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SUNDAY HERALD

By Peter Ross

Sunday 04 February 2007

 

IF EVER an artist seemed tailor-made for pop success, cut from the gaudy cloth of the mainstream, it is Mika. So it feels right that I meet him in Savile Row, London, where his publicist has an office.

 

At the start of the year, within the media and entertainment industry, a consensus built around Mika - 2007 belongs to him. What's surprising is how quickly that prophecy has proved true. His single, Grace Kelly, rose to number one on downloads alone, and remains at the top of the charts. In less than a month, Mika has gone from a whisper to a star.

 

"I feel giddy," he says. "I giggle in radio interviews, and my friends tell me off because my laugh embarrasses them." He has a shrill titter somewhere between Kenneth Williams and a six-year-old with a naughty secret, and his ambiguous accent - a real posh spice - reflects his multicultural background. His father Michael is American, his mother Jonny is Lebanese. He was raised in Paris and London.

 

Goofier and younger-looking in the flesh than in his male-modelish official photographs, at 23 Mika retains the newborn-foal awkwardness of a teenager reeling from a growth spurt. Six foot two in tight blue jeans, white trainers, a red jacket and two scarves, one grey wool, the other striped silk, he resembles a French exchange student circa 1986. Somewhere in the office a phone is ringing; it's probably the young John McEnroe asking for his hair back.

 

We are talking in a small glass-walled room. Mika keeps reaching on to the desk and bringing a scented candle to his nose. Occasionally he dips the index finger of his right hand into the top of a fairy cake then licks off the cream and sprinkles. On the bookshelf behind him I can see the complete novels of Gabriel García Márquez. That seems appropriate. Mika's whole life has been a balance of magic and realism.

 

"You were asking me how does it feel to be doing so well with the downloads and the chart," he says. "Well, the pressure's there, but I have so many things in my bag that no one has heard yet, including all the songs on the album. I feel like a child who still has half his presents to open, and it's two months past Christmas, and he has kept them under the dying tree."

 

He's certainly enjoying the success of Grace Kelly, a song aimed at a record company exec who once suggested he attempt to become the new Craig David. Its ubiquity is an act of revenge, "a perfect example of sustained, planned passive-aggression".

 

I ask whether he will suit being famous. "I don't know. People have asked me that on air and I go uncomfortably silent."

 

Jodi Marr, a US songwriter and producer who has worked intensively with

Mika, including co-writing Grace Kelly, believes his unconventional upbringing has prepared him for life in the public eye. "He was born to this," she says. "If you meet his family, any one of them could be a star in any arena of the arts. They are such colourful people. I'd say they are like the von Trapps from The Sound of Music, but it's more than music. Some of the sisters speak Chinese and Mandarin. One was an MTV DJ. He comes from a big family so he is certainly used to the theatrics involved in that, the dramas and storytelling."

 

Mika is the middle child of five. He has a brother Fortuné and three sisters - Yasmine, Paloma and Allegra. "We are a little bit strange," he grins. "We've had so much reality shoved down our throats, because of circumstances growing up, that we react as a family by being very unreal and kind of bohemian and artistic and trying to find all the ways in life that you can create an alternate world to survive in. We are a pretty fantastical bunch of people to be around. God help you if you ever end up in the same hotel as us on holiday."

 

"You're noisy?" I ask.

 

"We are the kind of family that people get really annoyed about then they are really sad when we leave. It was always like that when we changed schools when we were younger. The teachers gave us so much trouble but would cry when we left."

 

Mika was born Mica Penniman in Beirut in 1983, during the Lebanese civil war. "My family was evacuated to Cyprus and then we ended up in Paris," he recalls. "So many family members went there. Growing up I was surrounded by Lebanese people. There was this whole community with typical cheek-pinching and hugging and loudness and speaking Arabic. So I got both cultures. I was a little French Parisian boy but at the same time I was very much Lebanese.

