By Ilana Kaplan
At certain points, guitarist Josette Maskin, vocalist Katie Gavin, and guitarist Naomi McPherson asked themselves if they, as pop trio MUNA, were going to be able to make another album after their 2017 debut, About U. Though it was well received, the three were eventually worn down by the road after relentless touring. It left them unsure about their future — and then they set out to make a new one. "I think the second record — the whole process of making it — really put everything on the line and put us to the test, and it really pushed all of our relationships with one another to an edge," Maskin told MTV News.
MUNA started off as a college band at the University of Southern California in 2013, and in the time it takes most people to earn a bachelor's degree, Maskin, Gavin, and McPherson self-released their debut EP, More Perfect, signed a major-label deal with RCA, released their debut major-label EP, Loudspeaker, and debut full-length album, About U. By the middle of 2017, the three were taking the stage as the opening act for Harry Styles on his North American and European tour.
But coming off the road two years ago was hard for them to cope with. Despite their markers of success, the trio was left wondering if they and their work were worthwhile. Post-tour, they felt disconnected and had to rebuild up their self-confidence as individuals.
The creation of their sophomore album, Saves the World — out September 6 and led by the infectious "Number One Fan" — became a way to do just that. "Making the record was a process of reclamation of ourselves and a process of growth," Maskin said. It was hard. For them, it took a lot of "ego death" and "was very much a hero's journey." You could say it's been their saving grace — a sentiment reflected right in the title. "We're not trying to be a nihilistic band in 2019 that's like, just 'fuck it all.'" Gavin said. "It's like, no, we really believe in saving the world, but there's something fun about it as well."
Fun was certainly on the group's mind as they were writing the music, notably drawing inspiration from the lighthearted way Madonna's Ray of Light era put "spirituality in pop music," Gavin said. They also drew vibes from Britpop bands like Oasis, Elastica, and Lush, while pulling a Katy-Perry-dressed-as-a-chandelier level of playfulness from Susan Sontag's Notes on Camp. Adding in some self-reflection, the band dove into Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey, which impacted them so profoundly that it became a guide as they worked through their sophomore slump. Meanwhile, Mitski and Robyn provided songwriting cues. "That's nothing new for us," Gavin said. "But just having women continue to share their experiences in ways that are really honest and cathartic, that's something that's always been a North Star for us."
To usher in their new era, MUNA shared their lead single "Number One Fan," a dark, house-tinged departure from their previous work, in early June. As soon as the band penned "Number One Fan," they knew it was a strong statement to make. "This record, in general, has been a process about having the faith in ourselves to take risks as a band, so that we can continue to grow," Gavin said.
"So I heard the bad news / Nobody likes me and I'm gonna die alone / In my bedroom / Looking at strangers on my telephone," Gavin sings on the track over thumping electronic pop pounded out by Maskin and McPherson. Layered together, the song builds a vivid visual for the way social media has worn down the way we view ourselves. "I think all three of us can relate to just scrolling on Instagram, on the Discover page, and getting to a place where that almost becomes [emotional self-abuse]," Maskin said. "You start feeling like total shit about yourself, because everyone seems to be living an amazing life, and obviously that's all curated just like everything online. But sometimes it really does feel like everybody fucking hates you and you're alone by yourself on your phone at home doing nothing with your life."
The song eventually climbs out of its black hole, much like MUNA did, feeding affirmations like "Love me in the way that only you can" and serving as a conduit for the entire album's message. "The concept that we're trying to push throughout the whole record is this idea of learning how to take care of yourself and take responsibility for yourself, and how that process of saving yourself can be ... the same thing as saving the world," Gavin said. Because of that, "Number One Fan" seemed ripe for the introduction to Saves the World.
But MUNA, whose three members all identify as queer, have not shied away from strong statements in their work. Penning singles like "So Special" for slut-shamed girls and "I Know a Place" for the LGBTQ+ community, the trio have been influential in shaping the conversation in pop and in helping them become paramount voices in the current political climate. Despite "I Know a Place" becoming a rallying cry for the LGBTQ+ community, it became something the group grappled with when making their sophomore record.
"I think that song was really chosen by our community as a song that was going to help them process specifically the Pulse [nightclub] shooting, but it's a song that has become kind of an anthem," Gavin said. "['I Know A Place'] in some ways shaped our career thus far, and it also posed a big challenge for us because it's a lot of responsibility, really, to be chosen as an artist [by] your community to say 'this is a song that means something to us.'" In turn, Saves the World became a response to the idea that MUNA began to mean something to so many people. "I think a lot of this record has been saying yes to trying to make stuff that is of use for other people," Gavin added. "Whether they're using it to process a tragedy or they're using it to celebrate something, I think we're at a position now where we're really just saying yes to that and taking it on, even though it can be scary to have that responsibility."
As inherently political individuals, MUNA do, in some ways, identify with being a political band. "We do live in a time where a lot of artists are feeling empowered to engage with politics and not shy away from it, so I don't think it's abnormal in 2019 to necessarily be considered a political band," McPherson said. With their empowering messages, they have indeed garnered a larger fanbase, which they acknowledge. But despite their success so far — or maybe because of it — they're mostly concerned with staying grounded, which is all they're trying to say with Saves the World. "I think it can be easy to start relying on other people to validate you," Gavin said. "And I think a lot of this record's process was recognizing that no matter what happens to us as a band, how successful we get, at the end of the day, how we actually feel depends on our relationship with ourselves and how we're treating ourselves."