MUNA’s New Album Is Joy As An Act Of Resistance
"There is such a legacy with queer communities and an attachment to escapist pop music, because of the difficulties that folks are faced with in their daily lives."
Infinite Pop is a Music Junkee column about the past, present, and transcendent possibilities of pop music.
In 2022, it feels as if fewer big pop records than usual have stuck around past the initial hype of their release cycle. But from an unexpected source has come an album that’s still bubbling up — one that, at least in this writer’s opinion, is the best pure pop record of the year so far.
Since 2017, the Californian trio MUNA have made a name for themselves with two albums oft-pegged as “dark pop” — a term that never captured the full depth of their synthpop-leaning nuances. But with their self-titled and entirely self-produced third record, released in late June, they’ve levelled up — and made the grand, open-hearted instant classic that they’ve always been capable of. MUNA is an album full of strikingly joyful moments, all of them earned, for a time when we need joy more than ever.
I spoke to Naomi McPherson (they/them) and Josette Maskin (she/they), both co-producers and multi-instrumentalists, before the record’s release; Katie Gavin (she/her) was away, yet her presence as singer and lead songwriter was very much felt.
Having become fast friends in college, then forming MUNA a decade ago, the group’s chatty, often laugh-out-loud conversational dynamic extends well beyond their music — especially on their aptly titled podcast Gayotic. Naomi and Josette, who are roommates, instinctively alternate between answering my questions without a glance (they’re on audio). Together, the three of us Zoomed through a breathless 30-minute interview, sparking ideas off each other about the creative process, queer existence, and being “emo for life”.
MUNA’s second album, 2019’s boldly titled Saves the World, staked their claim to greater ambitions. On the moody intro track ‘Grow’, Katie Gavin declared, “I want to grow up/I want to put away my childish things/I think that I’m ready to take this song off repeat”. The album was a critical and artistic success, and was something of a breakthrough for the band. But of course, nothing in 2020 went according to plan — the tour was called off due to COVID, and they were dropped by their label RCA Records.
Josette recalls, “We felt that we actually had a musical low, and crisis, before we even got dropped at the top of 2020. Our record Saves the World didn’t come out the way we thought it would, and we thought that we were going to be touring it a lot more. So we did feel a little bit disappointed. I think that caused us to have conversations about — should we be doing this?
And then we made a new relationship with each other, and renewed our vows to the band before we even got dropped. We all used it to empower ourselves at the time.”
When one door closed, another opened. The band had already met and formed a kinship with Phoebe Bridgers, which led to them becoming the second act to sign to Bridgers’ brand-new label imprint Saddest Factory. “It just felt like kismet, signing to the label,” Josette remarks. “[Phoebe’s] so intelligent. We’re already such big fans of her and her music that it’s nice to have someone that you think is really cool as your A&R, and who is also a rock star.”
Please welcome MUNA to the office. pic.twitter.com/E4z1DvgUmK
— Saddest Factory Records (@SaddestFactory) May 19, 2021
Together, MUNA knuckled down in studios, home and borrowed, through the worst of the pandemic, and emerged with a set of 11 songs that embodied the opposite of isolation — that yearned to be heard and felt through collective joy, to be released when the time was right.
Life’s So Fun…
How deliberate was MUNA’s newfound embrace of optimism? “I think we made somewhat of a conscious shift towards making happier music,” Naomi tells me. “I would still categorise some of the songs on this record as [dark pop], both sonically and lyrically.
But after touring our first two records for so long, we did come home and were like, ‘God, we gotta write some fucking happy songs!’ Something that feels joyful for us to play on stage. [We put] the idea out there in the ether. Then many months later, a song like ‘Silk Chiffon’ comes around, and we were like — ‘oh, this is perfect.’”
Katie Gavin first demoed ‘Silk Chiffon’, MUNA’s lead single, after wrapping up work on Saves the World in late 2019. In a Nashville co-writing session with Kacey Musgraves’ lead collaborators, Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, the three emerged with the song’s instantly memorable chorus: “Silk… chiffon!/That’s how it feels, oh when she’s on me!” Says Josette of that moment: “When that happened, Naomi and I just felt so floored by the song”.
Many listeners felt the same way. Upon its release two years later, in September 2021, ‘Silk Chiffon’ immediately, radically realigned MUNA’s image. Here was an anthem written specifically for women who love women; with rose-tinted acoustic guitars that could have sat alongside ‘Torn’ and ‘Kiss Me’ on the radio in the ’90s; that recruited sad-girl icon Phoebe Bridgers to sing a guest verse that opens with the line “I’m high and I’m feeling anxious” — yet made her happiness feel completely sincere in context. It wasn’t just joyful, it was shockingly optimistic.
MUNA’s first two albums, About U and Saves the World, occasionally felt like conscious attempts to intellectualise pop music. Katie’s described ‘Silk Chiffon’ as the exact opposite — “kind of a smooth-brain song”. But that quality — the ease with which you can fall in love with the song — is exactly what makes it so precious.
