His Name is Michael Holbrook, but You Know Him as MIKA

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 6, 2019

Playful yet provocative alt-pop sensation, MIKA, continues to fearlessly dive into dark waters penning deceptively danceable yet deft and nuanced new music with his fifth studio album, "My Name is Michael Holbrook," dropping this October.

He is also about to embark on his most ambitious tour, that kicks off at Brooklyn Steel on September 13th and then plays a few dates in North American before moving on to a slew of performances all over Europe.

MIKA's 2007 debut album, "Life in Cartoon Motion," which according to MIKA was not supposed to be successful, was huge and the rousing single, "Grace Kelly" was an international chart topper. Three platinum selling albums followed, "The Boy Who Knew Too Much," "The Origin of Love" and "No Place in Heaven."

Often compared to Elton, Freddie, George and even Prince, MIKA is his own person and a unique artist who is forever challenging himself in his work by delving deeply into his own life and loves and heartaches and joys and giving us music that can be sinfully innocent or sweetly decadent or universally personal — let the contradictions and paradoxes wash over you.

Mika was born Michael Holbrook Penniman, Jr. in 1983, and the new album is his "audit of my life and my family and the man I've become."

EDGE had the pleasure of speaking with the sincere, honest and charming artist as he prepared his tour outside the hills of Tuscany in Italy. He admitted to not loving interviews but seemed fine as we conversed.

Disney meets Lars von Trier

EDGE: On "My Name is Michael Holbrook" you've created these incredible songs that are peppy and melodic but there's a lot of angst and darkness in there about trying to navigate life. It's like Disney meets Lars von Trier...

MIKA: That's so funny...I'm working with a guy called W.I.Z., he's a director for my music videos. He did the "Tiny Love" video and we're doing another video for the song, "San Remo," which is based on homosexuality in the 1960s. All filmed on real film. And he said something very similar to what you said, "there's this kind of fairly tale, really sophisticated, naïve, vintage Disney thing and then a bit of Lars von Trier or Gus Van Sant apocalyptic sentiment when you're listening to your music." ...And you're saying the same thing. I'm okay with that because my writing process is a medicinal one... I write music to make sense of things that happen in life, of things that I don't comprehend and it enables me to contextualize what's going on. I could be in a really bad situation or even in a place that I don't like or am so angry with someone that I could risk going to jail to punish them. And then when I somehow put it into a song and I go through the writing process of forcing myself to look through the lens that you have to look through when you decide to write about something, you inevitably put it into order and life just becomes a little more beautiful.

EDGE: That paradoxical blend in your work...

MIKA: From, "San Remo" not being about San Remo at all, but being about growing up gay and being a 13-year-old gay walking around the streets of San Remo and feeling incredibly intimidated by every other masculine presence that seems more beautiful, more slim, more heterosexual — just cooler and better than you'd think you could ever be. That's what that song is about. It's not obvious but it's in there.

To a song like, "Paloma..." It's about my sister and it's about the night that I found her on railings having fallen from the window of the fourth floor of her apartment... And I'm standing barefoot in my boxers. And she's dying on the railing. And I'm looking at her, at that situation... when I started writing about it... there was beauty in the fact that I saw her there in the most grotesque situation... She survived, that's why it's easier to see the beauty in it. Still, doing a process like this and not being Mika was very important. Being Michael Holbrook, this dude who is just writing songs about himself, about his life at the moment, his childhood, the women in his family — and about the fear of some of the future... and putting all of that insecurity into something still attractive, bearable and comforting and that's what the process of writing this record was.

Open about queerness?

EDGE: Did you achieve any kind of catharsis and, if so, when did it come.

MIKA: Yeah, I did. I got high. It wasn't catharsis as much as it was this kind of re-finding that feeling that you have when you're starting to write — you're 15-years-old and you're starting to write and you get that rush of dopamine and endorphins and you feel like a million dollars — a million dollars could never make you feel like you do when you've written something and it just somehow seems right. And that is a really great feeling to find again, especially in a music industry that leaves me feeling so astonishingly despondent most of the time. I hate this business. I hate most of the people that work in it. I hate the way we are consuming, with such short attention spans, what takes years to make. I think that it's really dangerous. Yet I couldn't love music and performance and writing more than I do right now. So the catharsis came from the separation of the two.

It's just astonishing that there's so many people in the music industry that just don't care about music. And that's the thing you have to deal with on a daily basis and that's the part no one really explains... And I needed to be able to find a safe zone again in order to write more dangerously. And when I say writing more dangerously, sometimes even not caring if someone thinks it's cool or not is actually the hardest thing in the world. Sometimes the toughest thing in the world to write is tenderness because it leaves you so open to attack, writing about your family, writing about yourself... And those things are really hard to get yourself to do but when you find that safe place then it's okay. And it took me awhile to find that safe place — quite a few years.

EDGE: I'm a big believer in universality by way of specificity and I feel your identity, sexual and otherwise, is such a big part of your music. Do you think it's okay for a recording artist today to be open about their queerness? Or is there still a taboo attached to it?

MIKA: Honestly, I think it's okay. But it doesn't mean that it's simple. There's a very big difference between the two... There are so many decades of media ties to pop culture where heterosexual relationships and love songs and politics have been discussed and everything in very articulate ways and also in trashy ways. The openness of that conversation when it comes to homosexual love and homosexual intimacy, there's just not as many decades where that's been happening in pop culture.

