Band To Watch: MUNA
Listening to MUNA forces you to remember why they call it a hook. Great pop songs always have one: a huge and prickly soaring moment that sticks in your brain and draws your memory back to the moment. A hook is a musical curveball, something unexpected that feels endlessly familiar. It fools you with trajectory, coaxing you back around the same smooth path again and again, like a lap around a track. The first song I heard by LA-based trio MUNA was “Promise,” and it’s got a hell of a hook. “Promise” bolts forward like a train pulling away from the station, its yelping siren and huge percussion immediately evoke broody euphoria. Then it keeps picking up steam. “Even if you said you would forgive me/ I don’t know if I could ever say I’m sorry,” Katie Gavin sings, dipping directly into the hook: “I don’t know if I/ I don’t know if I can.” It’s such a vulnerable admission that it catches you off guard, crawls under your skin, sticks in your throat. I was hooked.
“Promise” is actually the second single that the group have put out this year; it follows up “So Special,” which they describe as a “drunken reckoning of oneself.” It’s a song about being rejected that crackles and suffocates like cellophane, wrinkling and warping memories of love into vulnerable ’80s pop and iced-out Imogen Heap harmonies. Both of these songs examine the forbidding and devastating aspects of love, teeming with burnished hooks and introspective flourishes that belie the group’s short time together. All of MUNA’s songs do, really, and nearly every one of them launches with a huge hook, incorporates soul, funk, pop, and rock, and grapples with emotions that feel like they’ll endure longer than eternity.
The band is composed of Katie Gavin, 22, on lead vocals and production, Josette Maskin, 21, on lead guitar, and Naomi McPherson, 21, on rhythm guitar and additional production. They describe themselves as dark pop, a succinct distillation. What they mean is, though this music sounds big and euphoric like pop, it tackles complicated emotions like forgiveness and anger, arrogance and humility. These aren’t necessarily dark as much as they are heavy, feelings that most people would prefer to leave hidden under the surface or crammed in the back of a closet. Instead, Gavin’s songwriting puts them front and center, the focal point of MUNA’s plush pop constructions.
Last summer they released their initial EP, More Perfect, a project that served as something of a learning curve for the girls. The EP is good, but listening to their new songs, it becomes clear what a huge difference a year can make for a band this young. The members of MUNA are barely out of college and have only just begun to fiddle with the complex pop and heavy funk that elevates them above your pedestrian young pop group. They met while attending USC and came from various backgrounds — Gavin was a confessional songwriter, McPherson grew up in a family of jazz musicians, and Maskin played in ska and prog rock bands in high school.
Together, they’ve stumbled onto pop by accident, and begun making music that’s purposefully inclusive, and purposefully pulls at the loose threads in cultural narratives about love and relationships. Today, we’re premiering “Loudspeaker,” which is the third in a series of four new singles the trio are planning to share over the course of this year. Below, the band openly discusses dealing with anger, how talking about sexuality can pigeonhole female musicians, and why they’re not planning to release another EP any time soon.
STEREOGUM: What’s the story behind your band name?
KATIE GAVIN: We had written every song for our first EP, More Perfect, and we still didn’t have a name for the band. So we hung out one day for the entire day on some weekend saying a bunch of words to each other.
JOSETTE MASKIN: It was really difficult actually, and it took more than a day. We were talking about luna and the moon.
NAOMI MCPHERSON: We wanted something feminine, but we were also on the verge of nearly killing each other. Coming up with a band name is the most embarrassing thing that you could possibly do. Coming up with a name for yourself? It just sounds so dumb, everything you say sounds stupid. Someone said “luna” and we were talking about femininity because that’s a central piece of who we are as a band, and then someone said MUNA, I really can’t remember who it was. It was not me!
MASKIN: It was not me either.
GAVIN: It was a celestial creature who entered the room and whispered it. It was a surprise in the same way that the music we made was surprising. After we came together we were all surprised by what we were making. Essentially that first day, we sat down and I had my little MIDI controller, and they started playing together, and we just wrote the first song called “Feel Better” that was on our first EP from 2014, More Perfect.
MCPHERSON: After the first night of us making music, Katie sort of recorded it, and when we listened back a couple of days later we were like, “Oh my God… we’re in a pop band? We’re a pop band?”
STEREOGUM: That was something you were surprised about? Did you not like that?
MCPHERSON: No, we really liked it!
GAVIN: We really liked it, but we were all confused that that’s how it went down. Like, that’s not what we went into this situation expecting.
MASKIN: I was so shocked.
GAVIN: We could tell immediately though that we clicked and worked really well and really fast together. So we were really voraciously writing. But if you look at all the songs on that first EP, they’re not all pop songs. Our only requirement for what MUNA makes is that we all really like it. In this day and age there are no rules and you don’t have to stick to any genre. You just have to make something with people that you love and that everyone in the group is excited about.
STEREOGUM: Katie, I know you come from confessional songwriting background, which is not surprising because the lyrics to “Promise” immediately stood out. This is a pop song but it’s about forgiveness. That is a hard enough topic to tackle and this song really gets into the complexities of it. Can you see that you’re wrong at all, and if so, can you apologize? Can you accept forgiveness if it comes? And finally, can you forgive yourself? These are really tough things to cover at all, so to hear them in the context of an enormous pop song felt awesome. Can you talk about that juxtaposition?