‘Silk’ was the perfect song for the band’s re-emergence into playing live shows — first, the dazzling “gay prom” theme of their performance on James Corden, then a deeply surreal run as arena openers for Kacey Musgraves earlier this year. Naomi recalls the thrill of the experience: “We like to think of ourselves as a good opening band because we go 110 percent wild onstage. So hopefully if you don’t know about us at the beginning of a set, you know about us afterwards.
“The funny thing about playing in an arena is that the room is almost so big that you dissociate and can’t really take it in. And there are so many lights in your face that you really only see the first 100 people that are in front of you.
But when we started playing ‘Silk’, most people would put it together in their head. They were like, ‘Oh, you guys did this song, like what the fuck?’ We played a deluge of devastatingly sad songs before then. It was like, thousands of people [who] knew it and were singing it. That was such a trippy experience.”
In the verses of ‘Silk Chiffon’, Katie Gavin’s vocals have a nervous quaver. She sings gently in her high range — as if she’s speaking to a new partner, navigating their fresh intimacy, and confessing the true depth of her feelings for the first time. That vulnerability gives the arena-sized, “confetti-gun” chorus its impact. But ‘Silk Chiffon’ is an atypical intro to MUNA, for a singer whose vocals typically embody self-assurance and control, even when she’s expressing vulnerability.
Pop music is typically about broad, declarative displays of emotion, and that’s often the first thing that jumps out at you in a MUNA song — a striking lyrical image, a perfectly crafted hook. But, and it might seem odd to say this of a frontwoman and lead songwriter, the band’s secret weapon is the way those songs are delivered; Katie Gavin has one of the most intriguing voices in all of pop music today. With ‘Silk Chiffon’ as the exception that proves the rule, she has a way of singing as if she knows a little more than she’s letting on — adding another layer of meaning beneath the literal message of her own lyrics.
The second single ‘Anything but Me’ is a breakup song of sorts, where Katie uses her rich alto to deliver some very weird lyrics, like only she can: “You’re gonna say that I’m on a high horse/I think that my horse is regular-sized/Did you ever think, maybe, you’re on a pony/Going in circles on a carousel ride?” The song is an odd swirl of emotions that shouldn’t work on paper — witty, triumphant, empathetic, even soothing — but between her voice, the bouncy synthpop backing, and the spectacular bridge and final chorus, it feels just right.
On ‘Handle Me’, Katie turns sexual desire inside-out. The song is built around a calming bed of acoustic guitars, but the lyrics are bluntly combative — “I am not a brand new bicycle / I am rough around the edge / I am not a flower petal” — and intimate — “Handle me, grab a fistful of my hair / Trace me like an outline”. It’s a song that depicts sex as not just an act of physical pleasure, but of gender affirmation, identity, communication — elements that are rarely articulated in heteronormative narratives. Within that uncertainty, it’s the rare song about desire that leaves the listener wanting more.
Sadness Is a Blessing
MUNA’s journey of personal growth comes to a head on ‘Kind of Girl’ — a country ballad that’s full of stark confessions: “I’m the kind of girl / Who wants everything she can’t get / Leaving alone and yet / Somehow still leaving a mess”. In those verses, Katie’s brutally honest about her nature — each line feels like something you might only admit to your therapist. But in the choruses, she leaves her future unwritten: “Yeah, I like tellin’ stories / But I don’t have to write them in ink / I could still change the end / At least, I’m the kind of girl… who thinks I can”. It hits just as hard on the first or fiftieth listen — we never stop learning, or stumbling over ourselves in the process.
The song struck Naomi the same way, who recalls, “It just is a song that moved me and Jo when we heard it. Katie, somewhat famously — to us at least — wrote it in the bath, and sent us a voicenote of her playing guitar and singing it, after a somewhat unsuccessful day of writing on other stuff. The first time I heard it, I was like — it’s not a sad song. It’s actually very hopeful. But in some ways, it just broke my heart hearing it. [It was] just so emotional to listen to.”
Explaining the bigger picture, Josette adds, “The confessional material is a part of that joy… A song like ‘Kind of Girl’ can feel sad, but it’s sad because you’re going on this journey of self-love and actualization. So I think they hold each other, where you have access to a song like ‘Silk’ because you’ve done the work that the song ‘Kind of Girl’ is.
“I think each one of our records bleeds into the other — of learning how to grow up and recognise your patterns and love yourself. Everything leads into all.”
In MUNA’s world, pop music and queer identity are never static, forever in flux. That extends to how they represent themselves, which can be frustrating — MUNA are oft-characterised, mistakenly, as a “girl band”, a term they’ve come to reject. “I don’t identify as a girl,” says Naomi. “I’m not a girl. I’m genderqueer, but I fucking love [‘Kind of Girl’]. So I was like — people need to hear this. And Katie is so good at the types of songs where you feel like someone ripped a page out of your diary and read your mind. I think she’s such an amazingly talented songwriter. And that song is one of our best songs. For sure.”
It’s been easier for MUNA to identify themselves as a “queer band” — but that label can also feel like it’s boxing them in, too, if writers aren’t actually engaging with what the term means. Because while their music often expresses queer, sapphic desire, “queer pop” isn’t exactly a genre — no more than “female-fronted band” is. I ask them to unpack that — because ‘Silk Chiffon’ was instantly claimed as a queer anthem, and perhaps rightfully so, but was it intended that way? Is it even possible to intentionally write a queer anthem?
“‘Silk’ encapsulates the joy that we were trying to achieve with making this record.”
Josette takes the reins, responding, “I don’t know if we had the intention of making a queer anthem… I think we kind of want every song we write to be a queer anthem.
“But I do think ‘Silk’ encapsulates the joy that we were trying to achieve with making this record. I think it does the best job of being a song you maybe want to have your first kiss to. That’s the kind of music that we want to make as a band. We want to be there with our listeners from their first queer experiences. So if I don’t know if it was intentional, but we’re really fucking happy that it is.”
Naomi articulates further, “We talked about it a lot as like — you can use it for having fun, dancing, doing whatever you want to do. We endorse that, and we love it. [But] if you want to meet it at a deeper level, maybe — with regards to what the lyrics are about, who we are as people, how our identities are informing the art that we make, you can meet it at that level as well.
“There is such a legacy with queer communities and an attachment to escapist pop music, because of the difficulties that folks are faced with in their daily lives. And a robust love of music is part of the queer experience more generally. So we endorse it all, and we love it all. We’re just happy that people are vibing. If you’re vibing and crying, that’s cool, and if you’re vibing and you’re not crying, that’s fine, too.”
What comes through is the sense that labels — and even the artist’s own intentions for their songs – are only useful insofar as they help you articulate yourself. Defining queerness matters far less than community — the shared experiences between those who seek joy, to build oases of possibility within a world that often still feels hostile to our existence.
I ask the two how they feel about the current wave of queer, often femme-leaning indie/pop artists — King Princess, Snail Mail, Mitski et al — if they feel a sense of solidarity, and if it even is a movement at all. Naomi responds, quickly and thoughtfully, “That’s a super interesting question. We definitely feel a kinship with other queer people. We are three queer people who found each other, and were like, ‘thank god I am meeting you, I am seeing myself mirrored in you.’
“There is such a legacy with queer communities and an attachment to escapist pop music, because of the difficulties that folks are faced with in their daily lives.”
“And I think folks who are queer or non-binary, or belonging to any kind of marginalised gender or identity – we feel a sense of community with all those people, and we love to see other queer folks win. But with regards to other artists, we stan everyone. I’m not a girl, but girl bands — seeing people win really does just feel good, and makes us want to go hard too.
“We’ve been a band for such a long time – we’re going on almost 10 years of putting music, which is wild. And we’ve seen the culture shift so much. I can only imagine how Tegan and Sara feel, having been the band that they’ve been for so long. And [we’re] seeing a radical shift in the way that queer people are perceived, and allowed into certain spaces. So we want to retain a political integrity, whilst knowing that queerness is marketable now.”
I offer the thought that it feels like a wave that’s yet to crest. Millennial and Gen-Z LGBTIQ+ artists have already made plenty of amazing music, but the potential is even greater. Naomi agrees enthusiastically, “100 percent. It’s only gonna get better. We want it all to change and get more radical.”
What We Want
the greatest band in the world muna will be releasing music yet again this year. they will be taking no further questions at this time. take care.
— MUNA (@whereisMUNA) January 10, 2022
On MUNA’s social media bios, they call themselves “the greatest band in the world”. Tongue-in-cheek as that may be, it is a fact — at least insofar as they’re the own greatest band in the world for themselves. Katie, Naomi, and Josette make music, and represent themselves, in a way that’s completely authentic to them — that’s undeniable.
Queer art is, perhaps by necessity, about both affirmation and aspiration. It’s about finding comfort in your identity, but also desiring to be more — both within yourself, and as a human in the world. What we want is who we are.
To be queer, or even just to listen to MUNA’s music and empathise with a queer perspective, is to understand that our truths aren’t inherited — they’re learned, nurtured, and have been fought for in blood. The more progressive society becomes, the more we reach for true queer liberation — the more women’s, queer and trans rights have come under attack, especially in the US. It’s hard not to be worried.
But in response, we build community. We become more aware of our place, responsibilities, and paths to enact change within the world.
Which brings us back to the start of our interview, when I ask the band how they are now, compared to at the start of the pandemic. Naomi says, “I feel like everyone has had a very transformative past few years, due to the amount of introspection we were forced to do, the awful circumstances of the reality that we live in. I know that there’s political turmoil everywhere — but obviously such consistent political turmoil over here. I think everyone had an existential crisis during 2020.
“I think we are always in the process of realising things about our lives, and trying to further actualise the type of people that we want to be in this world, based on the knowledge that we’re getting just from living.
“But also, it was really an interesting time to make a record, and [it] taught us a lot. I think we’ve learned a ton about the kind of band that we want to be, and how we enjoy making music. Having to persevere through all the stuff that we’ve been faced with as a band, I think has strengthened our bond and our friendship. We’re just happy to be alive and healthy, and have made a piece of art that we feel proud of. It’s been a crazy couple of years, though, for sure.”
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Kristen S. Hé is an artist and award-winning journalist. She tweets at @kristenisshe.
Photo Credit: Isaac Schneider