“I grew up listening to everything from Joan Baez and Dylan, to Serge Gainsbourg and Flamenco,” says Mika, a 23-year-old singer, songwriter and producer whose sparkling debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion, has just been released. “My musical tastes have become more eclectic as I’ve gotten older, but I’m always going back to great artist songwriters, people who make great records to their own vision. Prince, Harry Nillson, Elton John, even Michael Jackson. These people make amazing pop records that couldn’t be performed by anybody else, and that’s what I always wanted to do.”
Fun, smart, musically adventurous and thematically provocative, the 13 songs on Life, all of them written and produced by Mika, combine euphoric rushes of melody with darker, unexpected elements. They range from bright daytime melodramas to night-time tales of love, loss, abandonment, hope and happiness. Each is a splendid blend of fresh imagination and deft pop craftsmanship. They are songs, Mika says, “about transitions,” about people in the process of becoming whoever they want to be. Sort of like Mika himself.
“Transitions are important, because that’s when everything gets destabilized, and that makes you question and re-evaluate everything,” he explains. “For songwriting, that’s an endless source of inspiration, because it makes you look at things. You can’t take anything for granted.”
A self-taught piano virtuoso, gymnastic vocalist and born entertainer, Mika has music in his bones. His four-octave voice, which he knows when to restrain and when to unleash, needs to be heard to be believed, and he uses it to powerful effect on Life. Whether praising the delights of the larger-framed woman on the funk-rocking “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful),” describing the journey of a married man who discovers that he’s attracted to men on the burlesque “Billy Brown,” or simply celebrating the joys of being alive on “Love Today,” he is unafraid to revel in the pleasure he takes in making music. “I wrote ‘Love Today’ when I was happy, really happy,” he recalls. “When you’re on a buzz, you assume that everyone in the world feels the way you do. So I put it in a song.” Motorola has licensed “Love Today” for online and mobile-phone spots in its RED campaign
The moods on Life in Cartoon Motion swing wildly - as do the rush of musical surprises that continually tumble forward. That sense of delirious unpredictability accounts, in part, for the album’s title. “Inevitably when you put certain subjects into a pop song, a cartoon-like quality arises,” Mika says. “It’s like how Homer Simpson can talk about anything from politics to Michael Jackson’s weirdness to homosexuality and get away with it because it’s a cartoon. That’s where the title comes from.”
Mika’s background, however, wasn’t always so playful. He was born in Beirut in the mid 80s, and his family moved to Paris at the height of Lebanon’s brutal civil war. His father was subsequently taken hostage and held at the American embassy in Kuwait, and the family eventually settled in London. Mika found himself lost in the chasm of these wrenching and frightening events.
“It was the combination of moving as well as a horrible time I had at school in the first few years of living in London that led me to forget how to read and write, and stop talking for a little while,” he says. “I was pulled out of school for over six months; in order to sort myself out. This is when music really became important. It got me back on my feet.”
By the time he was 9, Mika knew that songwriting was what he wanted to do. “After I started singing, I started to get jobs everywhere,” he says. “I did everything from recordings with the Royal Opera House to a chewing gum jingle. One reason I got so much work was that I was insanely cheap. My mother and I had no idea what I was supposed to get paid. Looking back on it, 45 quid for an Orbit chewing gum jingle could have been a little too cheap!”
When he was 11, Mika catapulted onto the stage of a Richard Strauss opera, and the glamour of that environment instantly seduced him. “It was a magical world that you could live in,” he says. “A parallel universe for people that is illusory and enchanting.”
When it came time for college, he enrolled at the Royal College of Music. An obsessive songwriter, he would crash parties, hijack the piano and start performing his tunes. One such occasion led to a development deal, which, unfortunately, only ended up crushing his spirit. “The executives would try and twist me into a direction that went totally against my nature,” he recalls. “Basically, they wanted me to follow whatever was popular.”
To fend off depression, Mika wrote “Grace Kelly,” a hilariously bold operatic spoof set to a Technicolor pop backdrop. “It was a f-off song to the people I was working with,” he explains. “That’s where the line ‘Shall I bend over/Shall I look older,/Just to be put on your shelf’ comes from. I was so angry. That company had every resource except a soul.” The infectious pomp and catchy chorus of “Grace Kelly” became a benchmark for the kind of music he wanted to make. “You can’t be afraid to stand out,” he says. “If no one was going to take a punt on it, then so be it. I would do it myself.” He found himself in Miami, recording demos with anyone who was interested, in any studio he could get for free. Eventually the right deal came along, and the result is this startlingly appealing album.
These songs all reflect Mika’s distinctive touch - they are simultaneously theatrical and intimate, accessible and gleefully subversive. “‘Why not?’ is one of my mottoes,” Mika says, laughing. “I always knew that the first album I ever made would have to be a completely ‘no apologies’ album. There’s a kind of youth to that as well. This is the kind of record that I knew I would only be able to make once in my life. It’s my coming-out-of school, leaving-university album - that whole transition period from childhood to adulthood. That energy keeps it alive.”
And it is just the beginning of what Mika is capable of delivering musically. “Playing live is where it all comes together for me,” he says. “I often get stressed when recording - it’s so full of decision making. You’re constantly deciding what should stay on the song forever. I love undoing all that in my live sets, and going places where I wouldn’t necessarily go on the record.”