An Interview With Mac Miller

Photo: Christaan Felber for Vulture

Over the course of two days, music critic Craig Jenkins spoke with Mac Miller in New York for a profile. This interview — edited here for length and clarity — was the basis for that profile. It offers a window into Miller’s creative process, his life, and what he’d hoped to do next.

Loss is turbulence. Your mind is traveling in one direction, and reality suddenly veers sharply left. I’ve felt shipwrecked for days because I thought I knew one thing, and another turned out to be the case. I was sure I would get to pick Mac Miller’s brain about feelings and music and everything in between for years to come, and happy about the honor. From the first time I ever heard from him, he was kind, smart, and perceptive beyond his years. Talking was a breeze. He’d done his homework. It felt like he had been treated to more hours in a day than the rest of us. He seemed older than he was. The best way I’ve seen it articulated was a tweet from the actor and singer Raleigh Ritchie, who said, “You can hear it in him. That thing.” Mac dealt with more, and he fought back harder. I relate, and I always convince myself that other people who strike me as having had to work through hardships like anxiety and depression are built to last. I fall clean and hard when things turn out differently.

Music brought Mac Miller peace, and he returned the favor by spreading comfort through his own art. He loved the Beatles, and I think a dash of their duality manifested in his own work. Think of Paul pitching “Eleanor Rigby” and “Here, There, and Everywhere” for Revolver or John singing those morbid “She Said She Said” and “I’m Only Sleeping” lyrics like jingles. You think Mac’s “Weekend” is going to be a party song in the spirit of “Just Got Paid” and “Off the Wall,” but it’s considerably more freaked out about how to make it to some days off than it is concerned about what it intends to do with them. Mac showed you the highs, and he spoke candidly to the lows. I’ve seen a lot of writers say he was a “work in progress,” and that’s true in the sense that we all are, constantly, in some sort of a state of flux. Really, I think people are trying to find ways to say that Mac was unafraid to be publicly imperfect, to not have all the answers, to worry, to question. He was always everything all at once. What grew over the years was the arsenal of tools he was able to use to express himself. One of the many pains of losing him right now is knowing he had talent, he had drive, he had plans, and he most certainly would have made good on all three.

Over the weekend I realized that I was sitting on the transcript of the interview that sourced last week’s profile, and that it was most likely his last interview, and that there’s an awful lot of it that no one else has seen. Below is an edited version of that conversation. Whenever I wrote about Mac Miller, I tried to close the gap between the person I saw and the figure people imagined as they listened to the records. Sometimes they differed dramatically, and I was keen on cutting through the dissonance. The talk was important to me because, like any conversation we ever had about the big picture over the last three years, on the record or off, I was not-so-secretly there to learn. As usual, I came away unnerved by his poise, and anxious to try to emulate it in my own life. Special moments from that week that didn’t make the cut here or in last week’s profile include Mac doing several minutes of Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” for everyone in the Colbert show green room, taking such an interest in an automated vertical parking lot that he stopped to talk to staff about how it works, and insisting that he watched every episode to date of Orange Is the New Black in one sitting. He immersed himself in every interest he took up. That’s how he grew so much in so little time.

I’m thankful for Mac Miller the songwriter, whose music always made me feel like I had a kindred spirit out in the world searching for meaning, and for Malcolm McCormick the person, who invited me into his life and always made time to talk, even when a million other people wanted his attention. If you want to honor his memory, work on your dreams and listen to your feelings. Be a force that brings people together. Seek and encourage greatness. Take chances on people who deserve a break. Leave unfounded rumors alone. Malcolm was hilarious and just genuinely committed to shining love and light on anyone who needed it. I wish the universe gave more back.

You’ve been famous for ten years. What does that feel like?
What do I feel like? I guess at this point it feels pretty normal. But I’ve had a weird level of fame. It’s not over-the-top celebrity fame, but it’s just … I get recognized. It’s felt different at different times, but now I’ve actually had a career that has lasted ten years and is still running. That’s the part that blows my mind. The fact that I’ve been able to pivot into different pockets and just kind of live and create music that matches whatever type of life I’m currently living, that reflects the life I’m currently living. People still listen to it. That’s crazy.

Did you think that you’d have that long of a ride when you started?
I think when I first started I thought I was going to be the biggest thing in the world. When everything first popped off I remember there was this time when I was the most-Googled thing on the internet. It was like “diet, carrots, and Mac Miller.” Something crazy like that. At that point, in the very beginning, all I ever knew was everything’s sold out, highest numbers possible, No. 1, you know, millions of singles sold. That was the starting point. So, I was like Oh, shit, I’m about to be whoop-de-whoop-de-whoop. And I think I got to a certain level that I was kind of like, Oh, shit, lemme slow it down. I think I’m in a different place than I thought I would be but I think I’m in a place that Malcolm as a human being wanted. When you first get caught up in everything, that’s what you want. You want more. More of this. You want to be at these places and this and that. I think I’m in a place now which is just natural to me.

