Mika: At home with fame
From early childhood, Mika knew he was destined to sing. And with his latest album selling a million copies, he's finally proved the doubters wrong. He invites Elisa Bray to his pad
Monday 23 November 2009
I'm trashed," says Mika, flicking on the kettle at his London apartment. "I was given three days off and it's only when you stop working that you feel it."
If this is Mika in tired mode, you can only imagine how energetic he is usually. "You've got to hear this," he exclaims, dark brown curls bouncing as he jumps up to play a song by The King's Singers, with whom he is about to play a gig at the Union Chapel. Since Mika posted a link to the singing troupe's YouTube video on his Twitter page, the hits have rocketed from 300 to 30,000. "The power!" Mika says gleefully, his eyes sparkling.
Mika's power is undeniable. Whether you like or loathe them, the melodies of his colourful, exuberant pop songs lodge themselves in your head. His 2007 debut album Life in Cartoon Motion sold 5.6 million and his second, the September-released The Boy Who Knew Too Much, reached number four in the UK charts, shifted a million copies worldwide in its first days, and made the Top 20 in the US Billboard 200. In France he tops the charts. How did Mika become a worldwide star? "If I really have to pin down why," he ponders, "it's because I come from so many different places. It meant that I was inevitably eclectic and I wasn't born out of a scene. I was making music that existed on its own terms and subsequently had to have its own entire visual world around it. Still –" he adds, "success in one place, let alone multiple places, is a surprise."
Not that much of a surprise, surely. From early childhood Mika would spend five consecutive hours dancing in his bedroom to Nina Simone, Michael Jackson and the Beastie Boys. His mother noticed Mika's talent and he was soon singing on jingles for commercials. "I knew early I wanted to sing my own songs, but that was it. I still think I was very unlikely to do what I do – as a pop star. There's a part of me that felt like the accidentally invited guest to the party and I think that's healthy because it keeps you on your toes. When you don't think you belong somewhere you don't get complacent."
Has fame changed him over the past few years? "No".
It's for this reason, to avoid complacency, that Mika is performing a show with The King's Singers and performed acoustic shows at Sadler's Wells with an orchestra, drawing on his brief stint at the Royal College of Music (he quit). He is aware of the short shelf life faced by so many pop stars today. "Reinvention and good song writing are what will see me through in my career. I know the heart of it all is the songs so I try to write songs that don't necessarily have instant commercial potential. My ticket sales have never been better."
If the flamboyant performance style, relentless melodies and distinctive falsetto vocals aren't to everyone's taste, Mika's likeable personality is a definite draw. He can't offer enough tea and biscuits, while to launch the first single from the album, We Are Golden, he invited his fans via Twitter to his local pub for celebratory drinks, and he radiates a genuine passion and enthusiasm. No surprise that so many in the pop world have been drawn to him; Mika can count Adele, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga among his friends ("She's very intelligent and bizarrely sincere – at least she's honest about the fact she's a fabrication of her own doing").
His South Kensington flat is light and welcoming, full of brightly coloured flowers and Diptyque candles. He had it decorated recently and hasn't been able to write a song there since, despite the fact that it's the home of the upright piano he's owned since he was two. Now he takes his songwriting to the studio. "Ever since I re-did it [the flat] I haven't written a song in it because I don't like how it looks. It's way too new." His ideal place to write is "somewhere old where you can flirt with the ghosts in the room and steal their stories". His other great love, illustration, can be seen all around his flat. Works by artists such as Peanuts creator Charles Schulz adorn the walls.
Now 26, Michael Penniman moved as a young child from Beirut to Paris with his Lebanese mother, American businessman father and siblings, where they lived until he was nine. They have been based in London ever since. Mika was an eccentric child. At school in Paris he was suspended for dragging a Christmas tree into his classroom when it wasn't even Christmas. He was "discreet" and quiet among his peers, but his clothes were far from it. He would ask his dressmaker mother to fashion him shirts and bow ties from the most vibrant offcuts. If, as a bona fide pop star, he feels like the accidentally invited guest to the party, it's an extension of his youth throughout which he felt like an outsider. When he moved to London, the bullying began. He gained a place through his musical ability at Westminster School, and recalls: "It was the girls who defended me." What was he bullied about? "Everything. The way I spoke, the way I dressed. I was found to be effeminate by a lot of the guys. I was obsessed with music, I was not clever enough to be a geek, I was not cool so it left me in my own place. But I would never change anything in my past." He pauses. "Almost all pop music songwriters were never popular and that's probably why they were attracted to a populist format. And almost every creator of popular fiction or comic books, some of the most populist things published, are the strangest most introverted people, and the hardest to decipher."
While his debut album was a product of his childhood, The Boy Who Knew Too Much centres around his adolescence. "I had to pick up where I left off and confront my adolescence rather than run away from it. How do I take my world and evolve it? I understand this naive approach to really serious subjects, but how do I take that somewhere else? Ok, take your fairytale, but make it a really twisted gothic one. Make the lyrics hard hitting and miserably mundane, then pair this up with joy and you get this strange contrast between the two."
On stage he is an extrovert showman, commanding the attention of his fans – like a circus ringmaster. "It's the same me, but performing is like my boxing ring. I'm not afraid of being judged, I'm not afraid of someone taking a shot at me for who I am and what I'm doing." When the critics were divided over his debut album, he described it confidently as a "Marmite record". If he's honest, he's not exactly happy with that; he would prefer to be liked by everyone. "It must be great for some writers that are just critically fine. They can fart on a record and they seem to get good reviews."
His camp ways are still a puzzle that he wishes to guard. "I discuss my sexuality in my lyrics more than anybody in pop music. There's a way to discuss sexuality without labels. It's not born out of fear because you don't make music like mine if you're operating from a position of fear, that's for sure." He says he is currently in the longest relationship of his life so far. "I'm private about my private life and I think that's an important thing. It's not necessarily retaining mystery, it's preserving yourself so you can sit down and write a song without feeling like you've sterilised yourself to be nice to everybody."
When the photographer arrives, he leaps up. "What am I going to wear?" he exclaims, before emerging several minutes later in a suitably bright jacket. The three days' holiday are over, and it's all go again. He is already gearing up for a European tour early next year. "I quite like it. I'm comfortable with the fact that's my life." He pauses as if listening back to himself. Then, eyes shining with excitement, he corrects himself: "I love it, actually!"
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