The forces pulling Mikal Cronin in different directions all find a place on his second album.
Loud, quiet, light, dark, intense and tender, the disparate feelings that play out inside his head are all translated—both lyrically and musically—onto an album that sparkles, unsurprisingly, with both pop perfection and edgy, chaotic noise.
"The heaviest theme is about contradictions in my own head, a back and forth emotionally of trying to figure stuff out and being very happy and very sad, knowing what I'm doing is great and thinking what I'm doing is awful," says the 27-year-old Cronin during a phone interview from a tour stop in Washington, D.C. "There's a flip back and forth emotionally for me and I think that resonates in the contradictory styles of music, too."
MCII, his "contradictory" album, released in May, has drawn a reception that's anything but, with critical acclaim coming from nearly all corners of the music press.
The album is dynamic, built to showcase Cronin's already extensive background playing everything from soaring power pop to heavy garage punk to swirling psychedelic country rock. Despite moving around so much, MCII never feels cluttered or distracting, mainly because it's grounded by Cronin's songwriting presence, shining right in the middle of everything.
"It's a natural thing to me because I'm so interested in different styles of music. I don't feel like I should be doing anything else stylistically. The music feels personally satisfying to me," he says. "I've played in a lot of bands and played a lot of different kinds of music in my life. Even before I started releasing the music I made on my own, I just jumped around everywhere, from acoustic songs to shoegazey songs, guitar-heavy songs.
"In this project I wanted to bring everything together, my garagey-punk background and my acoustic singer-songwriter background, all the different things I played personally, together," he says. "It's natural to me and I try to embrace playing different styles of music, but try to find something that ties it together to be a cohesive record."
Now living in San Francisco, Cronin grew up in Orange County, playing saxophone in a high school punk band with Ty Segall. From there, his résumé grew by leaps and bounds, with Cronin recording and playing with a series of bands (Moonhearts, Epsilons, Okie Dokie) before breaking through as Segall's bass player. In addition to working through his own crash course in rock 'n' roll, Cronin earned his B.F.A. in music last year from CalArts.
"I didn't study one instrument very much. I jumped around. I was in a program where I was able to study a little bit of everything rather than practicing guitar or piano for 10 hours a day. It opened up my head to experimenting and listening to and appreciating different styles of music and different tendencies, and I'm bringing that back to myself and my music," he says. "It definitely opened me up wide musically and I feel like I have a wide appreciation. I find interesting moments in a lot of different styles of music and a lot of that comes from critical listening to a lot of different music."
MCII opens with "Weight," a tune that shifts from a soft piano opening to driving, fuzzed-out garage rock. "I've been starting over for a long time," sings Cronin, a moment of introspection and self-evaluation that's definitely more about asking the questions than knowing the answers. "I'm not made out for the simple path, I'll take it day to day."
"I've heard people describe it as a coming-of-age record and I'd agree with that," he says. "It's just where my head's at right now and it's a thing that naturally happens. With this project, my main mission statement from the get-go was to be as honest as I possibly could be with myself musically and lyrically. What comes out of the project is exactly what I'm thinking. I didn't try to shape the record in any way, but I'm at a certain point in life and that comes out."
MCII marks Cronin's jump from Trouble in Mind Records to indie stalwart Merge, home to Arcade Fire, Spoon, Neutral Milk Hotel and She & Him.
"I was really legitimately surprised they were interested and really excited. I've loved their records for a long time and I was a little scared because in my head they're epic, one of the most epic indie labels all around. But they're so down to earth and nice and easy as far as a family feeling and a business feeling, which I definitely appreciate," he says.
The year is filled with touring for MCII, including a stop in Tucson for a Club Congress show on June 29. Cronin says he appreciates returning to the road, which helped shape him as a musician.
"Touring in Ty Segall's band is a big influence because it's a very different experience than my band. It's very loud, very intense; feels like an assault a little bit in the best way," he says. "All that experience in touring with those bands and playing live, it all comes back to my show now."
Still, Cronin faces moments on these long stretches of touring where it's hard to imagine that playing music is now his career.
"I've been playing shows and doing tours for a long time but it never felt like the end result would be doing it full time and making a career of it. It's really great but it feels like it happened so slowly and naturally, I feel like I just found myself in this situation and it's really amazing. I never had that plan from the beginning to do that, so I'm very appreciative of that. It's pretty incredible. I feel very lucky," he says.
"I have a hard time figuring out what any of this means, having critical success, quote-unquote. It's all so personal to me that I really appreciate that people are liking the record and we've had a lot of good feedback from the live show. It's really great and I'm definitely happy with it," he says.
Looking forward, Cronin is eager for a new record, but it'll take some downtime to start the process.
"I feel I can't really write songs unless I'm sitting alone in my room. On tour is too hard—you have no privacy for weeks," he says. "It's always when I get home for a day and can isolate myself in a room for a day and just plug into ideas.
"I want to start recording a new record as soon as possible. I'm still in the planning stages, I guess, of thinking whether I want to do something completely different or something similar, but I want to do something that's really big to me, powerful and strong and challenging."