Published September 22, 2009
In 2007, a wide-eyed, curly-haired, falsetto-reaching, veritable singing and dancing machine named Mika exploded (think, like, balloons, rainbows, lollipops, confetti, and children’s choirs) onto the pop scene. His album, Life in Cartoon Motion (2007), recalled the playful theatrics (also: high-pitched vocal tendencies) of artists like Freddie Mercury, and his image was appropriately embodied by bright, bold graphics and cartoon characters, and all things happy and childlike. Overnight, Mika became a superstar. His single, “Grace Kelly,” reached number one on the UK Singles Chart in January 2007. He was immediately nominated for Grammys and Brit Awards, winning one of the latter, and his concerts started selling out all over the universe in a (mainly single-digit) number of minutes. Today, Mika drops his sophomore album, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, via Casablanca/Universal Republic Records, and it’s just as catchy, poppy and experimental as ever. Much like the artist himself, the music has grown up just a little bit over the past few years. We talked to the 26-year-old Beirut-born singer-songwriter about life as an 11-year-old middle-school dropout, signing to the Majors without selling out, and what you can expect from his upcoming shows. (Hint: it involves tinfoil, puppets, handheld lights and rock opera.) (PHOTO BY JULIAN BROAD) Lucy Madison: You were born in Beirut–but you’re based in London now. How did you end up there?
MIKA: We moved to London when I was about 8 years old. We had lost everything as a family. I was born in Beirut, but we were evacuated because of the war and ended up in Paris, where we stayed there for 8 years. But then we had some financial problems, lost everything, and started all over again in London. We lived out of a Bed and Breakfast.
LM: What was it like to spend those early years in Paris?
MIKA: I was brought up as a Parisian boy, you know with the pencil-striped trousers and the [unclear] hat that I had to wear to school. It was very traditional.
LM: Parisian boys have great style.
MIKA: It’s really different. There’s a pride in looking good, in looking dapper. When I was growing up in the late 80’s, you had to look so prim. Do you know what pencil-striped trousers are?
LM: Um, I don’t think so?
MIKA: You get the elastic that goes under your foot? Amazing. I used to take pride in making sure there wasn’t a single crease–and I was only about five. Slightly demented. I used to make my mother re-iron my shirts after breakfast and I would have a tantrum if there was a crease.
LM: When did you start singing?
MIKA: I was thrown out of school when I was London. I was about 11-years-old, and I didn’t get along with one of the teachers. She was really insane. In the end, I had to leave the school and I couldn’t get into any other school because I couldn’t read or write–by 11 years old I couldn’t read or write properly–and so I started doing music.
LM: This was in London?
MIKA: It was in London- but I couldn’t read in French or in English. So my mother took me out of school and we started to do music. Piano and singing, 3 or 4 hours a day. Within 8 months I got jobs at the Royal Opera House. So I started working when I was 12 and that was it, it was all over.
LM: So when did you start writing your own songs?
MIKA: When I was ten. I wouldn’t even perform them. I caught on to the fact that if you didn’t have the confidence to say things to people’s face, you could put it into song and sing it instead. It kind of perpetuated this cowardly attitude toward life because I used to just hide behind my songs all the time and that wasn’t necessarily healthy–it kind of led to me being bullied a lot.
LM: You had a really hard time at first getting your first album made. Tell me a little about what made it so difficult.
MIKA: No one would sign me; I was too pop for the indie people and too weird for the pop people–it just wasn’t flying. People were always trying to turn me into something that I wasn’t and I was always resisting, which made it harder.
LM: So how did you finally get signed?
MIKA: I finally found this woman, Jodi Mar, a songwriter in Miami, who totally heard what the records could be like. She invested her money and I invested my student loan, and together we created fully produced demos. As soon as those were finished, I went off with my sister and started working with her to create a whole visual world around the album. We couldn’t afford to package the CD, or pay anyone to package it, so we did the whole thing ourselves, making hand-cut cardboard boxes with ribbons around them, and fold-outs with different pieces of conceptual artwork, so when the record landed on people’s desk it was like this whole statement, a complete vision. Like, don’t fill in any blanks, just give me some money to finish. As soon as I did that, it was like a little bit of wildfire. I had nothing to lose.
LM: And then it caught on really quickly.
MIKA: It caught on. There’s always apprehension whenever I launch anything it seems. When I launch a tour people are always, “Oooh, is this gonna work?” And when I launch an album: “Ooh, is this gonna work?” Or a new video. “Really?” It’s always like that–but I’ve always acted on the impulse that I have nothing to lose. I can’t lose that. That’s the one thing I have to lose, that sensation, and that’s the one thing I have to protect as much as possible.
LM: How did you find that process of writing the second album to be different from the first?
MIKA: I did feel like was that I was competing against myself a little bit, and that was weird. So I embraced the idea that I would go for the craft and let the art come later. I pretended I was writing songs for an imaginary film. I wrote 55 songs and kind of got lost in this little world for 6 months on my own, writing songs at the piano.
LM: What was the movie?
MIKA: It was like a comic-book version of my adolescence–that’s how I tried to pitch it in my head. I thought, the bigger the music sounds, the more fantastical a setting it will put my main protagonist, which was this comic-book version of me. It was a little bit Tommy and a little bit Tin-Tin. [LAUGHS]
LM: Tell me about your upcoming tour.
MIKA: Yeah, well the new set of shows that we’re developing is all based around a kind of Factory, Warholian Factory happening. It’s basically trying to create kind of blurred sense of reality. So I want people to leave going, “Is that? What just happened?” That’s always my ambition.
LM: Will there be dancers and everything?
MIKA: It’s more about creating magic out of really, really simple things. So whether it’s out of tin foil and puppets or handheld lights and things like that. It’s kind of like a poor man’s theater mixed with the concept of rock opera from the ’60s. But with pop songs.