Out in the Open
Until recently, Mika’s success as a recording artist has happened in spite of his personal intangibility. But now, in the swell of the release of his third album The Origin of Love, the shroud has lifted and the gloves are off. He speaks to Garrett Bithell about his new outlook, almost losing his sister, and why decided to finally come out.
Twenty-nine-year-old British singer-songwriter Michael Holbrook Penniman, Jr – or just Mika to you and me – has always been a bit of an enigma. Beyond his obvious musical talent – and hefty falsetto register to rival Freddie Mercury – he has always lacked tangibility.
A lot of this has to do with his actual creative output so far. 2007’s Life in Cartoon Motion – buttressed by break-out single ‘Grace Kelly’ – and his 2009 sophomore release The Boy Who Knew Too Much were exercises is high-flung camp and theatrics. But more than that, Mika the man always hid behind character and metaphor, and his childhood – or the past in general – dominated much of the subject matter.
But his mystery was also cultivated by the fact that we never knew anything about his private life – no partner, no romantic history, no gossip columns, and a total unwillingness to discuss the inevitable questions around his sexuality.
And while it might not seem very journalistic of me to say so, mystery in an artist is a great thing. It is much more powerful when an artist reveals aspects of their life through their artistry. Moreover, there is a way to discuss sexuality that doesn’t involve labels, that isn’t political.
Nonetheless, Mika chose to label himself for the first time in the September issue of Instinct: ‘If you ask me am I gay, I say yeah,’ he told the magazine. ‘Are these songs about my relationship with a man? I say yeah. And it’s only through my music that I’ve found the strength to come to terms with my sexuality beyond the context of just my lyrics. This is my real life.’
This surely was the quintessence of stating the obvious. The answers were all there in Mika’s music – no offence, but anyone who listened to Life in Cartoon Motion or The Boy Who Knew Too Much and didn’t realise he likes to shag blokes, is a twit.
None of this is particularly interesting – how upfront, or not, a musician is publicly doesn’t reflect on their artistry. Accept that, in Mika’s case, it has.
His new album, The Origin of Love, is a very different offering, evidently inspired by two life-changing events: his sister Paloma’s four-storey fall that almost killed her (she’s now on the mend), and falling in love. Indeed the album ruminates on love in all its forms, but these significant experiences have resulted in an artist more fearless, more honest and more willing to put himself into his songs. Mika has also let go of some of the theatrics – although his distinctive falsetto still makes a strong appearance above the lush club-pop and churning electro. But while the sound is generally ‘up’ and buoyant, the lyrical content is not all sunshine and rainbows and long walks on the beach. He also embraces darkness – singing of overrated love, unanswered love, dangerous love, foolish love, and love as an addiction. But it’s great to listen to an artist who is present and talking about the future for a change.
“I think it comes from the fact that, through my music, I’ve reconciled my past,” Mika tells SX. “I’ve liberated myself, and given myself the space to exist in the wide context of the world around me. I’ve managed to temper my demons and insecurities. Watching Paloma almost die not only made me realise how much I take people for granted, but value my own situation so much more. It gave me a sense of urgency to make the most of it.
“If I was to really say what the record is about, it’s about a 28 year old – [he was 28 when he wrote it] – trying to figure out how he’s going to be happy for the next ten years, and trying to project the man he wants to become. And in projecting that man, maybe he’d actually become that man. In a way that’s what I’ve always done with my music. That’s what music is for, that’s what art is for, that’s what creating anything is for. I have no fear anymore, and I’m happy now – it’s okay to be miserable, it’s okay to be happy, it’s okay to be a real person with all these different facets.”
Evidently, this fearlessness hasn’t just permeated Mika’s music – it’s changed the way he comports himself in public, hence the so-called ‘coming out’.
“A couple of things changed,” Mika says of his decision to finally call himself gay in that Instinct interview. “I got to a place where I was decompressed and happy and comfortable enough to label myself. My problem is when other people label you – I think that’s wrong. Also, the phrase ‘coming out’ is a horribly negative phrase. The notion of a ‘closet’ is something that’s so negative and I don’t think it’s nice. Even if you’re the kind of person who wants to encourage people to come out, and encourage people to be more open about their sexuality, you should always use positive tools and joy and acceptance to get people to a place where they’re happy and comfortable enough – and feel secure enough – that they can talk about their sexuality without having to think about the politics of it or the label side of it.”
Certainly, Mika never lied about his sexuality. “I’ve always talked about my sexuality,” he states. “It’s always been in my music, it’s always been in the way I live my life – I’ve never pretended to be anything else. But at the same time I wasn’t ready to label myself and in turn politicise my sexuality, because I felt like I wouldn’t be doing it on my terms.
“The way I’ve chosen to label myself, and the way I’ve handled my sexuality, is something that has taken time. It’s not for anyone to sensationalise.”
Looking forward now, Mika has no regrets. “If I could encounter a younger version of myself, I wouldn’t give him any advice. Absolutely nothing. I’d stay out of his fucking way.”
[Images] “I’ve always talked about my sexuality” ... Mika. Photos: Getty Images/Stuart Wilson
The Origin of Love is out now.