Any band should be happy to sell out their first headlining show, and MUNA—comprised of Katie Gavin, Naomi McPherson, and Josette Maskin—is no exception. The self-produced trio shared their triumph at Los Angeles’ Echo in a room packed with family, friends, and fans in May. This headlining show doubled as a a release party in celebration of their EP Loudspeaker, the end (and the beginning) of a long journey into the music world.
A self-described "dark pop girl band," MUNA has been building buzz for years, both at the University of Southern California (where all three, as well as I, graduated) and beyond. It’s all come to a head in 2016 with festival bookings, shows with Chairlift, Miike Snow, and Grouplove, and of course, Loudspeaker. But theirs isn’t a story just about indie success.
The band’s music has a weariness to it that makes me think of what would happen after an '80s teen movie—after all the joy and shenanigans, what next? Their sumptuous soundscapes are matched by poignant lyricism and the spirit of mid-2000s emo. Except instead of being fueled by anger, resentment, and aggression, Loudspeaker is deeply self-reflective, a missive not to a world that’s wronged you but to a lover whose life no longer intersects, whether amicably or antagonistically, with your own. Also notable: None of MUNA’s lyrics contain gender-based pronouns, a conscious choice by its three queer members. This has, not coincidentally, earned them a particularly devoted queer following.
On an extremely sunny L.A. day, Fusion sat down with MUNA to discuss love, capitalism, and “making meaning” in the music world.
I saw y’all at the Echo for your first headlining show. That was wild.
Katie Gavin: I was kind of flabbergasted. Since we’ve started this project, I’ve always noticed that there has been this weird thing that’s never happened to me before, which is, people wanna come to our shows? In the past, I really had to convince people and go through this kind of grueling, "Please!" It’s a really emotionally difficult process, trying to get people to come out.
It’s nice to see how a band interacts outside of a prescribed environment, because when you get on stage, to some extent, you have to have your shit together.
K: It’s helped, being on tour. When we first started as a band, we thought that we were gonna do this quiet, artistic… With sound bites of different quotes from people about these big concepts.
Naomi McPherson: We did that once and it was a horrible idea.
K: It’s just not who we are. It’s a weird combination of earnest sadness and also like, “Hahahaha,” in our songs. We kinda don’t plan our stage banter. Even saying our band name, and “buy our merch”—sometimes we forget to say that.
Part of it is, I care about the art of performance and being performative. I feel like it’s important for people to feel like you’re giving them something extra, when they’re watching your performance. But I also think we live in this time where you can’t keep up the façade the whole time, so it has to be this combination between, I’m being performative and I’m also not, at all.
There are so many shows where it’s like… four dudes on the stage, playing their thing, and then they leave, saying, “We love you guys.”
N: We’re kind of sick of going to shows where you feel nothing the whole time. And they don’t even really look like they’re having fun. It’s sad seeing musicians who are really talented looking like they’re not even playing music. That’s how you hate touring, that’s how you end up hating being a musician and want to go live in the woods. Which we might do anyway, but at least we tried to have fun.
K: I do feel a lot of responsibility for people that you might call fans. Sometimes, I feel like that’s not a good thing, because people are just people and you can’t solve people’s problems, necessarily, with a pop song.
But what brings meaning to this for me, and we do this little thing where we “make meaning” before we have shows, where we get in a little circle and talk about stuff… I think of music as a service industry. We’re just paid crazy amounts of money sometimes, and paid nothing other times, so it’s a weird industry. But we’re trying to perform an act of service for people. Sometimes it doesn’t work.
We’re all trying to figure out the ways we think about it. We’ve really only been on one three-week tour.
Touring is pretty taxing on anyone who’s involved in it. But you couldn’t do that to support your music until y’all were out of school. How was the process of making that happen: launching MUNA for real, and also trying to figure out ways to share your music?
N: School came first, or we tried to make school the priority. You would miss class sometimes, but other times we’d reschedule things.
K: I’m thinking about when we were finishing “So Special” and “Promise” on Loudspeaker; you [Naomi] were writing your thesis. She had to do a real senior project… Nobody knew what we were working on. We had all this shit cooking up at home.
N: You have to believe in yourself to an insane degree, before anyone starts fucking with you.
