Catapulted to fame by “Life in Cartoon Motion,” which sold over five million copies, English-Lebanese pop sensation Mika changes tack with a new album about growing up the hard way, and falling in love.
Part sunny pop, part R&B, part hip-hop, “The Origin of Love” is released just a month after the 29-year-old — who until then had called himself bisexual — said he was gay in an interview with an American magazine.
Mika’s coming out has upped the buzz surrounding the album, which hit shelves worldwide on Monday, and in Britain on Oct. 8, but the work was born of a far more radical shake-up in his life.
“The starting point was stagnation,” Mika — real name Michael Penniman — told Agence France-Presse, dressed in beige and white and flicking back and forth from English to French as he sipped sweet, milky coffee in a Paris luxury hotel.
“I had been on the road for a year and a half and I didn’t have any reason to write, because I wasn’t in love, I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t anything. I was just a performer who’s been on the road non-stop. So I stopped and then everything went crazy.”
In October 2010, Mika’s sister Paloma was critically injured after falling from a fourth-floor window in London and impaling herself on a railing.
“I suddenly realized that you can lose everything within 30 seconds, and it gave me this kind of injection of fearlessness. If you can lose everything so quickly, you’d better do what you really want and you’d better do what you really believe in and not be afraid. “And so once my sister was in a better place, I threw caution to the wind, I said that’s it — I’m going and I’m not coming back.”
So Mika headed to Montreal, where he teamed up with the Australian music producer Nick Littlemore — who provided just the right environment for him to get his creative juices flowing again.
“I landed in Montreal and went straight into the studio from the hotel, and an hour later I had ‘The Origin of Love,’ ” the album’s title track, he recalled.
“I walked in and a person was on bass, he was making a beat, a loop to give me a groove and I just wrote,” he said. “Suddenly I had tools to play with. I wasn’t alone at the piano.”
“Admittedly, it did help that I had fallen in love the week before,” he smiled. “I decided to catch that moment, and write a whole album about the process of falling in love and all its different mutations. Love songs are not piano ballads from the 1980s and 1990s, there’s another way to do a love song. That’s what I was trying to explore. So I didn’t go home for six months and I just wrote.”
He sings of love unrequited, overrated, or dangerous love, love as an addiction, and the foolishness of young love — and finally, in “Step with Me” of the life-long variety, “delicious, like home-cooked dishes.”
While his first two albums dwelled heavily on childhood and the teenage years, this one — while the feel-good pop beats are still there — feels decidedly more grown-up.
“I hate the phrase ‘coming of age’ because what do we do? Come of age from what? Never in your life do you think you’re naive when you live your present moment,” Mika said.
“But there is definitely a sense of affirmation on this record where it’s like ‘I’m gonna talk about myself in the way that I like to, and with no complexes.’ ”
It is also the album where he talks most openly about himself — though at no point does he refer explicitly to his sexuality.
“Yeah, definitely, I hide less behind cartoon characters,” Mika agreed. “On my first record it was laden with real life but it was done through this comic book technique. It made me feel more secure.
Mika is defiant about the blend of genres on the record:
“I don’t put things in boxes, I come from no fashion, no scene, no genre. I am just the product of creating music in my own bubble.
He expects his new direction to puzzle fans of his earlier, sun-splashed pop — but that doesn’t bother him. “I think it will kind of polarize people, but I think it’s a good enough record that it will engage and re-engage with people who I may have lost a few years ago,” Mika said.
Of the planetary success of his early work, starting with breakthrough single “Grace Kelly” in 2007, he is trenchant: “You think you’re getting approval but really you’re getting shackles.”
“I make music which is a bit of a contradiction, because it’s pop but at the same time it’s artist-driven pop music. Does that make sense? I had to do something that just made me happy. So it was very much an instinctive record. But it’s still very recognizably me.”