Agents and managers are prone to throw around words like “amazing” and “exciting” when it comes to describing a new artist. Only rarely, when an artist like Mika comes along, do you hear that extra something that lets you know they mean it.
Fuerte Group’s Jerry Blair, who manages Mika, was introduced to the singer two and a half years ago while he was in Miami recording demos with anyone who was interested, in any studio he could get for free. Blair knew right away he’d found something unique.
“I thought his music was amazing, lyrically and performance-wise,” Blair told Pollstar. “There’s really nobody like him.
“Having worked for many years with some really big stars from Mariah [Carey], and The Fugees to Destiny’s Child, Dido and Usher – this was an artist that just broke through all the clutter. There’s no indecisiveness. He knows exactly what he wants.” Mika was born Michael Penniman in 1983 in Beiruit, Lebanon. His family fled the war-torn country for Paris soon after, and settled in London when he was 9. The self-taught piano virtuoso and born vocal gymnast was soon enrolled in the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle, followed by Westminster School, and the Royal College of Music.
His tendency to crash parties and hijack the piano led him into a developmental deal that quickly turned sour after he found himself losing too much control over what he was trying to do. So he nixed the deal, dropped out of school, wrote a song about the whole experience – “Grace Kelly,” the first single off his debut album Life in Cartoon Motion – and began formulating a plan to conquer the biz his way.
“The first thing that gets stifled when other people start to take control of things that you want to do is joy and euphoria,” Mika told Pollstar. “That’s why I had to safeguard my freedom as much as I possibly could.”
Mika set out to create a sound that would not only set him apart from his contemporaries and recall past pop classics, but would also allow him to reach as many different audiences as possible.
“I kind of looked to artists from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – people like Prince or Bowie or early Elton John stuff – even Michael Jackson’s Quincy Jones records,” he said. “Records that were made to a unique vision – that were made by solo artists, yet were not limited by how big they could possibly sound.
“If you do that, inevitably, you’re able to transcend genres within one record, and also within your career.”
Mika’s vision doesn’t end at the studio door. He says “playing live is where it all comes together.” He views touring as the cornerstone of a long-term career, so he tried to make music that would translate live. “I was obsessed when I was making the record to build the production with as many organic parts as possible, so we’re able to replicate the sound live,” he said. “I haven’t manipulated my voice, so I can deliver exactly what I do on the record.” The next step was assembling the right band for touring, something Mika admits he was very exacting about. “It’s a bit ridiculous,” he said “But if you look at someone like Eric Clapton, or even someone like John Mayer, they surround themselves with such good musicians, and it’s obvious. So I wanted that, and I wanted them to be young.
“I wanted a band that I got along with. I didn’t want it to look staid or calculated in any way. Because I think that really comes across when you’re playing live.”
Mika’s band is a United Nations of musicians: Scottish guitarist Martin Waugh; Korean bassist Michael Choi; English keyboardist Luke Juby and drummer Cherisse Osei. Mika jokes the multinational group is “not exactly a record company’s marketing wet dream, but we deliver musically.” Mitch Rose, his agent at Creative Artists Agency, came on board about six months ago when a friend sent him a copy of Life, which he loved, prompting him to get in touch with Blair and Rich Isaacson. Rose says that as good as the album is, it’s Mika’s live show that will really win fans over. “He has a very theatrical live show,” Rose told Pollstar. “He’s an artist with great talent that I think the public is going to eat up.”
Mika agrees, especially in the States.
“I think, surprisingly, in the United States there’s a great climate for live shows at the moment, because people want more,” he said.
However, the U.S. is only one part of Mika’s overall strategy. Instead of one market at a time, he and his team are working to break him everywhere at once. He says even though it means more work and a lot of traveling, it’s worth the effort.
“It’s so much more honest, because we’re not having to try to retrace our steps anywhere,” he said.
Most importantly, he says he’s having the time of his life.
“It’s fun. Because I was prepared and paranoid enough to guarantee I’d get the freedom that I wanted, it’s been exactly what I expected, and I’m lucky to be in that position.”
In anticipation of the U.S. release of Life on March 27th, Mika will appear at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. Then he’ll do a run of dates in Europe through April, before returning to the States for the festival circuit, beginning with Coachella in Indio, Calif., and hopes to schedule an extended club tour in June.