K: We took so much time and put so much work in, without anybody knowing that. We live in this space where everyone wants to share stuff immediately. I know that because I wanna do that too; I wanna share shit as soon as I create it. “Look, isn’t this cool, can you validate what I made?” But sometimes when you know that you have something really special, you have to wait for it to be the right time and put the amount of preparation in, so that when you press Go—we’ve always known that, we’re in it for the long game.
Josette Maskin: We did a lot of one-offs, which really helped us. Like SXSW, we’d never done anything like that before. I don’t why it just worked out that, we got to add a little bit more, add a little bit more, to what we’re doing. That’s what these tours have done, and I’m really appreciative of that time. Each time we do it, we learn something more about ourselves. I don’t feel overwhelmed.
K: I’ve often said that our growth has been really linear. You can see the cause and effect really clearly. I want that to keep happening. It can be really overwhelming and hard on people when a huge jump happens.
N: That happens to people just because of Soundcloud and stuff; you put out a single, and that single gets 100,000 plays in a week, and you don’t have a follow-up. Or then you get signed two months later and you’ve written three songs, and they want you to make an album. We were slow with releasing stuff, so we were able to go in, when we did eventually get signed, like, “Here’s what we have.” We always need time to work on stuff, but we went in having other stuff. There’s a lot of pressure, but it felt less intense. We felt more prepared, more confident, that we could do it.
K: We’ve also talked about, when you get signed, or when you exist in this world where there’s so much being released all the time, you get the feeling of pressure a lot, but some of it is straight-up not real.
So many individual geniuses are celebrated and held up to these absurd standards. But what’s often elided is that none of these creative enterprises work just on their own.
N: The whole cult of individuality, and the way that capitalism works, it’s so toxic in a lot of ways. It makes us all feel inadequate, so when you see a magazine cover on this one amazing musician, and you don’t know if they’ve got a team of writers and a team of producers behind them, managing their day-to-day stuff… They don’t do it alone, and we don’t do it alone as individuals either. It is a lot about teamwork, as stupid as that sounds.
K: There’s something that’s really financial, essentially, about credit on songs and stuff like that. The idea that you’re a more valuable artist if you can take full ownership on something, to me, doesn’t really make sense.
J: Our approach to—I don’t wanna say our approach to writing because I don’t wanna speak for either of you guys—but when we do write something creatively, we’re trying to do what’s best for the song, what’s best for the message, not necessarily what’s best for ourselves. Artists struggle with that, I struggle with that, because you want to do everything in your ability, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the right thing. It’s the same thing with how people look at individual output because they think, “I did this all by myself, which makes it better.”
This reminds me, when Beyoncé’s Lemonade dropped, this other band—who I won't name—was like, “We’re about to go on our show, and it’s just gonna be us playing our hearts out, not a fashion show.”
J: People are pretentious. It’s an illusion: just because it’s a different form of music or a different form of art doesn’t mean that it’s any less authentic. It touches people; isn’t that the whole point?
K: People have said that about Michael Jackson, about Prince. They have so many costume changes.
N: “David Bowie!”
K: But with Beyoncé, when you see this on a woman, she becomes the “model” rather than the originator and the creator. So okay, that’s just sexist.
Speaking of sexism, how have you encountered that within the music industry? It’s a subject that more and more performers are speaking out about, but also because they’re explicitly asked about it, such as now.
K: It’s either about being women or being queer. We expect it.
N: What about the one about being ugly? Because that’s a question we were asked. Everything we do, we experience as women in the world because it’s hard every day.
K: When women who are journalists ask us about it, I’m like, what’s it like being a woman? Pretty much the same, except in music.
N: The only unique experience of being a woman in music is that if you’re astute enough, you start to notice trends in the way that people speak about you.
J: Yeah, or talk to you after shows. I run the merch table after shows, and it’s delightful and the worst at the same time. I get people being like, “This is awesome!”, and also people who shake my hand, looking at me and being creepy.
K: And then, people feeling entitled in giving us feedback.
J: And people saying, “Oh, you look so good up there.”
K: A lot of stuff is an invisible network. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you focus on it too much; that’s part of the reason the question gets hard to answer. We want to talk about it, but you can’t think about it all the time if you wanna keep going.
The specific perspective we can speak to is also being self-produced. A lot of people are surprised by that. Women are technically proficient. Women can do technical jobs. People willfully don’t see it, and ignore that shit. There’s evidence everywhere that we can do it, and people love to see when we fuck up.
