After a year of impenetrable darkness, the summer of 2021 was when MUNA stepped boldly back into the light.
Our story begins as their 2019 record Saves The World, ends: an alt-pop exorcism of the heart; a requiem for relationships lost, cracked open with that familiar yearning that both defines and elevates queer anthems, where dancing and crying aren’t strangers, but reflect pop’s duality. It gave us the euphoric, synth-driven delight “Number One Fan” and the nocturnal track “Stayaway” that look at the 80s through the rear-view mirror – it was the body of work that delivered on what it means to be MUNA.
So when, in 2020, the LA trio – Katie Gavin, Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin – were dropped by major label RCA, it felt that their story was stopped short, ending with a thud that hit with the finality of closed book.
MUNA spent months floating, untethered and without direction, banished to purgatory by a corporate jury. All this, in a global pandemic when the future was narrow and slowed to a trickle, made the band’s future even harder to envision. Enter: Saddest Factory, Phoebe Bridger’s record label, in their darkest hour.
In an announcement, Gavin, McPherson and Maskin stated: “Phoebe asked us to be in a four-person couple with her. We said, ‘Sadly, we are all taken, but we will happily sign to your record label for the small fee of 10 million dollars”, going onto explain that Bridgers will be raising their first-born children and that they will be giving their voices away to her in a “cursed golden locket”, as stipulated in the contract – and, also, “maybe some music”.
Bridgers’ official response: “I thought they were a boyband.”
MUNA’s story seemed to be at an end, but with Saddest Factory, this year proves that it’s just beginning, rosy with the first flush of finally finding a place where their artistry belongs. And it shows. Introducing: “Silk Chiffon” – because what is a story like this without a score? Breaking their hiatus with this billowing soap bubble of a track, featuring Bridgers herself, MUNA didn’t find themselves brought back down to earth, but instead, they found heaven. In the telling of its story, a country-pop confection that surrenders to the breath-taking freefall of queer romance in bloom, it tells a part of our own: a year of clinging, courageously, to optimism.
“We should define queer music as music of longing” – Josette Maskin
I ask the trio about what, in their eyes, lays the foundations for the perfect pop song, and I mention this underlying sense of longing that seems to be present across a dynasty of queer anthems. “I can’t believe you just said that!”, says guitarist Naomi McPherson. “I’ve literally said the exact same thing: we should define queer music as music of longing.” Josette Maskin, the second of the trio’s guitarists chimes in: “That’s literally the gayest thing ever.”
Lead singer Katie Gavin, whose hair is now shoulder-length and a soft, autumnal red, rather than the vibrant, cheekbone-grazing bob that defined the Saves The World era, adds: “One thing I think that makes pop music really great is when the voice is reporting from the edge of experience, and that voice has specificity but also vulnerability, and a sense of urgency. My favourite pop songs are the songs where it’s really clear they needed to be written. This song was drawn from some of the happiest moments I’ve experienced.”
After the death of producer SOPHIE in January of 2021, who both accelerated toward and embodied the future by stretching pop music to its gleaming extremes, MUNA wanted to approach their music to reflect that radical, “chemical” experience. “As we’ve continued as a band,” says Gavin, “We’ve decided: ‘Let’s just make an interesting choice.’” With “Silk Chiffon”, which proved to be uncharacteristically buoyant compared to the ache of their previous material, MUNA knew with its sing-song refrain “Life’s so fun/ Life’s so fun” without any double-meaning, that this would be a stylistic U-turn. “I think when you make music, you have a choice of making it for yourself or making it for other people – and I think pop music is distinctly at its best for others. But if you can, you incorporate elements of yourself into that and you get the best of both worlds,” says McPherson.
The story of “Silk Chiffon” begins, as many of MUNA’s songs do, in Gavin’s bedroom. The sunny pre-chorus came to her in 2019, shortly after they signed off Saves The World; she handed that simple foundation over to her bandmates, to see if together, they could bring it to life. But it took a pre-lockdown trip to Nashville at the start of 2020 to get the wheels of “Silk Chiffon” truly in motion. Gavin rarely co-writes: her lyrical process is so intrinsic to her own experience that there is rarely the space, or need, to invite others into it. But because songwriters Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian had written alongside MUNA’s idol, Kacey Musgraves, she was willing to give it a try. Together, in that session, they worked out its butterflies-inducing chorus. “It was really piecemeal,” Gavin reflects. “It was a result of different collaborations and friendships forming over time.”
