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The Making of Mikal Cronin: How a Shy Kid from Laguna Beach Became the Best Pop Songwriter in San Francisco 

Wednesday, May 22 2013
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Cronin's connection with this scene is clear: He shares not only a home city with Thee Oh Sees, but also musical collaborators and a SOMA practice space. He has even more in common with Segall: drummer Emily Rose Epstein, a similar taste in guitar amplifiers and distortion pedals, and recording locales, not to mention the fact that they've played in bands together since high school. When his first album came out, all anyone knew about Cronin was that he was Segall's bass player and old pal from Southern California: The poppier, more introspective yin to Segall's blond-haired, fire-breathing yang.

But later that afternoon, sitting in the grass of Bernal Heights' Precita Park, Cronin explains why he doesn't think he fits the stereotype of the S.F sound. "I don't see the connection," he says of scene leaders Thee Oh Sees. "I love the music, they're one of my favorite bands... but I don't see Thee Oh Sees writing a piano ballad."

Until recently, it wasn't clear how different Cronin was. But his new album for Merge, MCII, is not a garage-rock record, or a punk record. It's a gorgeous, deeply personal pop record — jangly, hooky, and unafraid to stick a piece of slow-burning melancholy called "Piano Mantra" at the end. Along with molten guitars, there are saxophones, strings, acoustic guitars, and, yes, piano, all rendered in high-fidelity. "I let myself put the vocals on top this time, pretty clean, which is really terrifying," Cronin explained that night in Texas.

Unlike his friends, Cronin also gets confessional. In songs with titles like "Shout It Out," "Am I Wrong," "See It My Way," and "Don't Let Me Go," Cronin is airing his own struggles, not writing fiction or filler. Easygoing but not always upbeat, he isn't the sort of person to waste time posturing. "I told myself with this project the main mission statement would be to just be honest — honest musically and lyrically," he explains in the park, pulling out another American Spirit. "I'm sick of bands with gimmicks, and sick of music [that's] trying to lean on a genre too hard."

So a lot of MCII is about a mid-twentysomething transitioning into proper adulthood — the "struggle of knowing what you have to do to make yourself a happier person, but not doing it," he says. "Like, I know I should be going to sleep at 11 o'clock and getting a good night's rest, but I was up last night 'til 4 o'clock." Yet there's clearly more to his new songs than worrying about getting enough sleep. "I've been starting over for a long time," he sings on album opener "Weight." "I'm not ready for another day I fail at feeling new ... I'm not ready for the moment/ I'm not ready for the weight again."

Asked what he's so conflicted about, Cronin pauses. "I'm an extremely self-critical person," he says quietly. "I know what would make me happy. But I'm negative about my choices sometimes, and how I'm deciding to lead my life, and how I'm dealing with people I love."

Which is how we all feel sometimes, right? The emotional core of Cronin's songs aren't unique conflicts — they're everyday, universal rubs, like balancing relationships with work. But, like the best songwriters — and precious few S.F. garage rock bands — he's canny enough to sing about his problems while staying vague about exactly what they are. So when you listen to Cronin sing about not being ready for another day, it's easy to feel like he's speaking for you.

There's a certain mystery to the craft of pop songwriting, some rare qualities that make a tune feel fresh and exciting over countless listens. Whatever they are, Cronin seems to preside over a bottomless well of them.

His songs propel forward over an ever-shifting bed of instruments: A soft section abruptly explodes into fuzzy chords, a climactic guitar solo unexpectedly comes on an acoustic guitar, a saxophone blares out of nowhere to cast things in a new light. A song will begin like some carefree surf-pop anthem, then become dark and angsty. Cronin's mastery of loud-quiet changes strongly recalls Kurt Cobain, so it's no surprise that Nirvana was his first musical obsession. And like Nirvana's best work, Cronin's dynamic shifts work in service of that pop grail: a sticky melody.

"If you're just listening to the new record, it sounds like a singles collection, because every song is so catchy and so memorable," says Mac McCaughan, the co-founder of Merge Records and the indie rock band Superchunk. "Even [his] demos sounded like that."

Leaning back on the park grass with his shoes off, Cronin mentions another influence on his music: college. He studied music in an untraditional program at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where he played electrified saxophone in a death metal orchestra, performed in a Balinese gamelan ensemble, and started a hardcore punk rock band. He begins to count the number of instruments he can play, and it takes two hands to keep track. "I've never wanted to focus on one instrument and get really good at it," he explains. "I just wanted to fuck around on everything."

Cronin says he doesn't use his formal education much in playing pop-rock — though it did let him write out his own string parts — but the knowledge clearly makes a difference. Cronin's music feels exceedingly aware and in control of all of its elements, the work of a consummate tunesmith. If his friends in Fuzz are the city's Black Sabbath, his band is its Beach Boys.

But until a few years ago, not even Cronin's friends knew what he could do. He screamed or shouted in their high school punk bands, and played squirrelly saxophone lines, too. But he didn't sing things that were pretty. "He has literally a perfect voice and pitch and ability, which is kind of incredible," says Segall, over the phone from a family trip to Chicago. "And he never showed anybody until recently."

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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