 

"If you walk into my family house now it's obviously a Lebanese household. The food, the smell, the warmth of it. There's always people hanging out. Even when I'm on the road, friends of mine will be hanging out with my family. It's very loud and embracing and there's always something to get excited about or have a big family argument over."

 

Although his father worked in finance, and was himself the son of a US diplomat, Mika denies being a rich kid. "My parents spent every penny they had on our education and my music teachers and art teachers for all of us. My father had a good job most of the time, but he also got into a lot of trouble because my mother always overspent on us. We weren't glamorous. We didn't have a fantastic lifestyle. But we certainly got the education they wanted us to get."

 

Creativity was emphasised? "Yeah, absolutely. It wasn't about number-crunching or playing chess. It was about being really stimulated and working hard."

 

His parents weren't musical, but loved to play records. "When I grew up in Paris, the stuff that was on the family hi-fi was everything from Serge Gainsbourg to Jacques Brel to Joan Baez to Fairuz, so I had a very eclectic musical palate and that meant I've never been a snob about music."

 

The Pennimans moved to London when Mika was still a child. They had recently gone through a very difficult time. "My father went on a business trip to Kuwait and the night he was there the Gulf War started. He was evacuated from the hotel and ended up being safeguarded in the American embassy, but effectively being taken hostage. If he had stepped out of the garden of the embassy he would have been shot dead. So he was stuck there for about seven months. It was really horrible. We never really knew what was happening. We got a few faxes once in a while, but it was a nightmare. I was young, and we were a big family, and we got into a lot of trouble financially because he wasn't around."

 

In London, Mika attended the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle. In Paris, his naive quirkiness - turning up wearing a clown outfit or dragging a full-size Christmas tree into class - had annoyed the teachers, but endeared him to the pupils. In England, however, he was bullied. "I showed up in school wearing my bright red trousers and matching bow-tie. Instead of just getting into trouble for it, I was tortured and I recoiled."

 

He suffered homophobic name-calling. He remembers it as being like Lord of The Flies, and recalls the fear of walking between classes; he fantasised about having a remote control which would allow him to fast-forward past the bullying. The psychological pressure exacerbated his dyslexia, and at the age of 11 found himself suddenly unable to read or write and barely able to speak. "So I left school in order to change to the English system, and that took a while because I was a bit of a mess."

 

Continued.....

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SUNDAY HERALD

by Peter Ross

04 February 2007

 

Continued....

 

It would be seven months before he enrolled at Westminster School. However, he was not idle. He had already started working in music, for instance writing a jingle for a chewing gum advert. Grafting in the commercial music sector had been a refuge from the bullying; he was sick of being a child and enjoyed this professional adult world. He also took comfort in singing lessons with a Russian voice coach, Alla Ardakov.

 

"She was coming to teach me to play piano," says Mika, "but quickly realised that I was a useless piano player; because of my dyslexia I couldn't sight read. So she started teaching me singing instead. She realised I could take it in and get good, so things became serious right away. I had four hours of lessons a week, and trained every single day. I fast-tracked the training process."

 

Ardakov remembers him well. "Obviously a very talented little boy. His voice was angelic and he was a beautiful child. He was good natured, playful all the time. But I worked with him very seriously. I tried to teach him everything I knew. He was obedient and loved learning. His parents knew that the boy was exceptional and had a big future waiting for him."

 

Mika recalls getting told off in Russian when he got things wrong. "I cried and it was amazing, like one of those cheesy films where people get good really quickly. It also gave me a sense of what really working on your craft actually is. Even now I'm not working as hard as I did when I was a kid."

 

Under Ardakov's tutelage he progressed to singing Mozart arias, and at 12 joined the chorus of the Royal Opera production of Richard Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten. He remains addicted to the stage. "Cocteau called it red and gold syndrome, and I am very much a sufferer. I started collecting toy theatres when I was a child, and maybe when I get older I can actually get a real one. I want to own some theatres and restore them."

 

There is something very theatrical now about his music. He considers his songs to be performed storytelling. That's why it suited him playing the Emcee in a Westminster School production of Cabaret - he was the narrator, which meant he was in control. I get a strong sense that not being in control is the worst feeling in the world for Mika, a reminder perhaps of the bullying and the forced absence of his father.

