By Chris Azzopardi
Photos: Julian Broad
It’s 8:30 in Italy, and maybe if Mika didn’t feel so deeply connected to his new album he’d just want to go to bed. But the sparky glam-pop performer doesn’t mind my before-bed call; in fact, he’s thrilled to be talking about My Name Is Michael Holbrook because “this phase is actually more engaging and interesting, and generally I am enjoying it way more than any other album I’ve had to promote.”
Mika’s past work, of course, famously includes his 2007 debut Life in Cartoon Motion, wherein he emerged an exuberant-sounding human cartoon, with songs like “Grace Kelly” and “Lollipop.” This album, his first in more than four years, is different in that its core was created after discovering his family’s history. And though it’s been exhilarating to promote, it’s also “ironic considering it’s not the simplest time in my life,” the 36-year-old Beirut-born performer, whose birth name is Michael Holbrook Penniman Jr., says.
Mika spoke about how coming out in 2012 may have affected his career, the “shitty” white piano he wrote My Name Is Michael Holbrook on and why he won’t be singing with his romantic partner anytime soon. Despite his admitted tiredness, Mika was introspective – even rollicking – when we finally connected, once he’d won his battle against rush-hour traffic.
What is not simple about life for you right now?
Well, it all started when I had this premonition about three-and-a-half years ago: I felt like I thought I had grown up 10, 11 years ago and I was like, “You know, I’m an adult.” And nothing appeared to change. Sure enough, as I started writing the record so much change happened in my private life and my personal life, losing five people close to me, including my grandmother.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Well, it’s OK. Thank you. But it happens to all of us. But then on the day I wrote “Tiny Love,” the same day, I get a phone call saying, “You gotta get on a plane ’cause your mom’s sick,” and then that became this running thing throughout the writing of this record. My mom got more and more and more sick with different diseases that got worse and worse, and you know my mom and I have this very strong link. I was thrown out of school at the age of 8 and she looked at me and instead of being nice to me she just said, “People like you end up in prison or they end up successful, and over my dead body will I have a son who ends up in prison.” (Laughs.)
You definitely chose the right path, didn’t you?
I didn’t really have a choice, trust me, if you knew my mom. (Laughs.) And she trained me three to four hours a day at the age of 8, and I cried every day ’cause I didn’t want to do it. Then, within four months, I was singing at the Royal Opera House in London, and within six months I was a soloist at the Royal Opera House. So, from that point on, my life changed.
You know, she worked with me up until this record. So this album was kind of made in the midst of a lot of that, and instead of retreating and taking a step back – it interfaced with that darkness from multiple sides – I actually went toward life. I said, “I’m gonna go toward what makes me, me. I’m gonna take my colors – the ones from when I was 17 – and make them shine even brighter. I’m not gonna care about commercial circumstances or the climate of the music industry or that all storytelling seems to be happening mostly in R&B and hip-hop, which is something I just can’t do because it’s not my musical culture. I’m just gonna go for it. I’m gonna put together a romantic, emotionally driven, heartfelt record and try and make it at the service of emotion and hopefully it’ll be bold enough to stand on its own two legs.” That’s how the album came about and how it was written.
Has this album been cathartic for you?
It’s an extremely cathartic piece of work for me. And it’s also a kind of provocation to myself where I realize that this idea that we spend most of our lives building our foundations on people that we love and we rely on, there comes a point when that version of your foundation starts to change or shift or disappear, and you have to do it in a different way and the only way you can do it is by knowing where you come from, by being at peace with yourself and celebrating, also, all the people around you who you love. Feeling that sense of self-worth is the only way you can have a chance of figuring out where the hell you’re going to end up. We don’t really know who we are, and anyone who says, “I know who I am” … you’re never gonna fucking know really who you are.
But we think we’ll figure it out when we’re older.
Then we fall in love, we get our heart broken, and we start again.
It’s a lot of distractions.
A lot. But that’s OK. I don’t mind that. That’s also one of the main motivations for writing for me, so I’ll take it.
Which motivation are you referring to?
Trying to figure out who we are and that changing all the time.
Can you tell me about the first song that you wrote for the album and why you decided to start there?
It was born in a graveyard. (Laughs.) In a place that I had never been to, that I had completely disassociated from my identity, and that was Atlanta, Georgia.
Right, you went to see your family plot.
Yeah, exactly. I went to see my family plot, and you know I’ve always said, “I’m half Lebanese, I grew up in lots of different countries, I’m an immigrant. A homosexual!” So I’m the furthest thing from a person from Atlanta, Georgia whose family had cotton fields. I mean, that is the weirdest part. I just don’t know what that is.
But you knew about this family history?
In discovering this part of your family history, were new parts of yourself revealed?
I didn’t know about it that much, I really didn’t. My legal name is my father’s name, and he actually had his own crazy journey because he was born in Jerusalem and then grew up in Cairo, and then grew up in Washington, then grew up in Italy, then grew up in London, then grew up in Rome. So during my entire life, it was so hard to understand who he was or where he came from, so it’s just so strange for me to have delved into that, but I just felt like I knew so much about my mom’s side of the family, and I wanted to know everything he hadn’t told me about his family’s family. So I delved into it. I went and saw this Penniman plot at Bonaventure Cemetery, and I saw part of my name on a tombstone, half corroded by time. Just had this weird reaction to it. Like, “Wow, I’ve always rejected my legal name,” because my mom called me Mika from the time I was born, but it is my name and it’s also my father’s and I know fuck-all about it.
