Mika’s Time to Celebrate
The pop musician discusses his new hit album The Origin of Love, remembers being bullied for being gay, and offers advice for people about deciding to come out.
Mika knows what you expect, and he refuses to be boxed in. After collecting industry accolades, respect, and a cult following for uniquely whimsical indulgences in his last two albums checked off of his career bucket list, the 29-year-old falsetto wunderkind musician is currently on a mini-tour of the U.S. to support his latest album, The Origin of Love, a compilation of intricately crafted collection of pop songs, including the bouncy lead single, “Celebrate.” Sometimes darker but often just as winky and eccentric as his two previous albums, this collection is his most accessible effort to date and has just debuted in the States at number 1 on iTunes. Mika phones up The Advocate on National Coming Out Day to discuss his new album, recall being bullied for being gay, and reveal the song that makes him cry.
The Advocate: Mika, how are you and where are you calling from?
Mika: I’m good. I’m in a … um … how do I describe where I am? I’m in an old biscuit factory in the east of London that we’re using as a rehearsal space and it smells of vermin pee. I don’t know if you know mouse piss, but it’s got this slightly, kind of comforting, dank sweet smell.
With a hint of chicory?
Yeah! With a hint a chicory! Yes! Roasted. Yes, it’s got this slightly spicy hint of chicory. Kind of what I now associate musical rehearsals with. It has this dank smell of mouse.
After such whimsical album titles as Life in Cartoon Motion and The Boy Who Knew Too Much, why did you choose something so simplistic as The Origin of Love as the title of the new album?
Because it’s a giant question mark. It triggers things. It’s more a kind of title you imagine on a film. On a kind of absurd film about life, like a romantic comedy that is as tragic as it is funny. That’s what I was kind of aiming at with this collection of songs. Almost like an urban personal diary about a 28-year-old who’s trying to figure out how he’s going to go to deal with the next 10 years and all the little personal things he has to confront over the course of six months.
Is this collection of songs dedicated to anyone in particular?
I think more than anything they’re about me. And they are about the people that surround me from my partners, relationships I’ve had, and my relationships with my family. You know, they’re just about life in general. I think that some of them are obviously dedicated to specific relationships and to my family as well, but moreover to my own little world.
In what ways is this album a departure from the previous two?
It actually takes a couple steps back in attitude and approach. In order to take a proud leap forward, both as a songwriter and a musician. I decided that I did not want to isolate myself as a result of what happened with the first album. I didn’t want a repeat of what happened to the first album — an album that was made with zero commercial intention.
I made it out of surrounding myself with friends and supporters. And an open-minded collaborative creative process was how I made the first album. And then with the second I was so isolated that it was a reactive record where I absconded myself in the studio and as a result I wrote sort of strange Gothic fairytales. I certainly wasn’t happy during the process of making that record, and with Origin of Love I decided I wanted to surround myself with music makers. I want to open myself up. I want to destroy my track record and my sense of ego. In order to make music that doesn’t question itself that doesn’t try to manipulate. It is what it is.
“It is what it is” is also a lyric in “Popular Song,” which artfully samples “Popular” from Wicked. This song is destined to be an antibullying anthem. In it you even acknowledge the potency of the word “faggot” and the weakness of those who use it to taunt. How did this song come together and which experiences in your childhood inspired you?
A lot of that is kind of looking at yourself in the mirror and realizing that until you can look yourself in the mirror and tolerate it and find yourself funny and accept the fact that there’s a sense of humor in everything around you, then and only then can you actually become tolerant of not only yourself but other people.
Literally just that I was talking to a friend of mine, named Priscilla Renéa, who I wrote “Popular” with and also “Bang Bang,” which turned into “Gang Bang” for Madonna. And we did it on the same afternoon as well as writing three other songs in that same day — in that day we ended up writing five songs: one that ended up on the Madonna record, one that’s “Popular Song” on my record, and three others that are on hold with other artists. We had an amazing run that one day, and it was actually the first day we decided to work together. And we were joking about how most people who now make pop music so often weren’t themselves very popular in school. Our desire to write pop music is as much a form of vengeance as it is an escape plan. You’re saying you think I’m a loser, but look at me transform myself by writing this music.
