MIKA
Pride

Mika Returns: How the Glam-Pop Star Rejected Industry Standards to Make His Boldest Record Yet

After a decade of performing, the 36-year-old singer threw away conventional pop wisdom in favor of emotional resonance on his latest album. "I have completely abandoned any kind of worry about what people may or may not think about my music."

Each month, Billboard Pride celebrates an LGBTQ act as its Artist of the Month. Our September selection: Mika.

It’s early afternoon on a Thursday in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and despite his cool manner, Michael Holbrook Penniman Jr. is feeling nervous. Not because of this interview -- he’s been speaking to members of the press for over a decade at this point -- but because in just a few hours, he will be donning his stage name, Mika, and returning to perform in the States for the first time in over three years. 

“I don’t know what you’re going to see tonight,” he says with a laugh as he takes a sip of his San Pellegrino. His performance will be the first stop on a 5-city “tiny tour,” reintroducing himself at intimate venues to an audience he hasn’t seen since touring his last full-length album, No Place in Heaven, in early 2016.

But the moment he steps out onto the stage at Brooklyn Steel on Sept. 12, it's clear that Mika's nerves have washed away. The crowd of nearly 2,000 attendees screams along to every song, as Mika dances around the stage, reveling in his return. "God, it feels good to be back on the stage," he says, grinning. 

U.S. stages aren't the only thing he's returning to this fall — after a four year hiatus from the music industry, Mika is officially back with his fifth studio album My Name Is Michael Holbrook (due out Oct. 4 via Republic). It's an expectedly ecclectic mix of pop tracks, spiritually harkening back to the days of his debut with Life in Cartoon Motion; if his debut was about moving on from childhood, his newest album is about growing into adulthood.

Mika says the album was written over the course of the last two and a half years in "real time," as he continued to learn what it really means to be a grown-up. "I really wanted to address the idea of growing up without losing your colors," he says. "Becoming an adult, but without losing your human warmth, or your sense of color and whimsy ... those things are seen as things that you leave behind. If anything, I think they're things that you have to claim even more."

It shows throughout the album -- whether he's battling his own inner envy with "Dear Jealousy," finding joy in the little things on "Platform Ballerinas," or lusting after a boy on "Ice Cream," Mika goes out of his way to create as many different representations of his own emotional state as he possibly can. 

But Mika had a long road to get to his new album. Back in 2016, after releasing Heaven the year prior, and touring near-constantly afterward, the singer decided it was time for him to step away from music. As he describes it, he long felt a general disdain towards the way business was done in the music industry, and that disdain eventually "contaminated" his love of making music. "It took a little while for me to disassociate one from the other, and so I kind of just had to do a bit of internal housekeeping," he says. 

Specifically, Mika says that he found himself constantly feeling "gross" about the commercial side of artistry. "I get knots in my stomach thinking about the process of trying to sell music," he says. "Which a lot of people won't say because now it's so good to be commercial, it's so good to be brazen and to get out there! But I don't care!"

Julian Broad
MIKA

So, during his hiatus from the music business, Mika worked on creating a sound that was purely authentic to him, and untouched by his perceptions about what is current and trendy in pop music -- My Name Is Michael Holbrook is that vision realized. "I have completely abandoned any kind of worry about what people may or may not think about my music. I have absolutely refused to mimic the sonics of anything that is mainstream," he says, adding, "While still remaining within a pop context, of course."

That refusal also extended to his Tiny Love Tiny Tour, starting with his kick-off show in Brooklyn. While past tours of his included incredible theatrics, props, dance numbers and more, his latest tour simply featured Mika and his band playing through some of his favorite songs across all five of his albums. And it all took place in the weeks ahead of the album's release, a fact he says caused trepadation amongst his team "[My agent] was just like, 'You know, we're selling these shows — you haven't played the U.S. in three and a half years, and you haven't put any music out,'" he recalls. "She ultimately trusted me."

