Mika Conquered The World, America Is Next
At first impression, the man no one knows as Michael Penniman seems uncharacteristically quiet. As he takes a well-earned break from rehearsing for a tour to promote one of the year's most eagerly anticipated global releases, he seems tired and anxious, a far cry from his usual upbeat ebullience. He knows it, and he apologizes politely for his demeanor before taking a drawn-out pause to refocus and return as the witty, charming, unashamedly upbeat force of nature the world knows and-mostly-loves as Mika. "It's always a big stress figuring out how to do things live," he says, becoming more animated with every word. "It's really kind of terrifying. I wish I could just mime. I'd be so much happier." Pause. "I'm joking, of course."'
"Witty," "charming" and "unashamedly upbeat" are also words that could be used to describe Mika's music - a winning mix of radio-friendly piano ballads, sexual ambiguity and melodic pop. His debut album, "Life in Cartoon Motion" (Island/Universal), sold 5.5 million copies worldwide, according to his handlers at London-based Machine Management.
His U.K. base -- Mika was born in Lebanon but has a dual U.S. and British citizenship -- contributed 1.6 million of those copies, and Mika regularly leaves his London apartment to find gifts from fans or even fans themselves, camping overnight outside his door.
"It's fine," he deadpans. "I soon get rid of them."
His first major-label single, "Grace Kelly," claimed the top spot in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Norway and Wallonie, and went top 10 in 10 other markets. Meanwhile, the album hit No. 1 in France, Flanders, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Wallonie and the United Kingdom, and it went top 10 in eight other markets including Germany and Australia.
In France, he's bigger than Johnny Hallyday and fancy cheese put together-so big that his gig there in July 2008 was staged in front of 55,000 fans at the Parc des Princes Stadium in Paris and featured $1.3 million worth of acrobats, clowns and associated stage production.
"I wanted to do a show that was visually effective no matter how far away you were sitting and, unfortunately, that comes with a price tag," he says. "It's so rare to get to a stadium level on a first record, we were just like, 'Let's celebrate it. Let's have fun and do something incredible.' "
For Mika's next trick -- his second album, "The Boy Who Knew Too Much," which arrives internationally Sept. 21 on Casablanca/Island Records and a day later in the United States on Universal Republic -- he wants to become a star in America.
The IFPI's top 10 list of 2007's global best-selling albums ranks "Life in Cartoon Motion" at No. 9. Significantly, on a list that includes Avril Lavigne, Josh Groban, the Eagles and Amy Winehouse, Mika is not only the sole debut artist but also the only one to make the list without occupying one of the top two spots of the Billboard 200.
"Life" debuted and peaked at No. 29 stateside and has sold 350,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan-a respectable but unspectacular figure, as Universal Republic president/CEO Monte Lipman concedes.
"Although it was not ultimately a breakthrough, it was a very good foundation," says Lipman. "We certainly did not enjoy the global phenomenon like some of the other territories around the world," he says. "But if you compare apples to apples and new and developing artists in America it was substantial and significant."
Mika agrees. "It's a funny one in the States," says the singer, who was nominated for a best dance recording Grammy Award in 2008. "I'm kind of a cult artist there and, although radio rejects me, I still sell singles. I'm in this very fortunate place where my shows sell, my songs sell, and I'm able to grow in a way that I want to."Growth-both personal and artistic-is at the heart of "The Boy Who Knew Too Much," envisioned by its writer as "a kind of rock opera about my adolescence." Work on the album begun almost immediately after the promotional campaign for his debut album concluded with a July 27, 2008, gig in front of 40,000 fans at Martyrs' Square in Beirut, Lebanon.
Initially scheduled to take at least four weeks off, Mika lasted four days before abandoning the "incredible" Roman ruins of Syria, where he was vacationing with friends, and returning to England.
There, ensconced in his one-room studio basement in London, he immediately began writing his second album. He soon upgraded to the English capital's Olympic Studios, where he began to amass a catalog of "dark and emotional" songs loosely inspired by traditional nursery rhymes.
