Seeking Shelter

Mikal Cronin breaks up his streak of self-titled albums with the restless, ambitious Seeker

From the start, Mikal Cronin knew he wouldn't be recording MCIV.

The California singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and power-pop wizard had made his mark with three acclaimed self-titled albums, 2011's Mikal Cronin, 2013's MCII and 2015's MCIII. But after those records, and the touring cycles that followed, Cronin felt like he'd completed a certain phase as an artist and it was time to branch out into something different.

"I wanted to break up the sequence. Those first three hold together and I felt like it was time to explore musically," he says. "The direction of an album is always just what feels natural. I didn't want to force anything, but I wanted to approach it from a different direction and I wanted the overall sound to be darker. I felt it was the right thing to do to try different recording techniques and recording with a full band instead of solo."

But the road wasn't entirely smooth, partly because Cronin wasn't entirely sure what he was going for. That exploration became his process, and so he gave himself time, time to fail if necessary, and work out where he wanted to go.

"I had a bit of writer's block," he says. "I wasn't really getting solid songs for a while. It took me a little while to find the songs and the perspective."

Seeker, released Oct. 25 on Merge Records, finds Cronin meditating on natural cycles and finding balance in the world, between searching and finding, questions and answers, growth and destruction, death and rebirth.

The album's title is taken from the first line of the first song, "Shelter," which sets the tone for the listener just as it set the tone for Cronin as he dove into writing songs.

"The Seeker always finds an answer/it may not be the one you want," Cronin sings, the song's edgy rhythm and psychedelic fuzz balanced by meditative strings.

"Once I found that word as a title, it seemed to make a lot of sense," he says. "I hadn't titled a record before, so that was always kind of an intimidating thing for me. But that word summed up things nicely and pointed at the themes I was thinking about. The ideas were starting to establish themselves and with the title I was able to focus in on that."

The focus that became Cronin's creative breakthrough came as he settled into a writing and recording retreat, leaving his Los Angeles home for the San Jacinto mountains to the east, and the small community of Idyllwild.

"I took a month of intensive working up in a cabin in the woods. The ultimate slowdown was to isolate myself and just focus on writing for a full month," he says. "It had been a dream of mine for a while. Most artistic types have that fantasy of getting away. I was on tour and thinking about the future and I noticed in my schedule I had a month in which I didn't have much to do, I just booked that month and went for it."

He wasn't certain what the retreat would yield, if anything at all.

"It was intimidating," he says. "I was thinking it could be very possible to spend an entire month struggling and not get anything done. There were definitely off days, but the experiment worked."

The experience came to an abrupt close, when an arsonist sparked a fire during the dry summer.

"You always have fire potentially in the back of your head if you're in a wooded area," Cronin says. "Part of me wasn't surprised when I woke up and saw the orange sky and smoky air and the fire climbing up the hill. I had to pack up as fast as I could and get my studio out of there and grab my cat and bail down the hill."

Seeker includes a song, "Fire," that's both about that experience and not about that experience, the sort of balance that fits with the album's theme.

"I'd already written the song 'Fire' before that experience. The rest of the record materialized within that month up in the cabin and then I went back and reworked some lyrics for 'Fire' after the fact," he says. "It was pretty nuts."

With his basically full collection of song demos, Cronin returned to Los Angeles and set up with producer Jason Quever at Palmetto Studios. Having typically created albums playing nearly everything himself, Cronin this time turned to his bandmates from another project, Ty Segall's Freedom Band, in which he plays bass. They recorded live, playing in a room together.

"I really like the arrangement process," he says. "I wanted to give the musicians as much freedom as they'd like to put their own voice into the music. I came in with demos pretty full formed, but they changed quite a bit once we got the band together."

Cronin's touring with a different group of musicians than he had on the record. It's another take on Cronin becoming the seeker, when the songs can branch out in new directions.

"They're doing a great job of adding their own voices as well," he says. "That's the fun part about it to me with the live thing, letting the live band turn into what it's going to turn into naturally. It's another reinterpretation."

For Cronin, Seeker was an album he had to go out and find, not one he could've made by remaining static. There are bedroom records, and then there are records that require going up to the mountains.

"I think the retreat thing really worked out," he says. "I'm early into thinking about how I can pull it off again. It's hard to get that much time, but the process really worked out for me. I like how the songs turned out and the intensive focus was really interesting.

"Time will tell," he says. "This might start another chain of records for me."

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