GAVIN: I like to find topics and realms and emotional spaces that feel in some way like they haven’t been explored by the pop terrain. People talk about love all the time — there’s thousands upon thousands of songs about love — but there are a lot of parts about it that we don’t cover because they seem too complex. A big part of who I am as a person is that I deal with anger, and I deal with my own temper. I feel like that’s not something that gets discussed often but a lot of people do deal with it. I really love finding things that it’s like “Hey, this hasn’t been talked about a lot, but I know there’s a ton of you motherfuckers out there who are dealing with the exact same thing.” I know there are! So I feel safe saying it and putting myself out there, because I have to believe that a ton of other people relate to that.
STEREOGUM: I also want ask you about “Loudspeaker” though since that’s the one that we’re premiering. I love this line: “Every time I love myself it hurts your feelings.” This song seems like it’s about dealing with your feelings, but also using music or some external expression to calm or soothe yourself. And I love that it’s a song about doing that, because then this song itself will kind of becomes a song used for that purpose, to calm or soothe. Like a song within a song kind of thing.
MCPHERSON: “Loudspeaker” is like the thesis of MUNA. It’s a good introductory song. It’s like our mission statement. We describe ourselves as punks or rebellious spirits making pop music. I think this song is the most concise synthesis of that. It hinges on the idea of freeing yourself and not caring what other people have to say about it. I think that can apply to anyone that’s ever experienced any kind of … not just people talking down to you, but people saying or behaving toward you in a sexist way or a racist way, or any kind of oppression. We want this song to feel applicable.
GAVIN: Something I see in a lot of my friends that breaks my heart is that when they were growing up they didn’t want to talk in class, or they’re afraid to let other people know how brilliant they are. Or they’re afraid to articulate when somebody is making them uncomfortable because they don’t want to make somebody else uncomfortable. I have always been a loud person and I share how I feel because I can’t really help it. This song is meant to be almost like a vessel for people to put that into, and hopefully a starting point. The song is meant to be a reclamation of one’s voice after some period of time spent in darkness or silence. It can be really difficult to choose your own comfort over the comfort of others, specifically if you are taught by society to do the opposite, but this song is essentially saying, ‘Fuck no, not today.’ We hope people will hear it and gain a little bit of courage to articulate their own battles and grievances, all the while knowing that they don’t have to take the blame for everything they’ve been through. Oh, and also it’s cool when girls are loud.
MASKIN: I think that applies to most of the songs we write. We’re saying something that needs to be said and letting people know that they don’t have to fake it in any way. There’s something genuine that we try to convey in everything that we’re doing that can be missing from pop music.
STEREOGUM: As you’ve emerged, people have described you as a queer band. Do you guys want to address anything about sexuality or gender? I’m of two minds about it, because a lot of times when women talk about stuff like this, then it becomes more central than the music. But I also think these kinds of conversations can have a huge impact on culture.
MCPHERSON: Our fear is that we don’t want to get pigeonholed as that not-straight girl pop band.
GAVIN: In our day-to-day lives, because of the bodies we are in, we think about issues of gender and issues of sexuality. But we also think about racism a lot, and there’s a lot we could articulate in terms of what there are problems with. But if you talk about feminism and you’re a woman, you run the risk of getting pigeonholed. When a black artist talks about issues of race they’ll often be completely silenced. I’m really fascinated by what Janelle Monae and Wondaland are doing right now and I don’t see a lot of press about it.
MCPHERSON: I’m mixed, I’m half black, and I think what you have to do is try to unlearn the negative and toxic ideas that have been placed into your head by standards of beauty, sexuality, or class. Once your mind has been opened to certain things, you can’t unlearn them. What we hope to do with our music is to create a really inclusive space. Look, it sucks out there. It’s so easy to be really depressed all the time. If you wake up and read the news every day why would you want to leave your house? It’s so so upsetting. And as a group, as we’re struggling with those feelings ourselves — those feelings of nihilism and hopelessness — to try to create a very honest space but also a very hopeful space.
STEREOGUM: Well that’s where the pop element comes back in again right? Because of the sounds. These sounds that you’re making are happy. They feel good.
GAVIN: Anybody who likes MUNA’s music — that’s great. But it is definitely for certain people who have certain things going on in their internal lives. I have been writing songs all my life, but I’ve also learned so much in the past five or so years, and all of that has informed every word choice I make when I’m writing lyrics. I tread carefully because I want our music to be intersectional — I don’t know if there’s a better word that isn’t so academic — but that’s how I feel about it.
MCPHERSON: Pop is for everyone. It’s for the average person up to pop stars themselves. For us it’s about creating a space for interpretation, for people to take what they need to take from a certain song. If it means not explaining what a song is about so someone can create their own meaning and that makes them feel good, then that makes us feel good. That’s what the point is.
STEREOGUM: So you have three new songs out this year, what are the plans for your next release, logistically?
GAVIN: We just started talking about a larger body of work, and we’ll be working and planning on that. But the next thing we’re going to release is a song called “Winter Break.” That’s going to happen in the next couple months.
MCPHERSON: We’ve only put out one EP before, and the two songs we highlighted off it were “The Grave” and “2BMoved.” We’re not going to infinitely stick to a singles model. However, we are going to release another single. And what else is in the works is that we also want to make videos for these songs. We want to make sure that all the songs that we’ve put out over the past few months live a full life before we jump into releasing an EP that no one will necessarily care about or jump into releasing a full-length album.
GAVIN: This was also when we were learning how to produce and we were learning how to fit into these roles, but I think it’s important that we leave it up to be like hey you should try it, and you’ll get better.