When you grow up in the public eye people get to watch you make mistakes with more scrutiny than the normal person has. The kid on the street fucks up, and it’s not news. You slip up, and it could end up in a newspaper. Is that unnerving?
There’s pressure. A lot of times in my life I’ve put this pressure to hold myself to the standard of being whatever I thought I was supposed to be, or how I was supposed to be perceived. And that creates pressure. I just think that now I’m kind of in this place where I have this force field around me of what reality is, and what’s not, and that makes it less concerning to me. It’s annoying to be out and someone comes up to me and thinks they know. They’re like, “Yo, man, are you okay?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m fucking at the grocery store.” You know? It’s the job. This is what I signed up for. You have to have your own reality and that has to be the driving force of your life.

I feel like the public concept of you is different than the reality. What does that do to your thinking?
You know what’s funny? I feel like the public perception of me varies on who you ask. But I think there’s a bit of a freedom in knowing that people are going to think all types of shit, no matter what. It actually makes me less stressed about how my actions are perceived. It’s out of my control. I mean, to a degree … I could control it. I could live this squeaky-clean life and everything. I could try to control the media. But I’ve just been finding a freedom in just living and letting people say whatever the fuck they want. Like, do I really, really care what Hollywood Life is saying? If I read a headline, and I’m like, “Wow, that’s completely untrue …” I’m like, “That’s as far as it goes. Okay, cool. So a bunch of kids now think that.” Fine. As long as I have people that are hearing my music and there’s still that relationship.

That’s interesting because I think there are a lot of artists who actually do exert control over their images. Not necessarily by changing their lives but by getting out front and trying to kill stories. You just feel like it’s not worth it?
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s just a game that I haven’t got into playing. But it just seems exhausting to always be battling something. To always be battling for what you think your image is supposed to be. You’re never going to be able to get anything across. It’s never gonna be the real … No one’s gonna ever really know me. That’s okay. The people that have the best chance of knowing me that would like to, would just be by listening to my music. Even friends that I’ve lost touch with, they ask how I’ve been, I’m like “That’s the best way to know how I’m doing.” Really.

So, you’re saying on the one hand that a good way to catch up with you is checking out your music. But on the other hand, if people read too much into a track, that can also lead to its own misconceptions.
It’s interesting because I have noticed that — as far as things that have been in headlines and people listening to the music and taking that into account, and applying it to the music, which makes sense. But I’ve also not talked about what songs mean and what’s this or what’s that. I’ve just kind of left it up to interpretation. I don’t know if it’s the right or the wrong way, or if it helps people digest my music properly or if it doesn’t.

You don’t have control over perception.
Yeah. But here’s the thing, is I probably do. I probably do more than I realize. I probably could do more to control the perception of me or what is out there.

What would that look like?
I have no idea.

Would you have to be a more literal songwriter? I don’t know if you’re interested in that.
No, for sure. I’ve seen a lot of different takes on what the music is. And that’s what I like. I like different responses. Everyone’s not being like this song is obviously this. Which … there’s people trying.

That’s out there.
For sure. But there’s different takes on different things. I guess I’m just not as concerned with that as I am with having a relationship with music in general. I know what the song represents for me.

Is that a function of time spent in the game? This outlook?
There’s also this weird thing … songs can apply to so many different life situations. So the timeline of when I make records, the perception is always incorrect, when people think I wrote things. And what it has taught me is, it’s just interesting that you can apply the music to a whole lot of different life situations. I think that I’ve dealt with so much, I mean, dude, the first album I ever dropped was critically shit on, which built me to not —

Did you get a 1.0 at Pitchfork? Was that—
Yeah. That’s a legendary thing.

That’s a rare class. It’s you, Childish Gambino, and like, I can’t think of another rapper.
Yeah. I got a one. And that’s amazing now. I look back at it like, Oh hell yeah. I definitely got a one, that’s fire. But I think that I’ve dealt with so many different negative things, positive things — just opinions — that trying to direct them seems so unnecessary. Like giving a fuck about how I’m perceived and trying to correct it to make me out to be … What, what am I going to make me out to be? Something that sells more? Something that seems cooler? There’s certain things that I wish people knew more. Like about how I really put together an album, about how much time and work I actually put into shit, and how these records get made. But all the other shit is like, okay. I also used to rap super openly about really dark shit. Because that’s what I was experiencing at the time. That’s fine, good, that’s life. It should be all the emotions.

