“It’s Been An Interesting Transition Into Trusting Myself”: An Interview With Mura Masa

Staley Sharples speaks to Mura Masa about moodboards, experimenting with sound, the Y2K aesthetic and much more.
By    September 22, 2022

Image via Lillie Eiger

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Staley Sharples once tried the Hot Ones “Apollo” hot sauce and barely survived.

The Spice Orange GameCube model, released only in Japan, is possibly the most hotly-debated console release among GameCube hobbyists and fans. Inspiring both love and hate among collectors, the edition itself was never sold in the US, though gamers stateside could snag a controller of the same color. The vibrant titian hue recalls memories of Nickelodeon cartoon logos from the 2000s or heaping bowls of Pokemon-shaped Kraft mac and cheese.

The Spice Orange GameCube is a proudly displayed conversation starter in the home of Alexander Crossan, better known to the world as Mura Masa. Triggering an instantly sentimental reaction to the playful piece of now-extinct technology, the subversive nature of the Spice Orange GameCube is symbolic of the ethos behind Mura Masa’s current creative philosophy. His new music sees the producer stepping back into the club, ready to dance away the dread of modernity with a firmly electronic sound that prioritizes good times above all else. As we discussed his prized console, we delved deeper into the Y2K-burst of authentic nostalgia informing his third full-length album, Demon Time.

At the tender age of 26, his list of accolades is lengthy. Crossan first captured attention through his hybrid sound that wove together both the heavy 808s driving the EDM trap craze and lush, Majestic Casual-upload instrumentals of the mid-2010s. Alongside fellow young electronic tastemakers Sam Gellaitry, Cashmere Cat, and Flume, Mura Masa held his own in developing a signature melodic futurism rooted in the warm familiarity of pop music. His self-titled debut in 2018 saw him become the first artist to be nominated by the Grammys as a musician and creative director for the same album. The next year, he won his first Grammy for his remix of Haim’s “Walking Away,” and is currently holding his fourth nomination for his remix of PVA’s “Talks.” One might assume that the prodigious young musician would hold an air of self-importance, but Mura Masa seems unfazed by the international praise of critics and industry decision-makers.

Growing up on the island of Guernsey, Crossan unintentionally found his love of music through the boredom of small town living. Starting a variety of bands, he took up whatever spare role was needed—usually as the frontman. This musicality developed in tandem with the unfettered, childhood optimism of a pre-TikTok Internet, where Crossan would browse for connection via electronic and hip-hop music. As social media entered its neophyte origins, Crosson would find himself digging through YouTube for samples and practicing his production skills with flips he’d later upload on SoundCloud.

Leaving the island at 18, he began a stratospheric launch in a shifting landscape of extremely online music. His SoundCloud-uploaded Soundtrack To A Death EP included an unforgettably-banging-yet-beautiful track by the name of “Lotus Eater.” The single broke out amongst UK personalities Zane Lowe and Annie Mac, acting as a springboard into the launch of his Interscope and Polydor-partnered label Anchor Point Records. The label’s 2015 release of the Someday Somewhere EP contained the original instrumental for “Lovesick,” a song that would act as Mura Masa’s US breakthrough. Tapping A$AP Rocky to reimagine it, “Love$ick” was featured as the second single of 2016’s full-length debut Mura Masa, charting on the Billboard Hot Electronic chart and reaching platinum status in four other countries.

A critical darling at the peak of pop culture’s electronic music fixation, Crossan found himself producing for Stormzy and Chic and playing a Coachella performance with cameos from Charli XCX and A$AP Rocky. But seeking something more authentic, Mura Masa’s second album revisited the disquiet fuzziness of teenage feelings on Raw Youth Collage. Crossan’s refusal to be forced into a box following his mega-success in commercial indie dance led him to discover one of his most trusted collaborators, Slowthai. In this work, Crossan grapples with the role of technology on his mental health. There are diary confessions laid bare through guitar-laden tracks sung by Clairo, Wolf Alice, and Ellie Rowsell. Lead single “No Hope Generation” is a painstakingly-layered, driving rock song with vocals from Crossan. This idea is a mirrored reflection of his headspace, with the song acting as the portrait of a dark and cynical grief surrounding young adulthood. The loss of anonymity living on an increasingly-warming planet compounded the sorrow. Then 2020 happened.

