How Mac Miller Keeps His Grip On Reality

“I try to not get too obsessed or wrapped up in the digital world”

by Emily Manning

Ten years old is perhaps the golden age of experimentation and eagerness. In fifth grade, I learned to snowboard, successfully lobbied my parents into purchasing me a deep blue electric guitar, and began producing a line of duct tape handbags, each affixed with Louis Vuitton logos in different colored tape (seriously). We try all kinds of different things at 10, hoping our identity will reveal itself in the process, unaware that personhood is more about persistence and open-mindedness than early signs of talent. 

Mac Miller also picked up his first guitar at 10, but unlike myself—and I’m sure a fair amount of you, former 10-year-olds—didn’t abandon ship when seas got rocky. “In the beginning, I just wrote little sad folk songs in my room with simple-ass chords,” the 25-year-old rapper tells me over the phone. “I always played growing up. But once I kind of started getting deeper and deeper into things creatively, and musically, I started discovering different ways I could use the guitar.” 

Miller’s multifaceted relationship with the instrument is the subject of a new short documentary, one of four comprising Fender’s Feedback series. Each film features an intimate conversation with a musician about first falling in love with their instrument of choice and the possibilities this initial spark unlocked. We meet J Mascis in snowy Massachusetts, where the legendary guitarist discusses how a slimy salesman led to his first Jazzmaster and, by extension, Dinosaur Jr.’s incendiary rock sound. We also meet Ty Dolla $ign, the baby blue-eyed R&B virtuoso whose love for Snoop Dogg encouraged him to dive deeper into funk grooves and eventually master the Precision Bass. Spotlighting Fender’s American Professional series, the films reveal how the iconic manufacturer continues to inspire generations of artists across musical genres to forge their own kind of sound. 

While J's and Ty’s stories both begin somewhere around the elementary school age (Mascis started stealing money from his mom at age nine to buy punk records), Mac’s Feedback episode remains the most true to that young spirit of experimentation. We meet Miller at his home studio in Los Angeles where, after playing with his adorable puppy, he settles down to tinker on a Telecaster. “The idea of the home studio is that it’s a very comfortable and safe space to try ideas and make things. If I wake up in the morning and have a melody in my head, I can just work on it and let it take its time,” he explains. “I can record my own vocals and try things out—sing badly, sing things that suck. That whole trial and error process is important to me—being able to take my time, and have a place that, no matter what, I can always work in.”

When Miller speaks about trial and error and “constantly putting out ideas, almost like vomiting,” he laughs in an earnest and uninhibited way. His debut full-length album Blue Slide Park, released independently in 2011, sold incredibly well, but didn’t fare too fondly with the critics. Yet its follow-up, 2013’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off, was called “a quantum leap in artistry” by Pitchfork, an outlet that had been critical of his first offering. Miller describes his creative process as intuitive and improvisational: “I’ll work on something, and, at some point, I’ll think it sucks, so I’ll stop and move on to something new. I’ll try something new, think it sucks, try something new. Then I’ll wake up the next day, go through everything I thought sucked, and then be like, ‘Oh, that’s actually pretty good!’ and finish it. I try and keep everything as organic and true to that moment.” 

But if that sounds slapdash, too sporadic, or messy, understand that Miller’s career has been equally been about refining that ever-ambitious growth. His most recent album, The Divine Feminine, is both his most unexpected and accomplished. Its sound is, somehow, at once dizzyingly expansive and tightly constructed, like an orchestra. It features an enviable roster of big-name vocal collaborators (Kendrick Lamar, CeeLo, and Ariana Grande, naturally). But equally exciting are the less mainstream musicians who help give the record its undisputed texture: esteemed jazz pianist Robert Glasper, bass funk iconoclast Thundercat, and an entire ensemble of Juilliard students. It’s a record that demonstrates just how much its creator loves making music. 

In the Feedback video, Miller dabbles with the different instruments he’s mastered over the years: countless keyboards, a Precision Bass, computer programs, and a Telecaster. “I play with whatever’s around, but the Tele for me…” he trails off for a moment. “I’ve always wanted to play guitar in a band. I kind of cheated by building my tours up with rapping and then randomly coming out with a guitar and a band like we were a huge rock band,” he laughs. “But I got this Tele, and it lasted through so much with me—through my whole first tour, through much recording. It just came to be kind of a comfort; part of me was that Telecaster I had. So I’ve always loved playing the Telly just because of those moments.” 

Engaging with real instruments has enabled Miller to tap into a kind of limitless creativity, as well as given precision, form, and power to the sounds he dreams up. And so, I’m curious about his feelings making music in a predominantly digital age. “We’re an interesting segue generation of people; so unique in the sense that we remember a life before modern technology as it exists now. We remember being alive before the internet was everywhere. Yet we’re also young enough to be completely enamored and in that world,” Miller explains. “Blending those two worlds, and finding that marriage, is what I do in my life. I try to not get too obsessed or wrapped up in the digital world, try to keep some kind of grip on reality. So what I like about using live instruments is there’s something a little off that infuses character and personality. But there’s so much you can do after with them [digitally], too.” 

Ultimately, though, it’s still about that spirit of exploration. “The feeling that comes across with just a really good chord on a guitar is kind of hard to describe,” says Miller. “It’s like a blanket, man!”