The 23-year old producer’s second album, ‘Raw Youth Collage’ is the confusing, perfect soundtrack for our existential crisis.
It’s getting to be dinnertime when Alex Crossan, professionally known as Mura Masa, hops on the phone with me. In the wake of releasing Raw Youth Collage, his second album, the 23-year-old multidisciplinary artist isn’t in too much of a rush. Crossan takes his time to parse through his thoughts, tying up loose ends in his answers on everything from the perils of careerism to his Twitter avatar.
Slightly sardonic, his sense of humor hints at the casual listlessness found in songs like “No Hope Generation” and “Vicarious Living Anthem.” His vocal delivery throughout the album, wry and earnest in turn, is powered by a vulnerability incisive enough to shed insight on his worldview, even if the direct source of his discontent remains amorphous. Yet, Crossan sounds freer than ever, not only because of the artistic risk he’s taken, but because of how fulfilling it was to do so. Based largely around nostalgia, this album sees Crossan mining his past for inspiration without becoming bogged down in it, choosing only to touch on those most memorable moments. Among other things, that meant thumbing through fashion archives from the late ‘90s and recalling his then-naive view of UK club culture as a kid from Guernsey, an island in the English Channel.
This former naivety doesn’t concern Crossan. He thinks coming to terms with a largely manufactured view of the past is something we’re all burdened with. Having accepted that memory is an unreliable narrator, he’s looking forward to the tension of presenting a new version of himself on tour with a new band. It’s all part of the indeterminate nature of art and life. Throughout Raw Youth Collage and our conversation, Crossan grapples with his uncertain future while relishing in moments of joy and hope, like dancing on a razor’s edge.
Jordan Levy: You’ve spoken at length about how, after the release of your first album, you felt typecasted. I was wondering if that essentialist view can be mirrored in the essentialism that you talk about in terms of nostalgia on the new album.
Alex Crossan: Um, yeah. Definitely, whether I knew it or not, on the first album, there was a sense of trying to capture some sort of joy from the past. On the second album, I just wanted to lean more heavily into that as a concept, and have it inform the music a lot more. That’s why I think this album is quite sonically different from the first one.
Jordan: It had more acoustic elements, especially guitar, but a lot of the dance background creeps in through the drum patterns, through the synth and the pads being used. How did it feel melding those two styles? Was it a matching of older practices to newer things for you?
Alex: I think I consciously didn’t want to make something that felt like a pastiche of rock music or guitar music. I wanted to try and take what I’d done and twist it into this narrative of music that I grew up with. So it was a bit of a challenge trying to marry those two elements, but I just wanted to do it subtly and without anybody noticing.
Jordan: I feel that, and I know you were Grammy-nominated for the creative direction and packaging of your first album, which very few artists, I feel, have such a strong hand in. That ties, I think, to the PDFs you were talking about sending to the album’s featured artists. Why do you like to work in these visual mediums?
Alex: I think I’m just a visual learner. I spend a lot of my time drawing and physically illustrating things. One of the first things I do when I’m trying to create an album or more full-bodied work is come up with the artwork. That was the same with this album as well, and yeah I did create the sort of strange PDFs, it’s kind of like a brief document or a visual guide. It had a bit of writing in there as well, and a few references, musical references. More than anything else I think it helps with the worldbuilding of the album.
Jordan: I was thinking about the tones on the cover. I don’t even know what to call it, it seems like a tinted gray and a red that stands out. Why those colors, and how did you figure that typeface touched on aspects of nostalgia?
Alex: The Pantone shade is called Warm Grey. It felt like a big, empty gray square would be a good representation of how a lot of people feel about right now. But with this warm tint to it, kind of an orange tint. The red was this really interesting pop, a color that I had seen on a Raf Simons shirt. One thing I did, when I was coming up with the visual stuff for the album, was buying a bunch of archive books from designers that I liked, fashion designers. I used that as a jumping-off point. I tried to use collections from either before I was born or around the time I was born, ultimately leaning into the nostalgia thing.
As far as the type goes, I wanted to use pixel art, because I grew up playing a lot of video games. It’s something that struck a weird chord with me in terms of visual style. I also like the pointillism of pixel art, how it’s a lot of small things building this larger image, which I think people do in their own heads with memories and good times. That’s what nostalgia is, I think.
Jordan: Any specific designer whose work evokes that era for you?
Alex: The main reference is, I guess, is that Raf Simons shirt. I forget what year it’s from, I think it’s ‘95 or ‘96, which is around the time I was born. The shirt says ‘Razor’ on it and has this heather gray base and this graphic on it with red and a sick purple. The purple was another potential direction, but I ended up going with the red.
Jordan: Now this isn’t a perfect analogy or comparison, but you’ve spoken a lot about how your nostalgia was informed by watching the UK club scene from a distance in Guernsey. It reminded me of how I felt watching New York City spaces growing up in New Jersey. Do you think that initial distance affects how you move and how you approach different spaces that you longed for, for a long time, and now have access to?