N: I think you have to be belligerently confident. That’s what I’ve sort of learned, growing up, being a little brown person, seeing people be racist and sexist and homophobic and being like, “Wow, you just have to not care about that.” Recently, someone wrote an article, a review about one of our shows. In it, it said, “They were really melodramatic and it was just a bunch of songs about boys,” which gets really tiring after a second.
Which is hilarious because…
N: I guarantee a man wrote this. Not that all men are evil, but who would go to a show… They could’ve done one Google and learned one thing. Who goes to see a dude band and says, “Yeah, this was boring, they just did songs about chicks.” Like, what?
K: I think the beginning of the sentence [of the review] too, which is more interesting to me, is like, “Their image seems cool and political so I was expecting something cool and political, but what I got was songs about boys.” For the people who get us, they get that these songs are political in their personal narratives.
N: The personal is political! You can smell that bullshit from a mile and a half away.
K: Another hard piece of that is like, if a guy wrote that, I haven’t completely unlearned caring about it. We’re supposed to care about guys’ opinions; we’ve been told that we should. You can try and fight for people to give you the respect that you deserve, or you could just be like, I’m gonna take my crew that understands me and that I care about, and we’re gonna validate each other and go over here.
J: It takes a while to learn that, but the number one thing that I like about what we’re doing is that, when we were in Montreal, this 9-year-old girl came to our show and wanted to take a photo with us after. I was like, “You can do this! You don’t need anyone else’s approval,” because I grew up my whole life thinking that I thought I was so ugly because guys didn’t like me, because I was so gay, but it’s not even a conscious thing! You think you need men’s approval, and it’s horrible. All I wanna do is show that 9-year-old girl to say “Fuck you, everyone.”
[shows photo of the 9-year-old girl] She’s so cute! Look at us… we look like proud parents.
Three moms. Do any of you watch Steven Universe? Because it’s one kid and his three moms against the world.
K: Someone asked me what MUNA was, to come up with a bunch of different objects, and the first thing I said was, “MUNA’s a Crystal Gem!” Because I love Steven Universe.
N: It’s like the most positive thing. It might be the only non-problematic thing in this universe.
Strip away all the socio-political context of your music, and they still inherently matter. Songs about heartbreak, and love, and rediscovering yourself by queer artists are a way to reach out and be like, “Hey, I feel you.” And then you add the rest on, on top of that.
K: A lot of people say that the internal, big problem with language is that it’s impossible to fully describe our experience of life. Going back to the responsibility thing, we were writing these two different songs and one of them was about—I have problems with seeking out people romantically who’ll confirm my own shitty feelings about myself, and sometimes it puts me in pretty weak, sad positions. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t write about that, but I feel scared because I feel responsible for people and I don’t wanna write songs that are like, “I’m a weak little bitch who’ll accept being treated badly and that’s all I really want.”
And on the other side, I have moments where I realize, I still believe in a type of love that I haven’t experienced yet, because I don’t think I’m there, growth-wise, and I wanna write about that love too. That’s the after part of it; I wanna see what type of love I can imagine, where I feel powerful and free and whole on my own, but also totally being able to give myself to someone. I believe in something that’s better than that, and I wanna write about that, but these are two sides of the same coin. We’re gonna turn in the last demos next week! People aren’t gonna hear them for a long time, but we’re used to waiting at this point.
The music industry is a lot of waiting. You slice out your heart and then it sits.
K: Yeah, or someone hears it and they message you on Tinder like, “I heard your song!” That happened to me last night for the first time. It got so awkward.
J: At least someone’s messaging you on Tinder!
The intersection of technology with sex/romance is interesting, because everyone thinks the latter are sacred, but not really.
K: It’s harder to find ladies, but we gotta stick it out. It’s also getting really common in our generation to be interested in polyamory, or at least non-monogamy. I feel like we also hope that a lot of people [in the audience] are gay. And when we can get in front of people, we can usually suss it out.
J: I think about the generation after us… It wasn’t hard to be gay, or rather, it was, but it’s crazy different now.
N: A lot of people at our shows are coming up to us and saying that they’re queer when they’re really young, like 13. It’s heavy stuff, but it’s important.
Lilian Min is a culture writer, photographer, and fangirl. Follow her on Twitter @llnmn.