Each week "Le Monde" interviews a celebrity starting from a key moment of their lives. This week the singer explains how music became something obvious in his life, between Beirut, Paris and London, but always surrounded by his family and friends.
Singer-songwriter-composer of an euphoric pop music, Mika has sold more than 10 millions of records since the success of his first album, Life in Cartoon Motion. The Lebanese-American singer, who is 35 years old, will soon be again, starting on February 9th, one of the coaches of the show "The Voice", on TF1, and he's about to release a fifth album.
I would not be here if ...
If I had not be en sleepwalking. At night, from when I turned seven to the beginning of adolescence, I moved furniture in the apartment. I even went out on the street without my parents realizing it. Once, the garbage men brough t me back in pajamas and socks. My mother ended up blocking the door of my room. This somnambulism was magic in my daily life. Do not control everything, let the unconscious lead me without thinking about the consequences, that's how I became the person and the artist that I am. Being unconscious is essential to my survival.
Before you were Mika, you were born as Michael Holbrook Penniman, in 1983, in Lebanon, in a maronite christian family who was forced to flee a year later to run away from war.
Daily life in Beirut had become very difficult and dangerous. One night, half the apartment was destroyed by a bombing raid. My mother is Lebanese-Syrian but my father is American, born in Jerusalem, raised in Cairo, in Washington, in London...They were able to go to Cyprus, then they chose Paris. There was a link with Lebanon. My mother had learned French.
What memory do you keep of your Parisian years?
Celui d’une enfance très joyeuse.
The memory of a very joyful childhood. We lived in the 16th arrondissement, square Lamartine, my father had a very job in finance, I was going to a little private school called le cours Victor-Hugo. At home it was Paris-Beirut. The food was nourriture était Franco-Arab. Many people were waiting for the end of the war at our place. Time was a bit suspended. My mother made children clothes.Her workshop was in the dining room and in the living room. As she had many orders in the big stores, you could hear the noise of the sewing machine even during the night.
We were allowed to go with her in le Sentier to choose material for our clothes that she made herself. My shorts, my shirts, my bow ties were a way to express myself, to have fun. At Christmas, we had to make ourselves the presents, and we were forbidden to buy them – anyway, we had no pocket money. Creating normal, it was life. And music was part of this.
So how did your taste for music develop?
I took piano lessons with twins sisters, who were a bit old, who were constantly eating cakes. One would sit on my right side and the other on my left side, one took care of my left hand and the other my right hand. Everything was going well. I was reading music, I was starting to play...and above all there was music all day long, in this apartment where life was very intense. My mother, the seamstresses, everyone sang along with Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Georges Moustaki, Jean Ferrat, Gainsbourg, The Rolling Stones, Fairouz, Oum Kalthoum… music became something obvious for me. I had cases filled with cassettes that I recorded, I made my "playlists" sorted out by par emotion and by color – because I "felt" music red or green. When things went wrong, the sound of the music was turned up in my house.
My father was sent on a business trip to Kuweït by his bank. He got caught in the invasion of Koweït by Saddam Hussein, during the first gulf war, and he was held hostage in the American embassy during eight months. We had no way to be in touch, just a fax once in a while. The stability we had known so far with my sisters collapsed.When my father came back with a beard and Quand mon père est revenu, barbu, thinner, his eyes were different. We didn't call him "dad" any more but " Mike", I don't know why. After the trauma he had lived, it became difficult, he was fired. We lost everything. I learned how to deal with the bailiffs: when they ring, say that there are no adults in the house, that you can't open because you don't know them. But on their fourth visit, I saw them take everything, I was seated on the red couch. I will never forgive a system that allows that. This invasion in what is sacred, home. This is unjustified punishment...
How did your parents react?
My father was more and more silent. My mother, extremely determined. One night we crammed together in the Toyota Previa and we left for London. We ended up in bed & breakfast. It was supposed to last two weeks, we stayed for two years. When my father didn't earn enough money, my mother worked in a kitchen.
When you were 8, you started going to elementary school in the Lycée français in London. And you became a victim of bullying as you explained at the end of 2018, during the national day against this plague...
I had problems because suddenly I became dyslexic. I forgot theory, and even how to read and write. It was gone! I spoke English with a Parisian accent. I was dressed with my pink shorts, my overalls with yellow polka dots, my bow tie in the same material. In Paris, people took pics of me when I was going to fashion shows with my mother. There I was an extra terrestrial! A teacher who always wore a purple coat and a little black hat picked me, along with two other pupils, as a victim of her anger. She made me climb up on a chair and she humiliated me, saying in front of everyone that I was stupid, lazy, that all I wanted to to was playing – fortunately, I haven't changed! She wrote atrocious poems about us that the other pupils had to recite. I stopped talking, I wanted to become invisible, I didn't want to be there any more. At my house, it was the same, I barely talked any more, I didn't listen to music any more. My parents didn't understand. Until one day, when she was bringing my schoolbag in my class, my sister Paloma heard my teacher talk to me. My father came, he repeated to the teacher the words she had said and she fainted. I was expelled from school by the headmaster. I walked back home jumping and singing "The witch is dead!" I had in my head the image of the bad witch of Oz who melts because of the water.
