Mikal Cronin

Time on the Couch:
The Psychology of Mikal Cronin

You’ve got to tread lightly when talking to emotionally fragile people. These days, Mikal Cronin often seems to need such delicate treatment.

His paper-thin resilience against life is newfound – in terms of his public persona, at least. We’ve come to know the San Francisco garage-rocker as Ty Segall’s backup or counterpart on heavily distorted pop presentations that, even when Cronin’s name was included as more than just a credit, were positioned as Segall’s exploits, not his. And when Cronin debuted his first full-length in 2011, his sound, for the most part, still existed under the umbrella that’s shaded his singular potential since he and Segall first paired up in high school.

Not long after, however, Cronin’s heart slowly started making its way out of the chamber of his chest. On his sophomore long-player, MCII, Cronin doesn’t just wear it on his sleeve. He’s practically waving his feelings around like an SOS flag.

It’s a strange time for this sensitivity to arise considering Cronin’s career is absolutely flourishing. His first batch of solo tunes was well received. This follow-up bunch includes plenty of epic pop arrangements with moments of emotional grandeur, and its lyrics ride the same ups-and-downs of thinking. While he’s given us flashes of introspection before, this album is a clear departure from the garage roots to which he’s always been tied – and it’s not unusual for a change like that met with critical backlash. Not here. Cronin is collecting more accolades from all over the place than he did the first time around.

Still, there’s an air of unease about him.

“It’s funny having to feel like you’re successful when you write an album full of insecurities and fears and inconsistencies. It’s interesting to me. I’m trying to figure out how I feel about it,” Cronin laughs.

Written during final leg of his college years, the debut was lyrically an exploration of the shock of leaving that womb for the real world. He ended up touring full time with Segall, which of course is a nontraditional lifestyle at best, but nonetheless offers some degree of stability. But that didn’t ease Cronin’s discomfort. MCII actually expounds up on it.

“I’ve decided to write about myself and how I’m feeling. I’m a confused, high-strung, stressed out, anxious person,” he says. “I worry about stuff a lot, you know. I’m just very unsure about a lot of things so it comes out in the songs. I say it’s about contradictions because if you’re not sure what you’re doing or where you’re at…I’m not sure what’s right or wrong or what’s good for [me] or not. I guess it’s just a reflection of that confusion.”

“Weight,” the jangly piano-underscored number that opens the album, is one of its most upbeat, but is also one of the best examples of Cronin battling with the push and pull of his brain. He’s not fit for the “simple path,” but he’s “only getting older.” In the same vein in both sound and sentiment, he sings, “I’m afraid of a distant future/ I’m worried that I got no time,” on “Turn Away.”

“I think a lot of young people are,” he says of his fretting. “Like I have no idea what I’ll be doing in five years or one year or 20 years. I have no idea so, it’s kind of…I feel like it’s an odd feeling, like I’m getting older and wasting time and not hitting personal milestones or something. It’s like the anxiety of feeling like I should have more figured out than I do.”

Cronin says he’s like most musicians in that creativity can be cathartic. He learned that from his mother, who plays the piano and harp.

“If you play an instrument it’s like an easy, gratifying thing just to sit down with a guitar or a piano and plunk out some stuff and work through some ideas,” he says. “It can be meditative or just fun, to just get creative and try to work on a new song. It’s just something I like to do. I feel like a lot of musicians are similar. If I’m stressed out or overwhelmed with other stuff or procrastinating on other work, I just fool around on the guitar.”

He might pick up the latter more often, but his increased interest in piano, which he first learned as a kid but gave up during high school, ranks high in the shift toward cleaner, more pristine pop on MCII. As expected, Segall guests – but you can’t really hear him.

That influence is particularly absent on “Piano Mantra,” the gorgeous piano-and-string based closer. Everything before it was mind-prying, and this is the pearl you wanted all along. Cronin nearly shrugs himself into giving up before a crashing crescendo of whirling guitar. Once the melee settles, he’s renewed: “Now overdrawn/ I’m coming back home/ Sink my roots and I’ll be gold/ The open arms are giving me hope.”

With Cronin’s heartfelt, life-questioning nature practically fully exposed, he now has more in common with pop thinkers like Henry Nilsson than contemporary garage brutes. In fact, Cronin’s dilemma brings to mind Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles.” Everything is futile for Nilsson in that song, but it’s not intended to be downtrodden. Realizing how insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things is an arc meant not to advocate giving up, but encourage an appreciation for living. Doesn’t Cronin get that?

“I go back and forth like anybody. I will say that generally I try to be optimistic,” he points out. “But you know, I don’t know, I have many, many happy things in my life. It’s hard to say. Sometimes I’m happy, sometimes I’m definitely not. But I’m figuring it out.”

He is capable of recognizing that things simply aren’t so bad. He’s grateful for having been scooped up by revered indie label Merge Records for his second LP. He admits he never thought he’d be touring full time. He knows he didn’t get the short end of the stick. But it seems he needs a push, some reminding, to get there.

“Some might call it growing up or figuring shit out. That’s definitely a theme of the album,” Cronin says. “I mean, it’s all about that. I keep it personal and I’m trying to figure stuff out right now. It’s all bigger than I am.”

Just remember, Cronin: Your teardrops eventually become the bubbles in your tea, yours for the sipping as you write your next great album.

Photo by Denee Petracek.