2017 was one hell of a year to be spit out of college and into society — take MUNA's word for it. Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin, and Naomi McPherson were still students at University of Southern California when they made their 2016 debut About U, a project that bursted with a certain exuberance that can only be stoked by finding your kind of people. "We were the weird kids at a very fratty place," McPherson recalls, and together the trio discovered a penchant for making empathetic, effective synth-pop that eventually caught the ear of Harry Styles, who asked the trio if they'd open for him on his debut stadium tour.
But you can travel the globe opening for Harry Styles and still wake up feeling alone and aimless in Los Angeles. Coupled with the increasingly apocalyptic sociopolitical landscape, things were feeling pretty bleak for MUNA. "We didn’t know how to function as people who live in one place," Maskin says. "We needed a long period of hibernation." Shaking off the dormancy became fertile ground for their determinedly-titled sophomore album, Saves The World, which suggests that the titular act is inherently personal.
It’s an album that runs on depleting dopamine and rising sea levels, as Gavin’s lyrics are vocoded to a point where they faintly hint that she could be singing underwater. It’s actualized during a staggering drive into the Pacific Ocean on “Navy Blue,” and the album’s cover art nods to the fish-eyed spaciness of Y2K pop. No longer obscured by the symbols that covered each of their previous releases, the three members of MUNA stare back in earth-green. In the photograph, it almost appears like they could be posted on a rooftop after a flood, just before the tide gets too high. Of course, the clear sky is really just a backdrop — this is, after all, a Los Angeles band first and foremost.
Though MUNA often express themselves through color, none of these songs succumb to the overwhelming blue. Instead, Gavin, Maskin and McPherson tackle the unease head-on, resulting in some of their boldest sounding material yet — from the dawnlit yearning of "Pink Light" to the colossally cautionary "Stayaway." The songs sound like wisdom from a best friend, which is a testament to their very real bond that Gavin, Maskin, and McPherson share. We rang them up to talk about getting older, how the album came to be, and if saving the world is really possible.
When you had finished the first album and started seeing how people were responding to it, did it change your overall mission?
Maskin: It definitely brought it more to life. It was a special experience for all three of us to hear people sing “Loudspeaker” and “I Know A Place" back to us. It affirmed our original intentions, which were to make music that was meaningful to people and express this honest experience. It’s still fucking cool to see those certain songs mean something to people.
McPherson: The story so far with our band has been a linear climb. We’ve felt every step of the way and been there to meet the challenges brought to us. The EP release show we played at The Echo in 2016 was crazy. We played for our friends for years, so to play for people we actually didn’t know and see people losing their minds was unreal. When it comes to surreal moments like playing on TV, we all emotionally black out from being nervous. Our bodies as vessels were there, but we may not have been fully there. This time around, we’re trying to be really present in the moments that feel like a big deal.
When you returned to Los Angeles, did you feel like the city had changed?
Maskin: To some extent, we hadn’t even really been in L.A. We were in college when we were working on the first record. When we got back from tour, we were in a period of our lives where we'd all moved to different places and didn’t know how to be home. I’m not sure if L.A. had changed, but we definitely had. We didn’t know how to function as people who live in one place, get up in the morning, cook themselves breakfast, and figure out a day. It was hard to adjust to normalcy because we didn’t have a concept of what was normal.
McPherson: When you come out of college, you’re still a fetus. You go to college thinking,"I’m a grownup, no one can tell me what to do with my day," and then you get smacked in the face when you have to actually figure things out like health insurance. Mitski said it best: it’s a second adolescence, and you have to feel the growing pains.
Sounds like you went from being busy to managing empty days.
Gavin: We all had different experiences. Much of our band comes from the intimacy of being together, but we’re also going through everything alone to some extent. For me, the days were empty, but they were also full of this awareness that we had a big project to complete. It’s like being a grad student with a thesis: nobody’s telling you what to do today, but you have to have something done sooner rather than later.
Maskin: We’re all so type-A that we’d schedule these little trips where we would try to work past the point of being productive, because we felt like we had to. A lot of the record is about patience and the understanding that productivity shouldn’t have to feel like pulling teeth. It should be a joyous experience.
