Mia Berrin is a songwriter, producer, and recording artist based out of Brooklyn, whose project, Pom Pom Squad, has garnered attention over the last few years for its grunge-pop sound and introspective lyrics. Her debut album, Death of a Cheerleader, was released in 2020 via Berlin-based label City Slang and has since been featured in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Billboard, and more. Mia has been open about the impact of her queer, POC, and bipolar identities on her career in music, and speaks with Karin Jervert and Amy Biancolli at Mad in America more about patriarchy, the music industry, and mental health.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Karin Jervert: I’m here today with Mia Berrin, the front woman of the American indie rock/grunge band from Brooklyn, Pom Pom Squad. The group, with Shelby Keller drums and Alex Mercuri guitar, cut their teeth playing packed Brooklyn apartments, but they quickly graduated to packed Brooklyn venues, alongside artists like Soccer Mommy, Adult Mom, and Pronoun. The band’s latest album is Death of a Cheerleader. We’re really happy to have her on and talk to her today. Also, Mia, so welcome. So glad to have you here.
Mia Berrin: Thank you so much. I’m glad to be here.
Amy Biancolli: Mia, I’m just curious to hear how you would describe the stressors of the music industry. Could you speak to that a little bit?
Berrin: I can absolutely relate to that. I’ve been a full-time musician for the past two and a half years, which has been a huge lifestyle change. Before that I was a student and I was doing day jobs. Working retail requires different skill sets than working in the music industry. In terms of the music industry, I quit my day job to go on tour, and most of my job since then has been touring. I’m back home right now for the first time. It’s the longest consecutive amount of time I’ve been home in two years, which has been three months.
For me, being bipolar, something like getting sleep is really important, taking my medication at the same time, making sure I’m eating properly, making sure that I’m drinking enough water, just doing all of the things that your body’s baseline needs in general, but also that your body needs as a baseline to maintain your mental stability and keep you seeing clearly. The way that the touring industry works, it’s just not conducive to anyone’s physical health really. Money’s tight, sleep is few and far between, options for food are usually not great. You’re not very active during the day, you’re usually on a long drive.
For me, because I’m still a smaller artist, we’re usually touring in vans versus sometimes we’re chasing after an artist touring on a bus, and while those artists can sleep on the bus, and they have a driver, and they can get to the venue early and have a little bit more time to relax just for the sake of saving money. Honestly, it’s just not realistic for us to expect to do something like sleep through the night while we’re on a tour.
Biancolli: That makes a lot of sense. I mean, one thing I’m also curious about is those stressors that you describe, and their effects on physical and mental health—is that different from how the music itself affects you? From how performing affects you? And if so, how would you describe it? What does music—performing with your band—do for you?
Berrin: That’s a good question. I’m thinking about a specific tour, we went on, we did a headline tour last year, around exactly a year ago, where I was just having a really difficult time, mentally, behind the scenes of that tour was really difficult for me. But the shows really kept me going. I think doing a headline is different than doing any other kind of tour because, in my experience, I would get to go out every night and see people who loved my music and were more familiar with me and familiar with my songs. They were singing my songs back to me, and it gave me a completely new perspective on the music that I had made because when I’m writing, I’m usually writing for me.
I think people—I’ve been hearing this phrase a lot because I’m writing my second record right now—but I’ve heard people say you have your whole life to write your first record, and only a year to write your second. For me, those songs have been a culmination of many years of my life, and many different places that I’ve been as a growing person, and meeting people who had similar experiences to me, or completely dissimilar experiences to me, who loved the songs and had some moments from their own lives that they could tie into the music. It was really mind blowing and so special. That really kept me going.
I think the love of the music and the love of what I do is the only reason I can continue to do this, because it is a job. If I just wanted to put out music, and throw it up on Bandcamp and say that’s it—that could be a way to live my life. And that would be just for the love of doing it. But I want this to be my career and I want to take it as far as I can go, and that’s just where I’m at as an artist. But that also means that I have to be prepared for the stressors as we were talking about that come with making this a career.