As you may be aware, today in the States is National Coming Out Day. Do you have any advice for your fans who may be conflicted about their sexual orientation or are struggling in some way with self-acceptance?
It’s really important to say and to constantly repeat the fact that it’s OK to feel conflicted. It’s OK to acknowledge that pressure. And it’s OK to have some understanding that your fears are understandable and are actually quite normal. It’s only by acknowledging that you can figure a way out of it. It is so important to figure a way out of that because that’s quite a negative state to be in. It’s one that I transitioned through, but I did it on my own time. Unfortunately, I had to deal with the more public side of it, in which I was grilled about it for so many years. I think it’s first and foremost important to say it’s OK to be conflicted and i’’s OK to be afraid but that’s not the way it has to be. And also I will say that I truly benefited from a tolerant environment.
What do you mean? In your childhood or more recently?
In my childhood, in relation to my family and my friends. I experienced a lot of intolerance. I experienced a lot of homophobic bullying. Before I even realized what was happening, I was being bullied for being gay.
That negativity and fear was something that I associated in my childhood with violent aggressive behavior against me, and it hung in a cloud of negativity. It was only once I realized that I had the power to choose and to select who I surrounded myself with, then I was no longer the victim of this enforced intimacy you can often end up with in a classroom environment.
I dealt with the damage done to me and the stigma I had grown up with about my sexuality. I dealt with that by actively choosing to surround myself with people who were open-minded, who accepted me for who I was even though I refused to label myself. They didn’t ask questions or need me to prove anything. So much so that eventually I became so decomplexed about it that I did label myself. That’s what got me to the point in my life where I finally realized: I am happy, I’ve fallen in love, I’ve lost love, I found it again, I have nothing to fear. I’m doing this from a place of joy, and I can come out publicly.
I love how impassioned you just got.
It’s crazy that we can be so proud and yet some can’t. That we live in places where we can choose makes us extremely lucky. Not everyone lives with the luxury of choice, and we have to always remember that.
Has being more open about your orientation informed or affected the new music any differently?
No. It’s been the same. My sexuality and my perspective on sexuality has been in every song. If it wasn’t, then perhaps I’d get played more on American radio.
One of my favorite songs on the album is the brilliant breakup anthem “Love You When I’m Drunk.” What pushed you to write this? Who is the bum?
It’s real life. It was written as a message, as a breakup song. It’s complete real life. You know you get to a point where you fall into a crazy crush and there’s something about being in a relationship where there’s always odd passive-aggressive surprises around the corner. Where you say you need to be together the rest of your lives and at the same time — at every opportunity you possibly can — you are trying to destroy each other in the most delicate way.
It’s the most beautiful kind of destruction, and you have to be very aware of it. Because you can fall into that trap where eventually you’ll say, “I can’t even put my arm around you until I’m pissed [drunk]. This is bad because I’m killing myself and trying to destroy you. I’m outta here and you better save yourself! Run! Run!”
That amazing chorus is very beautifully written and is my favorite moment on the album. “I may be a little bit drunk, but I know what I’ve got to do / ’Cause when I get a little more sober I know I’ll be over you.”
Love that. Don’t drink and text, that’s my advice. Better yet, don’t drink and tweet.
What could go wrong in 140 characters?
A whole lot.
You write songs that mean so much to a lot of people, and for me, “Happy Ending” on your first album was my cry song of 2007. What are songs by other artists you consider emotional or cathartic go-tos for a good cry or laugh?
Yes, for sure. I really lean on “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie. It’s magic. [Ben Gibbard] is magic. Brilliant. He’s got that sunny California thing. I don’t even know if he’s from there, but he’s got that California kind of sound — a contemporary Laurel Canyon kind of thing. The David Hockney of pop music is how I describe him. Also, there’s a song on the new Shins album that I use to get happy in the morning.
What’s next after this album?
A European tour that will take me to Christmas, then I’ll tour Asia and South America.
When does the writing process begin for the next round?
It doesn’t. I put it on hold. I need to be Mr. Hyde for a while. You know, I cannot do both. I find it so hard. I became an interpreter of my own material. Mostly one that curses the writer even though it’s me. It’s a little hard to sing some of these songs.