Introducing the sound of 2007: Mika. The man, the myth, the music

He is 23, and is newly installed at number one. If you buy the hype, he is the biggest thing to hit the world of pop in a generation. Guy Adams goes in search of the maverick behind 'Grace Kelly'
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The Independent Culture

Take Freddie Mercury without the handlebar moustache; throw in equal dollops of Elton John, Robbie Williams, and Scissor Sisters; garnish with matinee-idol looks and the lyrical dexterity of a young David Bowie.

The result is Mika, a young, London-based singer who has appeared from nowhere to go straight to the top of the charts. He's charming, he's 23, and if you believe the hype, he's the biggest thing to hit pop for a generation.

On Sunday, Mika's debut single "Grace Kelly" became only the second track to reach number one on the strength of downloads alone (it isn't actually released until next week). His first album, Life in Cartoon Motion, will spark similar fireworks when it comes out in a fortnight.

A few days ago, a BBC poll of senior music industry figures offered their own endorsement, picking Mika as the brightest "new hope" for the "sound of 2007". He's just clocked up 22,000 friends on MySpace, and was yesterday in New York attempting to crack America.

In Britain, the Beirut-born prodigy has been signed up as a "face" of Paul Smith and is about to embark on a sell-out tour. He's done Jools Holland, met Cat Stevens, and recently received an unsolicited piece of fan-mail from a certain Brian May.

Like any new pop sensation, he is about to enter the international celebrity stratosphere. He is, ladies and gentlemen, the official biggest thing since ... well, since the last big thing.

"The appeal of Mika to me, and I would imagine many others, is simple: he's a proper star," said Q editor Paul Watts yesterday. "He's brash, arrogant, looks great and is already fond of saying foolish things. He writes proper songs, with daft lyrics and big choruses. Would that there were more like him."

The single "Grace Kelly" is all these things, a catchy and extraordinarily inventive track (among other things, it samples the late princess of Monaco) about the difficulties of breaking into the pop industry.

Yet, for all the praise now being heaped upon the track, its curly-haired singer is no ordinary plastic pop-poppet. He was trained at the Royal College of Music, plays piano like an angel, and writes and produces all his own songs. In an era of mass-market bubblegum pop, the boy is like a sore thumb.

He's also delightfully eccentric, with a bizarre transatlantic accent, a polysexual persona, and a bizarre outlook on life (as detailed on his internet site).

"In the past four or five years, we've been force-fed a strict diet of stars who don't write their own material, can't play instruments and hardly ever play live," said Mika's manager Iain Watt. "As this number one shows, he's different, the real deal." The singer is also cocky and opinionated. He boasts the most colourful of life-stories, and despite having struggled for almost five years to break into the music industry, is described by one recent interviewer as "so confident it's frightening".

One interviewer said: "A lot of up and coming singers are excited about being interviewed, but with Mika I got the impression that he's been planning this his whole life. He's incredibly precocious."

Mika Penniman, to use his full name, was born in Beirut, at the height of the Lebanese civil war to an American businessman and a Lebanese mother. The family evacuated to France in 1984, after Mika's father was taken hostage in Kuwait, and moved to London when Mika was nine.

Although he came from an affluent family, who lived off the Cromwell Road near to South Kensington, Mika's early experiences in the UK were mostly unhappy. A dyslexic, he was bullied at a local French school, and spent six months outside the educational system. "I was the unconventional kid in school," he said. "I used to dress in bright red trousers, with a matching bow tie and shirt. Looking back, I was asking for it, and I had a pretty horrific time."

Mika's mother pulled him out of the educational system, and allowed him to study music. He developed into a child singing prodigy, performing at the Royal Opera House and singing advertising jingles as a teenager.

"It opened my eyes to this whole new world: this world where people work all day long, for weeks, to create an illusion. So you create a fantasy, and most people's jobs are rooted in reality. I realised that you didn't have to do that." He went on to Westminster school, gained a place aged 19 at the Royal College of Music, then dropped out in an attempt to launch a solo pop career. After years pushing demo CDs to music labels (no one said it would be easy) he was finally noticed during a few months in Miami in the spring of 2005.

"His demo was originally pitched across record companies in the UK, and was completely ignored by them," said Watt. "So he went to Miami to continue working on songs and when he was over there he met a management company, Fuerte."

