There are high expectations for MUNA’s ambitiously-titled new album Saves The World.
After winning over critics and a legion of fans with self-produced debut album About U, which featured queer anthem (and their biggest hit to date) I Know A Place, the Los Angeles-based band were hand-picked by Harry Styles to support him on his debut world tour, and have been on an upwards trajectory ever since. So when it came to recording their sophomore release, often a make-or-break moment for signed artists, the pressure was well and truly on.
“I think we knew that the stakes were high in regards to the expectation of what this record could be and what it could do for us as a band,” explains producer and guitarist Naomi. “We have really lovely fans who seem to like everything that we drop, but looking at the bigger picture, I think we knew that we had to come into our own as artists and as a band.” Through their career so far, MUNA have helped create a safe space for LGBTQ people to escape to and relate – band members Katie, Josette and Naomi all identify as queer – which has earned them a loyal and passionate fanbase, which any pop artist knows is priceless. “Queer people are the best music fans in the world,” the band affirms.
From the darkly cinematic opener Grow, through to the stadium-ready anxiety anthem Navy Blue, and finishing off with the painfully honest It’s Gonna Be OK, Baby, the new album throbs with pulsating synths and bittersweet melodies that both sustain and elaborate on their signature brand of emo-pop music. As the band prepares to release their second collection into the world, we joined them on a four-way conference call to discuss how queerness helped bring them together, tackling the looming clutches of imposter syndrome, and whether or not Josette is a capitalist.
For a sophomore album, Saves The World feels like quite a big statement to make. What’s the thinking behind that?
Katie: I guess there’s two sides to naming the record. The first is that this record is very introspective, so we’re kind of positing that being willing to look at your life, take responsibility for your own negative patterns, and try to change and grow should be seen as an act of world-saving. But the second side of it is, when you are doing that work and taking that accountability and you still feel riddled with anxiety and despair, you can feel confident that it’s because some things in society are just plain fucked up. You gain clarity on what needs to shift in the community. It’s not all mindfulness and meditation. It’s fighting for yourself and fighting for others.
Naomi: There is also a bit of cheekiness to it based around the way we’ve been regarded as a political band. We’re kind of stepping into that role fully and being like, ‘Okay, if that’s who you think we are, then let’s do this thing’.
You are quite political through your performance and on social media, but there are people out there who say musicians shouldn’t get involved with politics. What do you say to that notion?
Josette: The world is literally and metaphorically on fire right now, so anyone who says that is a delusional person. Yes we’re in a band, but we’re also people living on Earth cognitive of the fact that there are so many structural changes that need to be made in order for us to just sustain life on earth. Also, I guess it comes from the fact that we are varying degrees of marginalised identities, so it doesn’t feel like there’s a choice for us to not say anything about things that are going on in the world.
Naomi: We’re lucky enough to have a platform, so I think we all feel responsible from where we each come from to say something if we feel passionate about something.
Your lead single Number One Fan has a message about self-love and self-care, and that still feels like a very new concept. We’re still learning that loving yourself isn’t a bad thing. Why was it so important for you to get on board with that movement?
Josette: I think it’s an important message to share because I feel like everyone needs it. I think that for some reason we’re all taught from such a young age to hate ourselves, I don’t know if that’s because of capitalism or whatever it is, but I do think it’s something that everyone needs. The song can be your champion if some days you can’t be your own. It’s like a mantra that you can say to yourself everyday, even if you don’t always feel that way, this song can be there when you can’t and maybe it can start to make you believe it slowly, because it’s fucking hard.
Naomi: I think within the song itself there is that trepidation about self-love, and how a lot of it is about not actually truly believing it but trying to believe it. I feel like there’s a lot of self-love music and phrases they put on tote bags and coffee mugs, they’re just so empty and vapid and I think this song sort of tries to get at a more realistic experience of embarking on self-love. I don’t know, maybe it is really easy for some people! But I think for most people it’s pretty hard.
As a band you’ve mentioned experiencing imposter syndrome in the past, which I think is something that plays into that song – is this something you still struggle with?
Josette: I think it’s the same thing as self-love, every day is a new day and every day comes with a new set of challenges, but the more we do this I think we’ve become equipped with skills that make us feel like a professional band, but honestly we haven’t played a show in two years so sometimes it does feel like, ‘Is this actually a real thing? Or am I making this all up in my head?’ But you know, we do our best, and the other girls in the band can be my champion when I can’t be my champion.