I do think that there's a responsibility to do it the right way. And everybody has their own right way of doing it. It's not a simple thing to do but I don't think there's any problem associated to it anymore. And that is massive for us. But it does mean that there is a responsibility to do it right, do it well. Go there.

More confident

EDGE: Like certain artists...

MIKA: I was so incredibly formed and incredibly moved by listening to songwriters who, in my childhood, were confronting those kinds of issues with real complexity and grace. When you listen to some of those early Rufus Wainwright records they are so important when it comes to gay pop music. Those are fundamental records. Because they have all these colors, all these nuances. They're so complex. The references are so large. The world is so deep and big that he's referring to. Everything is possible within there. It's not reductive in any way. And so definitely someone like him is a great example and was very formative when I was younger as to forming my opinion on what part sexuality plays when it comes to writing my music and how much it needs to be a part of it. And everything comes in stages. I think more and more it's getting there. And I've become more and more confident and taking more and more pleasure in using my sexuality in my music without having to fear the consequences at all. Whether it's the opinion of my fans or my family. And that's a great thing to be able to say. And I realize that that is actually a privilege. A, because of the type of music I make. B, because I'm a niche artist. And mostly because I live in countries where I don't have to suffer those consequences... But it's not the case in the rest of the world.

That's why I think it's not simple and there's so much more dialogue to have... And there's so much catching up to do. If the catching up leads us to a place where no longer actually notice the difference and the first thing that comes to mind is not necessarily whether sexual orientation is a heterosexual or homosexual one but all we notice is the beauty of the gesture then I think that that's the destination.

EDGE: So as a queer artist who travels and performs internationally, have you felt any of the discrimination and hate going on in western countries where we never expected it to happen?

MIKA: Yeah. I have. From the online stuff to de-faced or graffiti'd posters, which is stuff that's happened to me before. It's weird because unfortunately I always have my defenses slightly up. And I realize how unhealthy that is. And it doesn't mean that I'm not willing to fight. What's sad is that sometimes you're expecting the fight... I think that we are in a very strange time. We're in such a major transition in a socio-political way and so much that we've taken for granted in terms of western culture and the order of things — the guarantees that our parents grew up expecting, whether in Europe or in the States, a lot of that is being challenged. And in some places undermined. And it's provoking a polarization of attitudes and politics. And when you're going through that kind of polarization, people will grab anything they possibly can to differentiate between the us and the them...

Ambitious tour

EDGE: Let's talk a bit about the tour. You're kicking off in NYC, doing a few North American dates and then you'll be all over Europe through February. Is this the most ambitious tour yet for you?

MIKA: It's quite ambitious. The venues range from Brooklyn Steel is what 1800 (seats) to 19,000. So it's quite a challenge for my band. I had made some conscious decisions. For example, in America I am showing up with music and that is it. I was like, I've got all these songs and now I'm on my fifth record. I don't want artifice to get in the way of what I have to say. I want this to be a really pure conversation. Not just a performance, an actual conversation with the audience... My name is Michael Holbrook. My legal name. I'm also MIKA. And over the course of an hour and a half I'm going to explain to you why I do what I do... it's an extremely pure tour. Musically, it's very ambitious... sometimes the most surprising thing you can do is simplifying everything so much that it becomes all about emotion and not about artifice.

EDGE: I always have a cherished MIKA song off each album that I play over and over like "Billy Brown," "Blame it on the Girls," etc. On this one I have "Tomorrow" and "Platform Ballerinas." Do you have a favorite?

MIKA: My favorite song is "Blue," because it is the most romantic song. It challenges your preconceptions. And it plays on so many different levels. Blue is about gender, sexuality. It's about the idea that you're only okay if you're so fucking upbeat and smiling at everyone all the time. When sometimes, actually, that's the biggest sign that you're fucked up. And it's a love letter to the people that I love in saying that, from the deepest part of my heart, I will always love that blue in you because within that blue is the deepest color and the deepest version of you... It starts off as one thing and ends up as something completely different. And that kind of pirouette is really what makes me happy as a writer and its fun to sing because you're going on a journey.

Broadway next?

EDGE: You write in the paradoxes, in the contradictions, in the multiple meanings. One of the things I love so much about "Tomorrow" is I felt it could be about a one night hook up or about two people who've been dating for a while...

MIKA: Or if you analyze it even closer it could be about a one-night hookup getting back together with someone that you've been with for a very long time but you swore you would never be with again.

EDGE: If you had to choose one artist you'd most like to work with right now who would it be?

MIKA: If I had to choose a classic heritage artist it would have to be... Joan Baez. To me (she's) the underdog of that entire clan who doesn't get as much recognition as I truly think she deserves. She's amazing. And you don't feel evil in her.

And from a younger generation I would adore to work with... I would love to write a musical with Tegan and Sara. That would be fun.

EDGE: Ever think about acting.

MIKA: Working with W.I.Z. is really interesting because he's trying to make me act as much as possible. And he's making me realize that less is more and that the eyes communicate more than the body ever could...

I do want to act more. I would love to be on the stage in America. And I know that I could eat the stage on Broadway... I think it's about the right show. And funnily enough just as W.I.Z. is trying to push me I got these two film propositions from some major directors so weirdly I never thought I would act... but it seems to be heading my way so who knows. Maybe one day.

"My Name is Michael Holbrook" will be released October 4th.

For more on MIKA, visit his website.

Watch MIKA sing 'Tiny Love':

Watch MIKA sing 'Popular Song' with Ariana Grande:

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute