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Life’s So Fun: Muna Choose Happiness

After being dropped by a major label, the L.A. pop trio found themselves more creative than ever

Muna (from left): Josette Maskin, Katie Gavin, Naomi McPherson

Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone

Muna was stuck. In 2019, the band — lead songwriter and vocalist Katie Gavin, 29, and multi-instrumentalists and producers Naomi McPherson, 29, and Josette Maskin, 28 — was at a rare co-writing session with their new friend Mitski, who was helping them refine an unfinished tune called “No Idea.” 

At the time, it consisted only of a verse, a chorus, and a vague, half-joking concept: “It was going to be our dyke boy-band song,” says Gavin,  with her (and the band’s) trademark wit. 

Mitski liked the idea, encouraging the trio to home in on Y2K-era Max Martin keyboard sounds and helping them write a second verse, but “No Idea” was still far from complete. Muna cycled through different iterations of the song: disco, funk, electronic. They obsessed over the bass sound, which felt “trapped in a certain groove,” in McPherson’s words.

“If I’m being honest,” says Maskin, “that song was maybe the most traumatizing in terms of the battle we had with it.”

Eventually, with the help of a few select reference points (LCD Soundsystem’s “Oh Baby,” Charlotte Gainesbourg’s “Deadly Valentine”) and a new, arpeggiated synth riff, Muna arrived at a finished product for “No Idea,” which sounds like a cross between vintage Daft Punk and the Backstreet Boys circa “Larger Than Life,” with a dash of the Ghostbusters theme song — and not quite like anything Muna have released before.

“No Idea” is just a small slice of the freewheeling experimentation and deliberate genre-hopping on Muna, the band’s forthcoming third album, due June 24. The record features a more pronounced and polished display of the mix of textured dance music, moody synth-rock, Janet Jackson-inspired pop-R&B and Shania Twain-indebted anthemic country that the band explored on 2019’s Saves the World. “The sound of this record explodes in a ton of different directions,” Gavin says. 

Nearly a decade after forming in 2013, Muna is rapidly shifting from their long-running status as relatively unknown “Los Angeles musicians’ favorite musicians” to a crossover pop phenomenon in their own right. Over the past several years, the band has opened for Harry Styles, appeared on Taylor Swift’s playlists, and earned fans like Tegan and Sara and Demi Lovato.

That rise kicked into overdrive last year, when the band followed its 2020 one-off dance single “Bodies” — which quickly became their second-most played song on Spotify — by signing with Phoebe Bridgers’ indie imprint and releasing “Silk Chiffon,” the even catchier song that kicks off Muna. Due in part to its Bridgers feature, the latter single exposed Muna to entirely new fanbases, giving them their first ever alternative radio hit. 

The trio recently wrapped up an arena tour opening up for Kacey Musgraves, where they were received with an enthusiasm and energy typically reserved for headliners. “Half the place was singing along to ‘Silk Chiffon,’” says Musgraves songwriter Ian Fitchuk, who helped craft the Muna single’s chorus with songwriting partner Daniel Tashian. “I was like, ‘How did this happen?’”

Muna have plenty to say about how it all happened: about how their production chops and songwriting prowess has been slowly improving with each album; about how getting dropped from a major-label deal with RCA in 2020 forced a necessary existential reflection; about how briefly shedding their “sad sack” reputation for a pop-sugar rush like “Silk Chiffon” has changed their lives. 

When Gavin first brought the rough sketch of “Silk Chiffon” to Fitchuck and Tashian in Nashville in early 2020, she had written the song’s pre-chorus and verses, but wasn’t sure where to go from there. 

“She started singing ‘Life’s so fun,’ and I’m thinking, ‘What an odd thing, to sing about rollerskates,’” says Fitchuk, who did not, at that point, know that Gavin is, indeed, an avid roller skater. 

When Tashian suggested that the song’s chorus could start by shouting the word “Silk!” followed by a pause, Gavin was thrown at first.

“So I just leaned into it, and that seems to be the case for a lot of the record — we just leaned…” Gavin says, before interrupting herself. “Oh wait, I actually don’t want to use that phrase. ‘Leaning in’ is a girl boss phrase.”

“Yahoo CEO vibes,” says McPherson.

“I’m here for the Muna Inc. era,” says Maskin.

“That should have been the name of the album,” says Gavin.

