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 music releases, he seems tired and anxious, a far cry from his usual 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.
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 Wallonia (French-speaking Belgium), and went top 10 in 10 other markets. Meanwhile, the album hit No. 1 in France, Flanders, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Wallonia 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 show 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.'
NEXT STOP, AMERICA
For Mika's next trick -- his second album, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, which arrives internationally Monday (September 21) on Casablanca/Island Records and a day later in the United States on Universal Republic -- he wants to become a star in America.
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, who points out that his label saw more than 1 million Mika-related retail transactions (ringtones, downloads and album sales) in the States.
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 began almost immediately after the promotional campaign for his debut album concluded with a July 27, 2008, concert in front of 40,000 fans at Martyrs' Square in Beirut, Lebanon.
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 basement studio in London, he 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 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 and Final Fantasy's Owen Pallet.
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 fairy-tale 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.
The album's first single is We Are Golden, an infectious rock-soul number featuring a knockout contribution from the Andrae Crouch gospel choir (which sang on Madonna's Like a Prayer).
STATE OF PLAY
Mika, who will undertake a North American tour for three weeks in October, rattles 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 'f--- 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.