Gavin had been texting Marshall Vore, Phoebe Bridgers’ drummer and long-time collaborator, on the way back from her Nashville trip. She recalls: “I sent it to Marshall, and he was like, ‘Well, this is fucking beautiful.’ He was a ‘Silk’ stan from the jump, and that was when the idea came up of how great it would be if Phoebe would get on the song.”
Because of its timing, “Silk Chiffon”, in the minds of MUNA, is inherently tied to the end of Saves The World. “It’s like the rainbow at the end of a thunderstorm, you know?” Gavin says. “Our second record really depicts a huge journey of self-reflection and pain, like, ‘Why do I continue to choose unrequited loves?’ – and I think a lot of queer people have a big history of that. It’s built into our identity. I think a lot of it also has to do with feelings of shame, which are hard to fit into the realm of pop music. That’s what’s funny about “Silk”: it’s not like that. It doesn’t have to be serious. It’s a celebration of a joy that has been quite hard-earned and is also a result of learning to choose yourself.”
For Gavin in particular, it feels that “Silk Chiffon” also represents arriving, finally, at self-acceptance. “I feel like I’ve had to come out to myself so many times,” she says, “and I didn’t even realise that for me, part of my queer shame was also only allowing myself, as a fem, to express queer desire for people who are more masc. So with this song, it was a new thing to express desire for someone who is also feminine, and have that desire for softness and the girliness. It represents personal progress for us on so many layers, but the ultimate result is just simple and joyful.”
But “Silk Chiffon” can’t be separated from its music video, which is indelible on the band’s memory as the writing of the song itself. In binary pink and blue, the visuals, directed by McPherson’s partner Ally Pankiw (who we also have to thank for the likes of Feel Good, Shrill and Schitt’s Creek), are a sun-kissed homage to the satirical queer rom-com, But I’m a Cheerleader. “It’s one of the music videos we’re most proud of, and really had a creative vision that we worked really hard to achieve,” says Maskin. “Everyone on that cast was essentially queer. The vision was so clear and concise, and it came to life in such a beautiful way.
“It would have meant so much to me as a kid to have a song like this, that’s queer and doesn’t make a big deal about it” – Naomi McPherson
The original 1999 cult classic is a pivotal cultural reference point in many queer coming-of-age experiences. To adapt that in the music video, with Bridgers starring as the conversion camp leader who flicks through presentations titled, ‘Straight is Great: 101’ with one slide decrying, ‘Stop doing gay!’ as McPherson grimaces; along with those stolen glances and forbidden touches, was to incorporate the joy of the song with a level of self-awareness. “Obviously, But I’m a Cheerleader, is a comedy about something very, very serious,” says McPherson. “It feels like we’re at the stage of our lives where we’re ready to make comedy of our lives.”
It was filmed on a very hot day at a white, cookie-cutter, colonial-style house at the Heritage Square Museum in Highland Park, which preserves these anachronisms as living history. “There’s also an old church that had been moved from some neighbourhood in South LA that they had turned into a bar, which was where we shot the performance scene,” they continue, which was the triumphant final scene of escape when, ditching the pink and blue uniforms, they hitch a ride in their own clothes and find relief, at last, to be themselves on the dancefloor.
“It was also about the meaningful moments of people in our lives who showed up,” says Gavin. “The person who is driving the truck to pick us up from this conversion therapy is my friend Lenore. They’re like a queer elder to me, and they were out in Los Angeles in the 1980s when it was totally different to be gay here. And to have this old-school butch who has been so important in my life is just one of the many things in that video that are way more meaningful than people will ever probably know. There was definitely tears on that day.”
The memory of filming is also scattered with moments of joy they still laugh about even now: from of Bridgers ad-libbing about how, now they’re at conversion therapy they will only drink milk from a cow – no oat, no soy, no almond, (“Alternative milk is true queer culture”, says Gavin); to their friend Caleb, who was so excited about “Silk Chiffon” that the band thought it was destiny to have him play opposite Bridgers, making the whole cast and crew crack up with his performance.
The reception of “Silk Chiffon” has taken them aback. McPherson says that only the night before our conversation, she saw a video of someone proposing to their partner with the song as their soundtrack. “But I would also say there have been a couple of things, especially in the realm of TikTok, where it has been received creatively… and disturbingly,” Gavin laughs. “This is the first time we’ve seen people make their own trends with the song, and people play it ironically with some bad scenario. There have been a couple – I think Naomi knows the one in particular…” Maskin seems to be in the dark: “Wait, what?” Gavin says, “I’ll tell you later. It’s uh, the one with the feet.” McPherson says, outraged, “If people are using our song for nefarious purposes, or making things that gross me out, you’re in trouble with me! You’ll never guess what it is. It’s not what you mean when you’re like, ‘Now the song is yours! Do with it what you will!’”
