“I was more excited about him than I’ve been in quite some time.”
Jon Brion has been on the music scene for nearly 40 years, playing instruments and producing albums for the likes of Fiona Apple, Rhett Miller, and Kanye West, implanting his sound on a variety of different genres.
While Mac Miller was nothing short of a musical superstar, releasing a total of 20 projects, he was jerked back and forth by two audiences: one wanting upbeat raps and another wanting real-life stories.
Miller started to draw a line in the stand with the release of The Divine Feminine, a record that makes you miss a past love or thankful for the one hanging around. The 8-minute Ty Dolla $ign collaboration, “Cinderella,” sends daggers to the heart, while “My Favorite Part” — sung with once-lover Ariana Grande — paints a picture for the love that everyone seeks.
Still, parts of the record felt somewhat empty and hollow. It was good, not great. But close.
In August of 2018, Miller released Swimming, by far his most complete project to date. Swimming was The Divine Feminine on steroids — consistently holding to theme with zero wasted lines or guitar strums. It was a beautiful collaboration of song and sound, a balance Miller worked his entire career to achieve.
Swimming had influence from a litany of different artists and producers. But there are two names that appear in the credits more than any other: Mac Miller and Jon Brion.
Brion was credited as a writer or producer on eight of the record’s 13 tracks, signifying Mac’s comfortability and artistic connection with the man that had been playing music longer than Miller had been alive.
Miller and Brion were far from done, however. Swimming would go on to receive a Grammy Nomination for Best Rap Album and relatively positive critical acclaim. The album was just the beginning of a larger project that could have included multiple albums playing off the same theme as Swimming — a story of self-discovery and all that it entails, good and bad.
Just a month after the release of Swimming, Miller passed away from an accidental overdose.
Miller’s beautiful, revealing music would not stop playing, however.
With the majority of the next album nearly finished, a title picked out, and the blessing from Miller’s family, Brion was asked to complete what is likely Miller’s final offering to the world — Circles, released in 2020.
Brion was heavily involved in this project before Miller passed away, of course. While Brion may not have been widely known to the general public, Mac was a fan before even working with him.
Not long after meeting Miller for the first time, describing him as nervous and a little shy, Brion was at a music store in Los Angeles and asked by the store owner if he had ever met Mac. Brion was surprised by this as it was not a public meeting. The store owner told him Mac had recently bought a Fender Telecaster guitar because he had once seen Brion playing it.
Miller initially wanted to meet with Brion because he wasn’t sure if the confessional style of music he was shifting towards was good. The two became close, and you can hear it in the music. As successful as Miller had been up to that point, he didn’t feel confident in his instrument playing, either, often asking Brion to fulfill that role.
During studio sessions, songs were not designed, arranged, or planned, according to Brion. Miller hoped to create connective tissue between Swimming, Circles, and perhaps more. Brion was there to help Miller tidy things up.
Miller originally showed the song “Good News” to Brion with no chorus. While playing the song aloud in the studio, Miller sang the chorus on the spot. Again, with no plan. Brion was able to recognize its genius, shooing Miller towards the mic to record it.
Miller was dubious, thinking it could perhaps work as its own song. But Brion put his foot down, which he says he doesn’t do often, and told Miller to record it.
Before Miller’s passing, Brion said Circles was just a few songs away from completion. Once he gained full control over the album after Miller’s death, there were songs he hadn’t even heard yet that took him aback.
Listening to Circles is a painful-yet-heavenly experience and one that may never change. The words are a window into the mind of a now self-aware artist trying to shake addiction, making the peace we all seek in life sound so easy to find all the while showing its difficulty to hold onto. The music is nothing short of a melodic dream, making you feel as if Heaven isn’t as far away as it seems.
While listening to “I Can See” in the studio, Brion both soaked in the beauty of the music and the agony in the loss of Miller’s talent.
“I’d be beyond delighted because I’m like, ‘This is good by anybody’s standards, any genre. This is a human being expressing themselves well.’ Loved the track. But then it would turn back to a torture because you’re like, ‘Oh my God, and you were capable of that.’”
One day, Miller came over to play “Once a Day” for Brion, another song that shocked Brion in its complete nature in word and sound. It needed more than straight piano, though, so Brion grabbed some more instruments.
Mac, unsurprisingly to Brion, remained self-conscious in his playing ability and asked Brion to do so. Brion said no most of the time, though he would occasionally cave and play alongside Miller.
As Miller was wailing away on one instrument or another, Brion would leave the room and listen from outside. Forcing Miller to play on his own, he had no choice. The music was so good it literally brought Brion to tears.
Miller was still self-conscious, though, asking Brion if he was sure it was good enough to use. Miller refused to play over it because it was great. It was Miller’s. When decision time came for Brion to sequence the tracklisting, this experience called for “Once a Day” to bookend the album (in the non-extended version).
“I already had plans about the future involving him. I had a pile of instruments put aside to give him,” Brion said.
Listening to Brion discuss Miller is heartbreaking because losing Miller alone feels like enough pain for a lifetime. The simple thought of a 26-year-old dying to an accidental overdose tells a haunting story of a young man that battled demons and lost to their earthly offerings. Once you listen to the music, that painful-yet-heavenly feeling constantly churns. One moment’s high is reminded by another’s low. Mac Miller had the ability to clear one’s mind while ravaging their heart.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
Marcus Aurelius wasn’t the first person in history to use death as a reminder to live. In fact, it feels as if everyone before us did so. In a world of greed, suffering, and everything in between, death is the universe’s reminder that everyone is created equal. We all come and go, in one way or another.
