Growing up in Guernsey, an independently-run but British-owned island off the coast of France, there weren’t a whole lot of after-hour activities. There was only one nightclub for its roughly 63,000 citizens, and to hear Alex Crossan talk, it wasn’t much.
“They just have this one resident DJ who plays vapid chart music, not even of the moment, but from 20 years ago,” he says. “It’s the same songs every Saturday. People come in to hear the same 10 songs or whatever – and it’s the only place that’s open after midnight, so you have to end up going there if you go out drinking. It’s kind of an inevitability.”
In defiance of such sameness, Crossan gravitates toward variety. As a young teenager, he played in a series of punk and metal bands, learning to play whatever instrument necessary to fill in gaps. As a young punk on a quaint country island, you’ve got to be flexible.
When he was 16, Crossan started producing electronic music on his laptop. A year later, he released on Soundcloud with the name Mura Masa. When it came time for university, he enrolled at Sussex in England to study English. If the production thing didn’t work out, he figured he might be a music journalist or something.
“I was hedging my bets with university,” he says. “I always wanted to do music, it was just about waiting for the point when I could confidently say ‘okay, I reckon there’s enough momentum behind this thing to sustain myself.’
He dropped out of University about two years ago. He moved to London. His blend of ’90s R&B, future bass and hip-hop attracted a range of artists and listeners. He was tapped for remixes by rapper Travis Scott and folk-pop singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran.
He started writing an album and dropped a couple teaser singles. First it was “Love $ick” with A$AP Rocky, which hit No. 18 on the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart, then it was “1 Night” with Charli XCX. Then he took the stage at Coachella 2017 weekend 1, and he brought out an astounding array of special guests — from the aforementioned A$AP Rocky and Charli XCX, to Desiigner and more.
“We managed to bring out eight different guests with us, which is pretty nuts,” he says. “It felt like a full circle moment. I’ve been working on this music for a couple years now with all these different people from around the world. We got to perform in this live space, and I was meeting some of those people for the first time. Like Desiinger, the first time we met was on stage, after he’d finished performing the song.”
Mura Masa, out everywhere Friday, July 14, represents the young artist as he stands today; a bedroom producer thrust into a larger world, coming of age on the precipice of possible pop takeover. Now 21, he’s had a few years to learn the ins and outs of London’s cultural fusion. He’s traveled the world and discovered much more than the shores of Guernsey could ever share. He’s tangled all these experiences and faces and ideas in his brain, fed them through a filter, and fashioned the 13 thoughtful, fanciful, introspective, brightly-shining songs that resulted into his debut LP.
“The way streaming is going, this movement in the market of music would suggest that doing a long-form project, especially for a new artist like me — someone who relies on a lot of digital following — it would make more sense for me to release the songs individually,” he says. “I didn’t wanna do that. I wanted to be old school. I think I learned a lot about what I do in that sense. It was interesting, working in more of a longer format, trying to put together a cohesive project that lasts longer than a single release or an EP.”
A definite thread of youthful abandon, uncertainty, and lust for love and life connects Mura Masa‘s sometimes disparate dots. He hesitates to call it a concept album, because even while it hits all the notes of a loose story, weaves in and out of recorded bits of conversation, and bookends with atmospheric elements, Crossan didn’t go about dictating any themes.
“I figured it was more productive for me to take the role of curator, rather than trying to steer the artists any particular way with lyrics,” he says. “I just let them speak about what they wanted to speak about. With A$AP Rocky, for example, he heard the song, and it reminded him of being in Ibiza every summer, love lost, those sorts of things. [For me], it’s just about placing them in the appropriate position on the album and picking the correct collaborations to build a patchwork of what I wanted to say.”
He’s a big city man now, but Crossan made his own country quilt out of soundscapes. Opener “Messy Love” features breathy vocals from the artist himself over soda-pop bubbles, bass-y piano chords, and harp strings. The energy builds over “Nuggets” with Ireland’s Bonzai, into “Love$ick.” A trap-infused speed bump knocks the car into a hip-hop lean on Desiigner’s collab “All Around The World,” and the most delicious transition follows into a tender, acoustic moment where Crossan returns to sing in AutoTune over the folksy “Give Me The Ground.” It catches the listener off guard, in the best possible way.
“It’s kind of like a ‘Hey, f–k you,’ I’m gonna do what I want,” Crossan says. “All punk music is is rebellion, going against the grain. It takes different forms. Sometimes it’s a band throwing their instruments around or making really violent and noisy sounds, but it doesn’t have to take that sonic form. It can take more of an energy.”
There’s definitely something disruptive about Mura Masa’s fresh pop approach, but it’s not confrontational by any means. It’s easy to fall into. It fits into today’s landscape, as much a time capsule of modern radio’s willingness to experiment as much as it is a portrait of Crossan himself. He’s a voice of something coming to fruition in today’s alternative.
“NOTHING ELSE!,” featuring Jamie Lidell, is some kind of Bruno Mars-does-Minneapolis-funk meets Justin Timberlake‘s vocal suave. It’s followed by an immediate change of pace with the indie-rock, The Cure-like sound of “helpline” with vocals from Tom Tripp, intro’d by some lo-fi punky drums that could have appeared on some ’90s Blur album or maybe the Gorillaz‘ self-titled.
And wouldn’t you know it, Damon Albarn sings on the album’s closer, “Blu.”
The iconic British art-rocker reached out to Crossan’s management to see if Mura Masa would want to get in on Gorillaz’ recently released Humanz LP. After a mini freak-out, the pair started swapping tunes: Masa didn’t make the Humanz cut, but they did turn out this beautiful, sultry duet, the cherry on top of Crossan’s definitive introduction to the world.
“The Gorillaz album Demon Days was the first album I ever bought,” Crossan says. “I love [Albarn’s] take on collaboration and what a collaborative project can be, which is what Gorillaz really is. I’ve had that blueprint in my mind since setting off, and it turns out that Damon ended up on the album. It’s something really special, definitely a crystallizing moment in my life.”