Naomi: I was walking back from getting coffee this morning, and I was thinking in my head about something nice Katie had said about me in an interview, like, ‘Naomi is good at music’ or whatever, and I was like, ‘That’s just not true!’ And I was spiralling out in my thoughts about it. It’s funny, it’s something you deal with on a daily basis, I was just like, ‘Everyone thinks I’m good at what I do but I’m actually a fake’, and I think so many artists feel that way. If you get any recognition for your art you’re like, ‘You’ve got the wrong person’. It’s so fascinating, and your head jumps in and out of those thought patterns. But it was funny to have that thought pattern happen and to clock it happening and be like, ‘Oh, that’s imposter syndrome! That’s exactly what that is.’
It’s rare to have a band where every member identifies as queer. Did that play a part in bringing you all together?
Josette: I think one thousand per cent. We went to a college where it was very cis, straight and white – not conservative, but conservative-adjacent – so it was pretty easy to know when we met that there was something similar between all of us. I don’t know if it was necessarily queerness, but I just felt understood by them in a way that I don’t think I’d ever felt understood by other people, and I think that’s how our relationship has always been. It feels very familial at this point.
Do you also feel like that gives you something special that unifies you in a way that straight groups don’t have?
Katie: Maybe! There’s really no way of knowing, is there? But my feeling has always been that the three of us have a very deep bond. I’m not sure if it’s simply because we’re queer, but I do think it has something to do with the fact that the three of us all grew up feeling like outsiders in different ways, even if it was just this existential feeling that had no direct source. I do think the three of us being queer women helped with our workflow, because there was no discounting the talent of a member of the group because of their identity or gender presentation. We each brought our skills to the table and nothing was downplayed or written over or tossed to the side, and that’s how we got this thing off the ground. Everyone was heard.
Naomi: For sure. You don’t necessarily think about it in your everyday life, but there is definitely something to be said about being unified by the varying levels of systematic oppression that you face, and that does give you a perspective that straight people don’t necessarily have. And I think there is something to be said about queer communities being places that can be really healing, where you don’t have to feel strange or explain a certain aspect of yourself, you just don’t even think about it or talk about it, it’s just normal. We don’t really think about it all that much when we’re together, we’re just having fun and goofing off, and I think that’s been really healing for the three of us.
Even now, it still feels quite radical to hear a woman singing about ‘going down on a girl’ like on the album’s closer It’s Gonna Be OK, Baby – we don’t hear that often in music. Do you think queer women are still discouraged from being sexual or talking about sex?
Naomi: That’s an interesting question. I think queer femininity is generally fetishised, but then also if you get too real about it then it does maybe freak people out a little bit. I feel like that song is a little bit of an anomaly, though, just because of how wide-ranging and expansive it is regarding Katie’s experience as a bisexual queer woman, and all these other aspects of her life that are deeply personal. It doesn’t necessarily feel sexual to me, that line. It’s funny because of the wordplay, it’s cheeky, but for some reason it doesn’t feel sexual to me necessarily. But yeah, I think there is a weird dynamic with queer sexuality in pop culture right now. It does seem like it’s becoming more normalised, there are shows like Euphoria. Have you watched that yet?
Not yet, but it’s on my must-watch list.
Naomi: It’s very, very good, and I think it’s a good example of queerness that feels very normal within the context of the show, it doesn’t feel fetishised, and it also doesn’t feel like it needs to explain itself by having a story about coming out or whatever – no spoilers! – but yeah, I think we’re at an interesting time, I guess. I feel in two minds about it.
Katie: I do feel like it’s becoming more accepted. There are more and more queer artists everyday who identify as women and want to sing about other women – or at least that’s how it feels. It’s a very joyful and exciting moment. And at the same time, I also feel that singing about queer desire still comes with a real threat of physical violence. In America right now, the white power extremists who are committing these mass shootings identify as being ‘at war’ with anyone who threatens the procreation of the white race – that includes immigrants, people in interracial relationships, women who demand the right to decide what to do with their own body, and queer people. These extremists are heavily armed and prone to mass violence, so going on tour and singing about queer desire and the empowerment of women is honestly a scary thing to do right now. But what are you going to do? Stop singing? Fuck that.
In the past we’ve had straight women give visibility to same-sex encounters in pop culture, like with Katy Perry’s song I Kissed A Girl, which at the time seemed radical because we weren’t used to seeing things like that. But it feels like now we’re getting more authentic representation from women who are actually queer.
Naomi: I feel like it might be because sexuality and gender is becoming more commonly seen as being on a spectrum, so people don’t feel the necessity to sort of qualify queerness as being like, ‘I kissed a girl, but hopefully my boyfriend doesn’t care’, you know what I mean? But even that song felt meaningful to me when it came out. It took some balls to put that song out at that time, because no one was talking about that shit back then. Even though it totally qualified within the context of a heterosexual relationship, and was maybe slightly voyeuristic in that way, it still felt important to me at the time. I think it has to do with the idea of sexuality and gender as varying degrees along a spectrum, that does contribute to people thinking they can do and be whatever – and there’s also a huge community for it.
