Photos by Matthew Parri Thomas
Alex Crossan is reminiscing about his misspent youth. It’s a familiar tale of hanging out, drinking on beaches and little else. “It was literally a simpler time because there’s not an awful lot to do there”, he tells me. “But because of that your friends and the people you grow up with have a weird unspoken bond. We have this cultish understanding of what it was like to live there.”
He needn’t explain the humdrum realities of living in a place where nothing ever happens to this provincial seaside town escapee. The 21-year-old producer, who goes by the name Mura Masa, grew up in Guernsey, a British crown dependency in The Channel Islands. Despite being physically disconnected from the mainland, with no discernible music scene on the island to involve himself in, Crossan, armed only with a good internet connection and a healthy curiosity for musical subcultures, has now amassed a huge online following, an army of A-List collaborators and is poised to release an exhilarating debut album that’s chock-full of summertime bangers. For Alex, his remote upbringing was fundamental in informing his perspective as a musician.
“Observing things from afar, you’re always going to get a different impression of what they actually mean, than if you’re physically present for them” he muses over Skype from his flat in Peckham. “I think I have an interesting, or original, take on some of the musical ideas because of that. It’s an important point about how proud I am to be from a place Guernsey and letting that be my identity rather than trying to run from it or anything.”
By the time Alex finally experienced club culture and underground movements up-close while studying in Brighton, he had already built a sizeable Soundcloud following and label interest. Rather than getting involved with the scene there, he says he mostly kept to himself. “I kinda stayed doing my own thing because I figured that’s what makes me special, this outsider status and skewed look at what was going on in music at the time” he explains. “I had this hunger to get to the heart and grit of music culture in the UK which, really, exists in London.”
And so he dropped out of his course and headed to the land of hopes and dreams, Brixton. His first few weeks were “horribly intimidating…I remember seeing all the different people out the window and all these different little cultures that were existing and I remember thinking it reminded me of some strange pirate port where everyone’s meeting in this weird middle place and that really stuck with me. But I learnt to love the chaos of it.”
London looms large over his eponymous debut album, which is loosely themed on a bus journey around the city, a carnival of sweltering sounds, breezy textures, shiny pop hooks and enough collaborators to sink a small canal boat; A$AP Rocky (‘Love$ick’), Christine & The Queens (‘Second 2 None’), Charli XCX (‘1 Night’), Desiigner (‘All Around The World’) and many more. For Crossan, the Gorillaz second album Demon Days and its collage-style approach to making an album was a big influence. “It flits around on the wings of different genres and has lots of different collaborators and flavours. It was great to have Damon Albarn on there (‘Blue’) as a reference to that.” What was he like to work with? “I was very intimidated by the concept of meeting Damon Albarn at first. But it’s one of those things…as soon as you meet him all the worry washes away and you’re just in his wonderful, friendly, open presence.”
Crossan’s luck didn’t run out there. Stormzy nicked one of his tunes to use on the opening cut of his album – without Alex knowing (“Yeah, that’s true”, he says with a laugh, as if he can’t believe it happened either). Kendrick Lamar dropped by to listen to some music and took a folder of his beats – perhaps to do a Stormzy later down the line. “I don’t want to over-blow the whole Kendrick thing too much because the truth of it is that I just happened to be in the studio across from him and he very kindly took a moment out of his day to come say hello and to listen to a few beats.” I can practically hear him blushing down the line. But neither compares to meeting his childhood heroes, Dick & Dom, down the pub. “Oh my god” he exclaims in an unintentionally hilarious Alan Partridge voice. “The best moment of my life!”
With such a diverse set of collaborators on his album, it’s impressive how cohesive the record comes across despite its rapid changes in styles. Most of the songs have one thing in common, Alex suggests. “The interesting thing that comes up a lot in my music is love, as a theme. It comes in all music – that’s what a lot of people are writing about – but when they work with me it happens to be romance.” Why? “I don’t know. Maybe what I do sonically is asking for it? I think all music is about people and how they feel, I guess, so it’s bound to be a common theme but I thought it was an interesting thing that again and again people talk about romance.”
How Crossan approaches artists in the first instance is “definitely targeted and an individual offering” he explains. “I’m not sending the same beat out to 20 different people and seeing who’s up for it. It’s always who I’m a huge fan of and would love to hear interpret those ideas.” And what if they come back with something you don’t like? “It’s just living with it for a while and trying to understand why they have made those choices and coming to terms with it and ending up loving it. But there are times when I think the lyrics could be stronger or have [a greater] depth, and in that case it’s about being honest with the person. Is this the best you can do, or is this a good representation of what you want to say?” How very…diplomatic. Previously, Crossan had admitted to feeling too inexperienced to write his own lyrics. “I’m so young…I probably don’t have much to talk about” he quipped. So what constitutes having something to say?
“I had this hunger to get to the heart and grit of music culture in the UK which, really, exists in London.”
“I think a really important message that exists right now in music culture is about race, gender and sexuality. Those are things that really need to be spoken about, now more than ever. I am a white, cis-gendered, straight male, so for me, trying to find something to talk about that isn’t personal or to do with relationships or emotion is difficult. Even with political messages, I just think there are better qualified people than me to speak on things like that. I think it’s wonderful as a producer to be able to take on people’s voices and be a platform, as a project, to talk about whatever they want to talk about.”
He might feel like an outsider looking in but as Mura Masa he’s created an inclusive and communal project, with songs that feel like a splash of cool water to a sun-kissed face. Given his trajectory so far, it makes you wonder whether Alex Crossan will be the outsider for much longer.