“It was important for us to feel like we were mature enough to make a unified statement with a record,” says the group’s Naomi McPherson.
“So I heard the bad news / Nobody likes me, and I’m gonna die alone.”
The second era for electro-pop trio MUNA begins with this proclamation, delivered with a straightforward, facts-only shrug by lead vocalist Katie Gavin, as the first line of their new single “Number One Fan.” When Gavin and her band mates Josette Maskin and Naomi McPherson recorded the song, they knew that it had to become the first preview of their sophomore album — if nothing else, because of that opening lyric. “I think we wanted to punch everyone in the face a little bit,” Maskin admits.
MUNA’s debut album, 2017’s About U, was an unequivocal success, a brightly lit collection of rhythmic pop songs that garnered critical acclaim, led to a sold-out headlining tour in North America and was heralded as impressively inclusive (the band members, who all identify as queer, do not use gender-based pronouns in their lyrics). The opening line to “Number One Fan” would be jarring in any context, but coming from a band as sunny and accomplished as MUNA makes for the whiplashed reaction that Maskin is describing.
As the members of MUNA attest during a trip to the Billboard New York offices days before the release of “Number One Fan,” the wins of About U did not soothe any of their self-doubt when they had to follow up their debut — hence the the new single, in which they learn how to address their most self-lacerating thoughts. “There were a lot of moments in the first album cycle where we were having success and other people around us were saying, ‘You’re doing so well, you must be so happy,’” says Gavin, “and I think it’s common to actually have this inner turmoil of, ‘I don’t deserve this.’”
Saves the World, MUNA’s sophomore album, due out Sept. 6, was borne of a process of overcoming that imposter syndrome. The group’s members, who met at the University of Southern California earlier in the decade before signing to RCA Records, say that this album represented their first in which they viewed themselves as professional musicians — About U and the songs that preceded it were the work of a college band that had happened to stumble into something lasting.
MUNA spent the fall of 2017 playing their debut album to large theaters as the opening act on Harry Styles’ tour. When the trek ended, McPherson says, “We were so invigorated by the tour with Harry that we were like, ‘Let’s do it! Back into the studio, we’re gonna make an album, and then it will be finished!’ And… it took a lot longer than we thought.”
The Los Angeles-based trio tried embarking on a writing retreat, and then tried writing more songs separately; Gavin says she was “going through a lot of heartbreak” at the beginning of writing this record, and all three members expressed a desire to grow as writers and musicians, a process that took up the entirety of 2018 and the beginning of this year.
“I think we are an album band,” McPherson explains, “and it was important for us to feel like we were mature enough to make a unified statement with a record. That was our number one priority.”
The result is a more streamlined second act that the group says features the emotion and left-of-center synth-pop arrangements of their debut, but with the lyricism foregrounded and a few more sonic detours. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, Susan Sontag’s "Notes on 'Camp'" and the podcast Philosophize This! all served as influences; so did Madonna’s Ray of Light album, Chicago house music and Britpop artists like Elastica. “It’s a lot of battling demons in our personal lives,” McPherson says of the album. Maskin adds, “The creation of the record was a cycle of death and rebirth — figuring out how one can do better, or get the mystical elixir.”
With “Number One Fan” — which was co-produced by Mike Crossey with the band, and gradually widens into a warm, danceable groove — MUNA have introduced their next project with a depiction of overcoming their creeping uncertainties and finding a sense of acceptance. There’s more music coming ahead of the Saves The World release and live shows in the works, but for the trio, this was an important first step back into the spotlight.
“Pretty much anyone you look up to who’s making art has days where they’re like ‘Should I even be doing this?’” says Gavin. “But you just keep going, you keep doing it anyway. It’s probably never going to feel like we’re really safe or we ‘made it.’ But I think that’s just something you’ve got to accept.”