Photo: Christaan Felber for Vulture

In “2009” you said, “Sometimes I wish I took a simpler route / Instead of having demons that’s as big as my house.” What would life without rap look like?
We actually joke all the time, we’ll take a moment where we’ll be like, Man, life would be so simple if I would’ve just had a job somewhere. You know, like been at one place and then come home. And there’s that moment of peacefulness, when you think about it. But I would never actually do that. I’m also very attracted to my own demons. I would rather …

Vices are enticing. And that’s what draws people to them.
But not even just, what I’m saying …

Oh, bad thought processes and stuff, bad feelings, fucked-up feelings. You listen to sad music and you’re like, Damn, I really feel right now. It’s a weird cycle to get yourself out of. It takes actual hard work to retrain your brain.
But I think that the beauty is in being able to be in both places. I wouldn’t want a life that’s completely — I’ve had a life that was completely carefree. The very beginning of my career was completely carefree. I felt invincible, I felt … just, zero sadness. You know? For a moment. And then I’ve had all sadness, just all darkness. But I think being in a place where you can spend time in both and gain perspective on that other side, makes you appreciate what each brings to the table. I really wouldn’t want just happiness. And I don’t want just sadness either. I don’t want to be depressed. I want to be able to have good days and bad days. I feel like that’s really important. I can’t imagine not waking up sometimes and being like I don’t feel like doing shit. And then having days where you wake up and you feel on top of the world. And you get to experience both. I just think that makes the most sense to me at this point in life. For now, that’s what I think helps create more growth for myself.

When I’m working on music, I will live in the studio and not leave for a month and a half. One of the things making this album, is that I moved into Conway [Studios] for a month and a half and slept at the studio. I didn’t do anything but work on music. All I do is work out every day, go to sleep early, all these things. So now it’s kind of just like, teaching myself the balance of it all. I do think I’m in the best, most balanced state that I’ve ever been yet. Just to throw that out there.

A friend wants to know if the Swimming theme is a callback to the turtle from the Watching Movies video component.
Oh my God. I wish. But you know what? This is the shit: I try not to, like … Stuff like that always happens with my music. These themes will just connect because of, maybe, a state of mind I was in. Didn’t even think about that until you said that. But [now] I’m thinking about it, and it’s like no … but yes, because there’s part of that frame of mind I was in at that time that is with me now. This shit always happens to me. I’ll say a line like, “that Mercedes drove me crazy, I was speeding …” I made that song way before the shit went down. But it’s still, the shit just connects. You just have to get out of your own way, and everything will just connect for itself.

In my mind, the theme that connects Swimming is drift. Feeling out to sea — I wrote this down so I did not fuck it up — and trying to get back to a place of comfort. Have you thought about whether there’s a theme or not?
I didn’t think of what the topical theme was going to be. I thought of the sonic theme. And then I just tried to write shit that was as real to me as possible. And I think in that, a theme creates itself. Because if I’m just … the goal we always have is I’m trying to be the most … myself. Have you seen the Garry Shandling documentary?

Not yet.
So the Garry Shandling documentary goes through his journals, and time and time and time again, all he’s always writing the words “just be Garry,” “just be Garry.” And that struck a chord with me because I’m like, that’s the goal. Get better and try to make this shit a reflection of who I am. Because when you’re talking about [what] these numbers do or who’s better at this or who’s better at that, that’s a wormhole. But the one thing I know for sure that I can do that no one else can do is whatever this is. Whoever I am. It’s just trying to get there as much as possible. My goal is is trying to find some type of comfort. I think the last wish I made was for peace of mind, probably.

I’ve seen a lot of people call Swimming a breakup record, but I feel like that’s kind of small, to be like, “The record is this way because Mac is sad.” Does that narrative frustrate you?
Yeah. Because it’s so much more than that. I’ve been working on this album for two years. It frustrates me that people take something and put it into this small window narrative. But I also understand it. I’m not mad at them for it. It’s kind of like … the story writes itself. How can you expect people to not? I mean, I would love for people to just take the music as just the music. Try and get rid of the outside context. Which is impossible to do, but just try. The reality is, “Come Back to Earth,” the first song on the album was one of the first things I wrote after getting back off tour from Divine Feminine. I made that song in 2016, and I wrote 11 more intros called “Come Back to Earth,” and then I went back to that one. I’m curious … what does a song mean to you now, if you just look at it like that? The other thing that makes me curious is, is it less or more impactful to you? That’s kind of the brain-fuck for me. I’m like, “Okay, is this story that everyone’s putting together … is it a good one?”

Do you not mind if it is a good story?
It’s not that I don’t mind. It’s just … what can I do? Stand up on a mountaintop and say, “I wrote these songs at this time in my life”?

