MUNA Might Just Save The World

Sep 4, 2019
Originally published on September 9, 2019 4:58 pm

A bright red phone sits on the desk in NPR's main studio in Culver City, Calif. It's an '80s era hotline that serves as a permanent link for host David Greene to his counterparts in NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. No number. No ring time. Just a permanent connection. It's the first thing the members of the alt-pop trio MUNA mention when they sit down for their interview.

"We should have that in our houses," Naomi McPherson says.

"We should!" Katie Gavin and Josette Maskin both agree.

In many ways, they do. The musicians of MUNA pride themselves on their ability to connect. The band's latest album, Saves the World, is a shimmering homage to that cause.

"I've learned so much from them about intimacy, and what it requires in terms of showing up in a vulnerable way," Gavin, the trio's singer-songwriter, says as she gestures to her bandmates, producer and guitarist McPherson and guitarist Maskin.

"All I have to do is look at Katie, and I'll start crying," McPherson says. "It's just like there is an intense emotional connection between the three of us."

The band met in college when Gavin was scheming to start a punk band while at the University of Southern California. "I literally showed up on the scene like, 'Who wants to be in a riot grrrl band?' But then slowly we figured out that I don't actually like punk music that much," Gavin remembers.

MUNA's music wonders what pop might sound like if it was made by punks, and what relatability could feel like to people who have always felt different. It soars and sinks, questions and answers. Like the band who makes it, the music itself seems to find solidarity in difference.

"I think from my perspective at least, the fact that we have found each other and have such a rich friendship has made us feel substantially less alone and less different," McPherson explains.


MUNA's first record, About U, was confessional, but Saves the World is about them. It's clear from the opening track to the final fade that the band's sophomore album is an emotional excavation. The music presses its nose into the mirror of the hardest moments of their lives: drugs, alcohol, heartbreak and suicide. Gavin says this is the most personal project she has ever been a part of.

"I say on the record I identify as an addict, and the way I see addiction is more of a mechanism than being addicted to any particular substance," Gavin says. For her, the main addiction is to patterns of behavior. "It takes me a long time to get over a relationship that in the first place wasn't even good for me. But the reason I don't care about talking about it is I know I'm not alone."

Saves The World feels like an archaeological dig — painstakingly and poetically exploring emotional detritus and laying it out over pop synth that feels intellectual as well as deeply emotional. Gavin's lyrics melt into McPherson's beats and Maskin's guitar reaches out in some of the album's most profound moments.

"I'm there to make sure Katie knows she isn't alone, Maskin says. "I'm the other voice. My guitar is saying, 'It's all same here. I have felt that way, too.' I think about feeling that kind of ache, and not having anyone to turn to."

And that feeling, according to McPherson, is the band's message to its fans: "I think what the music does is attempts to reach through the screens and reach through the headphones of the people that are listening to say: 'Maybe you're like us and maybe we're like you, and maybe we're all a lot more similar than we think.'"

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What is it like if your No. 1 fan is you? Think about that for a second.


MUNA: (Singing) And I turn around like, oh, my God, like, I'm your number one fan - so iconic, like big, like stan. Like, I would give my life...

GREENE: This is one of the songs on a new album from the band MUNA. They met six years ago at the University of Southern California. And what they had in common was this deep feeling that they were different. So let me introduce you to the lead singer, Katie Gavin, and then her bandmates, Josette Maskin and Naomi McPherson.

KATIE GAVIN: I'm a big softy. And I identify as queer. And, yeah, there was just the feeling of like, I don't really know what it is, but it's hard for me to fit into society in a way that seems like it might be easier for other people. And then, you know, as we became closer, it was kind of like, oh, no, it's hard for a lot of people.

GREENE: Josette?

JOSETTE MASKIN: I don't know. I was coming to terms with, like, my sexuality and also, like, my gender identity. Feeling different, I think, was just, like, a part of, I think, each of our experiences. And I think that was just something that, you know - it's the easiest way to say something that is so universal.

NAOMI MCPHERSON: I think, from my perspective at least, it's like the fact that we have found each other and have such a rich friendship has made us feel substantially less alone and less different. And I think what the music does is attempts to reach through the screens and reach through the headphones of the people that are listening to say like, maybe you're like us. And maybe we're just like you. And maybe we're all a lot more similar than we think.


MUNA: (Singing) Like, I would give my life just to hold your hand. I'm your number one fan. I'm your number one - number one fan.

