“I’m going into the woods, there’s a good chance there’ll be a fire, but I’ll be fine,” Mikal Cronin says, remembering what was going through his mind before driving to Idyllwild, a tiny town in the mountains a few hours east of Los Angeles in June 2018. He’d been struggling with bouts of writer’s block in the years since his 2015 record, MCIII, and needed to get out of town in order to focus on new songs. The fear of a wildfire changed everything, spurring him to write a song titled “Fire” that was a sort of breakthrough for the veteran garage-pop artist and frequent Ty Segall collaborator.
“Thinking of fire as a part of a natural process of rejuvenation or regeneration of the forest, they happen because it’s a natural occurrence,” Cronin explains when I meet up with him for coffee at Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn. “Just thinking a lot about forest fires in general because of the season and the increasing amount of fires in California, it seemed like a pretty apt metaphor for life and starting over, regenerating energy. It seemed to make a lot of sense. I was relating to that process a lot.”
But three-and-a-half weeks into his month-long writing retreat, an actual fire began to burn, forcing him to leave Idyllwild a few days early. His prophecy came true.
“I wrote a lot of it before the actual fire happened,” Cronin says of the song “Fire,” a track that features lyrics like “Red embers float about the front yard / Yeah, there’s a chance we’re out of chances, darlin’” and “Watch the hills, the flames climbing higher / Give it back, your home is your pyre / Fire don’t care, she’s taking it all away.”
“I wrote the song structure on tour with Ty Segall and I kind of re-worked the lyrics a bit after the fact,” he explains. “It was just fire on the brain.”
His Bon Iver-esque songwriting trip to the woods was cut short, but it was a fruitful one that yielded more material than the three years preceding it. The cabin getaway was a fantasy of the L.A.-based musician for years, but he finally decided to pull the trigger while “going crazy and feeling stuck” on tour in Europe.
“I go through phases of getting really down on myself about my writing and everything in general, little depression dips in my life,” he says. “Everything just didn’t sound like me. It’s weird to say, but you write something and it sounds like you were trying to write it for someone else, not yourself. It’s hard to say what was wrong. It’s just a feeling. If I knew how to fix it, I would have fixed it. It’s just a lot of lost songs or chunks of stuff. I knew I wanted to go in a slightly different direction with the sound, but I wasn’t sure how to approach that. I just needed a few beats to figure it out, just sit with it and figure out where I wanted to go. I’m glad I took the time.”
The end result is a record called Seeker—out now via Merge—the first album to move away from his MC series of releases (his first three albums were titled Mikal Cronin, MCII and MCIII). This album still finds an enjoyable middle ground somewhere between DIY garage/punk à la his former San Francisco friends Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees and string-laden, hook-driven rock from the Oasis and Beatles lineage (a combination on full display on the heavy “I’ve Got Reason”), but it’s more direct than his past records, more lyrically specific and philosophical too.
It also sounds livelier as well, thanks in no small part to Cronin inviting his friends into the studio to play alongside him for the first time, including Segall, Shannon Lay, William Tyler and loads more. Cronin played every instrument on his past releases himself. This time, he decided to let go a little bit more.
“I was worried about going into a new studio, worried about a new approach, so I really needed some strong support,” Cronin explains. “I have so many extremely talented friends who are all a better guitar player than me or a better bass player than me or a better drummer than me. I just wanted the support, the emotional and literal support. I had the basic structure of ideas, but with that group of people, I wanted to step back a little bit on the arrangement side of being really meticulous about every single note. I just wanted the looser feel of everyone going where their instincts took them. I’d be like, ‘Play this chord, but play it the way you want’ or ‘I’d love you to do a solo here but I won’t tell you which notes to play.’”
And while it definitely sounds like a Mikal Cronin record, you can tell something’s different. From the opening fuzz and string swells of “Shelter” through the harmonica-heavy “Guardian Well,” you get the sense that Seeker is its own distinct record, in which Cronin pushes himself in new directions. It’s a collection of songs that deserves a title other than MCIV.
Nowhere is Cronin more radically different than on album closer, “On the Shelf.” It maintains his penchant for ending things on a more acoustic, downtempo note—just look to MCII’s “Piano Mantra” or MCIII’s “vi) Circle” for examples—but this time, he finishes with an especially gorgeous and simple song, one that’s more hopeful than anything he’s written before.
“Give away, offer help / Something larger than ourselves / We’ll fall in love, and fuck the nonsense / It’s not for us,” he sings before fantasizing about moving to a place “by the sea where we’ll live forever.” It’s a touching way to end a record full of fire and destruction, especially since those natural disasters weren’t just metaphorical. The acoustic guitar and falsetto showcase the most vulnerable Cronin we’ve ever heard. But he seems happy and settled down, something new for the always-on-the-move musician who’s finally in a more stable living situation.
“That one’s kind of a love song to my girlfriend who’s a creative person too—she’s a writer,” he says of the Seeker finale. “It’s one of the more basic love songs I’ve ever written. I usually keep it a little more abstract than that, but it seemed to make sense on the record to wrap things up. I do like ending things on a hopeful note.”