 

"God, I shocked them when I did that," he says of Cabaret. "I went all-out. Even people who absolutely hated me just couldn't help themselves and had to come and congratulate me. It made me realise the power of being good at something. It makes you untouchable."

 

On leaving school, Mika attempted to launch his pop career. Although he attracted record company interest, he hated the idea that to become successful he had to lose everything interesting about his identity.

 

"I wrote Grace Kelly out of my frustration with the music industry. At that time I was having to find my feet in so many ways. I was trying to figure out who I was as a person in every sense of the word, from my personal life, to me as a musician, to dealing with money for the first time. I was really questioning myself and went through a bit of a personal crisis. That first line, Do I attract you, do I repulse you with my queasy smile?' sums up exactly how I was feeling. I started with that lyric and by the time I had finished the song I had come to the decision that I was going to take a risk and completely be myself."

 

Through a mutual friend he met Jodi Marr. "He played me some songs," she recalls, "and on the fourth song I said, Oh my God, you're Freddie Mercury!' And he said No one's ever said that before! I love Freddie Mercury!' It sounds ridiculous now, but I said to him, If you can get yourself to Miami, I will sell my house to make you a rock star.'"

 

They spent two years in Miami and New York, working on around 50 songs, trying to find his true voice. Marr introduced him to a lot of music. "I would say Take home this Harry Nilsson CD, and take my Cheap Trick box set, and listen to Elvis Costello,' and he would come back the next day, having listened all night long, with a new song idea. He'd absorb the whole thing and come out with something that was purely Mika. He's just one of these people who is special, like from another level of musical talent. Touched by God is how I describe it."

 

Mika's debut album Life In Cartoon Motion is a pop masterclass, built solidly from potential hit singles, "like a really amazing piece of Lego construction". The music evokes Queen, Scissor Sisters, T-Rex, even some of the best songs by boy bands. There's a hysterical quality to some of the performances which Mika says reflects his personality. "Not all the time though. I can be completely normal for a whole day and then when I sit down at a piano I regress to what I was like when I was four years old and hyperactive. I describe my music as hyper-pop."

 

The music sounds joyous and escapist, but Mika aims for depth in the lyrics. Relax (Take It Easy) is a love story set in the aftermath of the July 7 terror attacks; Big Girl (You Are Beautiful) is an attack on the size zero culture which fosters eating disorders; Billy Brown is about a family man with a gay lover; Any Other World has a spoken word introduction in which a family friend tells the story of losing an eye during the Lebanese civil war. "You can take a serious idea and paint it in primary colours and make it really approachable," says Mika. "That gives what you want to say so much power."

 

He takes inspiration for this approach from cartoons and comic books. "If you look at the work of someone like Robert Crumb it is absolutely immediate, however he implies so many other things. He is a genius at that. It's populist art that doesn't compromise on credibility. Very much like a good pop song. There's a lot of soulless art and a lot of soulless pop music out there, but it can be done well. I am constantly referring in my head to people like Crumb."

 

The album artwork, which Mika worked on with his eldest sister, Yasmine, is very cartoonish, and the characters from his songs are not only represented in the CD booklet but also have their personalities fleshed out on his MySpace site. "Some people call that marketing. I call it creating fantasy."

 

Cartoons tie in with the overall theme of the album - the transition to adulthood. In Mika's head, coming of age has meant a conscious reconnection with his early childhood. He wants to be as happy an adult as he was a boy. "I am trying to recapture myself as a child. I had a charmed existence in France, then in London things went bad. Music was one of the things I took refuge in. So it's interesting now that music is my full-time job that I find myself going back to what I was like as a kid. There's an innocence that is great to preserve."

 

Ironically, given Mika's strong visual sense, he is himself something of a blank canvas. With his culturally diverse background, genderless name and songs which celebrate male and female sexuality, he is a rather indeterminate figure. "As a storyteller, it's always good to be kind of unclassifiable," he says. "The tabloidy fame thing does kind of worry me. I never wanted to be a pop star. I just wanted to be able to write songs and record and perform them.

