Why Mika Is Done Writing “Cookie-Cutter Crap”

"The kind of music I make is not chasing radio. I need to be totally in sync with the story I want to tell."

Mika’s 12-year-career has been the spirited soundtrack to many of our first loves, carefree summers, and post-coming-out fantasies. But longtime fans, take note: The artist best known for his flamboyant glam-pop confections has moved beyond those early comparisons to the Bee Gees and Freddie Mercury, producing a new record that feels like a new beginning, a chance to get to know the 36-year-old Beirut-born singer as he gets to know himself.

For My Name Is Michael Holbrook, his first studio album in five years, Mika retreated to his home studio to reflect on his globe-spanning backstory (its title refers to his birth name). His tumultuous childhood in Lebanon led him and his family to flee to Paris and then London, but he traces his roots all the way to his father’s upbringing in Georgia’s Savannah. When he’s not casting his gaze inwards, the project is a tribute to Mika loyalists—it teems with messages of self-acceptance and self-empowerment—and a celebration of the joys of finding the right person to spend our lives with. “Tiny Love” focuses on the little secret mundane moments we share with our partners, while “Sanremo” subtly illustrates what it’s like to grow up gay surrounded by so-called masculine ideals.

Mike recently sat down with NewNowNext at Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Steel during the New York stretch of his North American Tiny Love Tiny Tour to talk about finding inspiration on tombstones, why he refuses to be part of the “cookie-cutter” pop system, and why being queer in the music industry still isn’t easy.

How was the show last night?

It was my first time on stage in at least three years. It was quite nerve-wracking and emotional. But it was good. It’s such a diverse audience.

Have you had a chance to do any Brooklyn-y things while you’ve been in town?

Absolutely nothing. I’ve been in promo nonstop. But I’m not here to be a tourist. I’m here to sing to people who have been so faithful in following my path. I’m in this hotel right now that’s my idea of a nightmare. It’s just, like, a giant bar. I’m so glad I’m not just drinking all day and have something cool to do.

Right, which is to promote this new record. Let’s talk about what influenced it. You’ve said you were partly looking at your American heritage through the lens of your father’s roots.

It was a starting place, out of complete coincidence. I was curious to see what the other side of my family was. If you’re going to grow up, you might as well know where you come from to figure out where you’re going. So I went to Savannah, Georgia, and it was weird. I just didn’t relate. It felt so distant from my culture. When I walked into the graveyard and saw tombstones with my name on them, it felt like a Tim Burton movie and gave me a thrill—like, what if I used it as a kind of alter ego to reconnect with Mika? I needed to find that person again, and it was a good mechanism. There’s always something about our parents’ past that we don’t know, and it can provoke creativity and curiosity about yourself.
 

You’ve said that leading up to this album you were disappointed with the commercial side of the industry and wanted to make a homemade pop record. How was the songwriting process different this time around?

I had a new team and refused to go into a commercial music studio. Five or six years ago, you’d go to L.A. for a writing trip and work with one to two people for like two to three days. Now publishers set up these writing sessions and you’ll be writing in this slot of three hours. It’s gross cookie-cutter crap, where all the songs sound like each other. I made a commitment to writing at home and working with people who would spend time in my home studio. The kind of music I make is not chasing radio. I need to be totally in sync with the story I want to tell. It needs to be very intimate, very personal, and very unique.

This album does feel very cohesive.

Cohesion comes from storytelling and an idea that you’re going on a journey with the artist. The main problem is that the working process has been so fragmented. It’s like a collage of different writers, sessions, and intentions. That is the main problem in dance-pop music today—this cohesion issue. I’m looking at your T-shirt [which has Madonna on it]. You would listen to a Madonna record in the ’90s, and she is a master of telling one story in lots of different sounds and melodies. Even if she is writing with different people, she respects the story as if the album is a movie. Cohesion is really important, but it doesn’t only come from sound. It’s really about the stories.

Mika
Courtesy of Mika
Mika.

For “Tiny Love” you recently put up a post on Instagram asking fans to submit their own “tiny love” stories—personal love stories the world may not know about but that mean everything to them. Then you shared some of your favorites, which were beautiful and intense to read.

I received 1,700 of the most intimate details of people’s lives. I can’t believe so many people went there. A lot of them were saying, “I never thought I would write this publicly, but now this is a safe place.” You think your heartbreak or your joy is worthless in the grand scheme of things, but when you say to people, “Just for this moment, talk about it,” suddenly they explode because that’s empowering. Everyone can benefit from empowerment.

Unfortunately we live in a world right now where—especially with political leaders that garner media attention by doing the opposite of empowerment—if you are not rich, you are unimportant. If your pictures on Instagram are not super sexy or you don’t get a certain number of likes, you’re unimportant. It’s a world of comparisons and inferiority complexes—it’s just such a fucking waste of time. So you can feel like your love story is not as important.
 

But you seem like you feel free. Have you always been this way?

I just got sick of this idea that you’re just not good enough, no matter what you do. It gets really exhausting at a certain point. When I was at school I was paranoid, afraid, extremely bullied. I was like, Maybe if I can be really good at something, instead of hitting me they’ll applaud me, which is fucked up. It’s a messed-up way to grow up, and a lot of us grow up like that. It’s the idea of pursuit of tolerance through recognition or through excellence, and then you realize it doesn’t really give you tolerance. You become completely at the servitude of your own output because you feel like it’s the only thing that’s going to let people think you’re okay. There’s definitely been a lot of forced evolution.

For all of us, but we survive.

I think we have no choice.
 

In music, we’ve actually made many strides in LGBTQ visibility in the past few years. Do you think it’s getting easier for LGBTQ artists?

There’s a lot of work to do. Let’s not pretend, but let’s celebrate. Are there more artists? No, they’ve always been there. It’s just that somehow people have decided to throw a little bit of light on them. Is it simpler? Absolutely not. It’s still complicated—full of frustrations. Just because there’s more exposure for LGBTQ artists doesn’t mean that their personal journey is not going to be a complicated one.

If you’re like 13 and having a hard time because you’re scared about what your family is going to do to you, it’s important to have role models to know that there is tolerance out there. If it hadn’t been for those role models I had when I was younger, I would have been a lot more unhealthy, so I thank them. Like in the song “Good Guys” [from the 2015 album No Place in Heaven], I list writers who showed me that there was an enormous palette that I could open up to instead of repressing, and for that I’m eternally grateful. So is it easier? It’s a pretty loaded question. But is it a more joyful time within the music industry for LGBTQ artists? Absolutely. Let’s not go backwards.

My Name Is Michael Holbrook is out October 4.

Jay writes about music and pop culture since us LGBT folks pretty much run these kinds of things.
@theglimmerist