Mikal Cronin: Amazed and Confused

The singer-songwriter talks about his new album and figuring life out.

Mikal Cronin // Photo by Nina Corcoran

Photograph by Nina Corcoran

As Mikal Cronin approaches 30, he’s just now beginning to make sense of things. To press play on any of his three solo albums is to pore over a flip book full of photographs he’s collected over the last few years. When I call him, he’s quick to admit that a few of those photos still need to be developed: “I always thought when I turned 30, I’d have it all figured out,” he says. His voice grows softer. “But I’m not going to figure all my shit out by December.”

Over the last four years, Cronin has been laying down bare-bones garage punk and pop records, a signature style that immediately implies an unsettled, distressed DIY singer-songwriter. That assumption was pretty much spot on before Cronin’s excellent forthcoming album, MCIII, due out May 5th. The artist who sang, “I learn hard, I’m tired, I’m sick, I’m broke up” on his second album’s closing track, says he’s overcome enough of life’s knocks to live to tell his coming-of-age story and now sings, “I’ve been lucky enough to find love of a different kind.”

While I completely appreciate his previous work, MCIII is the first to genuinely connect with me. Playing everything but the horns and strings, Cronin’s new part-concept record is invariably hypnotic with melodramatic buildups shading lighter tones, feeling like its own little atmosphere ready and able to be lived in. It’s the kind of progression that makes you look back and listen to all of his older work with renewed insight and a whole lotta gratitude.

The record speaks to the people who have felt alienation in their lives, the ones who are amazed and confused, capturing ideas of possibility while balancing it all on a curve of intimate confessionals and bittersweet wonder. Let’s crawl inside and live it a little as we speak to Cronin about the new record, control, and being ruined by a twitter-egg.


mikal cronin

I’ve been listening to your new album, and while certain music warrants more than one environment, I chose to keep it in my ears walking around the city.

I do a lot of walking, too! So that’s really nice to hear. I do a lot of writing in my head while walking, so that makes sense.

Are you always writing?

Yeah, if I’m in the thick of it, recording and writing, then it never really stops. It’s just roaming through my head all the time.

But what was your “this is it” moment when you decided that you wanted to be a full-time musician?

I never expected that I could do it full-time, you know. That wasn’t the big plan. Years ago I had the realization that writing songs, recording, and playing shows would make me the happiest. I was playing DIY shows at house parties, and eventually someone wanted to release a 7-inch single. I was amazed and confused, and it gradually became my life over time.

Is it weird classifying yourself when people ask you to reflect on your journey so far?

Yeah, I feel like I pull from whatever genre of music I’m interested in, which is a pretty wide net, so I try not to adapt to one kind of genre.

You’ve often got a pretty wide net of other artists around you too. Has there ever been a moment where you thought about just being in a band?

Well, I get satisfaction from being a bass player in Ty Segall’s band because I don’t like the focus on me all the time. I really like having a couple of different musical projects at the same time.

So then, is MCIII the final installment of an MC trilogy? Narrative-wise, your self-titled debut was about that twilight zone between finishing college and the real world, and MCII finds you in a crisis about getting older. So where are you now?

Well, as far as if it’s the end of a trilogy, I don’t know! It just evolved when I was writing that record and became clear that I was dealing with similar themes. These three albums have become a chronicle of my 20s. It would be interesting to get some years between these and see it as a document of where I’m at now.

How old are you now by the way?

Twenty-nine, turning thirty at the very end of this year.

Ooo, I’m also an ‘85 baby! I feel like the Incredible Hulk but with emotions, like it’s never-ending growing and feeling, so it’s funny that you say you’ve been writing so much because these are the years when the most shit happens.

Oh god, yeah, at least in my part, it’s been such a process with everything changing all the time. Nothing is ever stable, but now I’m starting to figure things out. It’s just about gaining experience and knowing what to do with it. All my friends are my age, and we’re all going through similar things in different circumstances, and that helps.

But within the existential meltdowns that humans have with aging, it’s still important to ask, What in the actual fuck is happening, and why am I feeling or not feeling? I suppose that’s the best thing about your album: you’ve shared your diary thoughts.

I kinda wish I kept a diary, you know. I start from the point of my own experiences, which are sometimes heavy and difficult to understand, and then I step back out of myself and find universal, relatable aspects of it.

So you don’t feel the full weight of it?

Definitely, and it’s like that in my personal life. I start to realize it’s not all about me. You just learn better ways to deal with it.

But also if you don’t have your shit together, that’s okay too. There’s no time limit. Back in the day, the expectation of “30” was pre-packaged.

I always thought when I turned 30, I’d have it all figured out, but I’m not going to figure all my shit out by December.

[Laughs] The phrase on your press release describing MCIII as a “coming-of-age story” was quite striking. Even if you feel lost, you still have the perspective to tell that story.

