There is no mistaking Mikal Cronin‘s intent on his third solo record, MCIII. On opening track “Turn Around,” his voice is like an apparition or an echo through a dense swirl of triumphant strings as he sings, “We just live our lives so loud.” Once a purveyor of fuzz-drenched garage rock, soloing alongside the likes of collaborator Ty Segall and playing in a bevy of Bay Area punk outfits, Cronin’s steadily let his formal music education at CalArts seep into his solo work, appropriating classical instrumentation for pop-rock anthems. There were inklings of his vision on 2013’s acclaimed MCII, and while that record was concerned with uncertainty and self-doubt, Cronin makes it clear on MCIII that he’s no longer hesitating.
“I just kinda said, ‘Fuck it — go with my gut, and try it out.’ And it was really fun. It really puts you in a different mindset. It’s like a whole new world of sounds,” Cronin says over the phone as he walks around Los Angeles, where he now lives. “I wanted to push myself. I arrange the songs in my head [and] I might just start from a guitar and have kind of standard rock-band backing, but I always heard other things. And I see no reason why, if I hear a cello, I shouldn’t just try it. [The] French horn [is] an instrument I’ve loved the sound of for years [but] I never thought it was possible to incorporate it into a rock song.”
Though he’ll be touring sans string quartet when he rolls through NYC for a stop at 4Knots, his new touring band found plenty of ways to distill the sense of urgency on MCIII. “It’s definitely a translation,” he says. “They’ve been really good at incorporating little elements into their guitar lines or keyboards…to get the whole gist of the record.” Fans looking to headbang needn’t be worried, though. “I still want to make it exciting to watch live, loud and engaging, but I feel like it’s a little more dynamic and intricate now. It still has the same push as my last band, just with a little more finesse.”
In fact, Cronin wrote much of his new material while on the road. “It was kind of a busy time to be writing a record,” he recalls. “I was touring a lot with my band, and with Ty Segall’s band. I just kind of fit it in between tours and then moved on to L.A. right in the middle of it [while] still recording up in San Francisco.” Though he prefers sitting down with a guitar or a piano and few distractions, he found time to pen lyrics and write string and horn arrangements in the tour van. “It was hectic but it worked out,” he says.
Thematically, MCIII sees Cronin coming to terms with the anxieties that plagued him on MCII — particularly, the feeling that time was slipping away — and writing the record has helped him learn to live in the moment, even with a hectic touring schedule that’s been nearly nonstop since Cronin left school. “It’s definitely a strange life to live. I mean, I’m extremely lucky, but it really messes with your sense of time and space,” he admits. “It’s [the] lack of stability that you kind of have to grapple with and figure out and kind of embrace, in a way. The first half of the record [is] my inner dialogue of trying to be present in a world [where it’s] really easy to escape from your own feelings and get distracted, and just trying to find the balance.” Just as writing these songs helped Cronin find focus, the end result acts as a sort of blueprint for the rest of us, a collection of mantras highlighting the importance of reflection.?
On the last half of the record, Cronin chooses to reflect on a more difficult time in his life: the isolation he felt in his early twenties upon moving away to attend school, plagued by chronic back pain. “It was a really hard time where things seemed kind of hopeless,” he remembers, “but now, being ten years out of it and seeing where it led, all that [turned out to be] a very good thing. That [was] one of the most formative periods in my life.” That narrative forms a sort of mini–concept album, denoted by Roman numerals preceding the song titles.?
“I had been toying around with the idea of doing some sort of longform piece of music, [or] concept album, for lack of a better word, for a while, and never really found a way to execute it,” Cronin explains. “My records have been really personal and I wanted to keep the personal theme in it, so I kind of looked back at my own life and thought, ‘If I had a story to tell, some kind of coming-of-age type story about my own life, what would it be?’?”?
The scene he came from is not known for being touchy-feely or overtly concerned with emotional catharsis, but Cronin put aside any discomfort. “Throughout the whole process I was kind doubting myself in the sense of, ‘Is this way too much?’?” he confesses. Having connected with records of a personal nature, he’d wanted his own work to have the same candidness from the beginning. “I’ve always had the technique of taking the direct experiences from my own life and pulling back as far as I could to make it relatable for everyone else. But to make the narrative work on something like this I had to go pretty direct, way more direct than I’m comfortable doing.” In the end, he says, it was worth it to push past those insecurities. “At a certain point I had to force myself [to] just put it out there, and [hope that] maybe somebody will connect with it. But it felt important to me and it felt validating.”??
Cronin’s stirring string compositions help emphasize MCIII‘s emotional content in a huge way. “Strings and horns are very expressive instruments and they can add another layer. I think from the beginning I’ve always loved records that had big production, but I never really had the skill set or the confidence to try it.” The fact that it’s a departure from his rock background didn’t matter. “I’ve heard so many guitar solos; it can kind of lose its effect. And if I was listening to a record and I expected an organ to come in, but then there was a four-part string harmony, it’s exciting to me. It keeps me engaged and I listen more carefully and it’s a bigger payoff. Those kind of orchestral instruments can be so dramatic and expressive but also dynamic and flexible. And finding a way, at least for me, to use them in a different context than they’re usually used is really fun.”
In a way, it’s also indicative of the personal growth Cronin has experienced over the last ten years, and his cohorts are experiencing a similar evolution; earlier this month, Segall performed a series of solo acoustic shows in New York. For being associated with a genre that is itself associated with youth culture, Cronin seems to be ready to grow up.
“I don’t want to make the same record twice or stifle any ideas just because I’d be worried that an existing fan base wouldn’t accept it,” he says. “Musically, I find my mind is evolving and changing. I’m just happy that people still seem to be interested in taking that journey with us and still want to hear this record, or accept an acoustic album or a record of pop songs instead of just pedal-to-the-metal garage punk.” Another signifier that Cronin is unafraid to be taken a little more seriously: He recently chopped off his flowing locks. “The first couple shows, I was actually a little bit uncomfortable. And I was in my head about how silly that was, [to be] uncomfortable that you’re not distracting everybody with a mop flying around.” He laughs. “But it feels better; it’s really nice having short hair. There’s no political statement in it.”
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The Village Voice’s 4Knots Music Festival
The fifth annual 4Knots Music Festival takes place July 11 on Hudson River Park’s Pier 84 from noon to 10 p.m., rain or shine. General Admission tickets are on sale for $25; V.I.P. tickets are available for $50. For additional information, visit villagevoice.com/4knots.