They brokered a deal with Universal Records, and decided on a softly-softly approach to launching him. A mini EP, "Relax/Take it Easy", was released in August 2006.

"We never ever wanted this project to be hyped and forced on people, because if you want a long-term career it's better if people just discover your work," Watt said. "He's intelligent and eloquent and like great pop stars there's an enduring quality to him, so we didn't want to suddenly ram him down people's throats."

Radio One had other ideas, though. The station's head of music, George Ergatoudis, heard the debut EP and immediately decided to add it to the station's playlist.

"We were the first station in the world to play and playlist him," he said. "In the first week of hearing stuff, we thought this guy is really going to go. The timing is just right. There's still a place in the market for a dynamic solo male pop star, and he's got that. Songs in that niche between Scissor Sisters and Queen work in public consciousness, and nobody else is doing that right now."

"It was a quite straightforward case of my team, who I suppose number 14 people, hearing Mika's first four or five tracks and straight away saying, to a man, that there's something really going on with this guy. We were so confident it was going to go, and that we had something, we stuck him straight on air.''

The result has been a more-or-less overnight sensation, helped by Mika's sensitivity to the multimedia revolution in music. His Myspace site, which has received almost a million hits, showcases a cast of fictional cartoon characters that appear in lyrics of the debut album.

They were painted by Yasmine, one of his two sisters (he also has a brother), who works as a professional artist with the nom de plume Dawack, and have been referred to in many of the singer's colourful interviews.

"He's a great interview, articulate and opinionated and really self-confident," said his publicist, William Rice. "He's had a really fascinating life, which informs his music. Unlike lots of musicians, he's got lots of colourful experiences to write about, including a few really traumatic episodes which give him material that other artists don't really have."

Mika's interviews often touch upon his disdain for the record industry that ignored him during the early stages of his career. "I was scorned by the alternative crowd, because of my obsession with good melodies," he once said. "And I was rejected by the commercial crowd, the big record companies, because they thought I was too weird."

His rejection of what might broadly be termed "labels" crosses over into his private life. He is often compared to poly-sexual acts such as the Scissor Sisters, and likes to keep his sexuality ambiguous. "He's kept his private life private," says Rice. "We asked him early on whether he wanted to do that sort of ground in interviews and he said he'd rather not. But he's friendly about it if it gets raised in interview, rather than defensive. He is single though."

Another friend says: "He likes artists such as David Bowie, and Mark Bolan and Prince, and one reason is that he likes their sexual ambiguity. Like them, he likes not quite spelling things out. I think he wants to keep people guessing."

"He definitely doesn't have a girl or boyfriend. I'm pretty sure he's at least bisexual, but he doesn't spell it out, and in interviews when asked has just said something about how he doesn't like labels. He seems to enjoy the ambiguity."

Yet remaining ambiguous may not be possible for much longer. Although Mika can still walk the streets of Earls Court, where he lives, without being mobbed, he's not got too many days of anonymity left.

Yesterday, the pop magazine NME went so far as to announce that it would not be featuring the star because his music appeals to a broad cross-section, from teenage girls to foot-tapping grannies. "He's too mainstream," says a spokesman. "It would be like us featuring Take That. He's very pop, and although he's slightly to the left of mainstream, he's not something our target audience would filter into."

In a roundabout way, with "Grace Kelly" sitting pretty at number one, there could hardly be a greater endorsement.

The website words of Mika

* I was born in Lebanon and raised in Paris and London, hopping from country to country like a footloose hippy with my brothers and sisters.

* Coming from a different background to most I found no place at school and delved into music from an early age. I started writing songs as a kid, not because of grand ambitions but because it was an easy way to tell as story, a joke and often tell the truth. Tell the truth in a song and people are less pissed off than if you were to say it too their face.

* I sent out my stories to anyone and everyone, not surprisingly I often got no reply. The further I got into music the more attention I was getting for my own song writing. I made a choice last year and decided to go for it.

* Life in Cartoon Motion is my first record. It has a coming of age theme, and deals with my tranition (sic) from childhood to now. What's my sound? I guess it's in the writing. I apologuise (sic) in advance to the people whos (sic) stories and characters I've borrowed from. Remember, it's only a caricature.

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