Pop singer Mika breaks rules, breaks out

by Howard Cohen

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

18 June 2007


MIAMI - The last time Mika played Miami, about two years ago, the pop singer performed a record company-sponsored, 20-minute showcase set. His meager crowd encompassed a handful of publishing people, some musicians, “and my grandmother and my great aunt and my Lebanese relatives, my Miami hipster friends, a tiny selection of people from every scene in Miami,” says the Beirut-born, Paris and London-bred Mika Penniman, on the telephone from Los Angeles on the eve of his U.S. tour’s opening date.

Mika, 23, is upbeat, knowing full well Sunday’s concert at Miami’s Studio A - his first “real” show here - will be populated by people who have actually paid to see him perform.

cover art


Life in Cartoon Motion

(Universal Republic)
US: 27 Mar 2007
UK: 5 Feb 2007

Review [25.Mar.2007]

“When you go on to look at the shows now, you have 16-year-old goths, hyperactive 20 year-olds and 48-year-old muzos,” he says, using a term we assume means boomer music fans who enjoy the classic artists whose inspiration seeds his music.

“The first few minutes, all of them are wondering what the hell they are doing there,” he jokes, “by the end of the gig no one gives a (crap).”

Mika is getting used to the audience reaction to his colorful live shows and technicolor pop music.

“I feel lucky to go to all these cities New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Miami, some I’ve never been to, and play reasonable sized venues and sold-out shows. It’s a nice progression from the shows we did in the States a couple months ago.”

The sound of his debut album, “Life in Cartoon Motion,” celebrates the aspects of pop music that sullen, corporate-created artists have studiously avoided over recent years: the fun, the melody, the creativity and dignity.

“Life in Cartoon Motion” blends arch, witty storytelling with deliriously catchy tunes that are disco oriented one moment, glam rock the next, with multitracked vocal chorales recalling prime Queen without the heavy metal bombast. The hit single “Grace Kelly” even offers a shout-out to the late, flamboyant Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.

Despite mainstream pop radio program directors’ obsession with machine-driven urban fare, Mika has succeeded in the U.S. “Life in Cartoon Motion” has sold 135,000 copies; its first single, “Grace Kelly,” 300,000, and the bouncy new single “Love Today” has sold 83,000 downloads so far. Even “Lollipop,” an album track, has managed 27,000 downloads according to Joel Klaiman, senior vice president of promotion and artist development for Universal Republic.

Mika’s Day-Glo music, not unlike Scissor Sisters’ retro dance pop which similarly went over big in England before inching across the Atlantic, “creates different challenges for a label,” Klaiman says. “It’s not a record flying up the urban charts, or he’s not an artist getting exposure on `American Idol’ ... but music fans who can hear it appreciate that it’s catchy and fun and bringing back a great old-time pop quality.”

Mika, who designed his colorfully illustrated CD booklet with older sister Yasmine, says he is up for the challenge of competing for a spot on the pop charts. He’s already been through enough in his brief life to make that battle seem insignificant.

Mika - the third of five children born to an American businessman and a Lebanese mother - and his family fled to France in 1984 at the height of the Lebanese civil war. His father had been held prisoner for seven months inside Kuwait’s U.S. embassy. A few years later, at age 9, Mika was living in London with his family.

Dyslexic and bullied, Mika stopped speaking. His mother suggested music as therapy, and he became something of a child singing prodigy, performing at the Royal Opera House and finding his voice in popular music. His parents’ record collection served as fuel: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Serge Gainsbourg, French songs, Arabic music. Today, Mika speaks English, French and some Spanish, he says.

Despite his clear musical gifts, nobody in the business knew what to do with him, and he faced constant rejection. Thus was born “Grace Kelly,” a defiant up-yours to the music business honcho who offered Mika a deal, but only if he would change his style to sound more like other established pop singers like Craig David or Robbie Williams.

“The music I was making was seen as unmarketable and unsellable and unplayable on radio. Every door was slammed in my face. I was rejected by the indie scene because I had a fascination with the 3 ½-minute pop song, and I really wanted to make songs that told stories but were intensely melodic. I was working for a big music company in the U.K. who told me they’d support me if I agreed to write some more normal hit pop songs, and that made no sense to me. So I went home furious and instead of telling them where to stick it I wrote “Grace Kelly” instead. That’s where the line, `Should I bend over/Should I look older/Just to be put on the shelf?’ comes from.”

Two weeks later, Mika says, he met Miami-based singer-songwriter Jodi Marr, and the two formed an alliance. “I was only able to go to Miami during my vacations, and so we ended up writing a new bridge in Miami while sitting in Barry Gibb’s studio, Middle Ear, and hiding in people’s studios from the warehouse district in North Miami to Barry’s studio… We got caught and thrown out of there. It took us about a year to demo four songs. It was a crash course for me in how to make pop songs.”

Mika’s in good company. Once, in 1980, Beatle George Harrison turned his album “Somewhere in England” into his record company, Warner Bros., and the label refused it, insisting he scrap a handful of songs and submit more commercial ones. Harrison reacted by writing the bitter music industry-bashing “Blood from a Clone.” Ironically, the label accepted that one. Mika laughs upon learning this.

“The company I wrote it about still hasn’t called me,” he says cheekily. “Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say!”

Universal Republic ultimately allowed Mika to make the sort of album he envisioned.

“From the minute we heard it, we knew it was special,” Universal’s Klaiman says. “In today’s changing landscape of music we often look for things that are special, diverse, eccentric, and I think Mika embodies all of that.”

Such qualities are sorely lacking in modern pop, but Mika says you can find the good stuff if you know where to look.

“I always say pop has been interesting for a very long time. In the UK, the pop scene is the most interesting in the world, but it has been misrepresented because most of the good music people are downloading for free. Mainstream Top 40 radio is not representing what people are really into. I get more kicks looking at what is selling on the Internet charts rather than looking at radio play charts. I don’t want to know what is selling the most amount of toothpaste. I want to know what people are downloading at 2 in the morning because they are bored.”

//Mixed media

Call for Music Writers... Hip-Hop, Soul, Electronic, Rock, Indie, Americana, Jazz, World and More

// Announcements

"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…

READ the article