 

"If you are a novelist then people stay out of your life and there is this whole mystery shrouded around the writer. But as a songwriter you are expected to lay everything about yourself out on the table, and at the same time create little imaginary worlds. I find it very difficult to do both. So people ask me, Don't you want to talk about certain parts of your life? Don't you think you are cheating your public? And don't you think you could be a role model for so many people?' But I am protecting and respecting myself enough not to lay myself out as fodder for any magazine or newspaper."

 

"Is this to do with your sexuality?" I ask.

 

"Oh everything. Sexuality. Even certain parts of my background. I don't want to talk about my surname all the time, not because I have anything to hide, but because I don't find it necessary. I think it's better to keep some of yourself to yourself. Why does anyone want to be like Jade Goody?"

 

"So you're not interested in fame at all?" I ask.

 

"It's weird because in my real life I'm not. However when it comes to performing I am completely obsessed with getting people to take notice, and being the centre of attention. I'm living a bit of a double life. When I go down the coffee shop and hang out with my friends I'm not interested in fame, but on the other hand I crave it."

 

It will be fascinating to see what the future holds for Mika. He says he wants to take the public to "weird Alice in Wonderland places" and that sentiment alone indicates that he is a more interesting pop artist than Britain has had for some time. He will certainly have further hit singles and a successful album, but can he sustain it? He believes so, and for such a idealistic man is surprisingly hard-headed about the realities of the music business. "I had a lot of fun making this album, and the record company gave me the white card to do what the hell I wanted. In order to get that freedom again, I have to deliver on certain commercial quotas."

 

He smiles and licks cake off his fingers. "I'll get there, and then I'll tell them to piss off, and I'll do whatever I want."

 

Life In Cartoon Motion is released tomorrow. Mika plays the ABC1, Glasgow, on February 26

 

ENDS.

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this is such a fantastic article about Mika! I love how all the stuff about his Lebanese family, and all his siblings :)

 

I also like the approach they took in describing different facets; how Mika is mature yet still boyish and young, and how he seems to seek attention but is still a private person.

 

really interesting!! :D

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Thanks all who have written about this, and specially Jemmalee. My pleasure. I came home very late last night and spotted the article and just couldn't take myself off to bed before I had posted. I had read some derogatory articles and was expecting the same from this and was so brilliantly surprised to find such an informative and beautifully treated piece.

 

Ah - the naysayers.... (Guardian - Drowned In Sound - Observer) - don't even bother going there - as they seek to destroy this lovely boy.... call themselves critics, they purport to be style and taste setters. I was disgusted by their attempted character assasination.

 

I thought the Sunday Herald was a great piece as it set the record straight. If I am remembering the right article - that the author of a novel is able to have their anonymity but a singer has to lay their whole life open for public scrutiny. Go figure.

 

Happy Sunday.

 

CW.

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I thought the Sunday Herald was a great as it set the record straight. If I am remembering the right article - that the author of a novel is able to have their anonymity but a singer has to lay their whole life open for public scrutiny. Go figure.
so very true

 

(I just started a short story; I'm writing for what feels like the first time in ages, and I'm at that enthusiastic stage that I'm secretly thinking about a nom de plume...)

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SUNDAY HERALD

by Peter Ross

04 February 2007

 

Continued....

 

It would be seven months before he enrolled at Westminster School. However, he was not idle. He had already started working in music, for instance writing a jingle for a chewing gum advert. Grafting in the commercial music sector had been a refuge from the bullying; he was sick of being a child and enjoyed this professional adult world. He also took comfort in singing lessons with a Russian voice coach, Alla Ardakov.

 

"She was coming to teach me to play piano," says Mika, "but quickly realised that I was a useless piano player; because of my dyslexia I couldn't sight read. So she started teaching me singing instead. She realised I could take it in and get good, so things became serious right away. I had four hours of lessons a week, and trained every single day. I fast-tracked the training process."

