With a decade between Australian visits and a few rounds of the sun since his last proper Australian hit single, it’s wonderful to find the notable pop artist MIKA at a place where he’s finding some of his most fruitful days since the whirlwind beginnings of his career in the mid-noughties.
With a full calendar up to November, including his most prolific festival bookings since a circuit at the height of Life In Cartoon Motion‘s run in 2009, I’m interested to find out how he feels he’s made an impact on the pop ecosystem, one that at the very beginning of his success, left no room for the bohemian pop music MIKA felt he was intrinsically meant to make.
Nic Kelly’s in Bold, MIKA is in not-bold, and he has loads to talk about.
NK: I wanted to first talk to you about legacy. I really believe for a lot of people that you are becoming an artist who has great legacy about you. People first found and discovered you in the mid to late noughties, and then you’ve got this incredibly diverse life you’ve lived over the past fifteen-or-so years leading up to this new album last year. Do you feel you’ve created a legacy and if so, what does it consist of?
MIKA: I feel kind of proud to be defending something quite non-conformist within a pop world that doesn’t give you many options when you don’t really want to follow the same path. “If you’re not gonna follow that path, please get out of the way and disappear,” is kind of the message that the industry sends to you. And if you refuse that, then you’d better work fucking hard. Like a maniac. Ten times harder.
Was there a temptation, initially, to follow the path though?
No, its birth point was something that was completely non commercial in its beginnings. I was trying to make commercial music and I would be sending it out and every time that I did that, I would get rejected. So what do I do?
Well, I try and develop my own voice. And I pivot, you’re right, but then I realised through all these things that I could have my own sense of what made me happy in a song and just chase those things, those colors and those emotions. And that’s it! That’s all it’s ever come from. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. So there is a lot of pride, then there’s the reality of the fact that it did connect. And it connected really fast, at a point where pop was just glorious. I mean, it was really joyful. I remember the showcases that we would always do. It was me, Amy Winehouse and then around the same time Lily Allen. There was this idea that really personal storytelling was coming back in pop, with urgent stories. You know, Amy’s stories were really urgent, that’s why they were so moving, because they were real. They were hers. Lily Allen had this kind of irreverence that was just so badass. That success then gave me the petrol that I needed to fund the development of my own world, the shows that I wanted to do, the artistic life that I wanted to build for myself, but its – like I said at the very beginning of this long answer – if you don’t conform you’d better work much harder – you have to.
Are there key moments of hard work that you remember from your early days as a pop icon?
Um, getting used to the fact that people would have opinions about you in a way that you never really thought – and trying to be tough enough for it not to affect you – but then you don’t want to get too hard either, because if you get too hard then you can’t write, you can’t connect. It’s this weird kind of dance between being really thick skinned and staying soft in the right ways.
Do you practice any mindfulness? You come across as quite a self aware, mindful person, do you practice any of that kind of stuff?
I mean, in a way, I come from a family where the most important thing in the entire day is the food that you’re gonna eat. Cooking it. Eating it. The music that plays along. It’s really important. That is a form of mindfulness. That’s a form of connectivity. You don’t have to eat quietly in a clinic in the Austrian mountains to be practicing mindful eating…
It can be in a one bedroom flat in London, can’t it.
Exactly! Surrounded by all your college friends, making a sauce for three hours. Beyond that, I think performances. Allowing the shows that you do to be moments where you completely let your guard down and you let yourself fly. That has been my most effective form of meditation, my shows.
I saw a video from the Brisbane show where that drag queen got up and performed with you.
Unbelievable. Literally, it was as if we had rehearsed it, it was impeccable.
You go off to separate sides of the stage but then you come back together…
You know she had been waiting in the queue outside for like five hours?
People were like, “it was a fake,” I was like “no,” everyone in the audience knew it wasn’t fake because she was the first one in the front row, on the side, drinking shots and making everyone laugh, for like an hour and a half, two hours before the show started. So if it was fake, she would have just popped out like a diva at the end and pretended to be in the crowd. But no, she was there, from like the middle of the afternoon.
If you are so mindful in that moment when you’re on the stage and you’ve got your trusted people around you, how does having someone else from the crowd coming up change that?
Oh no! It’s the complete opposite. Being mindful on stage and being open means you’re not trusting anyone in particular, you’re trusting everyone! You’re not protecting yourself with your band. You’re completely open. The audience is completely open to you as well. The show changes on a nightly basis because they provoke the show.