The only way I can describe that feeling is: Have you ever had that kind of feeling that there’s another part of your house that you just hadn’t noticed? Another part of your apartment that just wasn’t there? Then one day after four years you might discover it. It’s weird. I didn’t really like it, but I found it fascinating and it was this weird Tim Burton moment, seeing your name on a tombstone. I went back home and I wrote this song called “Tiny Love.” It sums up the project in a good way. It’s like, I might be Michael Holbrook, born in 1983, but I can be so much more when I allow myself to be, and if I allow myself to dream to be whatever I want to be.
And you bought a white piano because that’s what you were playing when you were 16.
Yeah. Superstition. (Laughs.)
You were being superstitious?
I don’t think it’s superstition. I don’t like looking at a black piano, and I don’t know why I don’t like looking at a brown piano. For some reason this idea of a white piano I got used to when I was a kid and so that’s all I really want to see.
What does the white represent to you?
Non-institutional education. (Laughs.) I was going to music college, I was going to rehearsal. Even when I was at conservatory at the Royal College of Music, as an adult I was studying as a baritone and all of the pianos were black pianos – academic, institutional lessons on black pianos – and then the white piano was something you’d see on the cover of a Barry Gibb album. I had a white piano and actually, to tell the full story, I had a black piano when I was a child and that piano I decided, with a friend of mine, to paint it white when I was 6 years old. Ever since then it stayed white, and it’s this kind of really tacky house paint. Terrible finish. It’s a piece of crap kind of paint job. But I’ve used that. So for me I was going to write on a white piano all the stuff I wanted to do – all of my music – and then I would go and sing, like, (John) Braham and Italian songs that were written 100 years ago on the black piano, so I associated the two with that.
So when it came to actually coming back to writing in my home studio I wanted to write on a white piano. So I went out and bought a white piano and it turned out to be the worst piano that they had in the entire piano warehouse. I was like, “Why don’t you have a better piano?” He was like, “’Cause no one wants a fucking white piano, so we give them to people who don’t give a shit about piano playing.” He was such an asshole. People who work at music stores are famously rude. So anyway, I bought the shitty white piano that sounds like a piece of crap and I wrote the entire album on it.
You’ve acknowledged disappointment in the commercial aspects of the industry. Do you think coming out ever had any effect on your career?
I don’t know. I’d like to think no. I think that the commercial consequences of my sexuality were more to do with what was indelibly written into my music, by me, and inevitably immiscible when you listen to it from before I was even signed. That aspect did have consequences, especially in the United States. But it’s OK. It’s not OK now, but back then I made peace with the fact that I was considered a little bit less than and when I asked why they’d be like, “Well… .” I would never get a clear answer. But I always felt like it kind of was there.
Times have changed. That’s not the case anymore, and thank god. But I do think, if anything, that kind of frustration that I felt, and some of the limitations, some of the commercial consequences of my sexuality, actually provoked me to come out. If I think about it honestly, that frustration actually riled me so much that it encouraged me to come out publicly. You’re like, “What’s the point of being in a pigeonhole? What is wrong with you?” There’s no difference. Music is music. It exists beyond anything. And in the end, I was just quite roused, so it encouraged me to come out. I think that’s a good reaction to have, rather than going the other way.
As much progress as we’ve made, your song with Italian singer Jack Savoretti, called “Ready to Call This Love,” is still a rare thing.
Well, let me tell you: He’s a really good -ooking guy. (Laughs.) He’s charming. He’s like an old-fashioned movie star, but in a 30-something-year-old body.
Is that what appealed to you about him when you chose your male duet partner?
His voice. Firstly, the fact that he didn’t even bat an eyelid at the fact that it was a love song and it didn’t even come up in conversation. He was just like, “It’s really beautiful.” That was it. “I’d love to do this, it’s really beautiful, full stop.” And then the fact that his voice is such a contrast to mine and all that, and when you consider that he’s a married guy and he’s got a kid, it was just a no-brainer for him.
People are gonna say, “Why didn’t Mika pick a gay duet partner?”
And I’m gonna say, “Well, why not?” That’s it. That’s really all I can say. Because it’s beautiful. And I was asked this, actually, in an interview a week ago for a major gay website in Europe and I said, “Have you done interviews with heterosexual couples who have done duets? Girl and guy?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Did you ever ask them if they were ever actually in a relationship or if they actually wanted to be in a relationship with each other? If they actually found each other attractive?” So I said, “What’s the difference between two guys?” He said, “Oh yeah, you’ve got a good point.” I said, “Considering you’re coming from a gay website, don’t you think you should’ve thought about that beforehand?”
There’s a real push for LGBTQ roles to go to LGBTQ actors, and some people feel the same when it comes to music, especially since duets between two men happen so infrequently.
And I completely respect that. If anything, I really like and I respect that opinion, and I love the fact that a song like this can even provoke a question like that. I think that’s a good thing. It’s a good conversation to have. It’s not like, “Oh, is the song cool or not?” It’s nothing to do with that. It’s, “Should I have had a gay guy or not with me?” I think that’s a really good dialogue to provoke.
Could you have even released a song like this at the beginning of your career? Would that have been allowed?
Allowed? I don’t know. I would like to say that it would’ve been allowed. But it’s hard to imagine it would’ve happened. That’s the most diplomatic answer I can come up with. And you know what, besides, I would’ve given songs to my partner to sing, but the truth is that Andy sings like a donkey so it would’ve sounded like shit. The only thing he knows how to sing are Morrissey songs because there’s only one or two notes in them! (Wickedly, playfully laughs.)
And on that note, I’ll let you go to bed.
(Laughs.) And on that note, he’s gonna kill me.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.