The origin story of Muna, who met at USC, has been told enough times that Maskin can summarize it in one sentence. “Katie saw me from across the room, said ‘Gay,’ and then we started to play music together,” says Maskin, who grew up in L.A. playing in a series of early bands (Grape Ape, Blue Thunder) before eventually forming a group with Gavin called Cuddleslut.

That band never released any music and performed just one show, at which Maskin wasn’t actually present — she’d fled to attend Coachella, and was replaced by their mutual friend McPherson, who grew up in a family of jazz musicians and spent most of their adolescence resisting the urge to make a life out of music. “You deny the call as much as you can,” says McPherson. “But at a certain point, you realize that the thing you’re best at is maybe the best you should do.”

By the time Cuddleslut played its one and only show, Gavin had already lived out a short-lived solo musical career of her own. After growing up in the Chicago suburbs, she experienced a small rush of fame when, at 17, her 2010 cover of Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” went viral on YouTube.

Today, Gavin reflects on that period with a mix of grace and gratitude for the lessons it taught her. “‘Whip My Hair’ was my first experience of having a reckoning with my white privilege, because a couple people called me in about the politics of a white girl with long brown hair doing a cover of a song that Willow Smith made as a child to celebrate Black women’s hair, ” she says. “I had been writing songs for a long time and had wanted a platform, but it was this moment of realizing, ‘Oh, I don’t actually know shit about shit.”

Gavin paused her musical ambitions after that and spent her first year of college at NYU, an experience she wrote about in Muna’s 2019 song “It’s Gonna Be Okay, Baby”: “You’re going to move to New York and experiment with communism/Go down on a girl, after reading her some Frantz Fanon.”

Soon after Gavin moved to California, Muna began, and the trio embarked on their mission of making synth-driven, dark-pop meditations as a “queer-identifying band whose language is really tied to the academy,” as the band told Rolling Stone in 2017. They quickly earned a record deal with RCA, and experienced an initial burst of success, opening for Styles and Bleachers on the strength of the melancholy dance-pop of their 2017 debut, About U.

But the band’s sound, oriented around an idea of pop music yet bearing little resemblance to anything that actually gets played on Top 40 radio, quickly made the band difficult to categorize (last year, they jokingly described themselves as a “queer electro synth pop country alt religious rock band”).

“Maybe a major label had a harder time understanding who we’re really for and where we belong,” Gavin says. And so, in 2020, Muna was unceremoniously dropped for “not making enough money,” as they put it now — an unwelcome surprise that ended up leading to one of its most creative periods.

When she recently played Muna’s new LP for a friend, Gavin was struck by the feedback she got in response, starting with an observation about About U.

“The first record, there was more of a sense of, ‘I’m in a lot of pain, and I don’t know what to do about it,” she remembers her friend remarking. “And then Saves the World was absolutely a reckoning with that, about trying to learn how to make different choices, and that was an emotional thing to hear.”

Gavin sees Muna as representing the next chapter of the ongoing tale she’s been telling over her band’s three records. “If there’s anything that’s consistent in terms of what I brought to the table as the lyricist on this record, is this sense of agency and this ownership of desire, whether that desire is to be with somebody, or to be out of a relationship, or to make a change in your life.”

That sense of agency is present throughout, whether Gavin is expressing desire on the club-ready “What I Want” or exploring her regret on the electro-pop “Home By Now.”

“‘Do I have too high expectations for other people? What is love supposed to feel like?” Gavin says. “They almost sound like little-kid questions, but it’s always been so helpful for me to think, ‘Hey, I can put those on a record and trust that other people have the same questions.”

When Gavin began writing those “little kid question” anthems with Muna in the early 2010s, she was intent on making dance music, but in recent years she’s found herself returning to her acoustic roots and writing more on guitar.

That’s how she wrote “Kind of Girl,” the shimmering mandolin-infused country power ballad that serves as Muna’s emotional centerpiece. The song is an ode to the ability to constantly redefine oneself, and even though it hasn’t even been released, it has, fittingly, already taken on new meanings for the group. “It’s really poignant for us as queer people who’ve had to let other people know how we want to be perceived,” says Gavin.

She’s talking about personal evolution, but the more Gavin talks, the clearer it becomes that the song’s lesson applies just as well to Muna’s decade-long musical project. “Just the willingness to step up and be like, ‘My identity can dramatically shift from day to day,’” she says. “I can go through these big processes of change to get closer to who I am and what I really want for myself.”

From Rolling Stone US