How linking up with Phoebe Bridgers allowed MUNA to finally be heard
Electronic-pop trio MUNA talk signing with Saddest Factory Records, touring in the time of COVID-19 and the creative power of community.October 19, 2021
MUNA’s album Saves The World dropped in September of 2019, but it became so central to my 2020 that its release felt oracular. I played it while walking around my neighborhood late at night; I played it in the yard, sipping White Claws with friends in an archipelago of 6-feet-apart kiddie pools; I played it sitting down in the shower at 1 p.m. on days when I couldn’t handle seeing anyone. Pop is the soundtrack to the apocalypse, and MUNA’s music does what great pop should do: It brings the heartbreak and the euphoria, the intimate lyric and the sweeping hook, the space to feel and the energy to release.
Now, the band are ready for a new chapter in our collective end-times narrative. Katie Gavin (vocals, synth), Naomi McPherson (guitar, vocals) and Josette Maskin (guitar, vocals) have just embarked on a tour where they’ll share the stage with Phoebe Bridgers, Bleachers and Claud. They have a podcast, GAYOTIC, which offers “rare insight into the behavior of queers beyond the month of June.” The band have been working on new music as well, including the single “Silk Chiffon.” Their first single with Saddest Factory Records, and featuring Bridgers herself, the romantic synth-pop ballad is a deftly executed exploration of love, rollerblading and being stoned at CVS that makes our current inability to make out with strangers feel all the more devastating.
Not only are you supporting Phoebe Bridgers on her upcoming tour, but you were also semi-recently signed to her label, Saddest Factory Records. What’s that experience been like so far?
NAOMI MCPHERSON: It’s funny. It’s been a long time coming—at least since the beginning of 2020. We were still signed, at the time, to a major label, and we knew from our manager’s relationship with [Bridgers] that she was starting something. I think in the back of our minds, or at least at the back of my mind, I was like, “Oh, it would be cool to be there.” Then time took its course, and it all landed in a very lovely and serendipitous way. We’re really stoked. It’s nice to be a part of a label that cares just as much about creative as it does the bottom line; there’s a culture and a care for the sort of things that we care about that goes beyond the business aspect of the music, or even the music itself.
JOSETTE MASKIN: The most exciting thing has been bringing in any sort of creative idea and seeing how Phoebe and the people at the label take that idea and try to take it to the next level, especially with marketing or anything like that. No tea compared to where we were—because we wouldn’t be anywhere without coming from somewhere—but it does feel like a breath of fresh air in terms of having the creative vision be thought of on every different level. Any silly idea that we have has been taken seriously. Also, people want to help us do the laborious things that we do. Up to this point, Naomi’s done all of our graphic design. Now for the first time, we’re getting some help on it to lighten our load so we can actually focus on music a little bit more.
KATIE GAVIN: The last thing that I would say is all of us are queer, and we have different gender identities, but we’ve all grown up being perceived as femmes in this world, so we have these really similar experiences. I don’t think we have separatist politics. We work with people across all different types of identities, but there is something comforting about working with people who at least have some shared identities with you. There are things that you won’t have to explain.
There’s a guarantee, like what Jo was saying, about our ideas being taken seriously. I do wonder about the cost over time of having little ideas that just don’t get heard or respected. And I do think it has to do with identity. I don’t think people realize it. Maybe you’re not conscious of it as the guy in the room at the conference table, at the label. But I think it really matters.
MASKIN: I mean, the thing about identity is, we’re different now than when we first signed, or at the inception of our band. For obvious reasons, we’re not a girl band. And if I’m being 100% honest, there are only so many formulas or ways to perceive us that a big organization knows how to work with. I don’t feel like we fit into those formulas. This is only the beginning of our relationship [with Saddest Factory Records], but I feel like it aligns more with our intrinsic values.
Yeah, there isn’t space to grow if you’re pigeonholed as one person or one “brand.” It’s probably also just hard to write stuff if someone else’s voice is in your head all the time or if you need to be accessible to an audience that doesn’t feel connected to you.
MCPHERSON: Or that doesn’t even exist in reality. I feel like it’s appeasing this imaginary audience that doesn’t exist.
It’s like the image of the ice cream cone in every cartoon where you stick your tongue out and it falls off in a whole scoop, and that doesn’t happen in real life, but it’s in everyone’s collective consciousness.
MCPHERSON: Totally, and making music for anything other than who you imagine your music is for, it’s just so stupid. I’m glad that we’re not in a position where we had to fundamentally change who we are as a band, or how we do what we do, because we felt beholden or like we needed to do something from a fear mentality or a scarcity mentality. No scarcity mentality.