Some of these uncharacteristically downbeat songs would surface on the "Songs for Sorrow" EP-a limited-edition release sold exclusively through Mika's Web site and retailers Paul Smith and Lanvin-before he reunited with "Life" producer Greg Wells, who he describes as a "musical Swiss army knife," for his inexhaustible technical knowledge. The pair headed for Rocket Carousel Studios in Los Angeles to make an "unapologetic pop record."
"I wanted to come out full guns blazing," Mika says of the ambitious and eclectic 12-track set. It mixes grandiose orchestration, vaudeville, gentle piano ballads, cheesy '80s-influenced disco and the singer's unmistakable falsetto, as well as guest appearances from Imogen Heap ("By the Time") and Final Fantasy's Owen Pallet ("Rain").
This time the songs might make fans stop and think, even as they sing along. "There's a lot of quite painful lyrics and a lot of slightly twisted gothic fairytale moments on the record," he says. "I guess that's become a little bit of my trademark. I like to play with the fact that something may sound totally joyful, but at the same time the lyrics are a lot darker."
First out is "We Are Golden," an infectious rock-soul number featuring a knockout contribution from the Andraé Crouch gospel choir (which sang on Madonna's "Like a Prayer"). In the United Kingdom, the song is already generating huge buzz ahead of its Sept. 6 digital and Sept. 7 physical retail bow, achieving the rare distinction of being played twice back to back on national top 40 network BBC Radio 1's Jo Whiley show. Radio 1 will also host a "Mika day" Sept. 28 when the artist will take over daytime programming.
In America, "We Are Golden" will be available exclusively from Apple's iTunes store for one week starting Aug. 18. Likening the situation to that of a lawyer building a case, Lipman expects the exclusive to grow Mika's stateside profile while providing "tangible evidence" of the artist's popularity. This data will then be passed on to radio stations as proof of the artist's U.S. fan base-and his viability for airplay.
Having had little support for the first album campaign, Lipman says breaking Mika on radio in America is his "No. 1 priority" this time around. He expects to work "We Are Golden" to top 40 formats, taking the track to radio one week after it goes live on iTunes. Lipman also cites triple A and hot AC as formats ideally suited to Mika's brand of "sophisticated pop."
It's that sophistication in a "fairly nonsophisticated" pop market that allowed Mika to fall through the cracks between formats with his last album, according to Lipman. The main challenge was getting stations to "step out and lead" but this time he's confident the strength of the songs, combined with Mika's overseas popularity, will force U.S. networks to sit up and pay attention.
In the meantime, the U.S. team is building buzz online and through synch deals; Fox's Aug. 10 broadcast of the Teen Choice Awards used "We Are Golden" as its theme song throughout the show.
Universal is also seeking to maximize the star's online presence through the Aug. 7 international rollout of the Mika's Magic Numbers loyalty plan, which rewards fans for purchases and interactions with special offers. The program launched in the United Kingdom-where Mika has the most-visited Web site of all Island artists, according to the label-in late July. It has drawn a "fantastic" response, according to Dwyer, although the label declined to provide usage numbers.
Mika will undertake a North American tour for three weeks in October, and he's currently setting up TV appearances.
Describing his commitment to the project as "110%," Lipman says his goal is to replicate Mika's European success in the States and "sell millions." "I want to get in on the party," Lipman says. "I want to do what France is doing. I want to do what the U.K. is doing. We want to be part of that success. The album is there and it's our job and our responsibility to make a difference and help put Mika on the platform that he deserves."
Mika shares that fierce ambition, rattling off his American sales stats with a mixture of pride and defiance. While he declines to name names, the fact that other international artists have a higher U.S. profile, despite selling fewer albums, clearly rankles him. He describes selling out U.S. shows as "a big 'fuck you' to everybody who won't play my records."
"I'm not taking anything for granted," he says as he ponders the prospect of U.S. success. "I have no preconceptions of what people think of me. I have no assumptions as to whether a radio station will play my records or not. I guess with this new record, the only thing I can say is that it's totally me and, if it was me the first time round that divided people's opinion, then I expect the same thing all over again."
"But I think that's something to be proud of, not deny."
Additional reporting by Mark Sutherland in London.