Pop Provocateur MNDR Takes on Cults and Clickbait Culture

Pop Provocateur MNDR Takes on Cults and Clickbait Culture

How do you begin to top an album as flawless as MNDR's 2012 effort, Feed Me Diamonds, packed with weirdo-pop anthems and a glamorous mantra that's gone on to become something of a queer mission statement years later?

For the music provocateur, this meant experiencing more than a decade of growth, from having a baby to co-writing for other artists (SOPHIE, Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen) and, through it all, becoming confident with her position as something of an outsider no longer chasing the charts.

"I needed to burn MNDR down for a while in order to re-create MNDR again from MNDR's ashes," she says.

Hell To Be You Baby, out now on WonderSound Records, is MNDR's triumphant follow-up, featuring collaborations with everyone from GIRLI and Empress Of to SSION and Mark Ronson. On it, her incredible understanding of pop melodies soars from start to finish, packing alt-electro production with dense ideas surrounding cults, our clickbait generation, and what it means to follow and be followed today.

Below, MNDR talks to PAPER about the enduring legacy of Feed Me Diamonds and how her latest album is a personal reflection of today's massive cult that is social media.

When you look back on Feed Me Diamonds, your incredible full-length from 2012, what're you most proud of about it?

I am most proud that people are still discovering Feed Me Diamonds and reach out to tell me how the songs helped them through a difficult time or were the soundtrack to a moment in their life. As an artist, that is humbling and all I can ever hope for. I've actually seen a lot of Feed Me Diamonds and MNDR tattoos and also get videos every day of drag queens all over the world performing "Feed Me Diamonds." It's been staggering to watch it become a classic in the drag community.

With Feed Me Diamonds, I really wanted to make an album that was timeless in sonics and writing. Ten years in, it looks like it is still connecting. I also can't believe how the phrase Feed Me Diamonds has transcended MNDR and is now in the pop culture lexicon. I see it used as a hashtag in ways completely unrelated to MNDR. That is insane, I'm deeply grateful for that. It's truly unreal to make a ripple in pop culture that transcends your own identity.

Which songs off that project do you think have withstood the test of time?

The songs from that era that have connected and still connect are "Feed Me Diamonds," "I Go Away," "Stay," TOKiMONSTA feat. MNDR "Go With It," and Mark Ronson feat. Q-Tip & MNDR "Bang Bang Bang." All of these songs changed my life in dramatically different ways. Each one had a moment that opened MNDR up to a wider audience, which has always been cool. I've never felt like I only exist in one space.

How do you think you've developed as an artist since releasing that album nearly a decade ago?

I have developed and changed so much since then. I wanted to become better at manifesting what I hear in my head into a song. I had that ability on piano and bass, but as a singer, songwriter and producer, I needed to just write and make music everyday unrelated to MNDR in order to grow — and that's what I did for nearly 10 years now. I definitely have done my 10,000 hours and then some. All of that time in the studio has made it easier to access my ideas and illustrate my feelings and emotions through lyric and melody. I needed to burn MNDR down for a while in order to re-create MNDR again from MNDR's ashes.

The MNDR sabbatical was productive in lots of ways. I won a Grammy for my feature "Like Water"on FLUME's album SKIN, and collaborated with everyone from Kylie Minogue, Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX, the iconic SOPHIE, Calvin Harris, Sean Paul and everyone in-between. It was cathartic to just put my head down and hone my craft. When MNDR started to emerge again, I found I could manifest what she was telling me into songs and truly into the concept album that is Hell To Be You Baby.

In what ways do you see that growth reflected in this forthcoming project?

A decade ago I was in a mad dash to pick up from the radio success of "Bang Bang Bang," and also trying to survive and navigate a crash course in the music business. Plucking a noise/ punk/ experimental Oakland, California touring musician and throwing her into the pop world was... intense, to say the least. After a decade of ups, downs, turns, sages, handstands and cartwheels, I finally feel like I have come into my own and made an album that reflects my feelings, influences, hopes and fears. MNDR has never been straightforward in concept, but definitely honest with emotions — pure uninhibited emotions. It's like you dove into my brain and explored all the different rooms and passages — a terrifying place to navigate. Honestly, my creative worlds have come full circle and I've put every version of MNDR into this album.

What themes did you find yourself exploring the most on this new album? I'm curious about your obsession with cults as it relates to pop music and pop stars.

Cults! Let's dig in, baby. I have always been obsessed with cults, from the early formation of the ancient Christian Church to Crowley all the way to NXIUM and everything in-between. I've always been fascinated with what makes people lose themselves in these situations. The relationship of cult leader to follower is really similar to that of musician to fan. For me, live shows can be the ultimate spiritual, religious and communal experiences as a performer and as an audience member. The connection can be out of body. The charismatic religious leader as pop star and vice versa.

