MUNA On Their Own Terms: "If We’re Lucky Enough to Have a Platform, We Should Use That to Help People"
The tipped trio discuss the storytelling, the importance of being open about their sexuality, and defining yourself for yourself.
Getting hooked on dark-pop trio MUNA won’t take long. In fact, the title track from the band’s Loudspeaker EP—all three minutes and 30 seconds of it—should do it. At face value, “Loudspeaker” is a euphoric anthem laden with pulsing rhythm guitar, very Haim meets 80s power-pop (we premiered the glorious track last month). But underneath the sparkling production, lead singer Katie Gavin deftly turns sadness into a celebration of survival, repeating: "I don't know where the blame lies, but you better believe I'm not gonna carry it all / I don't know when the shame dies out, but it's helping me to scream this was not my fault."
“The concept of ‘Loudspeaker’ is that I’m going to talk about the things I’ve been through,” says 23-year-old Gavin, over the phone from the band’s home base in Los Angeles. “And that may make someone people uncomfortable and I don’t care. I want to be free.”
But for the trio—Gavin, plus 22-year-old guitarist Josette Maskin and 23-year-old Naomi McPherson (also guitar)—“Loudspeaker” is about more than personal narrative. “The song is a vow,” continues Gavin. “If I feel good, I’m going to tell everyone about it. And if I feel like shit because something happened, or I did something shitty and I feel horrible, I’m also going to talk about that. Because chances are, we’re all going through the same thing.”
“Bad shit happens,” adds Maskin. “And we talk about that, but we don’t want to bum people out all the time. We try to make music that reflects both the reality of the world we live in and some sense of optimism.”
So in many ways it makes sense that MUNA settled on the pop genre to carry out their mission, but it did take them some time to find their sound. The group first met through classes at The University of Southern California where Gavin and Maskin majored in music, while McPherson pursued a Narrative Studies and American Studies & Ethnicity double major. They discovered their musical chemistry at a party, when Maskin and McPherson started jamming on the guitar. Later that night, Gavin arrived and added vocals. “It all came together,” Maskin says, simply.
The following summer, in 2014, the trio released their debut EP, More Perfect, on Bandcamp and Soundcloud.
“We started out being experimental and just making whatever we thought sounded cool,” McPherson says. “But after [releasing More Perfect], we made the choice to work on production, to make things sound cleaner and veer our sound more toward the pop end of the spectrum.”
But entering the pop landscape, especially as an all-female band, is not easy. McPherson pinpoints a type of pressure that women pop musicians routinely face: “For the most part, [female-driven pop] songs are either about being heartbroken or saying, ‘Fuck that person. I’m going to go out with my girls and party!’ We’ve all been to both of those places before, but those aren’t the only stories.”
“Winterbreak,” another of the EP’s four songs, is a prime example of how the band seeks to tell those different stories. In its sweeping refrain, rife with drawn-out harmonies reminiscent of Imogen Heap, Gavin considers a future with a likely-doomed love, singing: "Oh, baby, I think we both know / This is the love that we won't get right / Still, if you said that you wanted / I know I'll always have one more try."
The “Winterbreak” video furthers this idea of longing. In it, Gavin cuts a striking figure—sporting a plaid tunic, and a stark undercut with a few long strands of dark hair framing her face—returning to her fictional childhood home, where she meets McPherson and Maskin. Together, they jump in a Volvo and cruise down suburban streets straight out of Sofia Coppola’s feature debut The Virgin Suicides. They sneak under a graffitied underpass, giggling, and perch on couches at a house party, clutching red solo cups. But, simmering below their high school-style nostalgia is palpable romantic tension—in the form of tight hugs and loaded glances—which serves to deepen the song’s wistful bent.
Already, MUNA has been described as a “queer girl band.” In an interview with Stereogum this past September, the trio discussed their fear of being pigeonholed as such. But as time’s passed, they’ve changed their outlook.
“I’ve never been closeted necessarily,” says McPherson. “But I think it is important—and I’ve felt more passionately about this as the months have gone by—that if we’re lucky enough to have a platform, we should use that to help people. It would have meant a lot to me when I was, say, 12, to know of someone in a band and think they were cool and know they were out.”
In this vein, McPherson draws inspiration from Tegan and Sara, whose eighth full-length album, Love You to Death, comes out in just a few weeks: “[They] have been around for so long and have been putting out great music the entire time. And only now are they getting the recognition that they deserve. But I think that’s partially because they stuck to their guns [in terms of being out and vocal].”
“Working with men we sometimes still experience more of straight-up sexism than homophobia,” adds Gavin. “But that can come with erasure. We were at a photoshoot the other day, and someone said to Naomi [McPherson], ‘Pretend you just saw your boyfriend.’ Are you fucking kidding? Why is that something you would use as a prompt? It’s the quote from [writer and activist] Audre Lorde…” Here Gavin pauses, Googling the line to get it right: “‘If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.’”
Just as they’re open about the ways their climate can be challenging, the members of MUNA are open about the times they’ve been challenged, too—most recently at their South by Southwest debut earlier this year when McPherson came down with mono, and Gavin lost her voice around their third performance.
“I believe in myself as a songwriter,” says Gavin. “But it’s been a harder transition to believe in myself as a vocalist. And when I lost my voice [at SXSW], I thought, ‘I have to figure out what the fuck to do about this if we’re going to be a touring band.’ But I realized that when you don’t believe in yourself, it’s such a powerful thing that it actually physically manifests in your body. I have since been able to tell myself, ‘I don’t have to push myself so hard, I just have to be myself. I can do this.’ As soon as I accepted that, I can’t see life without it.”
It follows, then, that Gavin’s belief in simply being herself echoes MUNA’s greatest upside as a pop outlet: that they make appealing, listenable songs about people who are both flawed and strong. And as the trio kicks off a jam-packed second half of the year (highlights include opening for BØRNS and Miike Snow, performing at Lollapalooza, and finishing their debut LP to be released in 2017), they’ll need that confidence and candor more than ever.
“We’re a little baby band,” says Gavin, affectionately. “But we’re growing up.”