Every time I questioned that decision of whether or not I should have just thrown it up on Bandcamp and gone back to working retail, seeing the people in the audience react to my music, and hearing from those people is what reminds me to keep going.
Biancolli: That must be so affirming.
Berrin: It’s really special, and I think it’s kind of the cliché answer that you hear every musician say, it’s so unreal when you hear people singing back to you, but it really is. I mean it, as somebody who is generally pretty introverted, and not the social butterfly in the room. I found it very hard to connect with people growing up, and even now I have a very small circle of people that I let into my life. So it feels really good and affirming that my thoughts can connect people to me, even when I don’t always feel like I can connect with people one to one.
Jervert: Being open in the music industry as someone with a diagnosis like bipolar, how do you find that? We just talked about stressors in the music industry. So you’re being both open in the music industry itself and then you’re also being open with your fans and just the general public. It’s overcoming stigma of difference of any kind, it is hard in everybody’s day to day life, but when you’re this larger personality with a larger following, and you’re like, hey. It’s kind of like me with voice hearing. You just—you have this way of putting it out there, and what are the consequences? I have plenty of consequences in my life of saying it openly and in public in different ways, that I am a visions and voices person. So what is that like for you, what are the benefits? What are the consequences?
Berrin: That’s a great question. I think one of the bigger consequences, I think, being a public person, in general, is being exposed to a lot more opinions that any human being should naturally be exposed to.
Jervert: I just have to say I can’t and can imagine.
Berrin: I think every person who starts putting things out publicly is thinking, even if they think they’re thinking publicly is thinking very locally, localized inside your own mind, localized to your own community. So, I would say something that I thought would be completely non-controversial, whether that was something political or whether that was something surrounding my mental health that I was like everybody knows and agrees with this because “this is the normal way to think.” And then suddenly, you’re exposed to the fact that the internet is a lawless county with no borders, and anyone can find your stuff.
I think I was talking about the TikTok algorithm…I promise this is relevant…and how TikTok comments are a lot meaner than normal commenters. The reason I believe this, my unified theory of TikTok is that TikTok comments are a lot meaner because the algorithm is servicing you to people who they think will like your stuff based on things that they have watched in the past, but who are not necessarily looking for you.
I could say, oh, I had this experience on my tour expecting the people who follow me or my fans, they’re going to react well, and then get a comment, like, wow, they’ll verify anyone these days. It’s sort of like you’re not prepared for that kind of a comment because you’re thinking the people you expect to see this will see it. You’re speaking to your audience, you’re speaking to your localized part of the community, and I think when you’re first exposed to that, it’s very shocking, and very jarring.
For me, it made me want us to stop showing my personality altogether outside of my music, and I went through a period of time where if I was not releasing music. I only wanted to just post pictures of what I was wearing, where I was. I didn’t want to talk about what I was feeling. I didn’t want to talk about what I was thinking because once you reach a level of vulnerability, with the internet in that way, it’s like you’re allowing people to love you for who you are, but you’re also allowing people to hate you for who you are.
Jervert: Does it translate to the mental health stuff? Is there a specific vitriol that comes or the opposite, the positive consequences of connection and support around the sort of openness around that?
Berrin: To be honest, I haven’t talked a ton about my bipolar publicly yet. So I haven’t really gotten the opportunity to receive that criticism just yet. I think that the thing that has been difficult as it pertains to mental health is when my music came out, I got a lot of reviews that were like, Oh, it’s melodramatic. It’s moody. It’s so angsty. It’s so you know, over the top all of these feelings that she’s expressing.
Jervert: Which is what makes it awesome, by the way.
Berrin: Well, thank you. But also I think the idea of melodrama and to have my feelings be called melodramatic, it’s reductive. I think it’s reductive one as somebody with a mood disorder and two as a young woman because we’ve been hearing since the dawn of time, this idea of like women and hysteria and you’re being overdramatic.
