Muna: Wild horses

For most bands, leaving their label while the world battles a global pandemic would be a disaster. With their best album yet, Muna aren't most bands.
Photo credit: Em Marcovecchio

For most bands, leaving their label while the world battles a global pandemic would be a disaster. With their best album yet, Muna aren’t most bands.

Words: Martyn Young. Photos: Em Marcovecchio.

Sometimes there are moments when the stars align. When everything coalesces, and it becomes clear that a band is living in a magical moment – one when their music becomes truly transcendent on a different level. Muna have long proclaimed that they are the greatest band in the world. With their new self-titled album, they are proving that more than ever.

A couple of years ago, though, mired deep in the pandemic, it wasn’t always clear that Muna would now be flourishing so much. Released from their label RCA Records as they took the early steps into making the album, it was created while navigating an awkward period before finally ending up on Phoebe Bridgers’ Saddest Factory Records – a home they settled into beautifully, forging a connection that culminated in a landmark moment for a band celebrating almost a decade together. A moment, a song, a thousand memes and a genuine cultural crossover that lifts this new era for Katie Gavin, Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin to greater heights than ever before. “Life’s so fun,” indeed. As ever with Muna, though, if only things were quite that straightforward. 

“I don’t know exactly when it happened, but when ‘Silk Chiffon’ came out, there was a sense of it taking on a life of its own and getting wings in a way that you always hope for when you put out a song but were maybe too superstitious to say it out loud,” explains Katie. “Something that maybe doesn’t mean much to other people but means a ton to us as a band is that ‘Silk Chiffon’ is now a song that we can play last in the set. It means a lot when you have a new song that can be the new closer for your set. That’s a dream moment for a band that’s been around as long as we have.” 

Perhaps even more impressive than the widescreen pop-cultural moment of ‘Silk Chiffon’ is that Muna have followed it up with something even better in the soaring ‘Anything But Me’, and then maybe even topped both of them with the anthemic centrepiece of ‘Home By Now’. There’s no question we’re dealing with a special band who have reached a new level. When making the record, though, it was purely a case of ‘let’s get this done’, unaware of the true magnitude of what they were creating. “For a lot of this album, we made it in the tunnel with our heads down,” says Katie. “We didn’t necessarily have the perspective of the overall concept of the record. I think that’s because we were going through so many changes. Everything felt so uncertain that we took it in really small pieces and focused on one song at a time.”

For songwriter Katie, it became clear that she wanted this album to hit in a way the others didn’t, exploring themes in a deeper way. “I remember having conversations after we put out the second record of wanting the next record to be more embodied and, in a way, more sensual,” she continues. “More about the actual mess of modern relationships. I wanted some frank sexuality in it. I wanted it to be a documentation of a new sense of joy and self-assuredness that was very hard-won in the rollercoaster that was our twenties.” 

Those twenties have all been spent living and breathing Muna. It’s a significant achievement for any band to make it a decade in, but for Muna, it’s a validation and a celebration of their companionship. “So much of the journey of being in the band has been about our friendship,” says Naomi. “We’re able to continue this in the way that we do because we value our friendship with one another so much. We’re in the lucky position to have really close intimate relationships in a pretty cool job, and we get on well creatively. A lot of what’s happened over the last ten years is growing and maturing into the people that we are and probably will be some version of for the rest of the time on this amazing planet.” 

The strength of the trio’s bond has allowed them to weather the storms that have come their way. It would be daunting and perhaps dispiriting to leave a major label in the middle of a period of bleak uncertainty like the peak pandemic, but they reject any notion that this is a make or break record. They were already on the path to this album; circumstances just necessitated a little detour. “We were making this record through the whole transition of going to a new label,” explains Josette. “If anything, it was just us trying to work out how we can make this happen. We’ve always been super self-sufficient and independent, but this record was us trying to get even better at doing it ourselves. If we can’t afford certain things, how can we make something sound cool in a super creative way? That maybe isn’t the most hi-tech way to make music, but we made a vibe.” 

“It means a lot when you can have a new song be the new closer for your set”

Katie Gavin

There was undoubtedly a feeling that this couldn’t be just another album in a cycle, though. The stakes were higher, and the band were fearlessly heading into the challenge. There were also the realities of actually trying to function when the industry as a whole is now largely a world away from the gargantuan over the top budgets, promises of globetrotting world tours and label blank cheques of days gone by. It’s tough out there, and only the strongest and most assured can prosper. 

“I don’t know if it was in my head necessarily a make or break thing, but I think making pop music, you hope at a certain point that something takes off in a way that has the ability to improve the material conditions of your life and makes your job sustainable,” ponders Naomi. “You do think in your head maybe this one is the one. Maybe this record is the one that changes things for us. Our lives haven’t changed, but we’re a lot busier. It’s super sweet to hear that people like the record. When we finished it, we weren’t really cognizant of what we made. We had never taken something so down to the wire as we took the songs making this record.” 

Even before the record is released, there’s a tangible feeling that something special is brewing. It’s not just the kids of TikTok making dances to ‘Silk Chiffon’. It’s a swelling of enthusiasm and excitement across the board. Take the roof-raising reaction to their Brighton show at The Great Escape. People are ready to embrace Muna like never before. There’s something beautiful about their songs and the piercing emotional connections that they forge. You experience Muna’s music in an elemental, primal way. A purity that exemplifies why pop music is the greatest art form. 

“The gift of being in Muna is that we have this creative freedom that is allowed by giving ourselves that permission,” muses Katie. “This project is tied to our lives as individuals, and the records are documentations of certain chapters of our lives. Part of the reason we’ve been able to experience the growth that we have experienced is because there was a sense of meaning in that growth,” she continues. Muna recognise that life is a huge mixed up whirlwind of conflicting feelings and emotions, and it’s all represented in their songs. 