Along with this obsession, I started to think about the cult of personalityin modern life and social media. A strikingly creepy resemblance to how we speak about religion, worship and cults. My followers. Are you a follower? I follow. Who do you follow? Add to that artificial intelligence, and now we have the ultimate "algorithm God" that we can all worship to gain more followership. I could go on and on and on.

Bringing these obsessions into Hell To Be You Baby was cathartic. I think the first song I wrote for Hell To Be You Baby, was "Cult Of Me." When you read the title, you're not sure who the "me" is. Am I talking about me, MNDR or is the "me" you, yourself? I love the double meaning. I wrote a couple more songs, and this culty theme emerged and I committed to it. From the opening song "Open," a song about subtle seduction into followership, to "Eyes Light Up," the feeling of transcended mediation, to "Hell To Be You Baby," my twisted love song to the opiate masses. Then ending the album with "Gone," which is my love song to my "followers" and my own mind.

What was the production and songwriting process like for you this time around? Did you work on any material during this past year and, if so, did that change anything?

Once I figured out the story and the point of view, the writing came quickly. Focusing the production and sound was in true MNDR style, not obvious and at times grueling. I've been writing and collecting songs and bits of songs and ideas since Feed Me Diamonds, and many of the songs that made Hell To Be You Baby were produced multiple times in different directions, mostly by Peter Wade, my creative partner in MNDR. I really wanted to have a cohesive sound reflecting my love of BIG BEAT, techno, pop and industrial music, and it didn't hurt that I also had Scott "Babydaddy" Hoffman from Scissor Sisters, who stepped in to help write, produce and focus the album with us.

One of the silver linings of the COVID era was that it gave me more time to dig around and polish up many of these songs. I was able to reach out to artists I wanted to have on this album like Tina Halladay from Sheer Mag, Choir Boy, Mark Ronson, Hudson Mohawke, Empress Of, SSION, Hirakish and GIRLI. I was also able to connect with RAC and TOKiMONSTA for some remixes.

Lockdown was productive in other ways as I was able to produce and write music for other artists over Zoom, and even in some instances created a pod with an artist and spent time together in the studio. Oh yeah, I also had a baby in February, 2020, so pretty much everything has changed.

"I needed to burn MNDR down for a while in order to re-create MNDR again from MNDR's ashes."

Do you enjoy the idea of creating music for the internet and a generation that grew up on click-bait culture? What're the pros and cons?

I love making music for the internet generation, as my project originally broke on MySpace and the blog scene. I am actually more excited than ever about making music in this era of Music 3.0. Living through so many changes in the music business has brought me full circle back to creating community, rather than myth. Although, don't get me wrong, pop stars are mythical creatures, mysterious and shiny, and clickbait will always be enticing.

However, I see a shift away from the demands of the algorithm God, and a pivot back to communities defined and nurtured by music, you know, like, music scenes? I've been finding lots of community on various Discord servers, where I can actually be more myself and not worry about glam or if I am looking good in selfies. I started my own server, called "Gakked On Gear," about music production and songwriting — things I'm interested in and are a big part of MNDR, but don't demand that I talk about myself ad nauseam to connect with people. I'm not just one note, I'm nuanced. Anyways, Music 3.0 reminds me of message board culture of the early 00's or even the charming era of hanging out at your local record store and going to shows. I need honest human connection and emotion to survive, and it's hard to cultivate that when posting "cool" or "hot" photos on social media with over-thought sassy copy.

As far as the pros and cons of it all, honestly, I don't really see music making or pop culture in a binary pros/ cons way. It shifts and breathes and lives at its own pace. Sometimes it allows us to jump in for a ride and sometimes it's snobbish and leaves us alone in the dirt.

How do you know when a pop song is relatable, but not boring or obvious? Mass, but still interesting and provocative?

When music is at its best it's a feeling and a vibe. I trust emotion over everything and don't believe people need to be spoon fed. There have been books written about how to "write a hit" and what the songwriting math requires, the horrific "7 C's" of songwriting (look it up if you don't know what I'm talking about). Every time someone thinks songs are a science, an artist like Right Said Fred comes out with "I'm Too Sexy" or Lil Nas X drops "Old Town Road" and flips everything on its head. "Hey Hey, My My" by Neil Young... hit song.

Why do you think Hell To Be You Baby is a proper umbrella title for this entire effort?

I don't think I've ever been able to put all of my emotions into one sentiment like this before. That said, this is an alternative electro-pop album, and well, let's not get too heavy. It is pop music after all.

Will modern society survive Twitter and its hamster wheel of hot takes and cancellations?

Well we're still here for now and maybe this is just the great paradigm shift humanity needs. Hopefully the planet will not kill us all before we all figure it out. For now, I just want to connect and help, and if you're stuck in that hamster wheel and can't get out? Then it must be Hell To Be You Baby.

Photography: Kevin Tachman
Art: Ted Mineo
Hair: Kim Gueldner
Makeup: Samantha Lau