His strategy payed off — the star sold out each of the intimate venues almost immediately, in some cases having to add additional shows that also immediately sold out. "We sold 4,000 tickets in New York already," he says, with a cheeky laugh. "2,000 more and we'd be at Radio City Music Hall. For someone who's never been played on radio in this country, that's pretty good."

Mika wasn't surprised that his team trusted him with the decision, though — despite his aforementioned contempt for the music business, he contends that his record label, Republic, has always endorsed his "weird" vision, despite any questions regarding popularity or sales numbers. "They kind of see me as this completely atypical artist," he says. "There's this sense of pride from them ... and so they're quite supportive of me."

The singer's frustration with the music industry traces all the way back to the start of his career, when the star had spent years writing and sending out songs to labels, only to find them roundly rejected by music labels. His first official single came in 2006 with Universal Music Group's new label Casablanca, titled "Relax, Take It Easy." The song went on to have some tempered European success, but ultimately didn't achieve the success they were looking for. 

Thus, Mika's magnum opus "Grace Kelly" was born. Upon its release, the song hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Italy and Belgium, while marking the singer's first entry onto the Hot 100 in the U.S., and saw Mika offering a rebuke the systems in place that would try to label and reject him. "After a certain while, the 'no's just provoke this kind of outburst, and this outburst manifested itself in this explosion of colors," he says. "So it became, 'I'll try to be like Grace Kelly. Oh, so sorry, is that too feminine for you?' It's like, I can be every single color of the fucking rainbow -- but in the end, I don't think it's going to work for you, so I might as well just be myself."

And yet with his success on that single, quite literally written about how trying to compare himself to others simply doesn't work, he was heralded by many as the new Freddie Mercury (which Mika still calls "absolutely ridiculous"). Even with a song about individuality, the star felt his talent was being reduced to a need by those in the industry to identify him. "Therein started this tension between me and the idea of the music industry," he says. "Again, it just shows you how there's different frustrations and negatives in this business."

Another label that Mika was regularly faced with early in his career was one surrounding his sexuality -- in almost every interview, the star would be asked about how he identified. And for years, he would respond by saying that he didn't want to label himself. It's something that he says, looking back, he wouldn't change. "It was a conscious decision, and it was a part of my process," he says. "Real life and personal life and career all kind of evolve and develop along different timelines. It's just one thing at a time, where I was not obsessed with this idea of pigeonholing me."

But the evolution did occur, leading to the singer's "official" public coming out in 2012, when he revealed that he identified as gay in an interview with Instinct. Today, the star says he saw an opportunity to lead by example and took it. "If I was a 14 year old, I think it would be really good for me to hear about someone like this, and to hear that story," he says. "But everything takes time. Everything is a different type of journey, and every journey, when it comes to sexuality, is a different one, is atypical."

One assertion that he does fundementally disagree with is the notion that life is easier today for LGBTQ artists the world over. Mika acknowledges that "from a media point of view, we're certainly not given as much shit as before," but adds that it doesn't diminish the constant struggle queer people everywhere still face on a daily basis. "But this question of, 'is it a simpler journey?' My ass, it is!" he exclaims, specifically turning to address industry executives. "Stop thinking that -- because you all suddenly realize there's this market out there -- that it's somehow a simpler journey. It is still difficult, and every person's journey is difficult, and it's so important to respect that."

Relegating a queer artist to a mere descriptor of their sexuality, he says, only lead to further marginalization. Instead, he points to trailblazers like Elton John and Rufus Wainwright, saying that their work broke through into the mainstream because it was well-crafted, and because they decided to be honest with their audiences. "The one thing that breaks walls is the joy and the emotion that can be provoked by a piece of work that is excellent," he says. "Because that lasts."

Mika hopes that his fans find that excellence in My Name Is Michael Holbrook, a work he says is his proudest acheivement. "I just feel kind of like, 'Wow, it's starting to come together, and it's taken me 14 years,'" he says. "I've got a long way to go, I've got a lot of challenges. It's not an easy career, I don't have an easy time. And at the same time, I wouldn't change a single part of it."