What did you do to keep busy while you were out of school?
I used to go to the park with three ladies, a Spanish one, a Lebanese one and a Moroccan one who spent time in my house drinking tea and singing. Then, my mother hired a piano teacher who had just arrived from Russia. He didn't speak much and he smelt that sweat that comes from several hours of playing the
piano. When he realized I couldn't read music, his expression changed. The following week he sent his wife to take over him. An opera singer who seemed out of the 20s, with her long embroidered collar. She was supposed to give me piano lessons but actually she didn't play the piano. She began singing melodies, I sang with her. The melodies became complicated, they turned into melodies by Schubert, by Brahms, by Britten.
Three months later, I had my first job. At the age of 9, I was a chorister at the Royal Opera, in Die Frau ohne Schatten, by Richard Strauss. The theater! Covent Garden ! This giant magical box, red and golden where people sing, where people don't work in a bank, where people don't go to school, they get on the stage and life goes by fast.I decided that was what I wanted to do.
But you had to go back to school, after a few months?
Yes because the children who were in a little school nearby my house saw me everyday play with my two rabbits and heard me sing. They complained to the headmaster. It was unacceptable that all I did was playing! The headmaster asked me to spell words and he realized I had lots of problems. I went back to school, but my mother made a deal, and I had a huge tolerance so as to go on with music.
As a young man you were admitted to the Royal College of Music. How did you finally go from lyrical to pop music?
Royal College was a dream. Its cacophony reminded me of my mother's living room, in Paris. But I understood that I wasn't as strong as the other lyrical singers. So I had to write my own songs. With the money I made as a waiter, and with other students' help, I made pop songs demos. The voice on Happy Ending, for example, is Ida Falk Winland’s , who became a great opera singer. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I started recording songs when I was 11 years old. I traded musics I made for commercials for hours in a recording studio. After, I used to go to Sony's , EMI's , Warner's offices with my “ghetto-blaster” [cassette and radio player in the 70s-80s famous for its huge size]. I would play my songs to the secretary, who had no idea what to do with them and would sent me to another secretary, and I climbed up the building that way. There was always a time when I would get a refusal from the label, with a logo by my name. I was proud, I existed!
After all these rejections, how could your career start?
Since no one wanted to sign me, I went back to the main workshop: my house. My mother made clothes for me, I changed the " C" of Mica into " K" so it would be stronger, we drew a CD sleeve and a logo with my sister Yasmine, we took photos with my mother's Olympus , I interviewed myself, we put all that in a big black cardboard box, with a red ribbon around it, as if it were a CD collector.
I took it to the majors. It didn't work right away. But the boss of Universal in England ended up giving me an appointment in a hotel. He asked me to sit at the piano and to sing. My first single, Grace Kelly, is a raging song against all these people in the music industry who didn't want me.
Your first album "Life in Cartoon Motion" which was released in 2007 sold 7 millions copies all over the world, among which more than 1 million in France. And you find yourself in Parc des Princes in front of 50 000 people in July 2018. How do you react to this rapid success?
I sing, I don't care about the rest.
I still go on doing my singer job that I started at a young age with the same team, family and friends.
I am less afraid in Parc des Princes than in opera: there it is my own music, it's a party!
Your latest album, "No Place in Heaven" (platinum album in France) was released in 2015. Will your fifth album be released this year?
Yes. It took me a year more than the others to create it. I write my lyrics, my melodies, I coproduce, make the artwork with my sister, all is handmade
Music industry has changed a lot over this past decade, with the urban trends. More than ever, what I must do is follow my creativity, work with the melody, tell stories my way, with images, with characters, with colors. Stories sometimes like fairy tales, sometimes extremely dark, dirty, painful...
Creating a world in which you can lose yourself during an hour and a half.
You have been of the judges in the show "The Voice" since 2014. What attracts you about TV?
I like that way of talking about music, as if you were in a pub talking with friends about what you're listening to.
I also find interesting to develop someone's potential over a short and intense period of time. If that type of show had existed when I was trying to break through it might have been an option.
But I'm not sure I would have made it. Each time I auditioned I was among the first ones to be rejected. I am rather bad at singing other people's songs.
Your Syrian grandfather on your mother's side moved to the United States in 1918, your parents moved from Lebanon with you.
What do you think about what's happening to the Syrian refugees who are trying to get to Europe?
It is the most important human story of our time. Seeing that human beings are reduced to statistics bothers me a lot. I don't know anyone who would not give their hand to grab if someone was drowning in front of them. Yet that is what politicians are doing with their words.