Do you ever sit back and think about the fact that you are providing that authentic representation you never had when you were younger? Because I imagine that could be quite a big responsibility.
Naomi: We think about that a lot, and it was a big part of the conversation when we were deciding whether or not we wanted to be out. It’s funny, back when we were slightly simmering and generating buzz as a band, it was maybe a year and a half before it became empowered to be openly queer as a musician, so it was a part of our conversations and me and Jo were more reticent to the idea of being out, and Katie was like, ‘We have to. Who are we if we’re not telling the truth?’ And I think that kind of shifted that conversation into our dialogue as a band. The best thing we could be is the band that people need to see and need to hear for whatever reason, whether that’s because of the content of the lyrics or because of how we identify politically and in our personal expression. I think that’s such an amazing responsibility to have. It’s very empowering.
Do you feel like you’ve faced a lot of discrimination during your career, whether that’s from listeners or the industry?
Josette: I think as a band we have done really, really well. I think for some reason when we were coming up, the world was becoming more ready for that kind of messaging. Our fans and anyone we’ve ever worked with or encountered has been so gracious and so welcoming. Even though things aren’t as good as they could be, I think there is a lot of forward progression. It might not always seem like it, but the negativity is a response to that progression, and we are going to continue moving forward.
Naomi: There is a dichotomy to that though, isn’t there? The concept that queerness is and can be – and has been – easily co-opted by some hegemony to sell stuff, especially during Pride. We feel so empowered by our fans and people in the music industry because of our identities, but then you think about the world at large and queerness in culture generally, and you have to ask, ‘Are we really free yet?’ I don’t know. I don’t think so. Obviously visibility is so important and we’re so lucky to be supported, but that could also come down to the fact that two of us are white, and I’m really light-skinned. That comes into play as well. So we have been really lucky, obviously we probably still face misogyny and anti-queerness that we’re not really aware of, but I do think we’re lucky and there are reasons that we’re lucky that are good and also insidious.
This idea of queerness becoming mainstream and being commercialised, do you think that’s always a bad thing?
Josette: I don’t think anything is ever just one thing, I think this is something that’s entering the public consciousness and is being normalised. I do think that the capitalist agenda is inherently evil, but I can’t deny that I’m a capitalist because I exist right now, but I would like to believe that queer identities being mainstream and becoming part of pop culture is hopefully more important, and that outweighs the green and the commercialism. I don’t know. It’s all fucked.
Naomi: You’re not a capitalist.
Josette: I am and I’m not.
Naomi: Well, you’re just not though. You were subjected to capitalism. You yourself are not a capitalist.
Josette: Thank you.
Naomi: Don’t talk yourself down like that.
Josette: I like how us talking ourselves down is like, ‘Am I a capitalist?’ It’s not like, ‘Am I ugly?’
I love this conversation.
Naomi: We’re psycho [Laughs] I do think on a positive note though, the fact that queerness is becoming more acceptable in the media might lead to people actually holding corporations accountable in terms of representation and in terms of saying, ‘If you’re gonna have a float at Pride, your money should be where your mouth is, don’t just be talking and not backing it up by actually helping out’. There’s no queer liberation until every one of us is free, so that means we have to hold culture accountable for the fact that black trans women are getting murdered all the time. If we’re raging and partying all summer, that should also be part of the conversation – and I really do feel like it has become part of the conversation. I’m just so proud of the work that a lot of actual activists are doing.
I have one final question. Is there a specific song on the new album that means a lot to you?
Josette: I’m just gonna go with the song that makes me feel the feels in the way that I like to feel the feels, and that’s Navy Blue. That’s a song that I’ve been practicing getting ready for tour, and when I play it I’m like, ‘Oh my god’. I just enjoy it so much. It’s one of the songs on the record that all of us did our best with and it all came together kind of naturally. This record was a very difficult process, but sometimes you just have a ripe peach ready for the picking, and I think that was one of the songs that was just laid out before us and we took it.
Naomi: This is a hard question. I’m inclined to agree with Jo, but just to be different, I’ll say to me it feels like It’s Gonna Be OK, Baby as a final song on the record is going to be a really important song for us as a band. I don’t know a song like it, and I was so blown away when Katie sent the demo version to us, I think she wrote a letter to herself at 17 from her perspective now, and it’s such a phenomenal feat of songwriting. When I first heard it, I was stoned out of my mind, and I just burst into tears after the first two verses like, ‘This song is fucking amazing’. So yeah, I’m really proud of Katie and Jo and that song, and everything that they did to make it come to life.
MUNA’s new album Saves The World is out on 6 September, 2019.
Photography Gina Canavan
Words Daniel Megarry
Fashion Olivia Khoury
Hair Miles Jeffries
Makeup Alexandra French