Brit Pop Singer Mika on Freddie Mercury, Simon Cowell's Rejection & Having the Last Laugh

mika 2015
Peter Lindbergh

For his fourth album No Place in Heaven (due June 16 via Casablanca/Republic), British power-pop singer Mika, 31, is embracing his many theatrical quirks.

"I think it's important to be an unusual artist," Mika says on the phone from Italy, where he's just announced a new season as a judge on The X Factor Italy. The singing competition is one of several side gigs that have kept him occupied in between tours as the international hitmaker behind Billboard Hot 100 hits "Grace Kelly" and "Love Today" (from 2007's Life In Cartoon Motion) to 2012's "Celebrate" and "Popular Song," the latter of which was remixed as a 2013 duet with a pre-superstar Ariana Grande. Working alongside longtime producer Greg Wells (Katy Perry, Adele), Mika indulges his many influences on his latest album, from piano bar troubadour ("All She Wants," "Good Wife") to anthemic boulevardier ("Good Guys," the title track) to disco divo (lead single "Talk About You").

Mika Kicks Off Brief Stateside Tour With Brooklyn Show

Though he can sell out stadiums overseas, Mika has mostly remained on the fringe of the American mainstream -- though he's not without some high-profile fans. His music can currently be heard in a key scene from Pitch Perfect 2 ("I'm terrified to see it," Mika confesses) and may soon appear in the upcoming Zoolander 2 (he recently filmed a cameo in the hotly anticipated sequel). And if his label Republic has anything to say about it, he'll be spending even more time Stateside in 2016, with plans to mount a New York residency of sorts. 

"Avery [Lipman]'s all over me to develop a show, and he is one of the fiercest statistic watchers and number counters," Mika says of Republic's co-president. "After he came to my [Webster Hall] show in New York he said, 'How can we build this so it can exist every night?' I think they know that the path is going to be an interesting one going forward, even if it's going to be an atypical one. But that's why I'm proud to be an atypical artist."

Billboard spoke at length with Mika to learn more about his busy TV and film schedule and the difficult phone calls that led to a key song on No Place in Heaven.

You just launched a new season of X Factor in Italy with Simon Cowell. How's he treating you?

The funny thing was, the first time I sat with Simon Cowell was when I was younger and presenting my demos -- and he rejected me. It’s just kind of weird, you can never know what happens in life, you never know when someone comes back tin the picture. So I’m sitting there next to him at a press conference launching the show, laughing to myself.

Did he remember you?

He forgets nothing and he’s extremely funny. He’s really bad with his sense of humor, which explains a lot, and he’s so successful as well. There’s this very wicked child within him. You know he’s clever and he’s tough, but he also has this playful quality that enables us to do all this stuff.

You’ve enhanced your global -- and multilingual -- profile since your last record, becoming a judge on The X Factor Italy and The Voice France in the last two years. How has that experience shaped your writing process?

I decided to consolidate that gap between who I am as a person, and what my public image is. I think one of the disadvantages and advantages of the career that I have is that I have a really global reach, and my career is made up in pieces all over the world. From my kind of more niche status in America, to Korea where we’re playing to 15 and a half thousand next week, then it’s France, Spain all these different places. I mean something different in each place. My biggest ambition as I turned 30 was to put myself out there and not try to protect myself so much, and let my own personality shine. As soon as you’re comfortable with yourself publicly, you can do anything.

How did that shape the new album?

I wanted to write something that dared to not even try to follow any formats, or any kind of sound, just a songwriter record. The only thing is because I’m so obsessed with pop melody you get that handcrafted songwriter record with an enormous amount of melody. My heroes are form the olden age of pop music from the 60s and 70s, they have this very credible, organic but extremely melodic and pop kind of songwriting, and they’re the kinds of artist that were making these kinds of records. That was important to me to make something that didn’t sound like now, something that could have been made five years ago or in five years’ time. I’ve limited my palette to do it, I rented a living room in the house I live in Los Angeles, I pulled a soundcard and microphone in, and by limiting my powers so much it forced me to be more creative and playful and honest with my lyrics and search harder for melodies.

Tell me about how Freddie Mercury inspired the song “Last Party” from No Place in Heaven

It’s about, in a sense, Freddie Mercury when he found out he was HIV positive, and had this very strong reaction that kind of manifested into him closing himself up in a nightclub for a couple days and having this mad party. It’s probably a myth, I don’t know how true it is, but certainly it’s a story that’s quite well-known. It made me think about when you find out terrible news, how do you deal with it?  I wanted to put that into a song as best I could, and tried to make it as intimate as possible and this thing that I crafted and the way I produced it, I tried to make it as out-of-context of contemporary pop music as I could make it. And it’s weird because with pop music, you have a particular opportunity to describe the things that are really hard to describe a normal daily life or normal words. This strange combination of terrible news and that rush of adrenaline -- I know because in my life I’ve had all these awful things happen but this strange rush of adrenaline at the same time and trying to convey that in a song is almost one of the most representative ways of that strange clash of emotions. And you find that in a lot of these songs --  “All She Wants” and “Good Wife” also have this mix of sweet and joyful with the bitterness of life.

You mentioned at your recent show at Webster Hall that songs from your previous albums (“Billy Brown,” “Big Girl You Are Beautiful”) have cost you friendships. Are there any songs on the new album that you fear may endanger some of your relationships?

I was afraid that “Last Party” would endanger some of my relationships or that I would be invading sacred territory, as far as Brian May or Roger Taylor, who I know personally. I sent them the song in advance, and they luckily loved it and gave me their approval. As far as “Good Wife” and “All She Wants,” they always are about real people, but that’s the risk you take. The amount of times we sit with friends, we never really know that they’re thinking inside their head, you have to applaud sometimes knowing the truth, given that the truth is a bit harder for polite society. When you write you have to throw polite society out the window and have the freedom of expression that you need to make something good and engaging and incredible. If you can do it in pop music, where can you do it? It’s the same kind of  things with comedy -- good comedy, really clever comedy breaches and deals with subjects that are unapproachable in another context. The same goes with personal relationships and other stories, if you can’t do it in pop music where else could you do it?

Your song “Lollipop” is featured in a key scene in Pitch Perfect 2. Have you seen the movie yet?

No I haven’t -- I’m terrified. I’m worried they’re gonna screw it up. I heard it’s sung by the Treblemakers. It’s just funny how things happen, you know? Music syncs, film and television for me have been such a powerful engine, and the reach of that stuff just around the world is a massive, massive part of my career as a writer. And it’s funny that in America, where I’m the least commercial of artists in a sense, compared relatively to my other markets, it also offers me the biggest opportunities and platforms for my music. It just shows you, the one thing about my career -- it shows you there are a million ways to crack an egg. There’s so many ways to form a career in today’s landscape, and it just takes a lot of work, a lot of legwork.

You recently filmed a cameo for Zoolander 2 in Rome. What can you say about your role?

It was funny, it was way better than I expected it would be. I can’t say what I’m doing, but there’s a big sync sequence with some of my songs associated to it as well. I love the way my music has been used in TV and film over the years. There’s something to be said about the gunpowder of my songs staying dry to illustrate a story.