The Community Effort Behind Muna’s Taylor Swift-Inspired ‘Kind of Girl’

Photo: Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW

The song “Kind of Girl” has a certain power over Muna. Like when the band was developing the country-tinged epic, and they noticed that singer and lyricist Katie Gavin (who’s from Chicago) had taken on a twangy delivery. “Those accents are channeled straight from the source,” jokes Naomi McPherson, one of the trio’s guitarists. “That’s pure, crystallized energy. You’re not in control.” The song was already a rarity in the band’s catalogue: written from beginning to end by Gavin in one night and finished almost instantly thanks to her bandmates’ enthusiasm. When they found out it wouldn’t be released ahead of their winter 2022 tour with Kacey Musgraves, they opted to play it live anyway, figuring they enjoyed it too much not to.

It holds an even stronger power over Muna’s self-perception. Lyrically, “Kind of Girl” directly engages with the motifs of the trio’s past two albums: Gavin sings that she “takes things a little too far,” “wants everything she can’t get,” and is “a little in love with the pain.” But where a past Muna song would’ve found catharsis in those feelings, “Kind of Girl” takes a more active approach. “I’m a girl who’s learning everything I say isn’t definitive,” Gavin declares, before using the rest of the song to literally rewrite her story. The spirit of reinvention even carries over to the music video, which finds the members donning cowboy drag to shake their perception as a “girl band” (an inaccurate one at that, since McPherson is nonbinary).

The surprisingly joyful single “Silk Chiffon” introduced the new, more assured Muna nearly a year ago, and other tracks on their self-titled third album, like the kiss-off “Anything But Me,” further showcased that outlook. But “Kind of Girl” serves as the record’s keystone, turning Muna’s journey of growth into one of the most emotional moments yet from a band known for them. The trio spoke to Vulture about making “Kind of Girl,” producing the song themselves, and how it’s their own “track-five moment,” in the vein of hero Taylor Swift.

When in the process of making the album did this song come into play?

Naomi McPherson: We filmed this HBO Pride thing in 2021, and there’s some B-roll footage of me and Katie playing guitar. She’s teaching me how to play the part for “Kind of Girl.”

Katie Gavin: I think I had written it the night before. So it was about a year ago. I famously wrote it in the bath. It was a song that I wrote chronologically, which isn’t too common for me. Like, I wrote the verse into the chorus, and more often will have an idea for a chorus [first].

I was just thinking about the way that I talk about myself. It’s this meta song because I write the lyrics for this band, so I have been writing stories from my life as part of this project throughout my 20s. This song is reflecting on that voice and what I’ve learned about myself through those stories. I was wanting to acknowledge that none of those things can bind me, and I still have the chance to change and grow. But I was figuring out what the song is about as I was writing it, and you can see that in the lyrics. It’s these twists and turns that happen between the verse, pre-chorus, and chorus.

It’s funny that you mention it being meta, because it sounds to me like it’s in conversation with past Muna songs.

KG: Oh my God, yeah. Literally the first lines of the song, “Presses a little too hard / That’s why you left a mark.” There’s a song on the second record called “Memento,” and we never play it live because it’s a little transition song. It’s a story about, I got a bee sting that left a scar, and it was in association to this relationship that I was trying to leave, and the repeated line at the end of that song is, “I’m glad it left a mark.” So it started with that callback of, “I know that this is a pattern for me, that I have this intense quality in relationships, that I have a propensity towards these things.” I know only a handful of Muna fans that have actually picked up on it, because it’s such a subtle thing.

Josette Maskin: I think that’s a pattern of this record, generally, is that we’re realizing that all the songs are so reflective of the other albums that we have made. I mean obviously, as people, you’re connected to your past selves, but it’s very interesting that we have the receipts, and the receipts are the old songs.

You wrote this a little over a year ago. How was the album shaping up at this point?

NM: I think everything still felt pretty nascent. We had “Solid,” “Handle Me,” “No Idea,” “Silk,” and “What I Want,” so it was half-written. Then “Kind of Girl” came into the picture, and we all gravitated towards it so strongly. It just felt like such a tender and special moment that we activated pretty quickly to work on it. It felt really done really fast, because we were all passionate about it.

Part of why I was curious about that is it sounds like at this point, some of the big-picture ideas on the album, like about confidence and reflection, were coming together as well.

NM: Yeah. I think we had had some conversations like, yearning for a few sensitive moments on the album. All the songs that we had were pretty big energy songs and very confident, self-assured songs. It’s not to say that “Kind of Girl” isn’t that — I think it is, it’s just a different perspective. That one came at what will retrospectively feel like a pretty pivotal point for us. We wanted a kind of Swiftian, middle-of-the-album, heart-wrenching track. That kind of track-five moment.

It is track five on the album!

NM: It is, and that’s on purpose, for sure.

KG: [Laughs.]

Naomi and Josette, what did you think when Katie came to you with the song?

JM: We started working on it the next day. I think it reflects how good this song was. Some songs can be a quest on how it comes together, and the amount of work and time you put into it. But I think how easy the song was for Katie to write also was the same for Naomi and I to work on musically. You don’t get those moments all the time, but this was one.