Biancolli: What I love about your music is your songs are really crunchy and catchy. They’re tuneful. They’re hard. The lyrics are so vivid, and they’re blunt, and they’re emotionally searing, and they’re often heavy—and, in fact, one of your songs is called “Heavy Heavy,” and it grapples with depression.
You’re owning everything. You’re putting it out there. And when you brought up hysteria—for me, that’s one of the great examples. “Great” in not in the sense of being wonderful, but great in the sense of being a vivid example of women being told—being shouted down—by the patriarchy. “Oh, are you expressing yourself? Are you empowering yourself? Are you telling the men in the room what you think and who you are? Oh, you’re being melodramatic. You’re hysterical.”
And what you seem to be doing with your music is you’re saying, “Okay, this is me. I’m putting this out there and I’m owning it, and I’m empowered” I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but is that how would you describe it?
Berrin: That’s totally fair. I think I’m putting it out there in the way that I am because it’s all I have. That’s the experience that I can speak to, and those are the states that inspired me to write music in the first place. People always ask me about Pom Pom Squad and the whole cheerleader thing. It’s a frustrating kind of thing to address over and over and over, not because it’s not a valid question. I think the cheerleader character is very polarizing in culture, and I initially adopted that character and named the band the way that I did because the cheerleader always felt like the archetype of the “good woman” to me or good girl, what you’re supposed to be as a young woman, and I started writing music when I was 16. So I was still in high school and I was struggling with the fact that I didn’t look like the girls that I saw on TV as being like valuable, societally valuable girls. I was not, I am not a white woman. I’m not straight. I wasn’t conventional in the beauty standards of whiteness when I was growing up, particularly, and I was angry, and I was frustrated, and I didn’t really see a place for myself in the world, in society because there is nobody that I could look to that modeled a career that seemed feasible to me or realistic.
My mom and I really loved listening to music together and going to shows together. When I was really struggling with my mental health in high school, that was something that she did for me that changed my life was taking me to shows—and if I got all my homework done on a school night, we would go out to the House of Blues in my hometown, or we would go out to these like little dive bars in my hometown, and I would just, it was a study for what I do now. I learned so much about performance by watching shows with her, and I think she loved the Smiths and the Cure, and like all music, and my dad really loved hip hop, and R&B and I think you kind of reached that age where you start with your parents music, and then you sort of find what your niche is. When I found out about Riot Grrrl and Grunge that was the game changer.
Jervert: That was going to be my next question. I want to hear more about your presence and identity as a person of color in the music industry, who is also out as a person with a diagnosis. How is this affecting your career?
Berrin: As it pertains to my experience in the music industry and the music that I write, my music is queer because I’m queer. My music is inherently related to the experience of being a person of color because that’s the only perspective that I have been given, and it’s a perspective that I feel grateful to have because I’m proud of who I am and it’s taken me a long time to be able to say that and stop seeing that as a detriment, and start seeing it as an asset because I’m proud that I get to have different perspectives to the mainstream.
But that said, it definitely impacts how I feel that I have to conduct myself around people. I think we’ve all heard at this point, certain stereotypes about people of color, and how they’re allowed to experience anger or how they’re allowed to experience rage. I mean, I think without kind of blowing up any individual person, there’s members of my family, who have darker skin than me, and who have been deprived of really critical, important diagnoses because they were being told, you know, oh, you’re having a panic attack when they actually had a heart condition.
It’s an added layer to the already sort of handshakey, secret code E-World of the music industry. You have to conduct yourself a certain way, you have to talk to people a certain way, you have to talk about yourself a certain way. To also add that, for me, an example that I always use is when I will go to a venue, Pom Pom squad is my project. And, I’ve had permanent band members for the past five years, who will continue to be my permanent band members and who I feel so lucky to have in my life.
But at the end of the day, it is my band. But the one man in the band would always get asked, what does she want in her monitor? How does she want her guitar mixed? And, at the end of the day, it’s me who’s standing at the front of the stage, and who’s making the calls. And in my personal experience, that was when I knew I wanted to get serious about music.
