Pop and Circumstance

Mika has taken inspiration from the Catholic Church, Cole Porter and being gay in developing his unique style of pop music

Interview by Doug Rule
Published on March 28, 2013, 2:01am | Comments

''I'm completely uncomfortable in my own skin,'' says Mika. ''I'm neurotic, self-contradictory and just unbearable.''

That may be how the international pop star sees himself, but it's certainly not the impression you get by spending any time with the man born Michael Penniman Jr. At least since fully coming out as gay last year, the European-reared and London-based American singer-songwriter is refreshingly candid, forthcoming and friendly in conversation. He reveals himself to be as knowledgeable about -- and as influenced by -- the Catholic Church as he is by early pop-music pioneers, including Cole Porter and Patti Page.



(Photo by Mark Cant)

Mika's music is anything but unbearable, either. Across the span of three albums in six years, the 29-year-old has consistently made appealingly catchy tunes, both sunny and sharp -- smart -- from ''Grace Kelly'' to ''Blame It on the Girls'' to ''Popular Song,'' his remake of the big number from the musical Wicked.

Those lucky enough to have snagged tickets to his intimate, sold-out concert at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the second week of April will hear his hits. But the artist also intends to play some songs from his back catalog, as well as other songs still in the development stage. He'll be performing with support from two other multi-instrumentalists with whom he's also started recording a new album.

''It sounds like a new interpretation of '70s songwriter pop, like Billy Joel, for example," he says. ''It's a complete contrast to the saturated, produced stuff that I've been making for the last two years.''

Obviously, Mika isn't resting on his laurels. He's increasingly writing for others -- ''some pretty cool artists, too'' – though he declines to say who. (''I can't. Scout's honor, you know.'') Chances are, we're talking veritable pop stars. After all, he's recently co-written for Madonna -- the unforgettable ''Gang Bang'' from MDNA -- as well as collaborated with Pharrell Williams and new Nickelodeon star Ariana Grande.

As Mika sums up his approach: ''It's a constantly changing dynamic. It's like never resting on your form or opinion. Always moving, changing.''

METRO WEEKLY: I know that you're out now, though you've never really been ''in.'' Last year, however, you did come out a little bit more directly.

MIKA: [Laughs.] It's funny to hear it like that. Your whole life, and your decision-making, your choices, your drive – everything reduced to either a two- or three-letter-word. That's the politics of sexuality. It's so reductive.

MW: Your last album, last year's great The Origin of Love, seemed a little lighter and sunnier and happier than the first two. I wondered if becoming more explicit about being gay had any bearing on that.

MIKA: I actually have to agree with you -- I think that it probably does. It's a kind of fearlessness, right? There's less deflection. You get this much more candid – yet sometimes quite brutal, and brutally optimistic – un-judgmental way of writing lyrics. Which is kind of what happened.

My albums are a reflection of my life at this time, which for some reason in pop music people find that hard to believe. It's like you assume that pop records are just these constructs from the back of [super-producer] Dr. Luke's empire. Some think that seems to be where pop comes from. But it's not, actually.

Pop can be brutally honest and very reflective of the life of the artist. It was totally a reflection of that. The more brutal and honest and open and candid we are with what we write, the more potential we have to actually be moving or to say something that makes you feel something.

MW: I understand that as a kid, when you lived in Paris, you were bullied.

MIKA: Oh, I was bullied my whole life. In some way I still feel like I am in some places -- in some countries, let's put it that way. People say they don't judge me, but they do. They hate nonconformity in a lot of places. That kind of bullying is something that everyone experiences all the time, in some measure or another, in some way or another. I think it never really goes away.

But, yes, as a child, it's particularly brutal when you're being bullied – especially if you're being bullied about something that you can't fucking change, that you didn't fucking choose. Because it's just not fair! And only a cunt would bully you for that. So I have to say, does the concept of being bullied for something you can't choose anger me? Yeah, enormously. I just think it's so stupid. It's just bad education. Two things breed bullying, I think. It's complacency and fear. And each is as destructive as the other.... Judging by the sound of it, you're in New York. I can hear sirens.

MW: No, I'm in D.C.

MIKA: I just have this thing -- sirens and New York City.

