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25 August 2023

Muna’s anti-capitalist pop

The queer pop band has two focuses: making music, and making sure success doesn’t turn them into “evil landlords”.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The day before I met Muna backstage at Gunnersbury Park, west London, the LA pop band had played at Pukkelpop Festival in Belgium. There, an audience member had held up a sign that read, “You make me question things,” recalled Katie Gavin, the band’s lead singer and songwriter.

“I thought she just meant: gay?” said Josette Maskin, Muna’s guitarist, meaning that an attractive queer person might make a straight person question their sexuality.

But what if the fan meant that Muna had inspired a shift in their politics? What if the fan meant, “You made me question just all things!”, Naomi McPherson, who plays guitars and keyboards in the band, added.

McPherson was joking. But Muna’s hook-laden, explicitly queer music encourages open-mindedness. I met the three members of the band on 20 August, a couple of hours before they were due to support Boygenius, the indie supergroup made up of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, as part of a 25,000-capacity gig dubbed “UK lesbian day” thanks to its line-up of LGBTQ artists. Muna sat backstage on a picnic table in the shade of their dressing room, sipping cans of kombucha. Occasionally a wave of enthusiastic cheering rose from over the fence, where the Northern Irish singer-songwriter Soak was already warming up the crowd.

Muna’s politics – anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, fervently pro queer and trans rights – are front and centre in their music and their live performance. And while the pop industry often insists on dumbing down such messages, the band’s world view is not one-dimensional. Throughout our conversation Gavin, Maskin and McPherson openly, playfully disagreed with each other, still working out the nuances of their politics of pop.

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Gavin, 30, who has long red hair and green eyes and wore a Natalie Merchant T-shirt, joked that she “identifies as a rich kid” and an “Irish Catholic masochist”. She met McPherson – also 30, who is non-binary, with a mass of curly hair and dressed in a football-style Supreme shirt – and Maskin – who is in her late twenties and had her short, dark hair slicked back – while the trio were studying at the University of Southern California. Between 2016 and 2019 Muna released an EP and two albums of emo-pop, gaining a cult following. “I Know a Place”, a song about forging safe spaces for their community, became an anthem with a purpose in light of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, while “Stayaway”, a breathless synth tune, showed that the core of what they do – write and play addictive pop songs – is for everyone.

[See also: Drake’s poetry collection isn’t literature]

But they didn’t hit the big time. In 2020 Muna were dropped from their label, the Sony subsidiary RCA Records, for “not making enough money”, as they put it to NME. It sounds like the worst possible outcome. “But I don’t think it was devastating,” McPherson said.

They soon signed to Saddest Factory Records, Phoebe Bridgers’s label, and an imprint of the independent Secretly Group. With Bridgers’s mentorship, Muna released their third, self-titled record in June 2022. It is their most mainstream album yet, and, as their first to place on both the UK and US album charts, the most commercially successful. Bridgers is a “bud” rather than a manager. Later, wearing an exposing chainmail bra, she appeared onstage with Muna to sing their sunny lesbian bop “Silk Chiffon”. “I would say, it’s probably not an appropriate relationship, to be grinding on your boss,” Gavin said.

Muna aren’t interested in criticising RCA Records. “It’s really no bad blood,” McPherson said. “We’re never trying to do a big ‘f*** you’ to the people that we worked with there. That feels kind of cringey. But we feel more supported in certain ways in the situation we’re in now. [At independent labels] people are willing to take more risks on a band or an artist, whereas at a major label they might be more hesitant because of issues of bottom line. It’s just capitalism stuff.”

It was also a matter of timing, explained Maskin. When Muna signed to RCA, “we just didn’t know who we were. The first record – they did spend money on us. We just weren’t ready to be fully embodied artists, and I think that’s why people like us more now.”

“It’s almost as simple as someone not knowing what to do with a masc lesbian,” Maskin said, rolling her eyes. “Just being like: ‘Pretty girl! Pretty face!’ ”

“And a masc lesbian not knowing what to do with themselves!” McPherson said, laughing.

“I mean, I think it’s both,” Maskin went on. “As queer people, it’s a delayed adolescence. We grew up in an age where people made fun of gay people. How could we not take a lot of time to figure out who we are?”

Now, Muna have found their place in the music industry. They are sharing a bill with Boygenius. They have toured with Harry Styles. Earlier this year they supported Taylor Swift on her record-breaking Eras tour. (“She runs it like the happy navy,” Maskin said. “It’s the happy military. I don’t know how she does it. Everyone there is so sweet. It’s Disneyland.”) 

But that doesn’t make this a simple narrative of self-discovery, Gavin said. “When we talk about our band from a bird’s eye view, we can be tempted to tell a story of: we didn’t used to know who we are and now we know who we are.”

McPherson cut in: “We never f***ing know who we are!”

“I think one of the cool things about being queer is there is a perpetual openness to having a new experience,” Gavin said. “I think that’s what scares a lot of people who are homophobic or transphobic, being afraid of looking at yourself and what the implications of that would be. They think it would blow up their life.”

“And it would!” said Maskin. “But it actually makes your life so much better.”

Muna are aware that their success comes at a time when bigotry towards queer and trans people is still rife. “It feels like our trajectory is happening at the same time as increasing violent homophobia and transphobia,” McPherson said. While they are primarily focused on US politics, they were well aware of UK news such as the homophobic stabbing in Clapham in August, and the lesbian couple who were beaten on a London night bus in 2019. “I’m afraid, for sure,” said Maskin. “I’m afraid to be out in public.”

For now, Muna have two focuses: “to make good music, and make financial decisions that make us not wanna kill ourselves and be capitalist pigs”, Maskin said. Last year was the first year the band made money rather than being reliant on record label loans. But with financial success comes responsibility. “We’re still a business, you know what I mean? We want to be able to survive. But we don’t want to be a piece of shit.”

“I don’t wanna make some money and immediately become an evil landlord,” Gavin said. She wants Muna to “enact agency” where they can, citing Bridgers and the US artist Mitski – who has spoken publicly about renegotiating her contract with her label – as inspiration.

“We’re in the same game that we’ve always been in,” McPherson said. “Let’s just make this last as long as we can and put as much as we can back into making music.”

Muna’s UK tour continues with Reading and Leeds Festivals and Connect Festival in Edinburgh. 

[See also: Lana Del Rey: a great American poet]

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