You know people do that.
Yeah, I guess.

That’s just not your speed.
Yeah, I don’t know. The world happens as it should I guess.

I feel like the album is, in some respect, trying to work through anxiety, trying to calm your mind. Do you deal with anxiety at all?
Yeah, I am an overthinker and definitely deal with anxiety. There are times when I am super free of it. It is not all the time, but I think … My mom would have a good answer to that. I think she would say yes.

What do you do to calm your brain when it is going too fast, when there are too many thoughts and all that.
Is that anxiety? Mind racing?

It can be. When you shouldn’t be stressed but suddenly your brain is considering a million different possibilities on how things will go wrong.
Then I for sure have anxiety problems.

How do you quiet that?
Playing music really helps. Sitting down and playing the piano is a really good way. Activities. Netflix. I have a tendency to brood about stuff and cook in it. So the Colbert performance [I just did]. I’ll wake up and just sit here and think about it for hours.

Like, replay what you could have done differently?
What I could have done better. How I could have gotten more rest. How I could have practiced this. How I could have worked out this. Just the “what ifs” of all those things kinda drives me crazy. I was on my way to a performance the other day, my mom was in the car and I was actually texting my mom, [saying] “This is going to go horribly,” and she said, “You just did this show last night and it was amazing.”

Well, you know some of that is healthy, and some of that isn’t healthy, and it’s hard to tell how much of it is and how much of it isn’t. You improve by doing your play-by-plays, and you improve by watching yourself, but there is also a point where that becomes picking yourself apart. How can you tell the difference? Or can you?
I really get hung up by like my voice, you know? Especially with singing. Because if I am in the studio I sing more than when I am performing. So I kinda mesh the two and figure it out. But I mean it is all stuff that I am trying not to think about as much, and just keep moving and starting to accept love from people. When people are like, “Oh, I really like this” Being able to be like, “Oh wow, thank you,” and actually feeling that.

Are you suspicious of compliments sometimes?
It’s not that I am suspicious of them.

Let me rephrase the question. I think I drive a harder bargain about what I do than a lot of other people do. When someone is like, “I think that is really cool,” I see some flaws in it, and think, “Did I really do a good job?” Do you do that?
Yeah definitely. Like with the Colbert performance, I thought there were a lot of things I could have done better, but that’s okay. Sometimes somebody will say something very matter of fact, just straight to the point. It’s helpful. I’m not crazy. I just give a fuck. I care. But that’s the dangerous part about reading comments and shit because I was off reading comments for a while, and I felt fucking, like, liberated. I dropped those three songs and didn’t even look what happened.

So what’s the story with Swimming? You went to Hawaii to work on music?
I went to a lot of different places just to work on music.

What goes through your mind?
The change of scenery is really nice and just being somewhere where you are out of your own reality, but not in a destructive way. Going to Hawaii and being able to look at beautiful water. Calming the mind. Also because, like, I fucking can. That was a huge revelation for me. I went and worked in Chile and had a beautiful studio on like a billion acres or something crazy. And it’s like … I can. Why am I not doing that?

You are used to booking things locally and holing up in a studio around town?
Well, that’s the funny part about the whole thing. So I spent a shitload of money living at Conway for a month and a half. I spent a shitload of money going to Hawaii, I spent a shitload of money going to Chile. When it is all said and done, 80 percent of the record was done at my house. But, what people don’t know is, I am also taking these records and working on them in all three different places. I did two songs in Hawaii. “Hurt Feelings” was done in Hawaii and “Wings” was done in Hawaii. “Perfecto” was in Chile. I work on all the songs all the times but most of the time they are versed in my house.

There’s a specific kind of song you write — “Objects in the Mirror,” “Weekend,” “Jet Fuel” — where you start out overwhelmed, then it sort of resolves itself and you’re like All right, I’m gonna persevere, I’m gonna get through this. I’m starting to think it’s an underlying message in your music.
That’s how it actually works. You’re in your head and at some point you have to decide to either fucking move forward and go or just stay in this space. At some point there has to be the decision to get on with it. That’s probably a reflection of how my mind works maybe. At some point I’m just like, “Shut the fuck up and go.” There is always that moment of release and I always want that.

Coming back to “2009,” if you could tell your younger self something, a message about how to do things differently, what would you say?
I would just tell myself to worry a little less and not hold onto — don’t create all of this weight for things. Everything has so much weight, but it’s all just chapters. It’s all just pieces of the story. There’s gonna be a next part. It’s not a big deal. It’s not. That’s the thing. Trust. The more I trust in who I am as a human being, the more I’m like, Okay, this will all kind of figure itself out. As long as I do what feels natural.

An Interview With Mac Miller