But joking aside, the legacy of “Silk Chiffon” represents the kind of expression MUNA always felt they needed in their own coming-of-age story. “It would have meant so much to me as a kid to have a song like this, that’s queer and doesn’t make a big deal about it,” says McPherson. “It’s not about how hard it is, or unrequited love, or anything like that. It’s just a pure love song. It’s not making an issue of the queerness: it’s just another facet of the song. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt it was a big fucking deal at all to be the person that I am, had there been more songs like this when I was growing up. It feels like we’re doing right by our younger selves.”
“Sometimes, I feel like being an artist is like playing a never-ending game of Escape Room. If you succeed and you beat it, you just get into a bigger, more complicated escape room.” – Katie Gavin
MUNA have never pretended that the music industry was an easy game to play and have always been unafraid to put their cards on the table. Long before the pandemic brought to attention the precarity of a creative career, and before being dropped by RCA, MUNA have been vocalising the toll such a fickle business can have on their output, bracing themselves for hell or glory. Gavin tells me, “Sometimes, I feel like being an artist is like playing a never-ending game of Escape Room. If you succeed and you beat it, you just get into a bigger, more complicated escape room.” McPherson interjects, “That’s life, though, isn’t it?” Maskin sighs, “I don’t know if that soothes me. I would love to press pause. Every day is an escape room.”
After RCA axed the band, I wonder how difficult it was to keep going. “I mean, fucking… regardless of a label,” says Maskin, “it’s really hard to keep going and doing this job. It takes an incredible amount of self-regulation and motivation. I don’t know if that’s talked about enough.” Conversations had to be had between them about whether it was the time to call it quits. “There were definitely some dark moments where we thought, ‘Should we keep doing this?’ It was just fucking dark,” Maskin continues. “I know that was one of the lowest points of my life. I was having suicidal ideations, and it was just fucking hard. I think regardless of getting dropped, we were having those conversations because the world was on fire – and continues to be – but we didn’t have as many distractions at the time.”
What pulled them through, in the end, was the realisation that they’re bigger than the sum of their parts. “We’re not solo artists: we’re a band, and it takes a lot of effort to maintain relationships with each other. I think it’s impossible to have things be good and jolly all the time, but what gets us through is we really believe in each other and we believe in MUNA, even outside of our belief in ourselves,” Maskin shares.
“When one of us does feel pretty shit about something, someone else can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We rotate as things come our way,” McPherson elaborates. “I don’t know, maybe at 10 in the morning, I felt like shit. But at 11, I felt a godly, manic state that I could keep on doing it.” Maskin laughs.
“That’s mental illness, baby!” McPherson chimes in, “It’s whose mental illness is in a place where we can use it to get shit done.”
Going on tour with Phoebe Bridgers is something the band emphatically agree was a lifeline for the band, and the chance to perform “Silk Chiffon” to their devoted legion of fans made the song all the sweeter. “It was really helpful to see people actually give a shit, because sometimes you can really believe that they don’t,” McPherson says. “But now, this has proved to be a new chapter for us. The fact Phoebe even wanted to sign us to Saddest [Factory] Is really a testament to the work that we’ve done in the last few years – and we don’t take it for granted. There aren’t a lot of bands who get this long of a career, so it’s really cool to have that experience of free-falling, but then landing somewhere else that was unexpected. It just keeps on moving.”
With “Silk Chiffon” as the first statement of intent for this new era of MUNA, next year holds the promise of their third record. “I can’t help but feel the inherent pressure of this record, if I’m being honest” Gavin confesses. “It feels like ‘Silk’ has been a career-defining moment for us, and I’ve felt a definitive shift since that song came out. In that way, it feels like we’re making our first record. It’s a bit of a re-introduction.”
As for the album itself: “It’s categorically MUNA, in that you’re going to get a lot of songs that are seemingly belonging to different genres,” explains Gavin. “But I would say the only through line is that kind of self-assuredness that I think is in ‘Silk Chiffon’. The songs on this record seem to be dealing with different questions of desire, and ownership of that – whether that’s desire for a specific person, or a fun night, or a desire for freedom and to leave a relationship.”
But one thing they don’t want you to think is that “Silk Chiffon”, with its carefree frivolity, means that MUNA are leaving behind their ability to lay down an emotional sucker-punch. “There’s really only a limited supply of levity we can offer,” Gavin laughs. “Don’t think we’re not gonna smack you in the face again – because we will.”