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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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Shortly after his debut album was released in 2011, Cronin was asked to a meeting at Columbia records. He made it past a security guard and a lobby with a huge, expensive-looking painting on the wall, and into the office of some limey A&R guy. "They were saying, 'Yeah, we had a conference call. We were listening to your song 'Apathy' with 25 people in the room and trying to think up marketing ideas,'" he recalls now, laughing. "It was just fucking surreal and weird."

Cronin says he never considered signing with Columbia. But the meeting confirmed that his first single got a lot more attention than anyone expected. One of several indie labels interested in Cronin, Merge e-mailed him at South by Southwest in 2012, went to a show, and eventually asked him to come aboard.

Cronin made his debut album during the spring break of his last year of music school at a funky, underground studio in Chinatown known as Bauer Mansion. It went well, but not perfectly: "I had a bigger version for the music than I was able to realize," he says. He went back there for the second record, and again played nearly all of the instruments himself. But this time, following the process Segall took with his last album, Cronin had the new recordings mixed in the posh, ultra-professional environs of Berkeley's Fantasy Studios. The difference is immediately clear.

Sitting in Precita Park this afternoon, looking out over the Mission District, the question arises what he wants to happen when this new album finally comes out a little over a week from now. And Cronin doesn't seem to have an answer — partly because he's living a dream he never thought would come true. At one point, before music school, he was a studious would-be psychology major at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, more concerned with getting a good job after graduation than playing music. But when a back injury and heavy depression forced him to return home halfway through sophomore year, he went back to playing in bands with his friends. After a couple years at community college, he got accepted to the music program at Cal Arts (his mother, a doctor who plays harp and piano in her spare time, accompanied him for the audition). But aside from moving to San Francisco, Cronin says he never thought much about what he'd do after finishing. As it happened, he lucked into a spot in Segall's live band, and has been a full-time musician ever since.

"I never had big expectations about being a pop star," he says. "I don't have any big goals or aspirations. I just want to keep myself inspired to write good songs."

But a few days before the release of MCII, signs begin to appear that Cronin might have some more things to consider.

The first big review to appear is Pitchfork's: The king-making independent music site has given Cronin's new album an 8.4 score and the coveted "Best New Music" tag. His booking agent texts from vacation in Puerto Rico to congratulate him. Then, on May 7, the album's official release date, The Onion's influential (and finicky) A.V. Club site gives MCII an enthusiastic A-minus. SPIN weighs in a few days later, with a 9 out of 10 score and a special "Spin Essentials" ranking. All in all, the new album gets some of the most positive reviews any San Francisco rocker has seen in years.

Most importantly, with the reception of MCII, Mikal Cronin becomes best known for being Mikal Cronin. He's no longer just Ty Segall's bass player. He's not some new kid on the roster of a famous indie label with something to prove. He is now the best pop songwriter in the San Francisco rock scene — and the latest torchbearer for the city's long tradition of independently made, aggressive guitar music. If anyone has a chance of getting that sound out to the mainstream world at large, it's him.

So naturally, on the day of the album's release, and one day before he and the band leave for a brief European stint, Cronin is hungover. Again. There was another little party at the white Victorian last night celebrating the new album, and its after-effects aren't helping anyone concentrate inside the band's cramped, sweaty practice studio. There's no P.A. here today, so Cronin's vocals are inaudible over the bright jangle and monstrous fuzz of his songs. But as the band roars through numbers old and new, sounding tight and crisp and endlessly melodic, Mikal Cronin closes his eyes and sings hard anyway.

About The Author

Ian S. Port

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