Mikal Cronin Talks Merge Debut, Tom Waits, Becoming a Better Person

"I just woke up," a sleepy-sounding Mikal Cronin tells Hive right off the bat. The 27-year-old garage rocker is in San Francisco, where the Tuesday sirens have just sounded, driving all the neighborhood canines apeshit. He finds a quiet space to explain that he spent the day—and most of the night—previous in Los Angeles, at the 16-hour music video shoot for "Change," one of many highlights from his latest and most accomplished record, MCII (Merge).

"We basically set up a house party," Cronin says. "There's a live-band element, and some crazy special effects. The main character is at the party by himself, and he has a green-screen suit on with his clothes on top of it. We're actually going to edit him out, so it's just floating clothes. He gets into all these awkward party situations. It should be pretty funny."

Cronin's not new to the party. The young songwriter has spent a decade playing music both alone and with friends (including Ty Segall, who he befriended and started making bands with in high school). MCII is a stunning affair, adding an extra dollop of pop precision and self-reflection only hinted at on his still-very-good, self-titled 2011 Trouble In Mind debut. Aggressive pop for the Nuggets set, MCII is an early contender for album of the year, though Cronin's far too modest to say that, as Hive quickly learns.

This record strikes me as a "coming of age" statement, inspired by growing up, trying to become a better person, and relationship troubles.

That's definitely fair. It's expanding on a similar theme [as Mikal Cronin]. My songwriting for this one has been very personal, a lot of what's going on in my own head. It's all about things I'm trying to figure out in my personal life and about myself. That seems to be pretty universal in twenty-something people, as I've discovered.

Despite some heavy themes, the music is decidedly pop-heavy, almost like you were trying to balance the negativity somehow.

It's not conscious. Musically, I think that's just what I've been drawn to lately. I'm not trying to juxtapose really poppy, happy music with sad, reflective [lyrics], but it kind of works out that way. Lyrically, it gets kinda heavy, kinda sad, and anxious at times, but in most of the songs, I try to add a positive outlook, like, "I think this will be OK. Maybe it won't, but I'm working on it." It's looking toward a happier future.

Not a lot of 27-year-olds have two albums and a bunch of seven-inches and collaborations under their belts. Does it feel weird to have accomplished so much at a young age?

Maybe it's because I started young, but I feel like I've been doing it for a really long time. To me, it doesn't feel like I've accomplished a whole lot…yet. I don't know. It does feel weird, because a lot of 27-year-olds I know have a steady job. A bunch of my friends are getting married and starting to have kids. That's a different life path, and that makes me feel weird.

"I'd love to make a record with Tom Waits, but that's not gonna happen. I'd love to go to his weirdo home compound and play all his antique pump organs and meat grinder noise makers or whatever he has."

On "Shout It Out," you sing, "I'm pretty good at making things harder to see, and turning problems back to me, that's not the way I want to be." I love that line. Has putting that out there helped you focus on correcting that behavior?

I think so, yeah. I've heard a trick to changing behavior is to announce publicly what you want to change so that you have some sort of responsibility. I think it does help me to write it out and, like, sing it every day. It just keeps it in mind. That kind of song is on a constant loop in my head anyway, but now that it's released into the world as my thoughts, maybe I have to follow up on it a little more. I'm trying to be a better person, figure things out, be happier. It's kind of therapeutic, in that way.

In a recent interview, you called your music "overly honest." Are you worried about opening up too much?

There's a fine line between being personal and oversharing in art. Maybe it's how you write it out, how you choose your words. I'm concerned about my music coming off too whiny, too—I hate this word, but—emo. A little too straightforward, a little too personal, not universal.

You're pretty prolific, as is Ty. Should we expect more new music soon?

It's hard to say. An album takes me quite a bit of time. I can't just churn 'em out. I know what I'll be doing the rest of the year—a whole lot of touring. I'll definitely be working on new music—I already have. I don't have anything in the bag, though. Maybe not this year. I'm gonna try to work as fast as I can.

You've worked with a lot of folks over the years. What's your dream collaboration?

Collaborations are really tough for me, finding the right person. I think I'm difficult to collaborate with sometimes because if I get a really, really clear idea in my head of how something should go, I push that as hard as possible. [laughs] There's this band from the Bay called Grass Widow. I've loved and respected their music for a really long time. I'd love to collaborate with them, maybe write some music toward their awesome, three-part harmonies. I mean, I'd love to make a record with Tom Waits, but that's not gonna happen. I'd love to go to his weirdo home compound and play all his antique pump organs and meat grinder noise makers or whatever he has, I just can't see that happening anytime soon. [Laughs.]

There are some seriously low key moments on this album, and the closing "Piano Mantra" ends the record on a particularly downbeat note. Any chance you'll explore this more?

Definitely. I've always been interested in kind of low-key, minimal music like that. Piano songs. My main focus is good songwriting, and a lot of the best songs I've heard are just an acoustic guitar and a voice. I'm not sure if I'll ever entirely go that direction, but it's always been there. I haven't released a lot of that music, but I definitely enjoy that kind of stuff. I was scared to put a song like that on this record, but it definitely represents part of my musical language and my interests that don't really go along with the loud wall-of-guitar sound in upbeat pop songs. I think that song is one of my favorites from this record. I'm glad it worked out.

I'm not sure if you're a fan, but Jay Reatard, toward the end of his life, clearly preferred the acoustic. I wish we could've seen where he was going to take that.

Oh, for sure. You see that with a lot of people. You start off playing loud, aggressive, punk music, but as they get more into… You could tell he was a songwriter. He had The Reatards, who were just kinda one-two-fuck-you, blazing—and his music was too. But I really, really appreciate when an artist will be confident enough to go there.

MCII is out today via Merge. Stream it now at NPR.