Gay pop superstar Mika blasted out of the gates in 2007 with the indelible mission statement "Grace Kelly" and a Swiss-cheese view from inside the closet. Six years later he is firmly out and boasting a new elevator pitch in the title track of last year's Origin of Love.
Where "Kelly" traded in to-the-rafters choruses and obfuscating winks toward identity politics, "Love" cuts the theatrics and trusts its universal metaphor of "attraction is addiction" as a solid emotional lead-in to an album of intellectual pop love songs.
Where Mika was once a jumbo pack of sour-centered bubblegum, he's now a candy befitting his upcoming 30th birthday -- say, a vegan gummybear at the bottom of a kombucha bottle: sweet, sustainable, effervescent and with an unexpected resonance. The singer recently completed a small U.S. tour, including Washington, D.C.'s ultra-polite 6th and I Synagogue, further proving that a pop star can change his stripes.
This interview was done over the phone on April 5, 2013.
Zack Rosen: Is it safe to say you've grown up a little since you first released Life in Cartoon Motion in 2007?
Mika: I do most of my growing up on my record. As I move on, as I develop my songwriting, and as my life evolves, it's always going to be captured in the records. I like to stay true to myself and not buy a different persona. Strangely, I feel that I become increasingly reclusive in my normal life and more open and candid in my music.
Rosen: Your second album, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, seemed really nervy and jagged. It sounded to me like someone backing down.
Mika: The second album is part two of the first. The first is pinks and greens, and the second is a similar layout but in blue and purple. They were bookending each other. This new one, The Origin of Love, is a different thing. It's like a new movie.
Rosen: How do you feel about your first single, "Grace Kelly," six years out?
Mika: I feel exactly the same about it. It was a perfect representation of me as a 23-year-old. Because they are my songs and born from real life, they represent something real, not songwriter purchases. It helps them age gracefully. This whole thing about turning 30, everyone keeps haranguing me about it. I say I have a midlife crisis every time I start and finish a record.
Rosen: Are you still "identity mad"?
Mika: I have no idea who I am. I'm "The Nowhere Boy." I was brought up in many different cultures, moving around all the time, and I find my identity in my songs. I project the identity I want to have throughout the songs that I write. Identity for me is something that has to be played with and explored, and not become complacent about or uninterested in.
Rosen: Did coming out free you to expand who you are as a musician?
Mika: There was a de-complexing that happened in my life. I got to a point where I'm really happy. Not on a daily basis; I don't skip to the coffee shop. I'm not that kind of person. I was happy with the freedom I had to write what I write. It got to the stage where I said, "I've earned this myself." I've been given lots of guidance and help in getting to the stage where I'm comfortable in my skin, not hating my surroundings or feeling powerless, so I'm writing the songs that recognize that.
Rosen: Who gave you guidance?
Mika: I had a teacher at school who basically made it his mission to always get me out of trouble. He was the librarian at my school, a very eccentric Englishman who moved to Australia and lives in Scotland, I believe. He saw I was having trouble conforming not only with stuff like making friends but in my work. I was having a tough time keeping up with this tough academic school. He made up a sport for me that got me off school two afternoons a week. He used to pretend I was working in the library, but then he would book me a music room, and I'd write songs and show him the stuff I was making. He gave me space to not conform, and get away with it.
Rosen: What's his name? He might like to know that you remember him.
Mika: Hugh Eveleigh, the former librarian at Westminster School. He was amazing. There's people who look out for oddity, and instead of punishing it, they help it, and so many people have done that along the way for me. I guess what I'm saying is that all of that has to do with tolerance, being able to look at life in a slightly different way and be allowed to do so.
[We get sidetracked talking about the nature of celebrity. Mika checks back in with this:]
Mika: I did a show last night in Philly at the Union Transfer. Someone was smoking the most nasty chronic pot in the front row, and all the smoke was coming on stage. Normally that doesn't bother me, but this was so chemically enhanced, and it blocked my brain, and I couldn't remember any of my lyrics and couldn't keep time on my piano. Only the front section understood what was happening. I was singing my song "Popular," and I stopped it three times. I got to the second verse three times and forgot what was supposed to happen next. I felt like I was 14 on a camping trip, smoking for the first time. Whoever was smoking that shit needs to sort themselves out.
Rosen: What's your favorite song on Origin of Love?
Mika: A song that no one knows, "Heroes." It's based on an A. E. Housman poem called "The Lads and Their Hundreds to Ludlow Come Into the Fair," from the First World War. Most of a generation of young men were wiped out in the UK. Housman describes these men and how almost all of them will never come back, will die in their glory and never return. I was reading an article about the Army recruitment process in America, how so many people are being recruited from other countries at 19 years old in exchange for security and education and money for their families. They have no idea about the history or geography of the country, fighting a war they don't understand. I reinterpreted this Housman poem; I tried to make a modern version of it and put it on a pop record. The idea of the album is that it's a collection of love songs. Happy, bitter. Love songs about religion, about sexuality, about a mother and her son, one like this about a soldier that you've never met. Lyrically, I like that.