I decided to transfer to music school to learn about audio engineering, and music production—and business—because I knew that if I didn’t that I was going to be talked down to and that I was more likely to be taken advantage of. And it’s the best decision I’ve ever made for myself, because I have seen those contracts that I’ve been scared of. I have been in those situations where someone tried to tell me like, oh, well, we fixed that with your monitor. And I can say, “No, you didn’t, because I have ears, and I can hear it.” And I know what to listen for.
Biancolli: I’m curious about that moment. What was the moment you decided, okay, I’m not just going to do this for myself as a hobby, I’m going to make a career out of this. What led you to that moment? And was part of it, “Oh, I have to say something, I have to express something, I have to put my voice out there in a way that people can hear.” What led you to that? I’m really curious.
Berrin: That’s a great question. And also definitely pertains to my mental health. So up until my sophomore year of college, I grew up singing. And I started playing guitar when I was 14. But there was something in me that never connected the dots, that you could start a band or could make music myself. I was really focused for all of high school on being an actor. I love films, and I love visuals. And that’s a huge part of my artistic identity, and so at the time, that manifested as me wanting to pursue acting.
So when I initially got into NYU, it was to be in the Acting Program. And I was there for two years. And it took such a toll on me mentally. That was around the time that I started to notice that there was something wrong, “wrong with me” beyond just depression and anxiety. I would have panic attacks during classes. I would just start crying out of nowhere, I would get irrationally angry. I was falling behind because I was struggling, and how can you do something as physical and as mentally taxing as acting when you’re not feeling whole? That was my experience with it, at least, and I would fall behind—and I basically got told, there are no bad classes, only bad actors, which just made me shut down more and retreat into myself.
Biancolli: That’s horrible.
Berrin: It was, and I heard a lot of really ugly things from acting teachers about myself. I remember a teacher basically implying that there was like a semester meeting where they took everyone into a room and they said, here’s what you’re going to be typecast as, here’s what you’re excelling at, here’s what you’re not as good at. All the girls came out of their meetings, like, he told me that I’m beautiful, and I’m a leading lady. And I’m really good at X, Y, and Z. And I’ll be great for these kinds of movies. And I went into my meeting, and he basically implied that I’m not pretty enough to act and then was, like, but you’ll probably do relatively well, as an actress of color.
Jervert: Are you kidding me? Your story just reminds me of how little we understand difference, and allow for difference and allow for different pacing and different bodies, different everything. We’re just so close minded around, “Here is the path, If you can’t walk it, you’re nobody and you can’t get anywhere.” Right?
Where is the understanding of diversity and difference in the least. Like you’re talking about in the schooling environment—it’s just a crazy situation where people do fall behind and blame themselves.
Berrin: It was really appalling. There was also this kind of group mentality in that I would see people fall behind—peers, the people around me, and me included, because I was influenced by the people around me. It was like you were the joke, if you’re the one who was falling behind in the class. And you were getting in everyone else’s way. And then I became that person, essentially things with my mental health just got to a really bad place.
I was doing short films for students at the time. And I really enjoyed doing short films and meeting other film students and kind of seeing their processes. And while I was working on a short film, I met some guys at NYU who were studying music technology.
And they started, talking about building amps, and all the things they do and how they’re recording stuff. There are these moments in my life where I just adopt this kind of bravado that I don’t really even understand where it comes from. I think part of it is ego, and part of it is aspiration. I basically lied, and I was like, Oh, I have a band, and I make music and blah, blah, blah. They were like, Oh, really, and I was like, Yep, my band is called Pom Pom Squad.
I made up this whole thing. I don’t know, it was just a moment of ambition. And I’d started writing music in my bedroom when I was 16. So suddenly, these guys were like, Oh, well, we want to hear your music, and so I had to pull out these demos that I made when I was a teenager. And then I lied, and I said, I was working on an EP, and so then I had to go write an EP.