MW: You don't have that in London?

MIKA: No, we don't have that. We hear foxes mating. And trust me, I'd rather hear a siren than a fox mating. There's nothing more horrific to hear.

MW: I don't know what a mating fox sounds like.

MIKA: It sounds like something from a horror movie. It's really horrible. I hear it in my garden. It's really nasty. You'll never look at a fox the same way again. [Fantastic Mr. Fox filmmaker] Wes Anderson got it completely wrong.



MW: You grew up primarily in London, right?

MIKA: I was born in Beirut, grew up in Paris and then London. A lot of my vacations, whenever we could, were in the states. But today I live in London. And I have a house – this old ruin from the '20s – in Miami, by an architect called Russell Pancoast, that I've been trying to restore for the past three years. It's this crazy thing. When you walk in, you think you're walking into Sunset Boulevard.

Miami is a funny place. A lot of people think of it as terrible clubs and stuff, but I think it's a really fascinating place. The South American and Latin American influence is overwhelming, in a really good way. And I was discovered in Miami. That's where I was first making my demos. That's where I've written, overwhelmingly, the three albums' worth of songs. I never really talk about the fact that I work so much in Miami, but I do. I like going there. It seems like I'm in this other world. That's what I feel like when I'm in Miami.

MW: I know you work with your sister Paloma, and your sister Yasmine designed the covers of your first two albums. How many siblings do you have?

MIKA: I have three sisters and one brother. I work with all of my family. We're all in the arts. We're like a weird collective, an immigrant mafia. [Laughs.]

My little brother is an architect. My other sister is a jewelry designer studying at [Central] St. Martins. Paloma, for many years, worked in production, but at the moment is not working. And then Yasmine is an illustrator and painter. I don't know why we all ended up in the arts.

MW: Your parents didn't necessarily groom you to be in the arts?

MIKA: We came from nowhere. We are the nowhere kids. And when you come from nowhere, you create a world around you. That's what we did.

MW: You're saying you came from nowhere because you moved around a lot growing up?

MIKA: Well, we're the children of first-generation Americans [but have] never lived in America. We identify with New York City, in such an affectionate way, yet we've always lived in Europe and abroad. My sister has lived in China. So, it's like we come from nowhere. We're the nowhere kids. We had periods in our lives where we've had a lot of money. My father did really well. And then, overwhelmingly, periods in our lives where we had absolutely nothing, lived in the English equivalent of a motel for four years, running away from taxes and rents that we couldn't pay in France. Such ups and downs.

MW: What do your parents do?

MIKA: My father worked in finance. He was far too honest, though, to work in finance. That was his problem. If only he could have been a little bit more crooked, he would have been a lot richer.

My mother was a dressmaker, and she specialized in children's clothes. We grew up surrounded by thread and materials, because my mother had her workshop in the kitchen and in the living room. So we had her and her, like, 10 dressmakers who were making children's clothes all the time and selling them in shops under different labels. And then she stopped that, because with five kids and a father who's never around, I think she feared that we would be seriously fucked up.

MW: You got used to costume changes early on? And playing dress-up?

MIKA: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Can you imagine? My life was a giant dressing-up-off! Our apartment was a mess, because it was a workshop. And everyone knows that an apartment that's a mess is the most creative place to ever grow up, because when it's a mess, you make it into anything you want. And there were clothes everywhere – dressing up was actually quite the serious part of growing up. Dressing up wasn't just a stupid thing that was done at some children's party. We all dressed up, all the time, as different things and different people. And stay in character for, like, the whole day. It's really weird. I look back on it now and I'm just like, well, no wonder I didn't have many friends. [Laughs.] But you know, we were five -- we were a gang. So it protected us.

MW: Do you think you'll ever have kids yourself?

MIKA: Yeah, why not? I'd love to. It'd be great. The problem is -- you know, everyone's always worried, especially in Europe at the moment, ''Oh, should gay people be allowed to have children?'' But it's more like, should someone with my job and profession be allowed to have children? It's kind of like, if you don't have enough time, and you can't actually go home and visit your dog, what the hell are you supposed to do with a kid?

MW: Did your family have any trouble with you being gay?