Plunged into nothing but his own thoughts for the first time in over five years, Crossan found himself wallowing in an abyss at the beginning of the pandemic. Slowly, he found his life philosophy starting to shift, turning to therapy and self-reliance as roadmaps for the brave new world. In this period, Crossan found new ways to challenge himself and began acting on gut instinct. “FUN” is the concept that surrounds his newest album, Demon Time. Sharing the energy of “No Hope Generation,” Demon Time is the playfully hedonistic snapshot of Mura Masa today. Hopscotching around electronic subgenres as it touches on radio hits from the aughts, the thesis of the album is that the world’s gonna end sometime, so f*ck it, why not go a little crazy? [Insert Joker still here]

Mura Masa’s revivalism of UK garage in the United States first broke with 2021’s inescapable hit “Just For Me” with PinkPantheress, who guested on the album’s lead single “bbycakes” with Lil Uzi Vert. Channel Tres, Shygirl, Skillibeng, Pa Salieu, Kali Uchis, and more attend the party too, pushing the multi-hyphenate creative into a more instinctive and relaxed mindset.

Making pop music is a push and pull,” he muses. “You want to put something original in front of people that subverts their expectations, but you also want to have an approachability and a kind of listenability that makes it feels familiar and makes it have staying power. It’s always the back and forth between those two philosophies, but I like the tension between those two things.”

You grew up singing on the island of Guernsey. With this background, how did you get into producing and making your own music?

Mura Masa: I grew up playing in a lot of bands, as I’m sure everyone who’s from a small town can relate to. It felt like I was always occupying whatever the spare role was in the band. I picked up quite a few instruments and could play quite a few things passingly. Then I started listening to electronic music and getting into people who produced for rappers, stuff like that. There was something quite appealing about being the curatorial figure who could control a lot of the elements of the song and make a whole, complete image of the music, rather than contributing one part of it. It’s kind of over-intellectualized. Basically, I just wanted to have a go at everything.

You usually use moodboards to plan out your albums, right? I know for this one, you just had your iPhone note that said “fun.” Walk me through how you started using the visualization process, and what that’s evolved into.

Mura Masa: I’ve always been a person who can’t start a longer body of work until I have the artwork, or an image to really stare at. I find it helps as like a base camp to return to. I design a lot of my own artwork, packaging, and graphics, so that’s always been a super-important part of it. Normally, I’m buying loads of books to gather references. I did end up doing that this time, but it was towards the end of the process, so I had something to send out to people who were going to collaborate. Not necessarily on the music, but in the process of making the album. My moodboard this time is just the word “fun.” If the goal of this album is to let loose a little bit and get into my mischievous bag, then it’s quite apt that the brief is one word. Minimalistic, impossible to overthink. Fun as a concept is quite thin. There’s only one definition of it. Something you enjoy, something you like doing, something that’s maybe a bit surprising or subversive in a way. That became the point that I would always return to if part of a creative process was sticking.

When you were making all this fun music, your first single “bbycakes” came together in like 20 minutes. Your music is known to be quite detail-oriented, so what was that like to change direction and make those creative decisions more intuitively?

Mura Masa: It’s a big challenge for me, because as you said, I’m quite sticky when it comes to making sure that the process is very streamlined. I began to prep the stage in order for stuff to happen spontaneously. There was a long period of gathering sounds and drum samples, finding musical references, and making playlists. When I actually did get into the room to make these songs with the collaborators, I had this palette that was already loaded with the paint. I wasn’t going to spend ages on whether this is the right vibe or not, because it was already there. It’s been an interesting transition into trusting myself, and going with what feels right immediately. Not doing the old second-guessing.