After a major military victory in ancient Rome, adoration from the masses rained over the successful generals through the streets. The military’s leader was idolized by his soldiers and drawn by horses in a chariot. It was a peak moment for a man in this position.
Alongside the general, however, was a slave that continually whispered in his ear. “Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori!” In English:
“Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember you must die!”
The history of memento mori and similar phrases goes back to the Egyptians, Buddhists, and Catholics. It hasn’t completed disappeared in modern society, but today’s living seem to run away from death more than they accept it, drowning in work, sex, and substances. We chase earthly highs as a distraction from our inevitable ascendance into a place other than here.
Before Mac Miller reached that other-worldly place, he seemed to accept death, or at least acknowledge it. Miller openly discussed battles with mental health and addiction both in interviews and through his music. Accepting the idea of an early death wasn’t as challenging.
“Come Back to Earth,” a track discussing the cloudiness of depression, sets the tone for Swimming. “Hurt Feelings” and “What’s the Use?” paint a picture of fighting through the demons and making it to the otherside, enjoying life’s pleasures while they are there.
“Perfecto” tells both stories. “Don’t argue to death, pull my heart out my chest. The cards is all on the table, I’m callin’ it. Don’t say it, I swallow it. When livin’ off of borrowed time…I’m treadin’ water, I swear. That if I drown, I don’t care.”
In the track’s second bridge, Miller’s mindset moves to getting out of his own way rather than fighting the current. “I’m treadin’ water, I know. If I stop movin’, I’ll float.”
“Self Care” perhaps tells Mac’s story better than any other song. At this point, Swimming does a wonderful job detailing the mind of an optimistic depressive, and this track is no different.
In its first part, Miller says it’s going to be alright, coming to terms with his past mistakes. In its second part, “Oblivion,” Miller has his memento mori moment.
Didn’t know what I was missin’, now I see a lil’ different
I was, thinkin’ too much, got stuck in oblivion, yeah, yeah
Oblivion, yeah, yeah, oblivion, yeah, yeah
I got all the time in the world, so for now I’m just chillin’
Plus I know it’s a, it’s a beautiful feelin’
In oblivion, yeah, yeah, oblivion, yeah, yeah
Miller admits that the high of life can be the best one, but it’s hard to see that when stuck in the beautiful moment of oblivion (being high). When in oblivion, he doesn’t have to confront death (“I got all the time in the world, so for now I’m just chillin’”).
On “Jet Fuel,” Miller discusses his endless access to drugs that parlays into a constant high. “Well, I’ma be here for a while, longer than I did expect to. I was out of town, gettin’ lost ’til I was rescued. Now I’m in the clouds, come down when I run out of jet fuel. But I never run out of jet fuel.”
Swimming’s final track, “So It Goes,” shows signs of a goodbye note, discussing the circle of addiction and its never-ending loop. “Nine lives, never die, fuck a Heaven, I’m still gettin’ high…Never mind.”
The phrase “So it goes” was used by author Kurt Vonnegut in “Slaughterhouse-Five” to mark each death in the story. Hours before passing, Miller discussed the song on Twitter and played it in his Instagram Story, leaving the world in a way that only Vonnegut could have written up.
Of course, “So it goes” wouldn’t mark the end for Mac Miller.
For all the early hits of Miller’s career, the music on Swimming and Circles was something different. It was genius on one level and ascension on another.
Circles, an extension of Swimming’s message of self-awareness, is worth a lifetime of discussion. While “So It Goes” may have been Miller’s goodbye note while he was still here, Circles offers a more heavenly vibe, offering transcendence into the truth of life and all that it entails — including death.
It only makes sense for the record to end in “Floating” — a state that Miller now finds himself in for eternity. Miller harmonizes from his perch on that higher plane, placing the final touches on his legacy over the calming sound of the many instruments Jon Brion forced him to play.
There’s a place right up above the clouds (Yeah)
Somewhere in between later and right now, right now (Right now, right now, right now)
And you don’t have to be scared, no
I’ll be there when I can finally get away
When I can finally get away (Ooh-ah-ooh-da-da-mm-bah)
Soarin’ uncontrollably, gravity ain’t holdin’ me down (Ha-ha), maybe I —
I’ll fly to your front door some time
When I can finally get away
As much as the world needs Mac Miller, any more unreleased music seeing the light of day would almost spoil the somehow uncrafted ending to Miller’s troubled life. In Swimming, he said goodbye. In Circles, he told us it’s OK that he’s gone.
In the music, Miller didn’t care whether he had an angelic singing voice. He thought he wasn’t good enough to play the instruments but did it anyway. He made a career of telling his story in his way.
Now, his words continue to fill our ears and his sounds continue to soothe our hearts. Miller showed that agony can be turned into beauty. The more self-aware he became, the more the music transcended.
We will forever have to listen to Mac Miller with the same thoughts in mind: thankful that he was here, but heartbroken that he is gone.
Mac Miller is up in those clouds, and he’ll never run out of jet fuel. In physical form or not, though, his presence will never leave us — his final earthly learnings cemented in sound forever.