MUNA Turned a Dark Period into Their Most Confident Album Yet — with a Little Help from Phoebe Bridgers

·7 min read
MUNA (2022)
MUNA (2022)

Isaac Schneider MUNA

The members of MUNA have long felt like outcasts.

Made up of Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin and Naomi McPherson, the LA-based alternative pop band is at their most liberated on third studio album MUNA, out Friday via Saddest Factory Records, but it's taken them a while to arrive at a place where they feel so free.

The trio, all of whom identify as queer, met while attending the University of Southern California around 2013 and quickly bonded over feeling unlike their fellow students. "No offense, everyone who goes there will understand and agree — it's quite a fratty, 'cis hetero normy' school," McPherson, 29, tells PEOPLE. "We fell into a little bit of the same circles due to the fact that we didn't really fit in there."

"We certainly were not going to the football games," quips Gavin, 29.

After about a year of jamming together, they self-released an EP online and soon inked a deal with Sony Music's RCA Records, which spawned the release of their 2017 full-length debut About U and its follow-up album, 2019's Saves the World. The critically acclaimed records featured fan-favorite anthems like "I Know a Place" and "Number One Fan" and sent MUNA on tour with the likes of Harry Styles — but they didn't produce any mainstream hits.

"[Saves the World] didn't do as well as we'd hoped," says Maskin, 28. "We worked so hard on it, and we felt really demoralized. It was just hard."

Shortly following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, MUNA was dropped from RCA Records and left unsure of their future as a band. But rather than dwelling on feelings of failure, the members looked at the larger picture of the music industry and realized their focus on artistic expression over profit may not line up with a major record label's goals.

"A major label is ultimately a corporation that depends on profit," explains McPherson. "I think we were let go at the right time, because had we continued our relationship there, due to the fact that we were in a financially compromised situation, we may have had to also compromise creatively to appease the structure of the corporation."

"It was, not to be dramatic, but a death-rebirth thing for me," adds Gavin. "I realized people don't love us because we're signed to a major label… What really gives us value is the music we make."

MUNA (2022)
MUNA (2022)

Isaac Schneider MUNA

As the trio was figuring out their next steps, the stars aligned. Fellow alternative singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers launched an independent label called Saddest Factory Records in October 2020, and she signed MUNA to its roster in May 2021.

"[Bridgers] expressed to us, 'When I made the label, a band like you was exactly what I was thinking about in terms of a dream artist to sign," says McPherson. "We were just so flattered that she cared about the music."

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The "Kyoto" performer has since supported MUNA in more ways than she's required to as Saddest Factory's CEO. She lent her vocals to their self-titled album's lead single "Silk Chiffon," a blissfully upbeat song about queer romance, which became their first major alternative radio hit last year.

Bridgers has also taken the band on tour as her opening act, where they've performed the duet live at every show and exposed new audiences to their music. "She's been nothing but truly the most supportive person to work with," adds McPherson.

Later in 2021, MUNA also served as the opening act for Kacey Musgraves' Star-Crossed: Unveiled Tour, where they heard arena-sized audiences sing their lyrics back to them for the first time. "Seeing that people every night knew the words to ["Silk Chiffon"] was, for me, when I started to realize 'Silk' was really creating a moment for us as a band," says Gavin. "It felt really special."

It's not uncommon for artists to hit a creative stride after leaving the corporatized major label system, though it's rare for them to reach their highest levels of success in the independent world. MUNA's not only accomplished both feats, but also managed to craft their happiest, most unabashedly queer anthems to date on their third studio album — a far cry from the depressing, pointedly gender-neutral tracks on About U.

MUNA (2022)
MUNA (2022)

MUNA

"We couldn't have made a record like Saves the World without making a record like About U, and we couldn't have made [MUNA] without making a record like Saves the World," explains Maskin. "Looking back on everything, it's all very much in a chronological order in terms of us just getting older and trying to figure ourselves out."

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Aptly released during Pride Month, the 11-track set features MUNA's current single "What I Want," a confident, club-ready banger bursting with unapologetic queer desire. "I want the full effects / I want to hit it hard / I want to dance in the middle of a gay bar / That's what I want," sings Gavin on the explosive dance-pop song's chorus. "I want the fireworks / I want the chemistry / I want that girl right over there to want to date me."

"As we've gotten older, we've gotten more comfortable about being more explicit with our love songs," Gavin details. "If we've been able to translate straight love songs to apply to our experience for so many years, then straight people can translate these love songs to apply to their experience if they so please."

"And if not, then at least the queer babies have something they don't need to translate," she adds.

RELATED: Rina Sawayama Creates Songs to Represent the 'Queer' Experience: 'I Just Want to Do Meaningful Work'

While the band has always approached their music through a pop lens, MUNA also features their most traditionally pop elements to date, from catchy, radio-ready earworm hooks and melodies to eruptive, electro-influenced production. It's not what their listeners may expect from their more left-of-center previous work, but the trio is confident they'll be along for the ride.

"We have been so encouraged by the people we've worked with to make the music we want to make," says McPherson. "I think we've internalized that and turned it into a confidence that allows us to make whatever the f— choices we want to make… And we trust our audience will go there with us."

Despite being five years into their career as a band, in some ways, the members feel as though they're in the midst of another debut era.

MUNA (2022)
MUNA (2022)

Isaac Schneider MUNA

"This record feels the most like 'us' that we've ever felt," explains McPherson. "It really does encapsulate who we've become as people and as a band… I feel a little bit less scared, but I do feel the same 'Oh my God' [feeling] as I did when we put out About U."

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In contrast to MUNA's experience promoting their debut album, however, they're currently gearing up to play their biggest U.S. headlining concerts to date on their upcoming tour. Why do the band members think their audience has grown so much through such a turbulent period?

"We look a little bit hotter," quips Maskin.

"We're aging like fine wine baby," McPherson jokes before offering a more serious explanation.

"I think there was a level of anxiety about the music and the creative and everything that was just less present than it'd been previously," says the musician. "We're doing the right thing, and we've been doing the right thing the whole time in terms of the music, so all we have to do is keep doing it, and people will come."