Mura Masa, the London-based producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist — who counts marquee names like A$AP Rocky and Charli XCX to his credit — may be an innovative curator of cool now, but his story didn't start that way.
The 22-year-old musician (real name: Alex Crossan) grew up in Guernsey, a small, English Channel island off the coast of Normandy, France. There, he says, there wasn't much culture but what he identified as an emergent punk scene.
While it was a type of inspiration, Crossan hungered for more exposure to more vibrant scenes. He discovered electronic music at an early age, and starting sending bedroom mixes of songs he put on Soundcloud to underground music blogs before packing up, moving to London, hiring a manager, and booking gigs. It was there, Crossan says, that he immersed himself in the music and art that brought his creative vision full circle.
His stage name Mura Masa was adopted as an homage to Japanese folklore he grew up fascinated with. "He's this mythical swordsmith character who has the sharpest blades," Crossan says. "Every time he draws one of his swords, he has to kill someone before putting it away. It's very Tarantino in that aspect."
Musically, Crossan is just as fierce as his stage name might suggest, albeit more approachable. He paints bright, buoyant pictures onto the bigger canvas of left-of-center R&B, fusing muscular electronic arrangements and deep house grooves with the accessibility of pop.
His taste in choosing a diverse and colorful array of song collaborators — from the aforementioned Rocky and Charli to French-pop mastermind Christine and the Queens and everyone's favorite sister band, HAIM — was expertly exemplified on his self-titled debut album, which arrived last summer.
PAPER sat down with Crossan to chat about his new music — while continuing to defy pop boundaries, he's exploring more punk roots these days, in line with the world's fraught political climate and ongoing digital obsessions — being in the driver's seat, meeting your idols, and the difficulty of writing "easy" pop. Read on and stream his new single with R&B auteur Nao, "Complicated," below.
Let's talk about the new single with Nao. How did that come about?
We're actually really good friends, and we're always seeing each other but we don't work with each other as often as some best friends do even though she's in London, too. We don't work together that often but when we do, we try to make it really worthwhile.
It seems like it's about navigating someone's flaws. There's interest, but they're not as available as you would like them to be because they have walls up or they have stuff going on.
She was going through some complicated romantic things at the time when she wrote, and just speaking to her at the time really informed me of what the song was about and I actually helped her write the second verse, it was really nice. It wasn't just her experience, it was mine, too, but she really shines through. It felt really good to be part of it.
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"The really interesting ideas are usually pop ideas, and yet, how can something so complex be so universal?"
Music that works in a remote pop framework can sound really easy but the ideas presented are not. I can hear that there are complex ideas in the music and in the lyrics, but it sounds easy.
You've really nailed the essence of great pop music. Where it has to sound effortless and has to be really easy to listen to, and has to glide. This is the most I've ever worked on a song. If you go on my laptop there is a "Complicated," version #69, "Complicated," version #80. Version 30 is full of ideas and very complicated. It took me forever to figure out what the song was really about. It was literally complicated.
People don't always realize how hard it is to write a pop song.
It's interesting for me because I have such left-field taste, and people are always surprised to hear what kind of music I listen to, and think I just listen to the Top 40 or whatever. The really interesting ideas are usually pop ideas, and yet, how can something so complex be so universal?
So this song with Nao, is it sort of the first taste of your new album?
I just started the album a few weeks ago. But whatt I'm doing this summer is just creating standalone moments and riding the gap between the first album and whatever comes next. They're standalone things, but I think the next album will be a bit stranger if I get it right.
The first album is very accessible but it also explores the fringes of R&B. What direction do you feel you're headed in?
Yeah, basically I make music that I listen to and all I have been listening to at the moment has been mad left-field, electronic stuff. I think I learned that coming up quite weird. I'm doing lots of fun stuff like working with orchestras and just trying to make it more expansive. Make it more interesting.
Do you feel like you may want to sing more on this next record?
Yeah, I sang on a couple of songs on the first album. It depends on how nostalgic I'm feeling. If I'm thinking more about childhood, then maybe I do have some stuff to say about that. It depends how the record shapes up. I wouldn't say I have any desire to put myself at the front of the project or anything. It would be more that if I had anything to say that no one else could.
When you were making the first album, what was inspiring you?
Living in London, basically because I come from a super small place called Guernsey, and it's just like all white people and there is no electronic music or clubs. There's nothing. So moving to London from that was just like finally there are all types of people all cultures. In that sense, the albums very expansive genre wise. Mainly living in London, really.
Past collaborators for your productions include ASAP Rocky, Charli XCX, and Christine and the Queens. When you're making music, do you always have a vocalist in mind?
I would say, it's the first thing you said where I would make something and then be like Nao would sound really good on this, but it's always a really bespoke process. It's not like I'm sending out 20 things to 20 different people and asking them to just pick one. It's kind of like "I need ASAP Rocky on this track," let's spend a year tracking down trying to get him on it.