But basically that eventually became a music career. And what I wanted to do was that—I’ve been working with these guys. That was my introduction to music production as a concept, as I was trying to work out parts with them for music that I wrote and mix these songs. I would try to express an idea, because I’ve listened to a lot of music in my life. I’ve always been a music fan, first and foremost. I didn’t have the language to express what I wanted. And there’s one day where we finished a song, and I kind of sat back and let them take the reins on something in a way that I didn’t feel comfortable with. A couple months later, I listened back to the song and I was like, I just don’t like it. I don’t feel comfortable to release it. And I went to them. And I said, Hey, I really I don’t know, I don’t feel good about this. It’s just off to me. I want to start it over. And they basically were like, you’re being crazy, like you should just chill, it’s not a big deal. I let them, like, mollify me and I was like, okay, and I left the room, and as I was walking out of the room, I heard them all laugh at me. That’s when I decided I need to learn how to produce music, because I just never want to feel this again.
Biancolli: I’m sorry for all you went through. But in a way, that story—your origin story of Pom Pom Squad and how you came to this moment when you realized, “I have to own this”—to me, that is the embodiment of that “kick-ass cheerleader persona” that you took on. And I love that piece of it.
You’re saying, “Okay, I’m going to take this image of femininity that is just so stereotyped—and it has so many negative associations with weakness.”
And in that moment, you became that kick-ass cheerleader. So I’m wondering: Was that freeing for you? I’m just curious if there’s something, also, about the process of writing and making music—whether it helps you maybe understand yourself, and then express yourself in a new way?
Berrin: Definitely, I think the goal of my music first and foremost will always be to understand myself better. When I’ve written with anything other than that goal, I have not succeeded in creating the kind of work that I want to create. Because I’ve written two EPs. My second EP is the one that I had the biggest hand in production wise, of the two that I put out, and so I consider that my first EP.
My first EP was really about my diagnosis with bipolar and struggling with my mental health and learning a lot about myself. During that time, I wrote it when I was maybe 20/21—so very, very early into these discoveries. And it truly did help me find the language to understand my own brain better, and to communicate my feelings better. And with “Death of a Cheerleader,” that album was dedicated to my journey with my queerness and coming out and understanding these feminine archetypes that I had held myself to in my own life, that held me back from being a fully formed human being. But all of the projects that I’ve done have had a huge relation to where I was, mentally and with myself.
Jervert: I resonate with that process of a work of art moving something through you and out into the world in this prideful way around something that we’re supposed to be ashamed of, and then transforming it and letting it churn and actually come out as this beautiful part of our wholeness.
I really resonate with that. I wanted to ask you, since we’re talking about this experience with your first album, where you were churning, letting the music turn the bipolar diagnosis, and how you were coming to terms with that—and learning the language to speak about it. And to understand it as a part of your wholeness.
I also had the bipolar diagnosis. I don’t identify with it any longer. But for me, it was very much a dance of trying to find what was part of my creative uniqueness, the diversity of who I was, and then the other things that may or may not have caused stress or could be under the column of disease. Parsing those two things out for me became a 24/7 thing. Like, where’s my brain now? Is it diversity or disease? Is it creativity or disease? So that became a real exhausting thing for me that I eventually just had to let go.
The way I solved that for myself was I let go of the bipolar label altogether. I wonder what your experience with that as a musician. As this wonderfully talented, creative musician…how you parse the disease versus diversity, creativity versus disease of paradigm?
Berrin: That’s a great question. And I’ve never heard it put that way. That gives me a lot to think about as well.
When I was diagnosed, I was initially confused because I only ever heard people talk about bipolar as you’re manic—you’re having a great time, you think you can do everything, you’re on top of the world, and you’re depressed and you’re low. And I experienced those lows, but I had never experienced the manic “I can do anything” highs, and so when I was told that I was bipolar, I was like, there’s no way—that doesn’t make any sense. But the way my bipolar manifests is depression, baseline and then hyper vigilance and really high extreme anxiety, which— I didn’t understand they were related. I was going through the world thinking that everything was going to hurt me, you know?
