Mika chats new music, internet friends, happiness, Pharrell and being a pain in the ass
We’ve been dancing to Mika ever since his breakthrough debut album, Life In Cartoon Motion, came out in 2007. So of course we couldn’t resist the chance to chat with the 29-year-old over coffee and phallic fruit kebabs at a s****y London hotel.
With his new single Celebrate, featuring Pharrell Williams, out now and his third album, The Origin of Love, out on 8 October, there was plenty to talk about.
Read below as Mika gives us the dish on new music, his internet friends, happiness, why Pharrell calls him a pain in the ass and what lyrics make him want to **** someone. Oh me, oh my!
How would you describe your album in one sentence and one sentence only?
You’ve said your title track, The Origin of Love, is your favourite on the album. Where were you when you wrote that?
I hadn’t written anything in a year and a half. I didn’t know how to start. I met Nick Littlemore from Empire of the Sun on the phone. Six hours later I bought myself a ticket to Montreal because he was there working on Cirque du Soleil and he needed to escape. I think I was a timely relief. So I show up at the studio straight from the airport without any idea of what I was gonna do and an hour later I wrote that song and it just kind of unclogged everything.
Writing the rest of the record was easy after that. Well not easy, but at least it felt very instinctive.
Is that why you chose to film the Make You Happy music video in Montreal?
For some reason when I made my first record, I ran away in a similar sort of way. At that time I ran away to Miami because I had somebody there that believed in me so much that she mortgaged her apartment to pay for my demos. I got used to that kind of idea that you leave your world behind to go and make a record. Even at that age, I left my world behind me. I was twenty-something and I was able to live in this bubble world where all that mattered was the record.
Second album I didn’t do that, so with the third I felt I needed to do this similar process and write it as a road trip in a similar way to the first. So making the film in Montreal was like a little thank you to that place. Also, I found the guy on the internet and I liked his work. He just had the right vibe; it didn’t feel like a big production. The aesthetic was something I liked and one I felt was not pop, but was quite beautiful at the same time. It just worked.
Let’s talk a little bit about meeting collaborators on the internet. Is that the norm now for you? Is that the future?
I think it’s the norm. It just is what it is. You investigate online and I get sent stuff all the time so I really wanted to find people – or at least one person that had a different take on the process of making a pop record.
Finding someone like Friars – who at the time was 22 – he had been through quite a horrible time and made some bad decisions with the way he released his record. It was a beautiful album that just completely sunk without a trace. Subsequently I found him at a place where he was desperate to reinvent and branch out.
I met him at his parents’ house in his bedroom and I sat on the bed and listened to this music and I hadn’t heard anything as fresh in about a year. It just felt right. I said ‘listen, I don’t know where this will go but if you just come with me on this journey for the next six months I promise we’ll work, and he just threw himself into it. It was cool, and ego-less…
You have to dismantle your ego a little bit to make a record like that.
Talking about dismantling your ego, is that a difficult thing with the successes you’ve had?
Not really, I make alternative pop music so I always sit on the very weird fringe of commercial and completely non-commercial at the same time. I think that my ego is certainly inevitably dismantled because of the way my career is. I can go out on tour and play a club full of 800 hard-core fans and the next night I’ll be playing an arena for multiple nights for 16-17,000. The night after that I’ll do a theatre for 2000. There’s this thing with me where it’s not all or nothing. I’ve really spent a lot of time on the road and I divide my career into all these different pockets around Europe and the world, that I’m a different thing everywhere.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve had a lot of success and sometimes I feel like I’m right at the beginning, and that’s six years in. Bizarrely that’s actually quite healthy for a musician. It’s slightly abrasive to the ego. Also, I make records that aren’t necessarily radio records all the time and my format isn’t one that chases radio records, so subsequently I think approaching the process like I did on the song was quite easy.
How was it working with Pharrell on Celebrate?
It was cool, he is really interesting. He’s certainly a minimalist in the way that he writes so everything is pegged down to the smallest amount of syllables. It’s more about groove and the general feeling than it is about what every line means with him. It’s why he calls me the scientist and I call him a pain in the ass because I work differently, but that’s good.
It’s good for someone to say ‘look, just ******* get on with it, why are you wasting my time trying to figure out what this means? Are you out of your mind?’. Clearly neither of us are wrong, it was just a different process, it’s a lot more about the groove and feel for him.
There’s another example though, I wrote a song with him that was sad, it was a slow, sad song called Chinaboy. I took that song away and worked on it with Nick Littlemore and came back to celebrate and threw it back at him (Pharell) like ‘look, here you go… what do you think?’ and he said ‘yeah, it’s fine, it’s cool’. He got the process, he didn’t freak out. A lot of different people like him would freak out – ‘it’s not my ******* record anymore’ – but he just went with it.
Let’s talk about your favourite lyric on the album…
There are two. The first one is deep and the other one is funny. The first one is “I will wish there was a way to give you a hand to hold / ‘Cause you don’t have to die in your glory to never grow old”. The song is called Heroes and it’s about the fallen soldier who never dies, who comes back and is damaged and ruined, beaten and destroyed – not only mentally but physically too…
In America there are so many veterans that are homeless. I based it on an old Hausmann poem called The Lads in their Hundreds and I rewrote it, but instead of making it about those who died in the First World War, I made it about the hundreds and thousands who have come back to find they have been destroyed inside.
There’s that – it’s not very jovial – and then there is another that goes “Stupid Adam and Eve / Found their love in a tree and God didn’t think they deserved it / He taught them hate / Taught them pride / Gave them a leaf and made them hide / Push that story aside for the origin of love”. If someone told me that, I would **** them.
So finally, the album has a very joyful, jubilant and dreamy tone to it…
Tone, but bizarrely most of the lyrics are the complete opposite – they are quite bizarrely dark. But it’s the clash of those two things that I think makes it empowering and joyful without making you feel like you’re going to get a hangover… it’s desperately seeking joy amongst all these lyrics that are actually quite sad. I think you can hear the processes of someone trying to make themselves feel better.
So are you as an artist, and when you’re writing music, is that a joyful time for you?
It’s the best time for me.
You’re not a tortured artist then?
It’s the time where I can consolidate my life and process it. When I write it makes me happy and then I become addicted to that moment of elation. Almost in a bizarre bipolar sort of way, I just become addicted to that moment where you’ve created something you think expresses something and that can last for a couple of hours or days and then you just chase it again. That’s the main reason why I write, you are processing things inside you that on a daily basis you compress and put aside.
I think that’s the same for any writer, or painter… it’s just the general process.