Mika opens up
we all know it's a small world, but it seems the world of pop is even smaller. Last October, Mika was sequestered in a hotel in Los Angeles, growing increasingly frustrated in his attempts to clear all the legal work for one of his new tracks to be signed over to Boyzone to record.
"For a lot of infuriating reasons, it was very complicated to get it all approved," the British-Lebanese-American-French pop wunderkind recalls. "So I decided to go downstairs for a coffee. The elevator doors opened and Ronan Keating was standing there holding a bag of groceries. I had never met him, or any of them, so we chatted for a few minutes, and then I turbo-charged and got the song approved by the next morning."
The single in question is Gave It All Away, which is one of two tracks on the forthcoming Boyzone album, Brothers, to feature the final vocals of Stephen Gately. Indeed, Ronan Keating had just arrived in LA that day to take some time out after Stephen's emotional funeral in Dublin.
Mika didn't know Stephen, but is acutely aware that the song has taken on extra significance since he first wrote it. The opening line, sung by Stephen, is, "I will learn to live before I die".
"The concept of the song is that you have to be comfortable with yourself without compromising or changing, or giving too much of your life away in order to be accepted," Mika explains. "I think Stephen probably understood the reason that I wrote it, and with everything that's happened, I'm quite honoured that this is their tribute to him."
In terms of career and musical ambitions, few could accuse the artist formerly known as Michael Holbrook Penniman of being anything other than himself. It was just three years ago that the 26-year-old exploded onto the pop scene with a flamboyant, sexually ambiguous, falsetto-soaked flourish, selling six million copies of his debut album Life In Cartoon Motion, and commandeered the airwaves with tracks including Grace Kelly, Lollipop, Love Today and Big Girl (You Are Beautiful).
However, underlying all of Mika's success is a relentless ambition and discipline that first asserted itself at a very early age. Born in Beirut to an American father and Lebanese mother, Mika grew up in Paris, before his family settled in London. Mika is dyslexic and was bullied severely at school, leading to him being home-educated from age 11 onwards.
Around this time Mika started singing lessons, and decided there and then that he was going to make a career from music. Over the subsequent years, he set about that mission with a ferocious focus: haranguing Simon Cowell (who, the story goes, praised Mika's voice but dissed his songs), talking his way into various auditions for London's Royal College of Music to study opera, and eventually landing a record deal.
Having released his second studio album, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, last year and about to commence a European tour (including two dates in Dublin), Mika says that the industry has a better sense of who he is now than it did three years ago.
"I think people have realised that my records are ones that I write and produce myself," he says. "What was very confusing to people, especially at first, was that I have always spoken about myself with the gall of someone who is not a pop artist. I make pop music, but I can look at my career the same way that an indie or non-commercial artist would. I think there was a bit of a, 'Who does he think he is?' attitude to that, but I guess they get that now."
He adds that pop music earns more respect these days, with even the most hardened musos acknowledging, however reluctantly, that there is such a thing as "good pop" as much as there is any other genre.
"Pop music is back, and artist-driven pop is back in a way that it hasn't been since the 70s," he states. "I believe that reality TV has played a role. Now people understand what it is that makes a 'manufactured act'. They understand where that artist comes from and, as a result, they have their place. That's why I'm not totally against these reality shows because people will look at a certain artist from them and think, 'Oh yeah, that's nothing to do with, say, La Roux, or Florence and The Machine'. It helps them to differentiate between pop that is totally manufactured and pop that is more artist-driven."
Mika is clearly a confident and self-assured guy, but even he admits that he experienced the weight of expectation to follow up a massive breakthrough that won a Brit award and a Grammy nomination.
"I definitely felt pressure," he says. "My way around that was to take a longer-looking view of it all. It's practically impossible to replicate the push of something being new. Look at [Lady] Gaga. I know her, and she probably won't admit this, but the momentum of the new thing is something you really only get once in your career. So I said to myself, 'this second album has to finish off what I started'. I made a record that is consciously darker, and I think it added another layer for me as an artist and a writer that allows me to go even further from this place."
The Boy Who Knew Too Much, similar to its predecessor, is an album about growing up and coming of age, a creative arc that has now most likely reached its natural conclusion. "The narrative of childhood probably isn't one that I'll explore any more," he says. "I'm 26 now and I realise that.
"However, the concept of naivety and the almost fairytale-like simplicity of telling a story with this happy pop attitude but darker lyrics, is definitely something that is part of my fabric as a writer. I think the shift from here will be further into character songs, and telling stories about other people, and also of life as it is now. But I still think we stay adolescents until the very end, where we revert to being babies again just before we die."
Mika's stage persona, and unashamed love and embrace of all things camp, has led to much speculation about his sexuality. He still refuses to discuss the particulars, but I ask him if he's had to make compromises and sign away more of his private life since becoming famous.
"Absolutely, there's a lot I've had to compromise and sacrifice, but I don't really care," he replies. "It's all part of the process and I'm not going to complain. Do I sometimes wish that I could be freer with my private life and who I go out with, without having to hurt the person? Yeah, that would be great. But does that bother me much? Not really. As long as I don't have to compromise creatively, that's OK, and I've never had to do that.
"Besides, I've been constantly on the road since the beginning. I'm definitely a gypsy: I'm a person who travels incessantly and I'm very comfortable with that. The reason I don't have relationships that last long is that people probably can't stand my lifestyle."
And it's a life that's only getting more hectic. In a few weeks Mika will be at the Brit Awards, where he's up against Calvin Harris, Dizzee Rascal, Paolo Nutini and Robbie Williams for Best Male Solo Artist. Is that kind of recognition important to him?
"It's very nice when it comes, but then again it disappears very quickly, right?" he answers. "You enjoy it for the time being, and then you move on. There have been very few instances where a Brit award changed a career. It did in the cases of Belle And Sebastian and Adele. But it is very nice to get recognised in this way. The thing I like most about the nomination, however, is that it's quite a diverse group of guys. It makes me think that there's an unofficial 'Brat Pack'. It's a very unlikely Brat Pack, but it's the closest thing there is at the moment."
Mika plays the Olympia Theatre, Dublin on February 15th and 16th. Tickets are €39.20. See www.mcd.ie