Alex: Yeah, definitely. Maybe you’ll relate to this feeling, but having been so far away from a cultural hub, when I moved to London I felt like an outsider and I didn’t really understand how to move or how to have good taste and those kinds of things [laughs]. But eventually, I came to realize that being an outsider actually gives you such a better perspective than people who grow up insularly inside of those scenes. It helps me be a bit of a disrupter, I think, or just have a bit of an outside perspective that maybe is new to the scene. So now I think it’s actually one of my greatest strengths, that I can observe these things from a distance.
Jordan: Speaking of New York, you were just here with Slowthai to perform on Jimmy Fallon. How was that experience?
Alex: [laughs] Yeah it was very … Well, I think the performance kind of speaks for itself. I try not to put too much thought into it, try not to be very pre-cognizant of what happened. We didn’t rehearse very much, but intentionally so, to kind of get away from the sterility of the TV performance setting. I think, even though the performance is quite rough and ready, it’s actually pretty exciting. Ty obviously does his thing, and my band is this group of kids from the UK—and one from New Jersey actually—and they’re really young. It’s good to inject a bit of uncertainty and nervous energy into that setting.
Jordan: I know you started out playing the bass, and I was wondering if there are any bassists who specifically influence how you make music? Did starting out on that instrument help you learn more about music?
Alex: Yeah I think so. I think the interesting thing about bass—bass guitar or bass as a frequency range—is that it’s as much about what isn’t there as what is there. The more you can leave out, the bigger that moment is when the bass comes in. It’s like it’s an instrument of restraint and picking a moment.
Jordan: You knew, coming into this whole process of putting out this project, that there would be a sharp turn from what was expected. So, how do you feel about the reception?
Alex: I feel good. I feel like, by and large, people really enjoy this direction. I was surprised at how unbothered people were at the massive shift in direction—it feels like a massive shift in direction for me, at least. I’ve been pretty thrilled with the reception, although this time, I’ve tried not to pay too much attention to it, because I made this album for me, specifically.
Jordan: I’ve spoken to artists in the past who talked about fans feeling a sense of obligation, and I feel like social media always amplifies these sorts of things, where the parasocial relationship can become harmful. Have you ever experienced that? Feeling like there are people out there clamoring for music without considering that it has to be organic to be worth releasing in the first place?
Alex: Yeah, I think there’s actually an existential crisis in music right now, as far as how often you’re supposed to release music and what’s supposed to be the motivation for releasing music. I think, within this system, artists are rewarded the more music they drop, but that often comes with a sacrifice in quality. It’s a difficult line to walk, obviously. You want to be successful as a musician and you want people to be able to hear as much work as possible. But at the same time, people are listening too much now, to the point where you can’t really say anything without people expecting [a new release] next week, you know?
Jordan: I’m glad I’m not in that situation, I’ll put it like that. To go to the weirder side of things, your Twitter avi is a pic of Björk with a gun … I just want to know the inspiration behind that.
Alex: [laughs] Um yeah, I think I realized about a year ago, if you’re not using social media semi-ironically, you’re sort of using it wrong. I think if you take it really seriously and regard it as a true extension of the world, and you think it’s supposed to be an accurate representation of you as a real person, that can be really damaging. I just think a sense of irony, of tongue-in-cheekiness, on social media, is what makes it so special. That’s just a very ‘deep’ way to say I thought the Björk photo was funny [laughs].
Jordan: I feel like social media isn’t a mode of communication that’s really welcoming to reinvention. I don’t want to call that a theme of your album, but it’s definitely an aspect of the music. How do you feel about making an about-face at a time like this?
Alex: Weirdly, in a way, it’s easier now to just completely turn on your heels, and change everything about your artistic output, than it was in the past. The way that information and culture is structured on the internet is so open-ended. Barriers for taste and boundaries between different types of art and different genres are kind of melting away. I think that’s something we’re seeing particularly with young people, they don’t really care about the origin of something so much, they don’t care about what box it’s supposed to fit in. It’s about what it says to them and how it makes them feel.
Jordan: You talk about how there’s this general sense of—not malaise, but cognitive dissonance, confusion, looking to the past to escape the future. I think one of the ways that you’ve approached it, from social media to music, is just taking expectations less seriously, and taking the narrative that people have made for you less seriously. But also, I think people of our generation are explicitly taught to be careerists. How do you reconcile those two things?
Alex: I think the ultimate act of reconciliation is trust—trust in your own instincts. I think joy is an act of rebellion, or a way of being against a worldview that forces us to feel anxious all the time. The ultimate act against those kinds of things is just to trust in yourself and step away from that kind of social system. But as a community, not in an individual and isolating way, if that makes any sense.
Jordan: Trying to have that sense of joy, and acceptance of some things you might not like, is easier in the context of a community. So to round things out, let’s talk about the music community a little bit. Who are some artists you’re looking forward to hearing from this year or in the near future?
Alex: That’s a good question. I’ve really enjoyed watching Rosalía—watching what’s happening to her and how she straddles the line between universally loved pop star and cutting-edge, avant-garde flamenco artist. I just think the way she makes music is boundary-pushing and uncompromising, which is so rare these days. There’s this band in the UK called Black Country, New Road, and they’re just my favorite fucking band. I went to see them a couple weeks ago and had the best time. I can’t really describe the music, you should just go and listen to it.
Fashion Assistants Zarina Nares and Claire Kelly.