MIKA: A little bit, to begin with. But then, you know, tough shit, get over it.

MW: Your success must have helped.

MIKA: Oh, no, success has nothing to do with it. It's more about ignorance. You can love someone and realize that they're being ignorant. And you can fight it slowly. I guess I learned a lot about how to deal with the tolerance of people's misgivings when it comes to sexuality, because I learned it within my own family. I never got angry, I never was violent about it. I was never vengeful. I was just like, okay, in time, and in trust.

It was just ignorance. It just took time. But it certainly wasn't about success. Because success doesn't validate anything. I actually think success compounded the whole situation. It was just like it made it all weirder.

MW: Just being honest and comfortable in your own skin -- that had more to do with their acceptance?

MIKA: Oh, I'm completely uncomfortable in my own skin. I'm completely uncomfortable. [Laughs.] I think that's why I write songs, because I always want to be something else. And I can turn myself into anything if I write a song. I visualize that I want to sing like a 16-year-old goth, and then I write a song about it, and I feel like that person. I'm neurotic, self-contradictory and just unbearable. And for all those reasons, I write.



MW: Did you grow up practicing religion?

MIKA: Yes, I am still a Roman Catholic. And I grew up a Melchite, which is one of the oldest forms of Christianity. The Masses are in Aramaic, and it's a Lebanese form of Christianity that is similar in some ways to Greek Orthodox, but it's not. It recognizes the pope. And a big part of my life growing up was church, and the ceremony of church. Added to that, when you're a child and you sing, inevitably, 50 percent of the material that you're going to be doing, even for professional jobs, is going to be religious-based, in a church. So the show biz of church – the preparation that goes into those ceremonies – was a very big part of my training growing up.

It's just that no one ever talks about the impact of ceremony as you grow up. I saw [filmmaker Pedro] Almodóvar in an interview where he walked into a church from his childhood, and he just literally, verbatim, went through every single move – 'cause I think he was an altar boy – of the incense, the way it swung, the way it smelled, the preparation, the monotony of it. The theater of it. It has a very big part to play in how you approach work, I think.

MW: Well, it's definitely influenced your work.

MIKA: I think so. Yes, it did. It's definitely a running theme in my work.

MW: In the song ''The Origin of Love'' you even create your own religious Latin chant. Or at least I assume it's your own.

MIKA: It is, exactly. I mean, it's a mixture of Latin and Spanish. So there's ''Madre deus Deus machismo.'' And the whole song is about church. The whole song is about religion. It's about the Roman Catholic Church, which I love dearly – even though I'm not a bigot and I'm not in denial of the human condition. Yet, at the same time, it's a very strange thing, 'cause I'm very respectful of that world. But I give myself the privilege to, I don't know, take what I want and not be distracted by the political noise of religion. Because it's the political noise that sucks. At the end of the day, religion and spirituality and faith, whatever forms and doctrines it comes in, they're very important things. I don't believe in the Bible verbatim in any way. And I don't believe in the politics of religion. It makes me sick. Well, it doesn't make me sick, I just ignore it.

MW: What do you think of the new pope?

MIKA: I think it's really important to get an understanding of this pope. Never before have I felt like the job of being pope has had equal amounts political work as it has spiritual leadership. Pope Francis feels, in my opinion, like someone who's extremely conscious of the political situation and the politicking that goes into his position. And I find that really interesting. He doesn't feel like this mythical creature that Pope John Paul was. He feels like someone who is an extremely clever, intellectual, academic man, who is from the outset positioning himself with tactics that Obama would be impressed with. And he is a writer, just like Obama. And he is taking this whole humble-but-firm approach like Obama. Unfortunately, he's not as liberal as Obama, but then again, Rome, and the Vatican, wasn't built in a day. [Laughs.] So who knows?

I don't agree with his views. I think it's harsh. I think it's alienating. But I think it's fascinating to observe.

MW: And you're still practicing?

MIKA: No. I mean, I go to church from time to time. I like going to the London Oratory because, you know, I grew up in that church, and it's a huge thing. And when they have a Mass, they have trumpets and opera singers that are good enough to be singing at the English National Opera. The whole thing is free. The ceremony is kind of cool. And it's packed. And it's just quite an amazing thing. So I go from time to time. But, no, I'm not a regular churchgoer at all.