“There’s a song on the record called ‘Loose Garment’, which is kind of sad, but it’s saying I still have these really intense emotions because there is suffering in life. Not every relationship will work out the way you want, and even in the ones that do work out, there’s still loss,” explains Katie about the penultimate and pivotal song on the album. “The difference is, I have this space for the emotions. That allows the joy to be there. It took a lot to get to that place, and I think it’s on all the records.” 

Space is an enduring inspiration for the album – not in the sense of the solar system, but in terms of experiencing the songs and their emotions in an environment where Katie could be free to let her creative impulses wander. “I listened to an interview with the poet Mary Oliver. She always wrote outside and would take her notebook out into the world with her,” she says. “I relate a lot to that. I often find the heart of songs when I go out into the world. There’s something about that experience. I wrote the entire song ‘Kind Of Girl’ after I spent the whole day trying to write in my writing room unsuccessfully, and then I went and took a bath and wrote the whole song there. I wrote ‘Anything But Me’ in the car. I wrote ‘No Idea’ in my backyard and ‘Loose Garment’ on the Los Angeles riverwalk – there are lines in it about feeding the birds. It does seem that was a bit of a theme.” 

“A little bit of bigging yourself up when you’re a marginalised person making music just fucking feels good”

Naomi McPherson

Throughout the album, we touch on emotions ramped up to extreme levels. It takes you on a real journey. “With the record being self-titled, almost the only throughline is that it’s comfortable in the way it contradicts itself,” says Katie. “There’s the back to back of ‘What I Want’ wanting to be this hedonistic party animal, while ‘Runners High’ is about wanting to get back into my spiritual practice and an aesthetic. That’s just my real life. I’m in different places on different cycles. Whatever emotion I felt, I just wanted to depict that as best as I could and not worry about it all making sense together.” 

Nothing makes sense, and yet everything makes sense. That’s the beauty of Muna. No other band could take you from the fevered ecstasy of ‘What I Want’ – the biggest turbo banger that Muna have ever created – to the gorgeous lilt of ‘Kind Of Girl’. “The ethos was to take the best songs that we have and put them into a sequence that feels not overtly jarring, but still maybe a bit challenging in a positive way,” Naomi offers. “Sowing seeds of chaos in our listeners.”

That’s the thing when you’re a fan of Muna. You’re all in. It’s a bond that the band truly cherishes, nurtured over years of shared experiences. “There’s a tremendous sense of mutual respect,” says Katie. “We’re living in a really interesting time to be a professional musician. Before social media, there was this built-in boundary of access. Post social media, we have learned that both the musician and the fan still need boundaries. There’s something very vulnerable about learning to navigate that together. There’s an understanding and respect that the music that we make is really personal. It’s music that we needed to make to process things that were going on in our lives. There’s something magical when we make stuff that we need to hear for ourselves, and that ends up being the stuff that makes the deepest connection. If we’re lucky, it’s stuff that they needed to hear as well.” 

Those tales that fans relate to them are some of the more gratifying rewards. “I love seeing stories about someone who started listening to Muna in the ‘About U’ era, and they were going through a lot of toxic relationship stuff at that time,” continues Katie. “These people have grown up with us. I find it super sweet that we have these parallel journeys that are so intrinsically tied, and yet we maybe have never had an in-person conversation. Our fans are notorious for being extraordinarily kind and compassionate. Multiple times we’ve gotten feedback from a venue that our fans were so nice. That still baffles me, and I feel very proud that that’s the energy being cultivated. The credit goes 100% to them.” 

Knowing their fans implicitly have their back gives Muna the freedom and confidence to fully express themselves. If those people are going to invest all their time and love in them, then Muna are damn sure gonna do everything they can to pay them back. “We started calling ourselves the greatest band in the world just as a bit of cheek, a bit of fun and to be a little provocative,” laughs Naomi. “The truth is that dude musicians and bands can say that type of stuff about themselves and have for hundreds of years of making music. A little bit of bigging yourself up when you’re a marginalised person making music just fucking feels good. It sets the bar high for us. Even if it’s a little bit of a joke, it shouldn’t be. We should just work our hardest to make it true. The three of us and everyone who plays with us live are making sure that the shows are ridiculously good. We set the bar really high for ourselves. We want people to leave the shows saying, ‘God damn, they’re good’. It takes a lot of practice, and we take it really seriously.” 

Indeed, pop music is a serious business, but it’s a gloriously silly and vibrant business, too. Muna can make you laugh (just look at the now-iconic opening line to ‘Anything But Me’ with its famous horse), and they can certainly make you cry, both tears of joy and sadness. This record is primarily about acceptance, finding joy and living with pain without losing hope, but it encapsulates feelings that Muna have explored ever since their first single. “‘Loose Garment’ is the central theme of the record and connects every record to each other,” sums up Josette. “On ‘About U’, you’re so lost in the patterns of your pain, and with ‘Saves The World’, you’re analysing it and figuring out why this is happening. ‘Loose Garment’ is like the pain is still there, but you have this new relationship with it. This record is about having new relationships with yourself and how you handle yourself in the world.”

While the album explores the relationships you have with yourself, the relationship that Muna have with their fans, old and new, is the one that is making this a landmark year for the band. Providing a safe, inclusive and inspiring space for pop kids the world over, and with a stunning album that is Maximum Muna on every level, they have delivered their masterpiece. The greatest band in the world? No arguments here. ■ 

Taken from the July 2022 edition of Dork, out now. Muna’s self-titled album is out 24th June.

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