You experiment with a lot of different styles on Demon Time, even channeling your birthday twin Pharrell on “Hollaback B*tch.” I wanted to touch on that process as well. You wrote it and wanted Shygirl to do the vocals—do you ever get into a character in your head when you’re writing songs?

Mura Masa: For that case specifically, it was a writing camp for Shygirl’s album. We were in an Airbnb in Brighton I think, and we’d been writing all day. I just got into this mode of occupying the space that she does, in a way, and making sure I was writing something that would sound good for her and feel right. It wasn’t totally a solo effort. We went back and forth on it and changed things, but that initial spurt of writing the hook and verse a little bit was definitely me trying to method act being a really sexy, cool, fashionable London woman.

How do you decide who you’re going to work with? Is there a quality you’re drawn to when you feel that creative spark in someone?

Mura Masa: I would say it starts with really admiring their work in the first place. Some element is an idea I have for that person. Something I can see them doing that I really want to share with them and help bring them into. When Slowthai and I started working together he was still quite hip hop and rap oriented, but obviously with this punk spirit. I thought it would be great to hear him actually go in on a thrashing punk beat. Not in a pastiche-y way. I wanted to bring a little bit more of that energy towards him, and meet him in the middle somewhere.

It’s recognizing something great about their music, really admiring and respecting what they do already, and then having some kind of a spark that’s a little bit different for them and for me. I think that’s how you end up with this crazy record that has loads of different types of music because there’s no brief in the first place. Kind of a plus and a minus. I’m not a master of a certain style, but it keeps it fresh and it definitely keeps it fun.

You’ve really evolved from the first self-titled album. The second album was apparently influenced by Modern Vampires of the City. I listened to that album recently and I could definitely feel that similarity in the dedicated, caring focus on every single sound.

Mura Masa: I read somewhere that Modern Vampires of the City is one of Rick Rubin’s favorite albums as well for the production on it, it’s an incredible record. Another thing with that second album was setting the stage for my later career. That album isn’t really what anyone wanted for me, and I recognize that. It just felt really right to do. So I thought, well, rather than do the difficult second album, I’ll just skip to like the weird fourth album and save myself some time. I love that record. It’s nice to have briefly stepped away from the world of electronic music, but now be able to come back to it with a fresh perspective, having learned a lot doing that second record.

You circled back around. You started in UK dance music, which is blowing up over here, largely because of you and the PinkPantheress [song] “Just For Me.” I feel like that really pushed that sound into the mainstream here. Where do you think the path is leading you? What drives you creatively?

Mura Masa: That’s a good question. I guess it’s experimentation. I think making pop music is a push and pull. You want to put something original in front of people that subverts their expectations, but you also want to have an approachability and a kind of listenability that makes it feel familiar and makes it have staying power. It’s always the back and forth between those two philosophies, but I like the tension between those two things. [I’m] trying to explore that little gap that exists between them. The good thing about that is that it isn’t limited to any one type of music.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Portishead recently, and I’m trying to listen to my body. Maybe there’s a trip-hop revival coming. I’d love to hear someone like PinkPantheress do a trip-hop track. I don’t feel limited by what happens to interest me at that moment. I’m learning to trust it and go with it. Even with an album like R.Y.C, which was so guitar-driven, probably in a time when nobody was interested in that kind of stuff, it’s very vindicating where that has ended up going. It feels more relevant than ever, this kind of pop-punk revivalism. I think it was Bowie who said, “it’s not about who does it first, it’s about who does it second.”

How do you combat cynicism in art?

