Lebanese-British singer Mika has created a realm, or perhaps dimension, completely secluded from the “real world.” Like J. M. Barrie’s Lost Boys of Peter Pan, the artist and his fans live in their own form of Neverland, rebelling against the idea of growing up through fantastical songs, filled with childlike curiosity and fresh-faced enthusiasm. The oddly diverse collection of die-hard followers, all under the spell of Mika’s whimsically enchanting persona and talent, have helped turn the artist’s first few albums, Life in Cartoon Motion and The Boy Who Knew Too Much, into massive successes—even in the real world, garnering commercially-related accolades including Grammys and the like.
When listening to Mika’s fourth album No Place in Heaven, out today, it appears that the Lost Boy has found himself—or at least grown up a bit. The artist maintains his idiosyncratic vocal stylings and fancifully unique orchestrations while tackling relatively grown-up material. Mainly, he questions the afterlife, particularly focused on understanding heaven, as well as the modern world’s imaginative construct of post-mortem paradise. We talked to Mika about breathing life into new material, the concept of “coming of age,” and how it takes a very serious person to stay playful.
I was able to catch your show last night at Webster Hall in New York. You seem to really get a kick out of watching your audience’s reaction to your music.
I think the objective of the show is like, you know, everyone walks in and, especially with my crowd, they’re from all these different parts of life, and they’re all different types of people. You’ve got hipsters, you’ve got guys with their wives who are like forty-five years old who know every single word to every song, or teenagers trying to be twenty-one or eighteen or whatever, and at a certain point it just comes together where everyone unanimously feels like they’re in the same place. And their defenses just fall down on the floor. And that is a really, really powerful feeling. And provoking that is almost like…I have a sense of responsibility to feel like that’s the objective of the show. And you know, it doesn’t have to be loud. People don’t have to be jumping around like maniacs in order to arrive there. You do it often just sitting down in a symphonic concert. You can achieve the same thing.
But in order to achieve that, I think that there has to be this kind of barrier between the crowd and me, and whether it’s emotional, physical, whatever it is, it’s completely candid, and completely in the same place at the same level as the audience in front of you. That’s rule #1.
What is it like performing new music live?
It gives me a huge amount of energy and it gives me a lot of context. It enables me to put my music and the stuff that I write into a context. Otherwise, how am I supposed to feel like what I do is real? I mean, I perform all over the world and I need something different in every single place where I work, and at the same time in America, I’ve had a very atypical career. I’ve never been in the mainstream and I exist in my own space, and when I walk on stage, it gives me a context of where my music is in America. That’s why the intensity of the shows is all the more exaggerated.
Does the song ever change for you after you’ve played it in front of an audience?
Yeah, it’s almost like, the only way I can describe it is, you know you’re….You’re getting ready to go out. You’re going out on a date, and you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, and you put on your clothes and fix your hair, and you’re looking at yourself. The way that you’re looking at yourself in the mirror is completely different than the way that you’re going to behave when you’re on the date and there’s no mirror in front of you, and you’re looking at yourself through the reaction of the person that you’re with, and you suddenly turn into a different person. You’d never squint your eyes like you squint your eyes in the mirror when you’re looking at yourself. You never turned slightly to the right.
It’s the same process with writing a song. You record it and it’s almost like looking at yourself in the mirror, but also being as honest as you can with yourself. There’s something quite intimate about it. When you go live, something about the song changes. You can like it more and you can like it less. Because it’s not yours anymore—it becomes something else without you even trying. Like last night was the first time, I don’t know if you were there for the song “Good Wife,” but I’d never sung it before. And it was amazing to see people kind of listening, and then kind of nodding their heads, and then starting to move their bodies, and then starting to put hands up in the air. It’s the different layers of approval.
How did you approach this album creatively, perhaps in comparison to your previous work?
I like to impose a pallet, or I like to limit my pallet a little bit, you know? It makes you more creative and it makes you use what you have around you even more. So with this album, I actually rented a piano and I wrote and recorded a lot of it at the same time. I rented a house and everyone had to come to the house to work if they wanted to work with me. It’s almost a lot more acoustic in the ingredients than the one before. And that was a conscious decision because I felt like I need to…you know, you react to the stuff you do before and sometimes by imposing limitations, you can actually help yourself be a lot more productive and be more creative. Having too many options is a very dangerous thing. You can end up losing your focus very easily.
You want to write and then you want to capture, and you want to do that as honestly as you can. Especially when you’re an artist like me. I write the stuff, and I produce it and I curate it. I guess it’s easier to run away from yourself, and on this record I really wanted to be quite controlled with it. You can’t identify me with a sound, but you can do it with song lyrics and melodies. And so I wanted a sound that was as timeless as it possibly could be—you couldn’t tell if recorded ten years ago or in ten years time. That was the objective.