GREENE: These three musicians live in Los Angeles. And they came in to talk at NPR West. And as Naomi, the producer-guitarist, was just talking about there, the band tries to reach fans who are searching for connection. They see it as their calling.

MCPHERSON: I think that we are hoping to become a band for a lot of people that makes them feel less alone and less sad and, like, understood. I don't know.

GREENE: Well - and, Katie, you've talked about that this new album is the most personal thing you have ever been a part of...

GAVIN: Yeah.

GREENE: ...And created.

GAVIN: Yeah.

GREENE: I don't even know where to start...

GAVIN: (Laughter).

GREENE: ...Because you've talked about that it, like, involves family history. It involves addiction. It involves the challenges of our world today. Why did you want to dig into your own soul so much in this project?

GAVIN: I just want to do that. I wanted to do that since I started writing songs. You know, when I was a kid I think I - these questions show up inside of me and then they work themselves out in the songs.


MUNA: (Singing) You're going to start to call friends. You're going to start to call yourself an addict...

GAVIN: I say on the record, like, I identify as an addict. And the way I see addiction is more of a mechanism than being addicted to any particular substance. So for me, mainly it's relationships. I really discuss on this record, like, patterns of behavior of, look, it takes me a long time to get over a relationship that, in the first place, wasn't even good for me.

But the reason I don't care about talking about it is, one, I know I'm not alone. And, two, I'm actually, like, working on these things in my real life, learning how to be accountable for myself, how to take care of myself. And I'm real excited about it. And I want to share how that feels for me, you know. It helps me.


MUNA: (Singing) It's going to be OK.

GREENE: Josette, where do we hear you most on this album? What is the song where you feel like you have a real personal connection, we're learning about who you are?

MASKIN: Wow. Maybe "Never."


MUNA: (Singing) I'll never love again.

MASKIN: There's, like, one guitar part. And it just feels like such a - I don't know. The only way sometimes I can think about, like, guitar parts and, like, emotion is just, like, yelling.


MASKIN: And I feel like that's the part in that song, like when the guitar comes in, it's the way that I am yelling in response to Katie's lyrics.

GREENE: Where's the yelling coming from?

MASKIN: I think it's, like, in support of Katie never being able to love again. You know what I mean? I think anything I do...

GAVIN: Oh, so you don't want me to love again...

MASKIN: (Laughter).

MCPHERSON: You support it.

MASKIN: Telling Katie she can never - I'm supporting it. I think, like, my job, in relation to the lyrics, is just, like, I'm there to make sure Katie's not alone.

GREENE: When you said you never want her to love again - I know you laughed a little bit - is it...


MASKIN: I never want her to do it.

GREENE: ...Is it because of what she talked about, that love has been painful and addictive at times and you are kind of protecting her?

MASKIN: To me, it's all same here, you know. Maybe it is just some sort of, like, assurance that, like, I have felt that way, too and I'm sure so many other people have as well. And, I mean, like, that's the reason, like, when I met Katie, she just can say things that I have felt or that just ring true to my soul.

GREENE: I've never asked anyone this, but I kind of want to ask. When...


GAVIN: Ooh..

GREENE: When I'm doing my job in, like, a studio, I imagine, like, a parent and kid, like, at the breakfast table somewhere in Ohio or in Kansas or California listening. It's like, I want that connection to someone out there. Do you do that? And, like, who is the person who you imagine listening to your music?

MCPHERSON: Joe (ph)?

MASKIN: I think about growing up and feeling that kind of just, like, ache and not having anyone to, you know, turn to. Oh, that made me feel sad.


MCPHERSON: When we play these songs for the first time, I'm sure it'll be permanently ingrained in my memory, like, specific moments of looking out into the crowd and seeing someone having an emotional experience. Like, I have a very vivid memory...

GAVIN: "I Know A Place." Yeah.

MCPHERSON: ...Of playing "I Know A Place" in Boston.


MUNA: (Singing) They will try to make you unhappy - don't let them. They will try to tell you you're not free. Don't listen. I - I know a place where you don't need protection...

MCPHERSON: There was a Muslim girl at the very front with a hijab on and she was just weeping. And I thought that was the coolest thing. So, yeah, now we're all crying. So...

GAVIN: (Laughter).


MUNA: (Singing) Where everyone going to lay down their weapon - lay down their weapon. Just give me trust and anything can happen, because I know - I know a place we can go...

GREENE: That was Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin and Naomi McPherson, the band MUNA. Their new album, "Saves The World," is out this Friday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.