When did you feel like the album was starting to come together?
McPherson: Halfway through last year, we started to make sense of the stuff we’d made. Whenever I’m writing an essay, I’ll start by not knowing what I’m talking about, and maybe I’ll figure out the idea as I’m fleshing it out — and that’s what happened with us, too. We wrote an unbelievable amount of music, and it wasn’t until halfway last year that we knew what was more reflective of where were at as human beings. A lot changed since the first album in terms of what we were listening to and what kind of band we wanted to be. It took maturing to make that happen.
Gavin: On a personal level, I was trying to make some changes in my interior life. What patterns am I repeating that are gonna get me if I don’t do something about it now? When we came back from tour, I was basically learning how to walk again, trying to figure out how to do things differently. “Number One Fan” and “Stayaway” came about after I'd had enough time living with these changes. You can’t necessarily write about something when you’re inside of it, but as I started to claim mini-victories over different things I'd been dealing with, then I was able to start writing the songs. A lot of what we were writing about I was experiencing in real time, and even as it’s coming out I’m still grappling with it.
It’s a lot scarier to have hope during a time like this, because hope carries responsibility.
Sometimes you realize as you get older that you don’t know as much as you thought you did, and in that way, you feel younger.
McPherson: That was the experience for me and Jo as well. On the first album, we were trying to flex the muscles that we have. As a female-adjacent queer band, we needed to be in control of as much as we could be, and sometimes you can get in your own way. We had to come around to the fact that everyone is on our side. Nobody’s preying on our downfall, and we don’t have to be so protective — and for me, so unwilling to accept criticism. We learned how to separate the ego from the art and focus on what’s best for the songs.
The lead single “Number One Fan” slaps, but it’s also hilarious and mad empowering. How did that song come together?
Gavin: It was six months after the tour and I was still sitting with a lot of complicated emotions. We all struggled with impostor syndrome after having some level of success, and not being able to have access to validation from other people. It was clear to me that my skill set for sticking up for myself or comforting myself was very limited. I had to work on that if I wanted to grow up and be the woman I wanted to be.
I wrote the song when I was starting to feel some progress. The lyrics made me laugh the first time I sang it in the car. There’s something about it that’s very timely. The language places it in this very specific moment in a way that's funny, but also powerful. We wanted to make it specific, small, and real so it could have the biggest impact possible. We knew it had to slap if it was going to have those insane lyrics.
A lot of the lyrics — “so iconic, like big, like stan” — derive from stan Twitter. Is that something you guys are involved with at all?
Maskin: I’m too basic to be able to stan.
McPherson: I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m part of it — if I were to stan someone, it’d be Beyoncé and my own band. I’m definitely a stan of us! That’s part of the joke, for sure. I know stan Twitter can be sort of a spooky place for some people, but we seem to have managed to exist in a nice little corner of the internet.
What was the intention behind the album title?
Gavin: It came out of a conversation that we had late in the process. The record has more humility than the first one. I had texted Naomi, sort of as a joke, that “I feel like I have saved myself, and in that way, I feel I have saved the world.” It became a conversation about what it means to save the world. We live in a time where it’s easier for us to understand how the personal and the political are connected.
There’s a lot of things that should be considered world-saving activities, in terms of looking at the patterns in your life and holding yourself accountable. But this is also a time where a lot of us are struggling. We don’t need to have shame or blame ourselves for the struggle. A lot of things are really fucked up right now, and a lot of people think it’s the end of the world. We’re interested in the act of world-saving. It’s a lot scarier to have hope during a time like this, because hope carries responsibility.
Do you think the world can be saved?
Gavin: I do. It’s the little things — I won’t shut up to everyone I know about how composting and working with plants has eased my anxiety about climate change. It’s a change that’s within my power to make. There are huge systemic issues where it’s almost problematic to be placing the onus on individuals when there needs to be a massive overhaul. It has to occur on every level. For us, it’s just about having that conversation, entertaining the possibility that maybe there’s something we can do and we don’t just have to go about business as usual, and laughing at memes until we die in a natural disaster.