Variety US