Cooler than you
Ailbhe Malone talks to pop sensation Mike Posner about mixtapes, finishing college after being signed by a label and how he’s only just begun
The first that anyone this side of the Atlantic may have heard of Mike Posner was when X Factor loser Cher Lloyd croaked her way through his breakthrough track Cooler Than Me during her stint at Cheryl's house. There were internet mumblings that her choice to sing a Posner song was less to do with Cher's cutting-edge music taste, and more to do with Posner being Sony Music Entertainment's (and thus Simon Cowell's) most exciting new signing. Whatever the case, 'exciting' is certainly the right term to use.
Mike Posner, a 22-year-old Chad Michael Murray-lookalike, is waiting in a London recording studio. Lounging, watching television, when I enter, he smiles broadly and envelopes me in a big hug. "What can I say," he grins. "I am a hugger." Astonishingly chipper following a long flight after a long night (he'd been at an MTV party), he's eager to chat, and promises that, despite the yawns, he's "pumped to be here".
Within five minutes of our meeting, Posner has given me his life story. Lankily stretched out along a sofa next to the recording booth, he hoiks one leg up over the other and relaxes. Posner has considered himself "a professional since about age 13" -- when he started producing. He grins, "it wasn't very good! I did think it was then. But I'm glad I started when I was young, because, hopefully, you get better by doing things and by practising. I started off just making beats, and then I started writing songs. I used to go to record labels and pitch my songs to them -- this was much later -- and they would tell me that my stuff just didn't fit with the artists that they had on their roster. And so I decided to start singing the things that I was writing. And one of the first things that I recorded was Cooler Than Me. It was something that changed my whole life."
In between the production and the pitching, he took on a summer internship at ultra-credible Definitive Jux Records in New York. While his duties included changing cat litter for the CEO (no, really), Posner admits that the internship was really an excuse to have a base in New York to meet with record labels. And man, did it work out in his favour.
Off the back of his second mixtape -- A Matter of Time -- Posner was picked up swiftly by J Records (home to Alicia Keys and Jamie Foxx). Oh, and all this happened while he was still in university. And not just any university -- Duke University, classed as one of the top 10 most difficult universities to get into in the US.
Of his experiences at the college, Posner notes: "My whole life, I'd always been the smartest kid in all my classes and when I got there, I felt like the dumbest kid. It was the first time in my life that I was afraid to raise my hand in class. I thought that I would say something stupid to everyone else. Everyone there is a genius, so it's a really awesomely competitive environment to be in. It inspired me to work hard on my passions. And in my case, that was music." And what's even more surprising is that Posner returned to finish his degree when he got signed.
"Yeah, I got signed three-quarters of the way through university. My mum made me go back, but I felt that I owed it not only to myself but to my family," he explains. "Most people in the world don't have the chance to go to college -- let alone a college like Duke University. So it was important to me to see it through. It was a tough decision at the time though! To carry it out -- to be an artist and a student at the same time -- it's difficult. But I'm proud of the way I did it."
The route that he chose wasn't an easy path. Posner laughs when he remembers J Records' reaction to his decision to return to college. "The label were very understanding. I guess I had that spectrum of my parents and the label. But I worked really hard, and satisfied both of them. I did, like, 40 shows in my last semester, and made a second mixtape. So they couldn't really complain. And I ended up with fairly good marks, so my mom couldn't really complain either!"
Nor did his new-found success change his demeanour. "I wasn't cocky when I went back to college," promises Posner -- before breaking into a swift aside. "Nah, that's a lie -- I made shirts that said 'I'm signed now, bitches'. Hah! I don't think I was cocky -- I don't think I'm better than other people because of my job. My job is a cool job, and I love it, and I'm grateful to have it. But it doesn't make me better than somebody that's studying to be a doctor or a lawyer."
Posner conducts himself with an endearing mix of humility and swagger. On the one hand, he ruminates that, philosophically, a background in Sociology was a boon when it came to writing. "I think my degree helped a lot. Sociology is the study of people within society. My job is to simultaneously entertain and make art for people. So I think it definitely helps that I have a degree of perspective that some other artists might not have." On the other, when asked about his 'process', his response is: "I try to write really great songs."
Well, Mike, we all want to write really great songs. That's kind of the idea, isn't it? Earnestly, he tries to elaborate. "When I say a song, I don't mean what you hear on the radio. I mean like the actual lyrics, chords, the melody. Something that stands alone, when you just hear it over the piano. So I write over just me on the keys, or just me on the piano. I come up with an idea of acceptable melodies or acceptable lyrics over the piano, and then I'll start producing. Nobody hears my stuff until it's done. I used to do that when I was younger, and I came to the conclusion that people's comments usually mess me up. I'd prefer to finish my song."
To be fair, forthcoming album 31 Minutes To Takeoff is, to borrow Posner's phrase, full of rather great songs. It's brash, blue-eyed soul-- with an electro heartbeat. And it's pretty damn good. So, with an album under his belt, what's up next for our boy Mike?
He grins and shrugs. "I don't like to state too many of my goals before they happen, because I usually sound a little cocky when I do that. But you know, I'm 22. The most important thing for me now is to keep improving as a producer, as a singer and as a songwriter. It's exciting for me to know that I'm here, but my best music is still ahead. If I thought that I was recycling something that already existed, I would quit. But I'm not doing what other people are doing, so I don't think I've got to quit just yet."
Mike Posner plays the Academy on February 23
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