Mura Masa: I’m only 26, but [I’m] hanging around with people like PinkPantheress and Gretel Hamline. I’m starting to feel like the old dude in the room a little bit. It’s important to really drill down into the new things that come out that you don’t understand. Try and understand the motivations and get behind it. I was like that with TikTok at first, I really didn’t get it. But now I realize that TikTok is like the f*cking wild west. It’s the first time in a long time where the Internet has felt like, man, anything could happen. Some kid could go viral for some ridiculous thing. Some noise that he said. Getting on board with that taught me something about rallying behind new things that resonate with people.

As an artist, that’s how you continue creating. You have to continue to tap into the human side of things. See the appeal of creative mediums.

Mura Masa: TikTok feels like a gateway for a lot of people into what they really want to be doing. TikTok’s just mental. It’s like the desert of the internet.

One thing I used to do a lot is search a random word on YouTube and then sort by latest uploads so you’re just getting new stuff with zero views. It’s anti-algorithm. You’re just seeing sh*t you shouldn’t be able to see. There’s no reason for you to be watching it. It’s like, some grandma uploading a birthday wishes video for her grandson, and she doesn’t understand how to make it private. There’s something bizarre about it, it’s people-watching but super-technology driven.

What’s a recent video that’s caught your attention?

Mura Masa: I can’t remember what the word was that I searched, but there’s a guy who does these cooking tutorials. I can’t decide if it’s performance art, because it’s actually crazy. Maybe somebody out there knows what I’m talking about. This guy does these cooking tutorials. He’ll be in his bathroom cooking hot dogs and there’s loads of stuff in his bathroom for cooking. It’s like a hoarder’s house, and he’ll be cooking the hot dogs inside the kettle, boiling the water. It’s not as gross as I’ve made it sound though, but it’s just odd. I’m convinced that it’s some kind of psyop. We’re in the age of disingenuous content, aren’t we?

How do you keep it genuine for you and your art?

Mura Masa: It’s a compass you have to develop. It’s like a muscle. Most people know it when they see it. You can see when a person has some ulterior motive. Whether it’s monetary or attention, or whatever. Not to keep talking about PinkPantheress, but there’s an authentic expression. It’s f*cking resonated with everybody. She’s this young woman who’s really into a certain type of music, and has a really interesting production style of her own. She has her influences, but they’re not apparent. It feels like this totally fresh, authentic take. Then you get the sort of people who are copying her. When you hear it, there’s something not right about it. There’s a cynicism.

So the demons, are they representative of the demons you were fighting?

Mura Masa: [laughs] Not literally, but I think there is a certain aspect of the idea of “demon time” that plays into that idea. Like kissing someone you shouldn’t have, or revealing your feelings, or getting a bit too drunk or something like that. I think the juxtaposition of that demonic image with the cute, approachable, fun aesthetic is very intentional. It’s okay sometimes to let loose a little bit and not be so anxious.

Speaking of anxiety, I know you’ve talked pretty openly about your mental health, and I feel like R.Y.C was definitely a soul-baring experience. Now, you’re baring your soul, but you’re also having fun. Do you feel like therapy has played a role in how you create or approach the process now?

Mura Masa: Definitely. It might’ve gotten taken off, but on the insert of the album there’s this special thanks section and one of them is antidepressants. Prozac gang. That was a big thing during lockdown. A lot of people learned things about themselves that were humming in the background that weren’t getting dealt with. I was lucky, I had quite a chill lockdown. I didn’t lose anyone to Covid or get very seriously ill or anything, but it definitely gave me space to find out a little bit about what was actually going on inside my silly brain. Try to get on top of it a bit more.

It’s hard when you’re touring all the time, there’s no time to stop.

Mura Masa: It made me realize I didn’t really stop touring for the first five or six years of my career. It was the first time I was at home with nothing to do. Which was hard, it was difficult at first. Once I stopped trying to keep my head down and get through it, and started trying to take each day as it comes and make the most out of it, that was the shift in attitude. That gives way to the embracing of fun. I need to find a different word, I’ve said the word fun so many times.

Were you a Spongebob fan growing up? I’m thinking of the “FUN” song.

Mura Masa: The “FUN” song was on the moodboard for sure.