 

Ardakov remembers him well. "Obviously a very talented little boy. His voice was angelic and he was a beautiful child. He was good natured, playful all the time. But I worked with him very seriously. I tried to teach him everything I knew. He was obedient and loved learning. His parents knew that the boy was exceptional and had a big future waiting for him."

 

Mika recalls getting told off in Russian when he got things wrong. "I cried and it was amazing, like one of those cheesy films where people get good really quickly. It also gave me a sense of what really working on your craft actually is. Even now I'm not working as hard as I did when I was a kid."

 

Under Ardakov's tutelage he progressed to singing Mozart arias, and at 12 joined the chorus of the Royal Opera production of Richard Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten. He remains addicted to the stage. "Cocteau called it red and gold syndrome, and I am very much a sufferer. I started collecting toy theatres when I was a child, and maybe when I get older I can actually get a real one. I want to own some theatres and restore them."

 

There is something very theatrical now about his music. He considers his songs to be performed storytelling. That's why it suited him playing the Emcee in a Westminster School production of Cabaret - he was the narrator, which meant he was in control. I get a strong sense that not being in control is the worst feeling in the world for Mika, a reminder perhaps of the bullying and the forced absence of his father.

 

"God, I shocked them when I did that," he says of Cabaret. "I went all-out. Even people who absolutely hated me just couldn't help themselves and had to come and congratulate me. It made me realise the power of being good at something. It makes you untouchable."

 

On leaving school, Mika attempted to launch his pop career. Although he attracted record company interest, he hated the idea that to become successful he had to lose everything interesting about his identity.

 

"I wrote Grace Kelly out of my frustration with the music industry. At that time I was having to find my feet in so many ways. I was trying to figure out who I was as a person in every sense of the word, from my personal life, to me as a musician, to dealing with money for the first time. I was really questioning myself and went through a bit of a personal crisis. That first line, Do I attract you, do I repulse you with my queasy smile?' sums up exactly how I was feeling. I started with that lyric and by the time I had finished the song I had come to the decision that I was going to take a risk and completely be myself."

 

Through a mutual friend he met Jodi Marr. "He played me some songs," she recalls, "and on the fourth song I said, Oh my God, you're Freddie Mercury!' And he said No one's ever said that before! I love Freddie Mercury!' It sounds ridiculous now, but I said to him, If you can get yourself to Miami, I will sell my house to make you a rock star.'"

 

They spent two years in Miami and New York, working on around 50 songs, trying to find his true voice. Marr introduced him to a lot of music. "I would say Take home this Harry Nilsson CD, and take my Cheap Trick box set, and listen to Elvis Costello,' and he would come back the next day, having listened all night long, with a new song idea. He'd absorb the whole thing and come out with something that was purely Mika. He's just one of these people who is special, like from another level of musical talent. Touched by God is how I describe it."

 

Mika's debut album Life In Cartoon Motion is a pop masterclass, built solidly from potential hit singles, "like a really amazing piece of Lego construction". The music evokes Queen, Scissor Sisters, T-Rex, even some of the best songs by boy bands. There's a hysterical quality to some of the performances which Mika says reflects his personality. "Not all the time though. I can be completely normal for a whole day and then when I sit down at a piano I regress to what I was like when I was four years old and hyperactive. I describe my music as hyper-pop."

 

The music sounds joyous and escapist, but Mika aims for depth in the lyrics. Relax (Take It Easy) is a love story set in the aftermath of the July 7 terror attacks; Big Girl (You Are Beautiful) is an attack on the size zero culture which fosters eating disorders; Billy Brown is about a family man with a gay lover; Any Other World has a spoken word introduction in which a family friend tells the story of losing an eye during the Lebanese civil war. "You can take a serious idea and paint it in primary colours and make it really approachable," says Mika. "That gives what you want to say so much power."