NM: Definitely. I was having a moment right when that song [began], where I was super into Shania Twain’s Up!, which I am still obsessed with; it’s a perfect album, it’s so good. And I was really into the Laura Marling album, Songs for Our Daughter. It’s such a brilliant album. It felt like [“Kind of Girl”] could live in that sort of soft, sensitive world of really dry vocal performance, and it feels close to you, like someone’s whispering the song in your ear, and then we could take it to a bigger world after the first chorus happens. Just as the song felt linear for Katie to write, it felt like such a linear story to us with such a clear upward trajectory.

Why did it make sense for this song to bring in these country influences?

KG: When I brought it to them and it was just me and the guitar, I think we all knew. I just remember Naomi saying something like, “We shouldn’t change it that much from what it is.” I get swept up in the energy of certain songs, and I definitely was already singing this song with a bit of a twang. It just was already in the song.

It was probably one of the most fun songs to record because there is such an organic sound on it. Naomi and Jo were learning a lot about that world of production that doesn’t have to do with like, plugins on Ableton, but is more about finding the right instrument and mic-ing it the right way and creating this really, really lush world of guitars. We recorded so many guitars on this song. It really was built in this pretty epic way.

NM: I gotta give a shout out to our bass player, who also engineered that song with us. Geo [Botelho] was super helpful with regards to giving a nice outside opinion. We went in to record the vocals; Katie just performed them beautifully. Then the rest of the time was mostly me and Jo going into the room, playing a bunch of different guitars that we had borrowed from a bunch of our friends and people that we know in L.A. Marshall Vore let us borrow a guitar for that week, and Emily Rosenfield let us borrow a guitar, and Meg Duffy from Hand Habits let us borrow a guitar. It was a community effort, for sure. And then just spending time. You can mic a guitar a million different ways with a million different mics that cost anything from hundreds to thousands of dollars, but what really matters is the instrument and the performance. I think we picked the ones that felt the most appropriate for the song.

JM: I feel like each record we become obsessed with certain things, but for slide and vibe, Naomi got a little mini Fender amp that was like $40 or something. And we used that in our studio, which is honestly our house. It’s a super old house. Our studio ceilings are only maybe six feet tall, and there’s this definitely illegal bathroom that has even shorter ceilings and it has a shitty pocket door, but the way that room sounds is really interesting. So we mic’d the amp close and we mic’d it far, and we just recorded that amp. And we got a vibrato Boss pedal, and that was another thing that we used quite a lot on the record. Those moments of experimenting, we started doing that with this song and we did it a whole bunch on this record.

What you’re talking about, being able to experiment more with guitars and amps, was some of that because it was just the three of you again producing the album?

JM: I would say it was also out of necessity.

[All laugh.]

NM: To be frank, when you’re making an album where you have very little budget to record it, you do have to get creative and strategic at the same time. Just trying to make interesting choices within the confines of what the process might look like from a low-budget standpoint, I think does drive creativity. It’s like making an indie movie — you have to get creative with your solutions to problems that you might have and ask for favors from friends. That’s the story of this band, ultimately. We’re very indebted to our community of creatives that help us along the way. But yeah, the three of us producing it, I think we had to challenge ourselves a little bit because it’s like, Nobody else is going to figure this shit out, so better start thinking about what you’re going to do.

I want to be sure to touch on the music video as well, which is very fun. Where did that idea come from?

NM: That was a Katie pitch.

KG: Finally. I pitch insane, unusable ideas for music videos most of the time, like videos that would cost $2 million but I think would be cool. I was blading on the L.A. River path and I was trying to work out the issue of, Okay, there’s a gendered nature to this song inherently because it’s called “Kind Of Girl,” and we also have historically been gendered as a girl band, but we’re not a girl band, and we have a member of the band who is non-binary. I was like, How do we make a video that subverts the gendered nature of the song in a way that feels true to us? And I had the idea of like, Oh, we should do it in drag. Once we started talking about it, I was pretty surprised to realize the lack of drag king-ing that you see in music videos. We also knew that we didn’t want it to be drag as a shtick. We wanted it to be drag as a real representation of some part of us, and we also liked this layer of — I think a lot of people who identify as men do listen and love this song and relate to it. There is something beautiful about seeing these more masc representations singing these more vulnerable lyrics.

We worked with our friend Taylor James, who has worked on a lot of the visuals for this campaign with us, and he had the idea to make it a one-shot and he did all the painstaking blocking. It was a small-budget operation, and we knew we had to record it within this one hour where it was like magic hour in the desert. So we did it as many times as we could in a row, for an hour. There’s a moment in the actual video that we used where my hat almost flies off because of the wind, and you see me turn to the side, but you can’t break character because it could end up being the take. And that one did end up being the take. But I think it was a really great day on set, and it was cool to be able to do this very queer concept with a lot of queer people on the set. I know that Jo still misses her mustache.

What has it been like taking this song on the road and getting to play it for crowds?

JM: This song is just wonderful to play. It’s a song that lives in a live world, so it really has been a delight. We first played it when we were opening up for Kacey [Musgraves], and it was cool to feel the song. Like, as you play a song live, it goes into your body.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Community Effort Behind Muna’s ‘Kind of Girl’