Interview: Mika feels the love on newest album, intimate US club tour
March 21, 2013
Written by Roman Gokhman
British singer-songwriter Mika was traumatized when his sister Paloma, one of four siblings in a close-knit family, fell 50 feet from a window and was critically injured. Paloma, who designed the covers to Mika’s first two albums, was expected to die.
The accident took place in 2010, and Mika refused to work on his music for nearly a year, while she recovered.
“She had her body completely reconstructed,” said the 29-year-old Lebanese-born glam-pop vocalist, a week before the start of his American tour, which includes a stop Monday at the Great American Music Hall.
“She was wheelchair-bound for almost a year and somehow her nerves started working. She can walk without even crutches now,” he said. “Everyone thinks it’s a miracle.”
Paloma’s near-death experience gave Mika a new sense of urgency, which he says he had lost.
“When something traumatic like this happens, it destabilizes you,” Mika said. “That’s not always a bad thing.”
After selling eight million copies of his first two albums, 2007’s Life in Cartoon Motion and 2009’s The Boy Who Knew Too Much, with the help of singles like “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)” and “Grace Kelly,” the singer was ready for a change of direction.
The singer, born Mica Pennimann and known for his four-octave vocal range and Technicolor image in videos and on-stage – with life-size puppets, confetti and balloon showers – was challenged to create a more intimate third album.
He describes record No. 3, last fall’s The Origin of Love, as having less deflection and more candidness.
“Why hide behind cartoon characters all the time?” the singer asked himself. “You write one ‘Lollipop,’ but you don’t want to write 42 of them. I have this fear; and I think everybody who makes music … they’re all afraid of becoming a caricature of themselves.
“The only way you can not become a caricature is by pushing yourself and by daring to suck, by daring to be shit. At this time, it was what I needed to do.”
Mika has also stayed busy writing for other artists such as Brit Eliza Doolittle and Australian duo Empire of the Sun.
“I write now under a different name because it enables me to really step into this persona I’ve invented for myself as a writer,” he said. “It’s completely liberating.”
He keeps the name to himself, but says he used to write as “Alice” of Wonderland.
“I didn’t dress up; I didn’t put a bow in my hair or anything,” he joked.
The Origin of Love is not a simplistic acoustic record, but it is less layered and has less glitz and glam than Mika’s previous work. The singer saw the album title as a mystical journey about different kinds of love, from true to banal and bitter.
The album includes “Popular Song,” a twist on “Popular,” from Broadway’s Wicked, the electronic-tinged “Make You Happy” and contently jubilant “Step With Me.”
“(On) an album of love songs – if they’re going to be honest ones – you’re really going to be talking about life,” he said.
Another influence on the album was Mika’s newfound happy, stable relationship. As the singer was coming up in the music industry, his lyrics and persona garnered many questions from the British press about his sexuality. Mika didn’t appreciate being pressured and put on the spot.
“I was never pretending to be anything that I wasn’t,” he said. “I (decided to) do this on my own terms for the right reasons. Finding the right person had a lot to do with it, and also very much my sister’s accident. This doesn’t change me because it came from a good place.”
Mika’s U.S. tour will be an intimate affair. Only a pianist and guitarist will accompany him. Songs from all three albums will get special arrangements for the occasion. Most of the shows, which are also being held at smaller venues, quickly sold out.
He promises the shows will still be full of fantasy, and seeing an experience similar to what he goes through when writing songs in a studio will not disappoint fans.
“It’s not suddenly a kind of intense navel-gazing session,” he said. “I can sit at a piano and create make-believe with nothing.”