I actually feel like you have quite an identifiable sound. You really don’t?
In the arrangements and in the writing, but more than the sound or the beats or like the…I’m not a trap artist, I’m not EDM, I’m not Indie, I’m not acoustic…you can’t define it by the sound. I have a lot of idiosyncrasies built into the way that I write and also my voice. I try to exaggerate that.
Who did you work on this album with? There are a few voices on there that are not yours.
Every album is like a clan. I kind of see it as this little collective that comes together and you end up very close to all those people for a matter of months, and then you make the record. And so I’ve always had lots of different voices on my records. I’ve always had, from the first album, different people singing.
You get this sense of people making a record together, even though it’s me, there’s a lot of people with me. And you hear that kind of clan and you hear vocals coming back. You recognize the girl’s voice when she comes back and she’s on a French song, and then she comes back and she’s on “All She Wants.” So it’s like every record has this kind of family of performers on it.
Do you ever get nervous being so forthcoming in your lyrics? As in, do you ever think, “Oh, I hope so and so doesn’t realize this is about them!”
Never ever, ever. I’ve had to deal with a lot of that…but never. It’s so funny because I’m quite a reserved person and I don’t say half of what I say in my songs in real life conversations. That was I guess why I felt, when I was younger, quite voiceless. And I felt like very much an outsider. And so I took to writing songs because I could say everything I wanted in songs, and I stay faithful to that to this day.
Peter Lindbergh, who works primarily in fashion, directed your video for “Last Party.” Can you tell about working with him?
Well we had done all these pictures for the album and then we had this idea. What if one of these pictures started singing to you, like a portrait that took it further. And so that’s what we ended up doing. We did like thirty takes. It was just him and me. There was a whole team that was coming in between each take to reset, check on everything, and then they would all disappear and it would just be him sitting at the camera. And it’s so funny—the way he takes pictures is the same way he directs this video…he manipulates people in the best possible way, because even someone who is resistant to it, he can capture them extremely honestly and intimately. And so with this song that provokes so much imagery, it was fun to contrast it and do something totally pure and simple.
Your first few albums were often deemed as having a “Coming of Age” theme. Has this changed in the new work?
I think it’s more than ever about this kind of growing down in order to grow up. It takes a really serious person to stay playful. I think that it’s really right in the heart of this record, that playful quality, that kind of devilish attitude. Talking about everything from love to politics to my own family and giving myself a license with good humor to say things that I would never normally say. The others were about coming of age and growing up. This one’s about growing down in order to grow up properly—in order to stay the same person, you know? Not to slowly extinguish that playfulness that is there much more readily when we’re younger.
Your set features a daunting yet wonderfully whimsical cityscape backdrop, which also appears in your album artwork. How did you fall upon these visuals?
Well one thing leads to another. I would never have thought in the beginning of the design process for the record that I would end up with a city. But it just works, and the reason why it works is because we based it a lot on visuals from the Futurist Movement in the 1950s and this idea from the title No Place In heaven. Well, what is heaven? Heaven used to be represented with lakes, rolling green fields, friendly animals everywhere, but now it’s not. Heaven now is a $180 million dollar apartment in a tall New York building. It’s this kind of urban Elysium that we’re living in and it’s funny because in the old days, that used to represent hell. It did not represent heaven. What I’m doing is, “Is this really heaven, or is it still hell?” And playing with all those visuals and using the future in this kind of naïve aesthetic, in order to do that, it opens up a lot of possibilities in that question.
But it’s funny—one of my favorite pieces of set design ever was for the movie West Side Story. If you look at the way it’s designed, it’s all about creating this sort of like…the sky is the most valuable piece of real estate, but it’s just squeezed between these buildings that kind of make everyone feel really suppressed and trapped, and they can’t get away from their problems. It’s amazing how powerful those visuals are.
I can’t put my finger on it, but there is something really comforting about your cityscape, even though it is a bit dark.
I agree with you. It’s pleasing to look at, and you don’t really know why. Because it doesn’t feel childish. But the good thing is to have really precise reasons for the things you do, but then to have it feel really effortless and just nice to look at. You don’t know why you like it, you don’t understand what the process is behind it, but at the same time it still works.
What would you like to tell fans before they press play on the new album?
I guess to understand that this record does not compete; it is not trying to compete with radio music. It’s not trying to compete with any other form of music. It exists in its own little world. It’s almost like a little show. You listen to it from beginning to end, and it takes you on a little journey. That’s why the visuals are so important; it’s to contextualize the music. So listen to it almost by detaching yourself from what we’re so used to hearing on radio and stuff and just form your own storyline with it. It’s really quite effective when you listen to it like that.