How Mika Fell Back in Love With Pop Goodness
“Where have all the good guys gone?” Mika asked on his last album, 2015’s No Place in Heaven, singing about searching for heroes in everyday life while referencing many of his own, from James Dean to David Bowie and Walt Whitman to Rufus Wainwright. With the October 4th release of My Name Is Michael Holbrook, his fifth LP, he makes emphatically clear the good guys are right here among us — sometimes it just takes a bit of self-rediscovery to find them.
After springing into the spotlight in 2007 with “Grace Kelly” — a defining single with soaring high notes that shot to the top of the charts, sold millions of copies worldwide, and helped turn his debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion, multiplatinum — the piano-playing singer-songwriter released three more LPs: The Boy Who Knew Too Much, in 2009 (“We Are Golden”); The Origin of Love, in 2012 (including “Popular Song,” a collaboration with a then-up-and-comer named Ariana Grande, as well as “Celebrate,” featuring Pharrell Williams); and No Place in Heaven, in 2015. Along the way, Mika — a cunning multilinguist who was born in Beirut, raised in Paris, and reared in London — came out officially. He also admits that he “kind of fell out of love with the job” of making music, something he’s been doing since his first professional gig, at Covent Garden as an eight-year-old. To rediscover that precocious, unfettered love of pop after spending much of the past few years as a TV judge on The Voice in France and Italy, Mika got back to basics, built a home studio, and took two years to write and record with an entirely new production team.
Rolling Stone caught up with the fashionable 36-year-old star in New York the weekend after he finished shooting his upcoming “Sanremo” video in Croatia and the day before he appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers and kicked off his Tiny Love Tiny Tour. We discussed the new album, ice cream, sensuality in music, and how to deal with our looming “sense of disaster.”
You’re still quite the jet-setter. Didn’t you write My Name Is Michael Holbrook in Tuscany and Miami?
I wrote it mostly in Miami. I have a house there I bought years and years ago. It’s from the 1920s, and it took me six years to restore it. And every time I made any money, I put it in there, which was probably a very bad investment. But I did it just because I felt like it was saving an old lady. And I built the studio in that house.
Well, if your name is Michael Holbrook now, what ever happened to the Boy Who Knew Too Much? Is he still in there, or are you just going identity-mad again?
[Laughs] I think he’s more in there now than he was before. It was about reconnecting with that, with me, with Mika. Like rediscovering me and forgetting about the work — about everything from weird TV experiences to touring to commercial surprises and successes and failures, all those things rolled into one, just forgetting all of that shit. Getting back to this 18-year-old sitting in front of his piano, writing songs, thinking in color and imagery, and trying to write songs about it. You know, my name is Michael Holbrook, but I’m Mika.
Are there particular artists or musical tropes that were inspirational in making the album?
Sure, I was excited to have a new team, from the engineer, who is the other musician, the unofficial member of the band, to the producers, who I love: I think Mark Crew is an English tech nerd, one of the next really big British producers.
In terms of influences, I wanted music that was really warm and full of color. So inevitably, I was drawn to the Eighties and Nineties. And that sensuality in music — and not just a sexual sensuality, but sensuality — was something so present in the Seventies and Eighties. And then the Nineties became about commercialism and moved away from this kind of sexy Warholian version of pop to actual pop. And there’s a huge difference between the two. We went from pop to popular, and few things could be further from each other.
Tell us about Michael Holbrook in terms of your American roots.
Well, I didn’t know what to write. I had this itching desire. I knew that I had to confront certain things and kind of reopen the gate again. The truth is that for a couple years the door was shut. And I knew I had to open that door, and I didn’t know where to start. So I built a new studio. A really simple studio. I got myself a white piano because that’s what I wrote on when I was 16 and figured that was a good place to start. And then I got into a car with my dogs and drove from Miami to Savannah, Georgia. Because I had to find out something new about myself, I had to provoke myself. I went to walk around, and I went to Bonaventure Cemetery, and there in the Garden of Good and Evil, I found the Penniman plot. [Mika’s full name is, in fact, Michael Holbrook Penniman Jr.]
I don’t know if all these ancestors would have been very happy to see me walking in: half Lebanese, homosexual, multilanguage-speaking liberal walking to this plot — and then I saw my name, half-etched, half-eroded by weather on tombstones. So many in the Penniman family are buried there, and seeing that is so weird, because it turns out that part of my father’s family is related to John Adams. The Adamses and the Pennimans.
That’s so far back!
