Music interview: Mika

"It's like you've taken all the pills in your grandma's medicine cabinet and you're going on a trip," says Mika, describing the staging of his latest tour which comes to Leeds later this month.

"This new show is more effective as it's far darker. There's the same energy but it's made all the sweeter by the darkness. This show is far more explosive too, more interesting. It stomps.

"I want to disarm my audience and introduce them to a very alternative world for two hours. I fuse theatre with a concert. I have done since the very early days."

Still just 26 years old, this extensive tour follows on the heels of the September release of his second album, The Boy Who Knew Too Much and his comeback single We Are Golden.

Of course, it's chapter two of the Mika story. Chapter one began when Michael Holbrook Penniman (to use his real name) became on overnight success in 2007 with the release of the piercing anthem, Grace Kelly.

It became one of the tunes of the year and went on to sell 3m copies worldwide. That was then dwarfed by sales of his debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion.

And from the start Mika's shows were extravagant affairs. Giant balloons, puppets, blow-up dolls, not to mention a troupe of curvy burlesque dancers performing during his other famous hit Big Girl (You are Beautiful).

But, however outlandish, most agree no stage set can compete with the gangly, mop-haired, high-pitched star of the show. It's an eccentricty born out somewhat unconventional youth.

Born in Beirut, Mika moved to Paris with his Lebanese mother and American father then relocated to London when he was nine.

He says: "My parents worked hard to nurture the creativity of their children. My mother was a children's clothes maker; I grew up in a house where there was thread everywhere. We used to come down to breakfast and pick loose cotton off the bottom of our feet.

"My father used to leave first thing in the morning; he wasn't creative, he had to work. You could tell he was jealous.

"Now, I play some amazing shows. I played the Olympic Hall in Korea and 30 people had to be carried off in ambulances; it was hysterical and completely overwhelming. Who'da thought I'd go from a little chipboard piano to this?"

There's something delightfully random about Mika. For starters the interview is arranged and rearranged no less than five times and he arrives for our chat late. Then when placed on speakerphone he complains: "It's a little bit crackly" and asks that we knock it off.

At the same time he's incredibly polite and unquestionably endearing – a mixed bag born out of a somewhat bohemian background.

"When I was starting out, my family helped me grow in the direction I wanted. I still love having my mother on tour with me", he admits, slightly bashful. "She can be a bit of a nightmare too though. I'd better not say too much; she's a bit of a gypsy and I'm quite into stupid superstitions.

"Do you know I've been made a Chevalier of Arts and Letters in France?" (a honour bestowed by the French government on important cultural figures).

"Me and my family laugh about it. It just seems so absurd that someone in the family should have such a prestigious honour. That's pretty unheard of. No-one under 30 is typically so privileged."

His family is not merely important to him on a sentimental level, they also provide essential inspiration. His second album, The Boy Who Knew Too Much was seen as the exorcism of Mika's troubled adolescence whereas Life In Cartoon Motion focused on his earlier childhood.

Deep introspection has forged an artist who isn't necessarily universally loved but is, at least, unique.


It's evident in many ways, not least his reluctance to be influenced by his pop contemporaries. He confesses a liking to Rufus Wainwright and Lady Gaga ("I love her, she's so much fun") but doesn't feel influenced by any act in particular.

"Producers influence me more than artists, if I'm honest," he admits.

So, will they be the defining influence shaping future material?

"Well, it certainly won't be reviews," he says. "I live in a fantasy world, I'm there in my shows. I try to escape from aspects of the real world, that includes reviews!

"I'm not mad about them. I don't read them, in fact. Often, they don't offer me anything as a performer. I do love the idea of constructive feedback though. I love being given a suggestion I might build on.

"But I'm in the position of total freedom now. I can just express myself as I'd like."

Mika seems to be just as wary of acclaim as negative press.

The recipient of three World Music Awards shortly after his career began in 2007, the singer-songwriter was also recognised with a Grammy nomination and the Brit Award for British Breakthrough act the following year.

As an act, he continues to be acknowledged by the awards bodies: Mika is a nominee for British Male Solo Artist at this year's Brit Awards. But, surprisingly, he doesn't automatically view them as a good influence.

"I'm always very grateful to receive an award," he insists. "But they infringe upon your creativity and impose a criteria you feel you have to meet as an artist. I believe that it shouldn't be what drives you and, ultimately, awards are distracting."

Mika plays a sell-out show at O2 Academy Leeds on Sunday, February 21.

Alex Newman, partner at Irwin Mitchell in Leeds

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