Oh definitively, and that’s referring to the second side of the record – the concept record. It’s about a time when I was 19 or 20, that, in retrospect, I’m realizing was the important time in my life. Looking back on it now, I can kind of contextualize what happened and find the positive in it. It’s like a moment in my life that was totally unexpected but changed my path to the direction that I’m still in now.

There are songs on both sides that mirror each other. Some of the A-sides act like alarms set to wake the B-sides up. The last track on the A-side, “I’ve Been Loved”, pairs really well with the last track on the B-side, “Circle”, and in both, you speak about similar things.

I like those two a lot. It’s nice you picked those out. That’s the fun part – making sure all parts fit together. There’s similar themes on both sides, but it just kinda happened from two different perspectives that are years apart.

You tackle some difficult themes but cushion them with a hopeful temperament, too.

That’s the thing. I listen to a lot of music, especially on my first record, and I like a song when you can listen to it, and it can be one mood, but if you pay close attention, it shifts in mood. A lot of big stars’ songs are like that.

Like the Beach Boys.

One of the saddest records I have ever heard is Pet Sounds. So bright and nice, but if you listen closer…

What’s that saying, “happiness writes white?” When you’re really depressed, you write the best stuff, but when you’re happy, it’s a blank page. But what’s always so interesting is when you invite other musicians in while you’re creating that darker work.

Even now, I’m interpreting the B-sides with four other musicians, and it’s bringing them to a different place. It’s difficult to give up aspects of control in a recording process, which is why I mostly play all the instruments myself. I feel like I need that control, but once you find the way to do it, it’s really satisfying, like some of the songs are better than the way I recorded it. It’s a little scary? Hopefully people like it and relate to it, because I really do.

Is there any song in particular that you might have wrangled with?

[Laughs] It’s funny you ask that now. There’s a song on the B-side called “Control”, which is taken directly from my experience. It’s a true story about what actually happened to me, so doing that was scary. I grappled with it for a long time

What was the experience?

It’s me in a very low point, losing my mind and driving far distances for no real reason. I came back into town and found a dying cat on the road hit by a car, so I picked it up, took it to the vet, and it was put down while I held it. I felt it going. It’s a comically dark thing in my life. In retrospect, it turned things around for me because it was a hard, but formidable time. These experiences directly changed my path for the rest of my life.

What made this the right time to share this story?

I had the idea for a long time to write a concept record, and then finally I was looking back at my life to find a personal coming-of-age story. I hadn’t even shared this with any loved ones before. It was such a weird time in my life that I pushed it to the back of my mind and then thought, “Shit, man. I need to make a bold move.” I was scared the entire time.

To go through that process must have been terrifying, but think of how many people have also driven down roads for no reason and will probably do so while listening to your music.

I’m okay now, but it took a long time. If someone can listen and say they had their own moment and it can help someone — I’m not saying it would — but records I’ve listened to have helped me, so hopefully people can have a similar experience with my music. Ideally, I want to make music that is important to people, as important as it is to me.

And back in the day, we’d listen to music, then tell our mates about it, and that was the story locked in our heads. Now you put it on the Internet, and it becomes this breathing digital archive

But there are a lot of positives to that kind of access to music. I remember my first tour of Europe. I had never been there and didn’t even know my record was over there? I show up, and there’s a lot of people, and that’s unbelievable to me that people miles away have easy access to something I recorded in my bedroom.

That’s certainly the best side of it, but it’s predominantly a war zone out there

YouTube comments are the worst part of the Internet

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen lately?

You hear stories almost every day of somebody getting publicly shamed by some comment they shouldn’t have made. Then all of a sudden their lives are over. It’s crazy.

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Photograph by Amanda Koellner

We’re the generation of lives ruined by a Twitter egg.

[Laughs] Or 14-year-olds? Seems like there’s a lot of misogynist, homophobic comments probably coming from a young person with no fucking clue what’s going on, but they have the same voice as a journalist.

It’s so true. Where is the authority? Oh god, I get panic attacks thinking about these things.

I do too.

I take it you don’t read your comments then.

Maybe one or two, but I don’t let it affect me. I don’t get a lot of hatred on the Internet; I’m not high-profile enough, which is great. So I don’t have that problem as much as Tom Cruise.

But he’s hated for everything. He’s absolutely slated that dude, his height, his religion…

[Laughs] Oh god, this is so funny. Poor Tom Cruise!

I once saw a comment about you, and now I feel the need to tell you.

I think I know what you’re going to tell me. Did someone say I look like John Cusack?

No, they said you look like a long-haired Kevin Spacey.

I need a minute. That’s really funny.

I didn’t expect it to come out like this. I’m sorry … I panicked.

I love that guy.

Me too, but they were so specific, like, you look like him, cool, gotcha, but they were thoughtful enough to add the detail about the hair.

This crazy world. I love it. Thanks for sharing. You have made my day.