We’ve talked about those early days for you and those incredible formative records…
Yeah, but I don’t know what it is to be a legacy artist. I don’t know what that means? Maybe it’s because legacy artists are actually changing? To me, legacy artist were always, like, these really, really rich people who had made records in the 80s and 90, when records actually used to sell and they have like, multiple rehab stints, gorgeous homes in the Malibu hills and like, really bad taste in jackets.
Let me frame it this way. When you went into Life In Cartoon Motion, did you see yourself in 2020 still doing this? Still creating records that are meaningful and huge and performing them live?
I’m going to do this til I die. I mean, whether it’s me directing things at an Opera House when I’m 65 or 70, whether it’s a gallery show, whatever it turns into, I’ll let it turn into that. But it’s all connected. It’s all the same thing. It all comes from the same desire. This desire to make the world make a little bit more sense to me.
I want to fast-forward to 2019 to this incredible, almost self titled album. It gets sort of solemn towards the end. But there’s so much joy in it?
It’s solemn in a really beautiful, warm way. Like, it’s my Mum singing at the end. It’s my mom and my sister. So, even in sadness, there’s this kind of heating up the heart exercise, making yourself feel a little bit warmer, even in front of very sad moments. That’s what music can do. That’s what pop can do.
Yes. That is the power of pop, isn’t it.
That is the power of melodic pop music. It’s a funny record because it’s a record that was kind of made in real time over the course of a year and a half.
Is it chronological?
Almost. Yeah, almost, come to think of it. But it’s only reference is personal stories. Personal storytelling is the only reference point the record has. It’s not referencing any other kind of sound, or anything on radio or anything like that. I was really inspired looking at Harry Nilsson records – like I’m a huge Harry Nilsson fan – that kind of delicious poetic surrealism, or whether it’s Rufus Wainwright records, I adore him. Those records are eternal, may they last forever, because they’re born out of personal storytelling and that – no matter how many decades pass – that stays relevant, when it comes from something personal.
It’s about the lived experience and, and absolute truth in records.
Yes, but you can lie in records, because you’re not really lying. You’re just, like, wishing you were something else and that’s kind of cool, too.
What’s that track where at the start you’re in a bar and you’ve got an old-timey American accent on.
Blame It On The Girls.
That’s right. I hear that and I’m like, “okay, this is a different style of Mika. This is Mika doing an acting thing.” Have you ever fancied yourself as an actor?
No, never. I’m too awkward and I’ve kind of got one of those goofy faces.
So do some of the best! I suppose it’s a generic sounding question, but it’s one I’m deeply interested in. What is next? You’ve been on this World Tour for this incredible record for bloody ages, I presume it’s coming to an end soon?
No! I’ve got to keep playing. It finishes in November.
It’s weird, because my festival bookings are the best since 2009.
Wow. How does that feel?
They’re massive bookings. From Coachella to loads across Europe, just like a really… weird… amount of bookings because… maybe, actually, what you said is pretty smart, maybe I am that new version of legacy artist? There is a lot of value in that, but the only thing that makes it relevant is the fact that it’s not just resting on your laurels, I think then you’re dead. You might as well just quit. So for me the tour is really going on and on in a way that I didn’t expect but beyond that, I don’t know. I’m kind of curious to see what happens next. I think the album is dead. As a format, right now. I think that we have to admit it. I think EPs are more relevant than ever.
Have you thought about the mixtape concept a lot of people seem to be doing?
Yes, but I prefer the EP concept. I prefer kind of like, telling the story across five songs. I think that’s really powerful. I think it’s a right format for the platforms that we have today. And I also think it means that you can dip into a sound world more easily and have fun with it. You know, two key tracks, plus three or four songs around them that kind of really tell the story. That’s kind of what excites me the most because then you can be like, “okay, you know what, I’m gonna go and do it inspired by Arabic music,” or “I’m gonna go do this with a bunch of my favorite Mexican artists.” We have that freedom now.
If you do move into creating a conceptual EP that sits in a particular sonic world, where do you feel that sound will go? Has anything that you’ve found on tour and from what resonates with crowds whilst you’re performing influenced what that will sound like, do you think?
I was listening to to Odelay, Beck’s record. I was listening to the jauntiness of that programming and the really effortless way that he is on that record. It’s kind of genius. It’s really one of the greatest pop records ever made, that album. And it was really inspiring to hear that because I think as a songwriter nowadays, you have to tell the story across the sound as well. It’s not just words and lyrics and melodies. I think something where the album and the songwriting is really intrinsically connected to the sound across like a five song EP is something that is really interesting to me right now.
My Name Is Michael Holbrook is MIKA’s latest album and it’s out now.