I wonder if the internet is changing that a little bit because now there’s such a feedback loop between artist and audience and corporations, for better or worse, where we can see in real time what people like.
GAVIN: I think that brings up conversations that we’ve had recently about how excited we are for what we’re making and how much we like it and believe in it and are connecting to it, but we still ascribe to this model of, “We are making the album, and then we’ll roll it out.” We’re not writing 30 seconds of a song and then posting it directly on TikTok to find out how people feel. Even though I would like that. That’s kind of my level of patience and attention span.
MCPHERSON: Thirty seconds.
GAVIN: So there is a feeling of risk in the sense that, in some ways, this feels like it did when we started as a band. There’s a real hunger: We really have a chance, in a way that we haven’t in a long time, to show people what we’re about. It feels like a really awakening type of risk, where you feel very present, because we like what we’re doing. We really want other people to like it, too.
MASKIN: There are so many people who believe in us so much and who have been willing to put themselves on the line for us. Making our next music video really heightened that feeling. I want to make those people feel proud, and I just feel so grateful that we’ve had those people support us. We’ve just had so many people that we work with, like our makeup artist and our stylist and Naomi’s partner, who directed the music video, who have done so much for us because they just believe in us. Phoebe as well. I feel very grateful. But it also does make me feel slightly afraid, you know?
MCPHERSON: I hear you. It feels like we need to have that faith every time. I think it feels more intense now because, in so many words, when we put the second record out, we were hoping that would be the thing that changed our lives dramatically. And then it didn’t immediately. But it really has, over a long-elapsed period of time. I think it’s such an amazing body of work. You can’t help but be like, “Oh man, did this get slept on?” And then people in your life are telling you it’s getting slept on, and then you start to feel negative in your head about that.
But it feels like since the beginning of 2020, or even since we put the record out in the fall of 2019, so many people have found it over that time. So many people have come to the music in their own ways and have been like, “How did I not know about you guys? I’m so excited for what you put out next.” That’s even more gratifying than the instant thing or whatever you imagine happens when you drop a record. It feels like it’s been kismet the way that it’s worked out, like we’ve attracted slowly but surely all the right people into our lives who believe in us and who can help us and who want us to do better—whatever that means, “better”—just doing it bigger than we’ve done it. We’ve lived the grind from van to bus and all the way back.
GAVIN: Back to van.
MCPHERSON: To van and bus and back, and hopefully bus again. It just feels like the chart of growth is very gradual for us. I think we’ve always been in acceptance of the fact that that’s the kind of group that we have. Now it feels like we’re teetering on the precipice of a moment that feels really special and really important and really cool, not to put a bunch of pressure on something.
GAVIN: It’s gonna be huge for the culture.
MCPHERSON: They’re going to be gagging in the streets. They’re going to be shaking and crying.
GAVIN: They’re going to be shitting, pissing, crying, throwing up, vomiting.
This is the gay agenda. Do you believe in manifestation?
What are you manifesting for your upcoming tour?
MASKIN: I just want people to be healthy. I’m excited for tour, but I feel trapped in the dystopian hell which we are getting squished into. I just hope that we all remain healthy. I’m excited for whatever the experience might be because I just really don’t know. It’s been so long, and I just don’t know what that side of life is anymore.
MCPHERSON: We were just texting today because I realized that we play a festival in three weeks, and I haven’t played any of our songs since 2019.
GAVIN: I’m manifesting knowing my guitar parts.
MASKIN: That’s what we need to be manifesting: getting good practice in. Don’t let yourself down. Practice every day.
GAVIN: It’s funny because you really do have to be open to everything turning around on a dime—if we’re not able to continue opening up, then that’ll be that, and I’ll have to reorient. But I’m looking forward to touring and putting out new music and just generally opening back up and sharing stuff with people. I’m really interested in the concept of collaboration and community: being inspired by other people’s work and learning how to express that, and learning how to cheer other people on, and also be vulnerable enough to ask to be included in whatever is going on.
Go where it’s warm, you know? If you think some shit is cool, show up and support it vocally. Then let yourself be inspired by that. We’ve been so lucky to be best friends and make work together, but the flip side of that is that we can just stay in our own bubble because there’s three of us. So it’s feeling out that thing of like, “Oh, there’s this big world, and your life can just keep getting bigger.”
MASKIN: So you want to leave us?
GAVIN: I’m looking for a way out.
This interview appeared in issue 398, available here.