 

He takes inspiration for this approach from cartoons and comic books. "If you look at the work of someone like Robert Crumb it is absolutely immediate, however he implies so many other things. He is a genius at that. It's populist art that doesn't compromise on credibility. Very much like a good pop song. There's a lot of soulless art and a lot of soulless pop music out there, but it can be done well. I am constantly referring in my head to people like Crumb."

 

The album artwork, which Mika worked on with his eldest sister, Yasmine, is very cartoonish, and the characters from his songs are not only represented in the CD booklet but also have their personalities fleshed out on his MySpace site. "Some people call that marketing. I call it creating fantasy."

 

Cartoons tie in with the overall theme of the album - the transition to adulthood. In Mika's head, coming of age has meant a conscious reconnection with his early childhood. He wants to be as happy an adult as he was a boy. "I am trying to recapture myself as a child. I had a charmed existence in France, then in London things went bad. Music was one of the things I took refuge in. So it's interesting now that music is my full-time job that I find myself going back to what I was like as a kid. There's an innocence that is great to preserve."

 

Ironically, given Mika's strong visual sense, he is himself something of a blank canvas. With his culturally diverse background, genderless name and songs which celebrate male and female sexuality, he is a rather indeterminate figure. "As a storyteller, it's always good to be kind of unclassifiable," he says. "The tabloidy fame thing does kind of worry me. I never wanted to be a pop star. I just wanted to be able to write songs and record and perform them.

 

"If you are a novelist then people stay out of your life and there is this whole mystery shrouded around the writer. But as a songwriter you are expected to lay everything about yourself out on the table, and at the same time create little imaginary worlds. I find it very difficult to do both. So people ask me, Don't you want to talk about certain parts of your life? Don't you think you are cheating your public? And don't you think you could be a role model for so many people?' But I am protecting and respecting myself enough not to lay myself out as fodder for any magazine or newspaper."

 

"Is this to do with your sexuality?" I ask.

 

"Oh everything. Sexuality. Even certain parts of my background. I don't want to talk about my surname all the time, not because I have anything to hide, but because I don't find it necessary. I think it's better to keep some of yourself to yourself. Why does anyone want to be like Jade Goody?"

 

"So you're not interested in fame at all?" I ask.

 

"It's weird because in my real life I'm not. However when it comes to performing I am completely obsessed with getting people to take notice, and being the centre of attention. I'm living a bit of a double life. When I go down the coffee shop and hang out with my friends I'm not interested in fame, but on the other hand I crave it."

 

It will be fascinating to see what the future holds for Mika. He says he wants to take the public to "weird Alice in Wonderland places" and that sentiment alone indicates that he is a more interesting pop artist than Britain has had for some time. He will certainly have further hit singles and a successful album, but can he sustain it? He believes so, and for such a idealistic man is surprisingly hard-headed about the realities of the music business. "I had a lot of fun making this album, and the record company gave me the white card to do what the hell I wanted. In order to get that freedom again, I have to deliver on certain commercial quotas."

 

He smiles and licks cake off his fingers. "I'll get there, and then I'll tell them to piss off, and I'll do whatever I want."

 

Life In Cartoon Motion is released tomorrow. Mika plays the ABC1, Glasgow, on February 26

 

ENDS.

 

one word...WOW! i have learnt so much about him! brought his album today and its amazing...i will apreciate it more knowing mor4e about him...thankyou!

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"He's just one of these people who is special, like from another level of musical talent. Touched by God is how I describe it."

 

I totally agree.

 

The world wouldn't be the same without music and the people who make it. The power of song is truly amazing and Mika has the ability to do it all. I don't think Jodi could of described him better.

 

I was fortunate enough to see him perform yesterday in store on oxford street. I'm still smiling today.

 

Great Article! Cheers!

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This has to be the most intelligent interview I have read yet, very informative, not biased and incredibly interesting, much kudos to the interviewer, and to Mika for being so open, although it wasn't as brutal as his, I got bullied at school too (I was smaller than most people in my class, so I was fair game, but I was lucky to have a couple of large friends who, when around, would intervene) so I do feel for him.

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