Even if I don't agree with Catholic politics, I still see value in its faith and the ceremony, and I think that's really important. And, again, it's okay to have opinions like that, that are contradictory. Somehow in life, if you have contradictory opinions on things such as religion or politics, it's seen as not right. But why not?

Who was that actor? That amazing gay English actor who was in The Madness of King George and died a couple years ago? [Nigel Hawthorne.] He played the king. When he died, in his obituary, there was something really funny that was written by his partner: The one thing that made him so intolerable was also the thing that made him so loveable and always interesting, because he constantly contradicted himself. And I get that. It's a constantly changing dynamic. It's like never resting on your form or opinion. Always moving, changing.

MW: Speaking of changing, I also wanted to talk to you about ''Popular Song.'' What inspired you to sample from Wicked?

MIKA: I've always liked that melody. And I know Stephen Schwartz. The reason why that musical works so well is because the characters discuss such human topics. Besides the cleverness of the [concept], the prequel of Oz. The themes are so human. In the same way that The Wizard of Oz was so powerful, because it was about the human condition and weaknesses and strength. And with ''Popular,'' I found it quite amazing. It sounded like something that Patti Page could have sung, which is always a good thing. It felt like from another time. I thought it would be interesting to take the song and turn it around, so that it's actually the loser who's singing the song ''Popular.'' It's kind of like my version of the sequel of that song. Because I didn't want to just take the hook, copy and paste it. I had this idea to kind of do Part 2.

The words are vicious. I use the word ''faggot,'' which I really got a lot of shit for from people around me, who didn't want me to use the word. It's quite brutal. It talks about bullying, and it talks about all these things, but it's just so sweet. It's got that sweetness to it. It's got that old-radio hooky-ness, which makes it palatable. Which makes it funny. Which brings good humor and the tolerance back into the subject matter.

MW: I bring it up is because it made me wonder if you've given any thought to writing your own musical.

MIKA: I am not ready. [Laughs.] I am not ready because I think it's such a monumental thing. Two of my favorite writers ever are Kurt Weill, who wrote The Threepenny Opera and Lady In The Dark and all that stuff. He's genius. And also Cole Porter. It's just crazy the amount of good writing that came out of those men, especially Cole Porter. He's one of the best songwriters who ever lived.

I think writing musicals, if you want to do it well, it's going to suck up your life. Whether it does well or badly, it's still going to suck up your life for at least five or six years. So, I'll wait until I'm ready to suck up my life. But in the meantime I'll keep getting ready, because I really want to do it. I do, actually. I really want to do it. But I've got to take my time with it.

MW: So that's something you'll work up to?

MIKA: Eventually, yeah. Yeah, I will. It's funny because a lot of what I'm writing now could easily be taken and put into a movie, you know? A musical movie.

MW: Aside from a musical, what else do you hope to accomplish? What do you see for your future?

MIKA: I want to keep making these records that are like little worlds. It's just the only way I know how to make records. I want to turn around when I'm 80 and look at like these colorful, delicious, sliceable [records], you know what I mean? They're chunky and have all this delirious detail, and each album that I make is like a little universe, and I find that really appealing, building those things. And I want to just keep doing that, because I know that in time it will be just such a nice collection of stuff that I have made.

It's just all about fantasy, really. It's about make-believe. And that's what I do. It really is what I do. I've always said, you know, when I'm 80, I just want to be a minder of make-believe, and I don't need anything else.

MW: And songs and music allow you to escape?

MIKA: Exactly! It's the transformative power of melody, that feeling that it gives you, you feel suddenly like…. Like you never knew what heartbreak was until you hear a melody that makes you feel like you might know. You can feel like a 7-year-old child again, you know? Just that thing. Just that little rush of endorphins that you get when you can't understand what you're hearing, but it makes you feel a certain way. And that is quite addictive. And you chase it, and you want to make something that makes you feel like that.

Mika performs Wednesday, April 10, at 8 p.m., at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW. Tickets are sold out. Call 202-408-3100 or visit sixthandi.org.

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