At the start of 2011, Mika packed his bags to travel to Montreal to make his third record. It was a DIY organizational approach. He used some frequent flyer miles and imagination. There was no schedule this time. In episodes one and two of Mika-world he had locked down a clear and transparent template of his universe. Its certainty was never in doubt, here was a microcosmic world of balloons and fairy-lights, of animated (in both cartoon and excitable senses) characters defined by their child-like naivety. The music that he had pulsed around the globe as an artist had been fuelled by ringtone appropriate hooks, streaming out of his musical mind like twisted nursery rhymes. In Montreal, that was all about to change.
The sounds made by Nick Littlemore, the Australian electronic pioneer behind Pnau and Empire of the Sun, had caught his imagination and Mika went in search of this potential new collaborator. ‘Before meeting Nick, I was my own taskmaster,” he says now, “I didn’t know how else to work. I was a 22 year old making up sounds in the corner.’ It was just Mika, his piano and his imagination. In the intervening five years since Grace Kelly went astronomical around the world and span off two multi-million selling albums and five global tours in its wake, a personal shift had occurred. As a songwriter and human being, Mika had grown up.
For album number 3, a sensational collection of nimble, multi-faceted and spruce electronic noise has been fashioned. As a counterweight, Mika found himself enthralled by the Laurel Canyon sound of the 70s, the airily utopian noise of pastoral idylls in a new bohemia. These two strands have fused to form a sweet, harmonious new soundbed for Mika’s songwriting. A certain lightness of touch has been found, though always adhering to Mika’s clever signature rule for the record: “A lightness of touch does not have to mean a lightness of substance” The poperatics have taken a discernible swerve away. The emotional truisms are laid out in simple, eloquent, prosaic couplets. Alice has stepped out from behind the looking glass.
Within all this something intentionally intimate has emerged. Mika has matured into an artist that no longer needs to hide behind costume and artifice. In fashioning this acoustic/electronic sound-clash with Nick in Montreal he has ironically made his most human album. On The Origin of Love, his imagination has been fuelled by reality, not fantasy.
“In a strange kind of way it makes sense. It was about expanding my musical horizons. Nick allowed me to go somewhere I hadn’t been before. There’s more humanity in taking a sound you have made and manipulating it electronically or digitally than there is calling up a session player and asking them to play bass guitar for twenty minutes and taking what you want from that and putting it on a record. I loved the atmosphere Nick curated in the studio. We danced. You don’t dance when you are alone. It made me feel endless. It was a great starting point to be in a studio set-up where everything felt possible and there were no rules.”
Their first collaboration and touchstone for a new record springing alchemically to life is the multi-layered opus title track, The Origin of Love. The final version is taken mostly from the original demo, in keeping with a rawer spirit underpinning the record. You might like to think of it as a George Benson’s The Greatest Love of All pummelled through a time machine, beaten up in the disco and bolted headfirst into the limitless world of 21st century, digital possibility. Without loving yourself, loving others is impossible; a timeless motif made timely once more. In 2012 this was a statement Mika felt ready to put out into the world.
A brace of songs emerged in Montreal, fluctuating on the subject of love, tolerance and joy. First single Celebrate could not be more joyous in its evocation of the transformative powers of love, a call to arms in a cynical world. Direct disclosure under the disco lights. If Celebrate is The Origin of Love at its most straight-up dance-pop, Lola is the acoustic-driven Fleetwood Mac-inspired flipside given free reign. On the oldest profession in the world he is a tender and empathetic. The driving, strummed rhythm has been recently complemented by a Youtube clip fashioned with the burlesque artist, Dita Von Teese.
He found inspiration from unusual triggers. The rasping build of Heroes was summoned from reading an A E Housman poem on returning war veterans. The hypnotic swell of Underwater was inspired by a 90s Michel Gondry denim ad, a seemingly slight but beautifully realised 90 second polemic on the idea that when you are in love it consumes you so much you can breathe below sea level.”That is exactly how it feels,” he points out. “That undercurrent of ecstasy will see you through anything. I had removed myself from the isolation of being alone in front of a piano.”
“I am a difficult artist,” he says, “I know that. I make artist-driven, alternative pop music. I do this sincerely, in a time when so many album statements are incomplete and insincere. I am not from the Brill Building school of pop. These are my own statements.” Inspired by the incredible human emotions conjured in electronic experimentation by Laurie Anderson and Steve Reich, Mika set about harnessing the work these iconoclastic future-heads had fashioned to his own unique pop sensibility. “Something was really happening for me in the studio. I could feel it.”
He wrote his most open-handed and clear love song yet, Make You Happy, opening with a robot voice repeating the line “All I want to do is make you happy.” It was released virally as a taster for what was to come. “This was about people being able to approach my music clean. The first bit of new music that anybody heard around the world was sang by a robot. That was cleansing. It is quite fundamental to the philosophy of this record. My campaigns are slow, sometimes quite hard. I make alternative pop music that’s not easy to promote. But if it weren’t hard then I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s every single fibre of my being. There is nothing else.”
The new clarity in Mika’s work has been facilitated by two life-changing events undergone between albums two and three. In late 2010 Mika’s sister and close artistic collaborator Paloma had fallen from a 50ft window and was left critical in hospital. “I couldn’t work knowing what was going on with her. It was only after she had made the most miraculous recovery, one that the doctors said defied science, that I could let myself go to Montreal to start again.”
And then love. ‘” am in a very happy relationship,” he says, knowing that the nature of his high-octane performance valve brings with it its own set of questions. “I am a naturally private person. But at this time of my life I felt it was the perfect time to write about love. Obviously there’s always been this “what is he?” thing with me and my refusal to answer that was simply down to the fact that it’s all in my music. You can’t push people to say things to fit an agenda. I hadn’t bloomed.”
The Origin of Love is obviously a deeply important record in the career trajectory and personal journey of Mika. “What we have done here is joy catching. Every moment on the record reflects how joyously I feel about my life and what I do. I desperately want people to hear it.”
Clearly, there are some nerves around a record so intimate. “I don’t know how people will take it,” he says, “I make awkward records that have hearts. Sometimes they are great. But I haven’t felt like I’ve had a song that is as much of a tablet, a benchmark to hold up as The Origin of Love since Grace Kelly.”