So far back, which is hysterical, because I was like, “I’m just an immigrant.” But actually, no. There’s another part of me [for which] that’s not true: Half of me is an immigrant, but the other half is this really complex, entrenched story in part of American history. And so it was kind of a weird thing. But the only thing that I can describe it as is this thrill, this kind of perverted thrill seeing your name on a tombstone, eroded, and it’s like, “You think you know who you are, boy, but you fucking know nothing.” It felt so Tim Burton. It’s like, “This is so sexy. Some damn corpse is in there with my name!” Oh, I love this! That’s my name, this bones in there’s got my name. It’s like, “I’m good. Let’s go home, let’s go write.” And I went home and I wrote “Tiny Love.”
Let’s talk about “Ice Cream,” your bouncy first single from the new album.
Yes, Rolling Stone called it “summer bait,” which I love. It’s completely inappropriate and in a good way. And that’s exactly what it is. It’s a tense little poem on heat and sex.
Who doesn’t love the line “I want it melting on my tongue”? Yet watching the video, one can’t help but also think about the climate crisis. Was that conscious?
Definitely. I think how when I was younger the heat was always something that was just kind of glorious. And now, it’s kind of like, you know, becoming a Margaret Atwood novel, becoming something that we all start to fear. I wanted to talk about that mixture of pleasure, sensuality, the warmth, and then underneath this kind of quite weird darkness and that — whether it’s a kind of sexual or physical discomfort — pending sense of disaster. That is the contrast that I’m trying to put into all my songs, which is funny, because I write dance pop. Especially in the United States, in a kind of Northern American culture, dance pop is full of nonsense. But I love writing dance pop if it also has some of these things built into it.
After your North American shows, you move on to bigger arenas in Europe. What’s the difference performing for audiences on this side of the Atlantic?
It’s even more exciting here. The people who come to see me here really know the music. They’re not coming for any other reason. And that’s fucking great. It’s very nourishing. So I’m going to take that with me to other places where I’m popular as a pop artist. Here it’s just a music show. There’s no set, no theatrics; it’s music. And it’s not by accident. It’s because whatever I do here, and all the decisions and the things that I develop here, are going to be the basis of the show in Europe. That’s what I’ll take over, but I’ll put a bigger show around it.
So who’s on your playlist these days?
I like Unknown Mortal Orchestra. I love the kind of world that I can step into on a Tame Impala record. I love more than ever Chet Baker and Charlie Parker. I love that pop has found not a new skin but another version in something like Lil Nas X and his clash of worlds.
You’re a Lil Nas fan?
Yeah, my perspective on him is like, “Oh, my God, someone is playing with us.” In a really good way, not taking us for a ride [but] ironically, with subtlety, with humor, also with sonic texture and darkness. And honestly, it’s kind of like when Beck came out with the song “Loser.”
He’s a bit Beck in his attitude in this kind of clash of styles and clash of cultures; and Beck is such an icon of mine, because he represented that clash, and he was the one that was able to get away with it, right? There’s kind of a similarity to that, and I think that’s why Beck was such a huge icon for all alt-kids, you know. Straight, gay, didn’t matter, just alt.
Lil Nas X just came out, at 20, which in part shows that the world is much more LGBTQ-friendly than it used to be. Have you faced homophobia professionally?
Of course I did. I did more than I do.
Because you’re a star?
Oh, absolutely not. It’s got nothing to do with being a star. I remember when I was trying to get a record deal, one of the heads of the label say within earshot of me, “It’s just a little too gay.” And not sign me. If you say to someone now, “It’s just a little too gay, I don’t want to sign you”? One of the heads of one of the biggest labels in the world? So the times have changed. Thank God, they’ve changed.
Where do you envision going from here, after the tour?
I would love to start creating a dream, creating a show, but a different kind of show that you step into. You buy a ticket to an exhibition, but the exhibition is a journey. And it’s a sensory, auditory, and art-design experience that you step into. That’s what my next dream is, to kind of start building these things that I call worlds.
Immersive art. I want to start to illustrate the things that I see, the things that I dream in my head. I want to start building them and tell a story through that. I would love to direct an opera. For the same reason.
That would bring your story back to Covent Garden.
That brings it back to where I started. Still today, I have that same sense of desire, impatience, and envy — that kind of holy trinity that is as positive as it is destructive and negative — that fills me with this idea of wanting to create stuff, wanting to prove people wrong, wanting to surprise people, even if it’s my own friends and family. Wanting to make things, worlds that you can step into. That is what drives me as an artist, through music and visuals and storytelling from now until the day that I die. I want to build continuously a world. And it’s not about my name. It’s about the emotion of it. It’s about the process of making it and making it come to life. And the stories and the melodies that you tell are all part of that. And it’s with an enormous amount of impatience, excitement, and irritation that I confront that idea every single day.
Mika’s tour ends on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 2020, in Strasbourg, France.
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