ENTERTAINMENT

12 Years After 'Grace Kelly,' Mika Turns Personal Trauma Into Joyous Pop Once More

The singer says his new album, "My Name Is Michael Holbrook," was "written as medicine," but he hasn't lost his sense of campy queer fun either.

After more than a decade as a falsetto-voiced purveyor of pop music, Mika is hitting the reset button.

On “Grace Kelly,” off his 2007 debut album, “Life in Cartoon Motion,” the Lebanese-born British singer announced he’d gone “identity mad” as he crooned about adopting different identities, namely the 1950s screen siren of the song’s title and Freddie Mercury. (The song itself is a nod to his frustrations with studio executives who wanted to restyle his image.)

By contrast, the title of Mika’s fifth album is “My Name Is Michael Holbrook,” the first time he’s formally referenced part of his birth name ― Michael Holbrook Penniman Jr. ― in a musical project. 

“It was written as medicine,” the 36-year-old told HuffPost. “I needed to re-find that young guy who was writing songs in his apartment at 17 or 18. I felt this urgent sense, this need to reconnect with the elation and joy of making music after a good three years of having lost that sensation. At a certain point, you’re like, ‘Well, who am I, really?’ So I kind of used my legal name in order to … write about myself with more freedom.” 

Mika delves into personal territory on his fifth album, “My Name Is Michael Holbrook,” released last week.
Mika delves into personal territory on his fifth album, “My Name Is Michael Holbrook,” released last week.

Released last week, “My Name Is Michael Holbrook” proves Mika hasn’t lost his flair for disco-tinged exuberance. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the album’s leadoff single, “Ice Cream,” a summery bop laden with sexual innuendo. “Tiny Love,” meanwhile, harks back to Elton John or “Bohemian Rhapsody”-era Queen with its anthemic choruses and vocal harmonies. 

But as its title suggests, “My Name Is Michael Holbrook” is also an intensely personal affair. “Paloma” is a contemplative ballad Mika wrote about his sister, who nearly died after falling from an apartment window and impaling herself on a fence post. The sultry, if deceptively titled, “Sanremo” was inspired by the adolescent awkwardness he experienced at age 13 while visiting the coastal Italian city of the title with his family.

The “Sanremo” video, which dropped Oct. 4, interprets the song’s escapist lyrics in a wildly different way. In it, Mika plays a closeted gay man in the 1950s who, after kissing his wife and daughter goodbye, ventures through the city streets and into a speakeasy-style bar filled with sailors and drag queens, in search of a male companion. The video, viewable below, concludes with Mika, who has been dodging suspicious glances from passersby, being stopped by a police officer as audio from what sounds like a vintage radio broadcast warns of the “dangers” of homosexuality.

The narrative of the “Sanremo” video could be seen as a nod to Mika’s own trajectory as an artist. He came out publicly as gay in 2012, though the media had been scrutinizing the queer subtext of his work for years. “It’s only through my music that I’ve found the strength to come to terms with my sexuality beyond the context of just my lyrics,” he said at the time. “This is my real life.”

Much as Mika looked to Mercury and George Michael for inspiration, he has, in turn, helped pave the way for the likes of Troye Sivan and Sam Smith, who have not shied away from expressing their sexuality and gender identity through their music. Still, he believes LGBTQ artists continue to face a “complicated” reality when it comes to the world of mainstream pop.

“I refuse to define the challenges associated with being LGBTQ purely with media acceptance,” he said. “It’s easier to know you’re going to be given a shot, and from that point of view, you’re going to face less discrimination in the media sense or the music industry sense — discrimination which I definitely suffered, and a lot of artists did much more than me. But that doesn’t mean it’s simpler. Every person’s journey is atypical.” 

“I refuse to define the challenges associated with being LGBTQ purely with media acceptance,” Mika said. 
“I refuse to define the challenges associated with being LGBTQ purely with media acceptance,” Mika said. 

Mika’s defiance of convention has always been present in his live performances, too. In September, he embarked on his six-date Tiny Love Tiny Tour in Brooklyn, New York, with a high-energy set that was, as always, delightfully campy. He’ll return to the concert stage Nov. 10 in London, where he kicks off his Revelation Tour across Europe. 

One thing he isn’t deeply concerned with, however, is commercial viability. After the global breakout of “Life in Cartoon Motion,” his three subsequent releases — 2009’s “The Boy Who Knew Too Much,” 2012’s “The Origin of Love” and 2015’s “No Place in Heaven” — garnered critical acclaim but did not yield an across-the-board hit like “Grace Kelly.” 

If you’re finding yourself a niche artist — which I am — really go to the niche. Mika

The flip side of that cooling reception, Mika said, is creative freedom. In fact, he’d like to divert even further from the mainstream by writing a movie musical or staging an opera in the future. 

“If you’re finding yourself a niche artist — which I am — really go to the niche,” he said. “Think of 15 people. Think of 100 people. What would those 15 or 100 people think?”

“I have no delusions about commercial grandeur,” he added. “My delusions of grandeur are purely storytelling or conceptual ones, and thank God I have those. Otherwise I wouldn’t want to get up in the morning.”   

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