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Before 'Hrs and Hrs,' Muni Long spent years and years working for others

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week we've been bringing you the stories of this year's first-time Grammy nominees. And today we're ending our series right here in Los Angeles with artist Muni Long.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HRS AND HRS")

MUNI LONG: (Vocalizing).

CHANG: Long is up for three Grammys this weekend - best new artist and best R&B performance and best R&B song for her track "Hrs And Hrs."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HRS AND HRS")

LONG: (Singing) Yours, mine, ours. I could do this for hours, sit and talk to you for hours.

CHANG: When we met her a few weeks ago in Beverly Hills for a late lunch, a black Mercedes sprinter van pulled up in front of the Italian restaurant.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

CHANG: Out came Muni Long's photographer, her glam squad. More and more people kept spilling out of this van. And then there was Muni in a plunge black and white mini dress and chunky white shades.

Hi.

LONG: Hello.

CHANG: I'm Ailsa.

LONG: Hi, Ailsa - nice to meet you.

CHANG: Really nice to meet you. I love your sunglasses.

LONG: Thank you.

CHANG: Her go-to dish here was already waiting for her - wood-grilled chicken and arugula.

I assume one of your favorite dishes.

LONG: Yes. Hey. Can I just have a Coca-Cola, please?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Absolutely.

LONG: Do you have Mexican Coke?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I don't, unfortunately.

LONG: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It comes in a can.

LONG: Thank you.

CHANG: Wait. Did you just say Mexican Coke?

LONG: There's Mexican Coke in the bottle.

CHANG: Oh.

LONG: They use real sugar.

CHANG: Oh.

LONG: So it tastes different.

CHANG: You can get that in LA anywhere almost.

LONG: Yeah. You just have to ask. You have to specifically ask for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOLLHOUSE")

LONG: (Singing) I'm just a girl. You're just a boy.

CHANG: Long moved to LA 12 years ago. And at that point, she had just dropped her poppy debut album "Jukebox" recording under her birth name, Priscilla Renea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOLLHOUSE")

LONG: (Singing) I tried to be a picture-perfect girl. But you were in your own fantasy world.

CHANG: And then over the next decade, she parlayed her pop hooks into a songwriting career, co-writing tracks for artists like Rihanna and Mariah Carey and this song by Ariana Grande.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IMAGINE")

ARIANA GRANDE: (Singing) Staying up all night. Order me pad thai. Then we gone sleep till noon.

CHANG: In 2018, she put out an album of original songs also as Priscilla Renea. But this time the album had a country soul feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GENTLE HANDS")

LONG: (Singing) I don't mean to interfere if it's not in your plan. But I want a big, strong man with gentle hands.

CHANG: Her albums never hit big. And the songwriting left her unfulfilled.

LONG: I never wanted to be a songwriter. I only did it so that I could eat. The way songwriters get treated, the way they get stolen from, the way they get abused, really - I had many, many days where I was, like - you know, I used to do this thing where I would take out the ice tray from the refrigerator and throw the ice and break it because it gives you the same effect of breaking a glass. Before, when I was a lesser evolved being, I would literally just, ah, you know, just to get out that frustration. I did that many, many times. Like, driving through the canyons, driving the PCH, crying with the windows down - like, I've done that. And eventually it's like, OK, what else?

CHANG: What else? Well, she said it was time to make a clean break with her old career and reinvent herself as Muni Long.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME MACHINE")

LONG: (Singing) Eventually, the good girls make bad decisions, like f****** with the bad boys.

I think on the outside looking in, most people see one path, but I see multiple timelines where I've jumped. So, like, Muni Long has always been here. The way that I interpret myself now is this piece of me that was kind of tucked away and hidden for so long finally now gets the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME MACHINE")

LONG: (Singing) Rearrange history, get rid of some of these memories - anything that ain't serving me. I wish I had a time machine, go back to when you lied to me.

CHANG: Well, tell me who Muni Long is. Like, tell me. How did you pick the name Muni Long?

LONG: So I read a lot. And I was studying up on this ancient sage named Muni, who sat for weeks and reached a state of nirvana in meditation. And I was sharing this story with my husband. And he was like, that name is dope, but you should pronounce it money. And I was like, hmm (ph). And so I adopted the name Muni. And then my team was like, Muni needs a last name. So I'm going through all these - you know, Muni Gold, Muni Jones, Muni - like, all these things. And then I heard the 2 Chainz song - hair long, money long. I was like.

CHANG: Yes.

LONG: That's it - Muni Long.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M DIFFERENT")

2 CHAINZ: (Rapping) Hair long, money long. Yeah. Me and broke b****** - we don't get along. I paid a thousand dollars for my sneakers.

CHANG: I mean, because you've created music in so many different parts of the industry, I'm wondering, like, how your vantage point within the industry has changed. Like, how would you compare being a Black woman in the pop world versus being a Black woman in country versus now being a Black woman in R&B?

LONG: At one point, I did feel like - you know, I did have people tell me, nobody wants to see a brown-skin, big-butt, big-nose Black girl singing pop music. R&B will never be pop. I heard all these things, right? But "Hrs And Hrs" blew up in the fourth quarter from a 33-year-old independent Black woman in R&B, all things that people said were reasons why it would never work. But it's just about, like, keeping your energy small, meaning protect it. You know, dream big, but don't run around telling everybody your ideas because they'll chip away at it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HRS AND HRS")

LONG: (Singing) I could do this for hours, sit and talk to you for hours. I want to give you your flowers and some champagne showers.

CHANG: "Hrs And Hrs" - this is, of course, the one that got two of the three Grammy nominations. This song is clearly about being deeply in love. Tell me the story behind it.

LONG: I thought I was in love many times before. But I'm a Virgo, and, like, we hate everything and everybody. And, like, once I met my husband and - like, nothing that he does annoys me or gets on my nerves...

CHANG: Really?

LONG: ...Except for, like, he...

CHANG: How long have you been married?

LONG: He touches my stuff sometimes. And I don't like that.

(LAUGHTER)

LONG: We've been married for eight years, and I think just, like, I've never had intimacy before. And so I think everybody deserves at least once in their life to know what that feels like. I think also, too, because it came at the end of the first lockdown - and so the song came at a time where people really were not afraid to say, I want to be loved.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HRS AND HRS")

LONG: (Singing) When I met you, when I met you, I knew this is it. I've never been in love like this.

CHANG: So what now, then, for Muni Long?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUNI LONG SONG, "THE WORDS")

CHANG: Like, is she going to stay in the R&B space? Or is her next record going to be something way different again? Or has Muni Long found her thing?

LONG: If anything, the success of "Hrs" has taught me, like, definitely pay attention to the God whisper. And I pay attention to what my supporters are asking me for. I pay attention to what is missing in the marketplace, and I try my best to fill that void. So I'll do what's needed.

CHANG: What does Muni need?

LONG: As long as I get to keep expressing myself without limitation, that's really it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WORDS")

LONG: (Singing) Oh, the words, the words, the words, the words, the words, the words, the words, the words.

CHANG: Artist and musician Muni Long. Thank you so much. This was such a pleasure.

LONG: Thank you - pleasure's all mine.

CHANG: And I'm glad you got a meal in, too.

LONG: I know. I'm going to get a box for that chicken.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WORDS")

LONG: (Singing) Don't put your pride in the way. And I really hate when it's B-I-T-C-H. So don't call me out my name. If I could turn back time, I would go to the night you hurt me first. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.