Mika's back with more perfectly crafted pop
Lebanese-British singer-songwriter who performs in Hong Kong next week has a new album out that shows a new maturity and which, he says, is the product of a liberated mood
There is no shame in listening to Mika's perfectly crafted tunes. Unlike scores of exiled pop princes and princesses before him, Mika has enjoyed indefatigable popularity: his records aren't relegated to dust-ridden cupboards, he lives less in the shadows of his previous hits and more in the light of his next upbeat single, and his name isn't mentioned as a nod to the past.
Mika, born Michael Holbrook Penniman Jnr in Beirut to a Lebanese mother and an American father, is a purveyor of pure pop. This means he takes its basic verse-chorus-verse form very seriously. Yet none of the songs on his four released albums sound the same.
His 2007 breakout single, Grace Kelly, capitalised on his impressive three-octave range — he trained as an opera singer — while also speaking about identity crises and circumventing stuffy music conventions.
Allegedly, Mika wrote the song after being asked by an industry schmuck to mimic the style and sound of another singer, which resulted in the nice self-deprecating lyric: "I tried to be like Grace Kelly/ But all her looks were too sad/ So I try a little Freddie/ I've gone identity mad". On one hand, it's just a pop song — and a very popular one, hitting No 1 on the UK charts — but on the other, it subtly reveals Mika's penchant for the extraordinary. Its chorus is a riff off an aria in Rossini's The Barber of Seville and it features dialogue from the 1954 film The Country Girl (for which Grace Kelly won an Oscar).
Grace Kelly was followed by Billy Brown (about a man exploring a homosexual affair), Love Today and Big Girl (You Are Beautiful) — a positive ditty about the female form — all from his first studio album, Life in Cartoon Motion. His second and third albums were creeping hits. The singer — known for emulating Freddie Mercury both stylistically in clinging skinny costumes and in vocals — was overwhelmed with tour bookings. However, at this point in 2013, he began to face creative difficulties.
"I took a break from making records," he says. "I needed to do something else so I could really make another record that had a different feel. I launched myself into another adventure." Different means stints as a judge on X Factor Italy, a coach on The Voice France and a fashion collaboration with Valentino.
He took a year off to write new material and when he sat down to put pen to paper, he was in a different state of mind. "Time was really pressed because I didn't have that much of it, so it concentrated me — I wrote and recorded it all in seven months. It was disciplined and precise, but also easy, because I was in a good mood. I felt liberated and came to the realisation I could make whatever record I had in me and not think about the consequences."
Against that backdrop, Mika's new album, "No Place in Heaven", due for release on June 15, is a more mature set of songs. It starts with Talk About You, a flossy but perhaps necessary introduction to the tracks ahead, one that shows Mika still knows pure pop. Other songs are finely wrought: Last Party is a soft, piano tribute to Freddie Mercury (the video was shot by Peter Lindbergh) that would have been saccharine if not for Mika's haunting voice; Rio is a hands-in-the-air track with a feel-good melody; Good Guys is a more organic pop workout.
Then there's the title track, which Mika believes pulls the entire album together. "It's a kind of prayer; the whole album points to that, too," says the singer, who was raised a Catholic.
"You expect a prayer to be full of melancholy and a little bit grovelling, but it's not — it's a defiant prayer. It says 'Here I am, this is who I am, I'm happy with where I am, will you forgive me, will you give me a place in heaven? This is your last chance, because I'm telling you even if you don't, I don't care.' I think what I'm saying is that I'm not asking for permission any more. If there's no place in heaven for me I don't give a damn. If this is purgatory, I'm pretty happy here."
Fans will get to hear these songs on his Asian summer tour, with stops in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shenzhen on the schedule.
Mika's soft rebellion should work in his favour; after all, Grace Kelly was an experiment in rejecting industry standards and became a huge hit. The only caveat to going against the grain is that everything must be carefully curated by Mika himself.
His latest album cover is his own illustration, most of the photographic images are taken by a friend, and his songs revolve around his friends and family. The 2007 song, Lollipop, which bumps along to a Diwali Riddim sample, has Mika preaching to his younger sister and imploring her not to have sex too early.
"I represent something different, and I have to constantly work to achieve that because I don't have a big machine behind me like a lot of other artists," he says. "When I was younger, doing all that kind of work was really draining. It felt like I was being squashed because I didn't know how to handle it. Now it's the opposite: I see it as freedom."
At the age of 31, Mika could be reaching the apex of his career with "No Place in Heaven", but a large part of his charm is his ability to be pop-oriented without falling prey to trends.
"I wanted to create something that sounded timeless," he says of the album, "so you wouldn't know if it had been recorded five years ago or in five years' time. That becomes irrelevant for the record. It feels like the most important things are the lyrics, the melody, the song and the voice.
"Travelling around the world, I've realised that within the noise and cacophony of all these different places and cultures, the only thing that can truly cut through it all is something that's not a copy of a copy — something that's extremely personal and intimate."
Mika, June 3, 8pm, The Vine Centre, 28 Burrows Street, Wan Chai, HK$590, ticketflap.com