But I think for me, the highs would manifest a lot of the times as anger, really extreme anger. And there were moments that I obviously wrote about that and wrote it out. But I think the past couple of years I’ve had a really important realization about my mental health, and this is something that I have been on my soapbox about. I think that a lot of young artists are tied to this myth of “you have to suffer for your art,” which I think is actually a really harmful myth. For me, I think that I viewed basically just putting myself in emotional pain as having the experiences I needed to be an artist. So I would put myself in these situations that were almost, “Well, I know this is going to be a great story.” I would put myself in the line of fire, whether that was romantically, or whether that was just making dumb decisions.
Putting myself in an unsafe situation because I was like, “Well, if you want to be a real artist, you have to have experiences, you have to struggle, you have to suffer.” For me as a person with the diagnosis, giving myself that sort of range of emotions was also like walking a very dangerous line with my mental health, because following those highs and lows, and getting really absorbed in the highs and lows, is very dangerous for someone with bipolar disorder.
I do want to speak to something you said earlier, though, in terms of craft, and the idea that a musician embodies what people in the general public are not allowed to. That’s really real, and so accurate, but I’ve also been thinking that there’s a different relationship between the artist and their work and an audience and their work. And in terms of experiencing these altered states, something that I get up on stage and do, for other people, is embody something that they can’t express themselves. But what I have to do as an artist—to continue to have this job—is I have to take what I felt in the altered state and craft it into something. And I think that, especially around women who make music and who make art, there’s the language of craft is often left out of the mix.
I’ll read a lot of articles about cis male artists, where they are like, “It was brilliantly crafted, inspired by events from her own life or from his own life.” And then I’ll read an article—let’s say a woman wrote the same album or a non-cis man wrote the same album—and it’s like, “She is a beautiful songstress.” It’s “he makes” versus “she is,” and it’s this language around women. You either have it or you don’t. Music is just this magical thing that happens to you.
But I think what I kind of want to make very clear about myself, and my artistry is, in terms of the whole “suffer for your art, you have to struggle for your art,” I can make art out of the altered states that I feel. But when I’m constantly living in these altered states in an effort to make more content, or make more art, that’s not conducive to actually crafting, because crafting is something that takes work and effort and sitting down at a desk and trying to bang out a paragraph of writing into three words, to fit the right line.
I think it’s like a piece of advice that I have for artists in general, who experience altered states, through their own mental disorders: Taking care of yourself is the best thing that you could do as an artist, because that’s what’s going to help you make your best work. The suffering is just going to happen, that’s just life. But you don’t have to feed into that in order to make your best work.
Your best work is going to be made when you can have clarity and perspective to be able to share those things. And that’s what allows you to go on stage and embody the taboo and embody the thing that the general public doesn’t get to experience.
Jervert: So I think my final question for you is what do you see the way forward in the music industry as far as people who are experiencing mental distress? We’d spoken with Chris [Bullard, organizer of the Sound Mind Festival] earlier, he said there are a lot of changes happening, there are people being more aware. But what do you think? How do you see the way forward in as far as the music industry and mental health?
Berrin: I think in terms of the music industry, I think we as an industry need to be more considerate of and work harder to provide mental health resources and access for people who need help. I think mental health can be every bit as debilitating as a physical injury. And what musicians do and what people in the music industry do is very taxing physically, mentally, emotionally. But it’s these emotions and these feelings and these experiences that this industry is built on, and so I think the industry needs to take care of its workers and take care of the people who are providing it—the fuel it needs to continue.
If there were no musicians, there would be no music, and there would be no music industry. So I think there just needs to be better care and more intention towards protecting people who have mental illness. And, I think there needs to be a system of healthcare in the music industry. I think therapy needs to be more normalized in the music industry. I think resources and access are the main things they’d need to change in music.
Jervert: I just want to thank you so much for coming today. And speaking to us, it’s been a really wonderful conversation.
Biancolli: It has.
Berrin: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from The Thomas Jobe Fund.