Pop question of the week: who is the only charting singer born in The Lebanon? Answer Michael Holbrook Penniman!, No, no relation of Little Richard, whose real name was Richard Penniman, but a flamboyant singer who burst onto the scene at the beginning of 2007 with his self-penned million selling single, Grace Kelly, yes, it’s Mika.
He was born in Beirut in August 1983. Beirut is not your usual holiday destination and is probably best remembered for the place where Robert Runcie, The Archbishop’s envoy, Terry Waite was held hostage in 1987 for almost five years. When Mika was six his father, an American banker, was sent on a business trip to Kuwait on what turned out to be the night that Iraqi troops invaded the country sparking the first Gulf War. “We had to take cover in the American Embassy,” Mika remembered, “Outside there were snipers waiting to shoot and we were stuck there for a few months.” He moved to London via a short stay in Paris with his family when he was nine years old.
At the age of 15 he flew to Connecticut for a family wedding and decided to gate-crash a neighbour’s party. That neighbour was Bob Jamieson, then head of RCA records and so in front of all the guests, which incidentally included Diana Ross, he got up and sang for the crowd. Bob’s comment to him afterwards was, ‘Boy you’ve got some balls!’ After leaving Westminster school his first opening in the business was as a jingle writer for an Orbit chewing gum TV ad and one for British airways too. He changed his name and spelling to Mika because he didn’t want people mispronouncing his name as Meescha or Maika.
When he arrived on the pop scene, he did so to very mixed reviews. The press, naturally, slated his first single and more so his debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion. The Guardian labelled him as irritating, kitsch and overbearingly needy and said that listening to his album was ‘like being held at gunpoint by Bonnie Langford.’ One of his fans, Queen’s Brian May said of him, “I love brave innovators” and retorted to the Guardian’s reviewer with “Good Lord, what a wanker!” He has been compared to Freddie Mercury in voice and Elton John in sound. He said in a BBC interview, “The comparisons to Freddie Mercury are fine. They started long before I made the record – I’ve even referred to it in Grace Kelly.” In the same interview he mentions, “Grace Kelly was written after these executives were trying to mold (sic) me into what I should be. I was really angry and so I wrote the song and mailed them the lyrics. They didn’t call me back, but two years later it’s come full circle.”
Indeed he was frustrated because the record label bods wanted him to change his sound to fit the common bland pop sound that was around at the time. One of the heads of the record label told him to model himself on Craig David who was riding high at the time and Mika rejected this ridiculous suggestion. To enforce the point, he wrote his first single to point out how he can pretend to be anyone he likes to win approval – in this case the glamorous actress Grace Kelly. “I feel very lucky to have started my career with a song that is a testament and a statement of honesty,” Mika explained in 2008, “It basically is a message to the music industry. When I was having a very hard time and I was failing to get any attention a couple of years ago, so I went home and I wrote this song that basically said I could be absolutely anything, but the only thing that I’m going to be is myself and I would rather have it all go wrong and be myself than be moderately successful pretending to be someone else and being miserable as a result.”
The melody is based on the aria Largo al Factotum in the opera The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini. It paid off and at the 2007 World Music Awards; Mika won the category for Best Selling British Artist, Best Selling New Artist, Best Selling Male Entertainer, and World’s Best Selling Pop Rock Male Artist. Mika explained how he felt after the awards, “It’s very unreal. It still feels unreal. It’s just a song I wrote in my room. By the time I’d written Grace Kelly everything in my life had been called into question. Trying to find out what I was going to do with my life, trying to be a musician, to be independent, to give myself the remote chance of any kind of a relationship. I was just sorting everything out in my head. That song sums it all up.” Just as an added bonus the song ending with Mika singing ‘Ker-ching’ because as he says, “The only thing the record companies care about is the money. In the demos it went ker-ching followed by a little swear word at the end, which I decided to take out.”
Mika followed Grace Kelly with nine further hits including the top ten’s Love Today, Happy Ending and We Are Golden. On the album side, Life in Cartoon Motion spent 83 weeks on the UK chart and the two follow up’s, 2009’s The Boy Who Knew Too Much was on the chart for four months, but last year’s The Origin of Love spent a solitary week at number 24.
He has a three and a half octave voice which when up high sounds very operatic. He has done opera, if fact he was a boy soprano at the Royal Opera House in London. You can hear him sing the part of the Woodcutter’s Boy on the Royal Opera House CD recording of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
In March this year he announced a new tour and after taking some time off, had been writing his fourth album as well as songs for other artists. He also revealed that he will be the new judge on the seventh season of the X Factor in Italy.