Which Spongebob character do you identify with the most, and why?

Mura Masa: I’m jealous of Patrick, he’s got a Taoist simplicity to him. He just wants to go jellyfishing. But then you have the cynical Squidward, based very much in reality. You’ve got greed represented by Mr. Krabs. It’s all quite deep. I like Spongebob. I think he’s the right mix, he’s the middle guy. He’s worried about his job, but he wants to make time for leisure and things like that.

He has a healthy work-life balance.

Mura Masa: What are we talking about?

The important stuff. I think a little essence of Spongebob is good to carry with you, that youthful spirit.

Mura Masa: Yeah, well it has to be said, Spongebob was created in that era, early nineties maybe? [Ed. note: it premiered in 1999]. A lot of people doing interviews with me now are really keen to know what I reckon about the Y2K aesthetic. I hate this term, because what it has come to represent is a complete flattening of the reasons behind those things. It’s turning it into kooky vector logos and cute little mascots. The reason that era is so interesting artistically and the vibe is so fun at the moment is because we’re talking—I mean really, if you want to get into it, pre-9/11, certainly. There was an optimism about the future. When people imagined the future, it was much more creative. Everything felt kind of alien, like anything could happen. But now when we think about the future, it’s Metaverse, climate change, masks. The future seemed much more exciting back then, and I think that’s really attractive to people right now. They want to imagine a future that isn’t totally scorched-earth. It makes sense to me that people are gravitating towards that time as a reference. I don’t like the whole squashing of it down. There’s reasons behind those choices.

It goes back to that inauthenticity. It’s adopting an aesthetic for capitalist gain to be achieved with it, without understanding the intentions or spirit behind it.

Mura Masa: They all get it wrong because they don’t understand the context around these things. It feels thin, and it feels just kind of empty.

I’m not gonna lie, I have been embracing the Y2K aesthetic because I was a traumatized child, so I get to re-live my childhood again the way I want to. That’s also fun.

Mura Masa: That is part of it! A lot of people our age and even a bit younger maybe are trying to re-experience the good things about that era. There are also younger people, like younger Gen Z-ers who are discovering those aesthetics for the first time. Whereas what we have now is going to Target in the Metaverse to shop for Bud Light, brought to you by Reebok.

You know what really f*cks me up about the Metaverse? It’s just a new Silicon Valley name for something that has been going on since chat rooms in the 90s. We’ve been doing Metaverse on Call Of Duty. But now they realize they can make money off of this, and sell weird digital clothes that they promise aren’t NFTs. It’s targeting a certain type of person who never knew what SecondLife was, basically.

You’re a big gamer?

Mura Masa: I’m looking at the pause screen of Legend of Zelda right now, so if I say no, it would taste like a lie.

Are you more of a Switch player?

Mura Masa: I’m a Switch guy, I’m a GameCube guy, I’m a PlayStation guy, I’m a PC guy.

GameCube?! Do you have an old GameCube?

Mura Masa: [proceeds to show me orange GameCube] It’s a pumpkin spice model that was only released in Japan.

Whoa. Tell me the story of how this came to be a fixture in your home.

Mura Masa: My older brother moved in with me earlier this year. We used to play our GameCube growing up a lot, so I wanted to revisit that nostalgia together. I found out about this pumpkin orange one and I was like… she will be mine. It has to be that one. So I was trawling eBay. I found a guy, he does mod chips, so it has all the games on it. You don’t need to change the disc or anything. Crazy vibes. A little Y2K.

You really are living that Y2K lifestyle. You’re giving Lizzie McGuire vibes right now.

Mura Masa: I know. I’m really Y2King my way through life. I’m basically Miley Cyrus at this time. Like an iCarly type beat. It’s been a beautiful, meandering river of a conversation. Just flowing around, carrying little stones and pebbles. It’s been great.

I hope you can take this pebble of conversation with you and carry it around wherever you go.

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