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MIKA in motion


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Pop’s latest breakthrough act mixes bubblegum tunes with some pretty profound lyrics. CASPAR LLEWELLYN SMITH comes away impressed.


WITHIN a short time of being introduced, it is quickly obvious that Mika is an unusual character.


The 26-year-old singer is a huge star across much of the globe — winner of three awards at the World Music Awards in 2007, winner of the British Breakthrough Act at the 2008 Brit awards and the title of Songwriter of the Year at the highly distinguished Ivor Novello Awards.


This success followed the release of his debut album, Life In Cartoon Motion, which has now sold 5.6 million copies internationally.




Given this, it’s tempting to think before meeting him that you somehow know him, but even if you are familiar with the outline of his colourful backstory — born Mica Penniman in Beirut, Lebanon, he grew up in Paris and London but exploded onto the pop scene as if from nowhere — the reality is that he’s far more peculiar than anticipated.


It is late February when I arrive at Rocket Carousel recording studios in Culver City, Los Angeles.


Bounding to the door is the 190cm-tall singer himself, wearing a bowler hat, a short-sleeved blue shirt, jeans, white plimsolls, no socks and a chunky green fluorescent watch.


Life in Cartoon Motion, with its bubblegum songs such as his Grace Kelly (a Top 5 hit in 17 countries) or Love Today or Lollipop, “contained a lot of childhood references”, he says.


“The new album (The Boy Who Knew Too Much) is evidently, I think, more adolescent. I wanted to take it to the next place.


“I thought, ‘Where do I want to go back to? Before all this happened, what made me start writing songs? What did I want to capture the first time round that I didn’t manage?’


“Well, I liked that feeling of being 17, 18 years old. I wanted to return to that period. A lot of characters from my first album have grown up and I think the new album contains a lot of contradictions.”


He grew up listening to a heterogeneous collection of music — Bob Dylan, Serge Gainsbourg and Lebanese singer Fairuz from his parents, then “pop music in the purest sense of the word, because no matter whether it was a rock song, whether it was a piece of Nina Simone, I could hear the song and I could hear the message in the song and it gave me a certain feeling. It instilled in me this kind of total anti-snobbery.”


Back in the control booth, he plays me what will be the album’s first single, We Are Golden, which is gloriously epic and a certain global smash.



It features the Andrae Crouch Gospel Choir who “refused to sing the line ‘don’t give it up when you’re young and you want some’,” as Mika tells it.


It’s rare to find a pop star who is so literate, but then, Mika is different in many ways.


“Once every 15 years, pop brings along someone who’s involved in the totality of what they do,” says Lucian Grainge, CEO of Universal Records.


Six weeks later, I visit Mika on an early spring day in London; he is a dual British and American national, but calls Kensington home and his flat is in the basement of the family’s grand house.


His mother Joannie is Lebanese (his father is American) and while the civil war in that country meant that the family fled when Mika was a baby, he says: “if there’s an ounce of Lebanon in your family, it will take over.


Ours is a Lebanese household: there’s incense burning; you’ll get fed within 10 minutes.


“There’s a survival trait, too,” he continues, curled up on his white sofa, “and I think that’s what’s odd about me. In Lebanon, there’ll be bombs being thrown, but the restaurants will shut down only when they have to.


“There’s this mentality that if you’re going to cry, you stand on the table, throw your hands in the air and scream as loudly as you can and you deal with it. I think it’s affected the way I make music, these extremes of emotion.”


The family moved to Paris — and Mika now speaks fluent French — before heading to London when he was nine because his father’s business was in temporary trouble.


“Because of the moving around, because of the having a lot and then having nothing and then having a little bit and then having nothing ... for one thing, I developed this real fear of money,” he says.


“I have a fear of decadence when it comes to creative things, because I think that things that are really good should never cost a lot of money.


His memory is hazy, but he left his first (French-speaking) school in London after being bullied and falling out with a teacher.


That, compounded by his mild dyslexia, led him to stop talking for a few weeks, and his mother schooled him at home for several months — at which point, a Russian teacher started privately coaching him as a singer and pianist.


When Mika became a pupil at the private Westminster School, he maintained his performing ambitions, appearing in the 1998 Royal Opera House production of Vaughan Williams’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.


“I was quite fearless, which is odd because at school I was timid and shy,” he recalls.


“No one knew anything about me at school. I felt I didn’t belong there because I’d been bounced around so much. I never took part in the annual band shows. I knew I would get booed off. Isn’t that ironic?”


Outside school, he continues, he “was desperate to get as much experience as possible”, which, with his mother’s encouragement, meant taking jobs singing advertising jingles, trading his fees for studio time to craft his own songs.


He was accepted at the London School of Economics to read geography, but dropped out on the first day and enrolled for a brief spell at the Royal College of Music.


“I know I’m a lousy pianist — one of the worst I’ve ever met who does my job — and a mediocre classical singer. I tried to hide it from my peers at college but I knew what I wanted out of it. I have no delusions of grandeur. I know that I write pop songs, and I know that I am meant to be doing what I am doing because I realise that it made me tick as a little boy. I’ve always been incredibly driven.”


Such ambition was manifest when he signed with Universal. Nonetheless, he insists, “I had no concept of who would listen to my music. I didn’t know how I was going to be perceived, so I created a world for the music to live in.”


It’s the first week of June when I see Mika for a final time, rehearsing for a show in the Concertgebouw in sunny Amsterdam.


Before the release of the album, he is briefly touring around Europe an acoustic EP called Songs for Sorrow, which he has conceived as a sort of a palate-cleaning exercise. Songs such as Toy Boy and Lady Jane represent Mika’s more sombre and lyrical side.


“When I was writing the first record, I made so many allusions to fairy tales and nursery rhymes,” Mika says later that evening, “and the funny thing is, when you’re 16, you read them again and realise that they’re the most violent thing ever. The EP allows me to explore that side.”


“I make pop music,” he tells me at one point, “and I fully embrace the fact that I make pop music. I’m totally unashamed about it.


“There’s no shame in what I do as far as I’m concerned. So I want the new record to do well, but you can’t write or produce an album with that in mind. It’s not, ‘Oh, we want to make a hit’. It’s nothing like that, because that brings disaster.”


When his new music hits the airwaves, he will be under an even fiercer spotlight; but it feels as if this further fame will only arrive on his terms.


“I started writing music to experience different emotions, and from that point of view, absolutely nothing has changed,” he tells me finally.


“Where I am now ... You know, you wake up, you’ve had a lot of success, what do you do to protect yourself? You make your own little bubble. You do things to make you smile. You live in a weird little world of your own. Because that’s all I’ve ever known.” — Courtesy of Universal Music

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