MUNA on Queer Anthems & Creating 'Something Bigger Than Ourselves'

Four years ago, Katie Gavin, Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin were college seniors at the University of Southern California, plotting their post-graduation moves. One priority: Make MUNA, the band they started in 2013, last. “We knew we needed to find a way to make money from music if we wanted to continue living in Los Angeles and not have to go home and live with our parents,” says Gavin.

After posting its debut EP, More Perfect, on SoundCloud, the group was soon fielding offers from several labels. But it was RCA Records vp A&R Dan Chertoff who ultimately won the members over -- they signed within a month. He had discovered MUNA’s “Loudspeaker” on SoundCloud and in September 2015 called the band to make a deal. He offered resources rather than advice on an artistic direction, which was a selling point for MUNA considering the trio’s DIY approach to songwriting, recording and even merchandise, which McPherson designs. “We have a lot of ownership,” says Gavin.

Josh Brasted/FilmMagic
McPherson (left) and Gavin onstage at Lollapalooza in 2016.

MUNA has since become one of the most politically outspoken and inclusive major-label alt-pop groups: In 2016 the trio performed at Lollapalooza in Chicago, Gavin’s home city, wearing homemade T-shirts that read “Fuck Trump.” And when it comes to MUNA’s lyrics, the band doesn’t use gendered pronouns.

Much of MUNA’s draw comes from the juxtaposition of its sobering storytelling against a backdrop of uplifting production, especially on “Loudspeaker” and “I Know a Place,” both on MUNA’s acclaimed 2017 debut, About U. Six months prior to the latter’s release as lead single in December 2016, a shooter killed 49 people at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in the deadliest act of violence against the LGBTQ community in U.S. history. Although it was written long before the shooting, “I Know a Place” became an anthem with lyrics like, “You think being yourself means being unworthy/And it’s hard to love with a heart that’s hurting,” and its eerily spot-on chorus: “I know a place we can go/Where everyone gonna lay down their weapon.” Says Gavin, “It was shocking and unexpected, [but it made us realize] we are able to contribute to something bigger than ourselves. That’s incredibly affirming.”

Sami Drasin
From left: Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin and Naomi McPherson of MUNA photographed on July 16, 2019 at Casita Del Campo in Los Angeles. McPherson wears JNCO jeans. 

That sentiment drives much of MUNA’s second album, Saves the World, out Sept. 6 on RCA. But instead of going wide and speaking on larger political and societal issues, MUNA looked inward. Lead single “Number One Fan” is a mantra-like confidence boost. Poignant closer “It’s Gonna Be Okay” sarcastically chronicles the road to self-acceptance. “My responsibility as the main lyricist of the band is to write what I feel like I need to hear,” says Gavin. “And that, in some majestic way, goes on to be what other people need to hear.”

“I Know a Place” positioned Gavin and McPherson, both 26, and Maskin, 25, as luminaries, which they are leaning into now more than ever, as evidenced by the title of its upcoming album. But McPherson is quick to say that the band’s queer-positive, feminist identity is nothing revolutionary. She cites riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill, as well as Le Tigre and Tegan and Sara. “We are definitely standing on the shoulders of tons of people,” she says. “People have been working for decades as self-produced queer or female artists and bands, and they haven’t had the warm welcome that we had.” Adds Maskin: “The people who like our music are all seekers, to some extent. They’re looking for something to fill the void that we all have.”

Back in 2017, the trio opened for Harry Styles on his world tour. Now, ahead of MUNA’s headlining outing, McPherson is particularly excited about touring with the band’s first custom lighting rig. Meanwhile, Gavin is anxious to let the songs take on new life. “I can’t fucking wait to be in a room with 6,000 people and to have everybody let loose,” she says. “I want to see people fucking crying.”

At the same time, Gavin is well aware that nothing lasts forever. “We’ve been able to do this for as long as we’ve done it, but we don’t have the type of [success] to know that we’re going to be set for however long,” she says. “[We’re] a story that’s still unfolding.”

Sami Drasin
From left: Katie Gavin, Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin of MUNA photographed on July 16, 2019 at Casita Del Campo in Los Angeles.

Badasses Behind The Board
MUNA’s five favorite producers who are changing the game.

Alex Hope
Hometown: Sydney
Hope started producing six years ago, working with artists like Troye Sivan, Marina and David Guetta. Her latest work, on Tegan and Sara’s forthcoming ninth album, Hey, I’m Just Like You, has MUNA hitting replay. “That whole record is made by women,” says Gavin, “which is sick.”

Lil CC
Hometown: Los Angeles
Model Cydney Christine made her producing debut this year -- and it was a big break. After meeting Drake at a post-Grammys party, the rapper asked if she could send him beats. She ended up producing this year’s “Money in the Grave,” his top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hit featuring Rick Ross.

Hometown: Catalonia, Spain
Many know Rosalía as one of Latin music’s most prominent stars, but MUNA makes clear that the singer also wrote and produced her 2018 debut, El Mal Querer, with co-producer El Guincho. “She’s making the most next-level shit in the world,” says McPherson. “That album was my favorite of the year.”

Hometown: Glasgow
The surrealist pop auteur has written and produced for Madonna and Charli XCX, and in 2018 released her self-produced debut, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides. “[She’s] pushing the boundaries of what music can sound like,” says McPherson, citing all of PC Music, the label SOPHIE came up under.

Hometown: Flushing, Queens
Thanks to a few key covers, especially Drake’s “Passionfruit,” and her now-famous Brooklyn dance parties, Yaeji has been dubbed the next big thing in house music. Gavin’s younger sister turned her on to the DJ-producer, who just played Lollapalooza.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 10 issue of Billboard.

You Should Know: MUNA | Billboard