Do you feel like it's hard getting the people you want or its gotten easier?
It's gotten easier but really, Rocky was the first turning point. He was the first A-list person who was like, "I'll take a chance on this kid." And then after that, things just fell into place.
And you're self-taught? How did you pick this up and realize this was what you wanted to do?
I was in a punk band at the time that was the only scene that was really around in Guernsey, hard core and punk. At the same time, I was spending a lot of time on the internet during the birth of like YouTube and Soundcloud. That's how I got into electronic music. It's because there was none of that around me, so I had to see it through the Internet. That, and I guess the idea of the curatorial role in music, you can create something using a lot of resources, that's what kind of got my interest.
Were there people that you gravitated towards?
James Blake was a good one. Around the time his first album came out, because I didn't really understand like what electronic music was, and if you had asked me what electronic music was, I would have just said it's just for dancing and just for people in clubs on drugs and it totally is but if you look at the other side of it, that is really nuanced and emotional. He was the first voice I heard doing that and it was really amazing, and also Gorillaz to a certain extent, because it's a mix of everything and it's a lot like electronic and then I got on to work with [lead vocalist of Gorillaz] Damon [Albarn] which was crazy.
Yeah, what was that like?
It just felt spiritually strange. But you know how people will say like "oh yeah, I met Jesus in a dream and he was so normal, I felt so safe." It was like that. I went into it like "oh my god this guy is from Blur, he's done Broadway," and then he just comes in with a joint in his mouth and he's like "are you alright," and he made me a tea.
I feel like you're in a position now were you get to meet a lot of people you admire.
I try not to, unless I know that they enjoy my work and I enjoy theirs, and there is a reason for us to meet. Because it's like, if you're just trying to be thirsty and meet people, it's obvious. Like if Bowie is at a party then maybe you say hey because he's a legend, but if its someone you want to work with, eventually you want to really meet them under the right circumstances.It has to be organic otherwise the music you end up making together might sound stilted.
"So many people have talent, opportunity, and great ideas, but one thing that you absolutely need, without question, is vision."
When did you make your first beat?
16, it was really just this awful dumpster thing [laughs]. But I think it's been buried.
You couldn't find it?
I couldn't and I would love to hear it. It had a Robin Williams sample in it to. You know he did that movie, Good Morning Vietnam. That was when I was 16, but the first more massive track I did was at 17 or 18, and I would send it out to little blogs that I read and be like "What do you think? Is this something you'd listen to?" And every time they'd be like "eh, I'm not going to post about it."
What was the turning point?
I had a little of an online following, like just from my bedroom. And I remember going to my hairdresser at the time and my hairdresser was like a DJ, and I told him I made music, and had a Soundcloud with 10,000 followers or something and he was like "cool, where did you buy the followers" and I told him I didn't, which is true. And as soon as I started thinking about music-making as an opportunity to make a living, it seemed obvious to me that getting a manager and moving away from my home, and getting closer to the culture I wanted to be part of were the only logical next steps. That, and ejecting myself from being on the Internet, because so many people get trapped into that. Like, you're viral and have 100 million views but when you put a show on, you can't sell 20 tickets.
How do you think artists can translate online followings into real audiences who'll actually pay to see them live?
You can do a lot of stuff now without that infrastructure of the industry, but what we don't have a solution for is just the real world money. It's expensive to put on a show and it's expensive to do advertising in the real world. Every artist that's like, "I'm independent," they always have money from someone else, even if it's not a major label, they always have some kind of funding coming from somewhere.
There doesn't appear to be a large team operating in the shadows behind you. Am I wrong?
I think you're right. I cut it down to this: so many people have talent, opportunity, and great ideas, but one thing that you absolutely need, without question, is vision. You need to know what it is you want to do and you need to be able to tell people "not that way, this way." Because otherwise you're going to get steered around. One thing I always do is make sure that every decision is approved by me. It has to bounce off me, every creative decision.
For your next album, do you feel like there's any point you're going to dig into your punk roots for inspiration?
I think so, and if for no other reason, for our climate politically. You can see it happening in rap music especially. It's like a knee-jerk response almost to dig into the spirit of punk.
While we are on the topic of punk and resistance, Is there anything on your mind these days as you're making your new record, whether it be something happening politically or otherwise that you feel is important to express?
I think in America, in a simple and broad sense, what has inspired me to make music at the moment is this kind of halcyon idea of the good old days or whatever and there's more and more of that recently because things are getting so bad. I think for my next project, whatever that is, I want to explore how those memories are processed these days in a digital way. There's a way of remembering 1996, which is blurry photos and beautiful colors, and there are only so many resources you have to do that. Now, millions of photos are taken every second and are we going to be able to look back at this time favorably, or is there too much information?
Photography: Lillie Eiger