“Come inside and have a look,” Mika says, ushering us into his bedroom at the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong. “There’s a lot to see.”
And he’s not lying. His room is lined with racks of the custom-made Valentino suits that he wears on stage – outlandish, colourful outfits that get steadily more theatrical as we walk through the space. Up first is a cream creation dotted with glittery red lips. Hanging behind that is a jacket emblazoned with a picture of a rearing unicorn. Then, right at the back, there’s a suit covered in sequined flames that twist up from the ankle until the shimmering blaze is licking at Mika’s shoulders. “That one looks better on,” his tour manager, who’s also his mum, interjects. “It looks too much on the hanger.”
But if there’s anyone who can pull off these dazzling looks, it’s Mika. The pop star exploded into the public eye in 2007 when he released his exuberantly camp debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion, which was packed with catchy choruses, soaring string sections and impassioned gospel choirs. Layered over all of that was Mika’s own voice, which leapt so wildly from high to low that it was rumoured he had a vocal range of five octaves.
Two years later, Mika released his second album, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, and, three years after that, his third, The Origin of Love. Along the way he also became a judge on the Italian version of The X Factor and the French edition of The Voice.
Now, in the spring of 2016, he’s taking a short break from TV and is halfway through an Asian tour promoting his fourth album, No Place In Heaven. Although much of Mika’s musical flamboyance remains, this latest record has been hailed as more confident and coherent than his previous efforts, and it’s certainly more personal.
Mika’s lyrics on No Place In Heaven grapple with everything from religion to parent-child relationships to sexuality. The latter is especially pertinent because, after avoiding personal questions for years, Mika publicly came out as gay in 2012. Seeing as he’s being more open in his music and with the press, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he was willing to sit down for such a candid and wide-ranging chat during his short stop in Hong Kong. But even so, who could expect him to segue so quickly from suits to the political situation in the Middle East …
Valentino has made all of your outfits for this tour. When did you first meet the brand’s creative directors, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli?
It started because I was offered to do The X Factor in Italy, and The X Factor in Italy is really quite different to all the other ones in the world. It’s quite daring, it’s quite indie. If you choose a song that’s too popular, you literally get booed. It’s super fashion, super glamorous, super gala – it’s almost vintage showbiz, with really edgy performances. And everyone that leaves that show ends up selling hundreds of thousands of records, so it’s really powerful. So I said, “OK, I’ll do it. But if I do it, I want to do it my way.”
So my mum, who always has this sense of finding people – she was the first one who introduced me to Christian Louboutin before he was even making men’s shoes – she saw what Valentino had been doing, and that they had been making men’s clothes. And men’s clothes are not like women’s clothes – with women’s clothes you open any issue of a decent magazine, and you’ll find variety, you’ll find fantasy and variation. With men’s clothes you just won’t. So we were desperate to find people who could play with us, it was as simple as that.
So they came to Milan, we had lunch together and we instantly started talking about points of reference and our points of reference were very similar. And their sense of humour is very similar to mine, and the idea of playing, this idea of sophisticated play was one thing that resonated between the three of us. And that was it. Now we’re friends and even our families hang out. But more than anything, in the friendship there’s a deep exchange and there’s a respect for the work that we all do. I know how much love goes into the stuff they make – they’re an antidote to the crap side of fashion.
Is “sophisticated play” how you would describe your music? Or how you’d describe your approach to your music?
I think so. Me and Pierpaolo always call it “serious fun”, which is the same thing. It’s so much more powerful, there’s so much more gasoline in things when there’s an element of play – even if it’s the saddest thing you’ve ever done in the world, it’s more fun when there’s that devil’s wink. Everything I do has to have that devil’s wink.
My tendency is to do really commercial things and then really, completely non-commercial things, where my record company kind of stops breathing for a while. But we never know what’s going to work – I did a symphonic project that was haemorrhaging money but critically is one of the best things I’ve done. I have fun in what I do, but I do it every minute of the day, so it’s a lot of work. I think everyone who does what they like feels the need to justify that privilege.
You’re on tour at the moment.
I’m on tour all the time.
That’s exactly the point. So many musicians avoid touring, but you tour a lot and seem to really enjoy the process.
Sometimes I hate it. I hate touring but I love performing – when I’m walking on stage I’m happy. But everything associated with it – the airports, this strange sensation of being this tiny ant travelling around the world moving from airport to port to immigration desk to security check to hotel check-in – and then suddenly being this performer on a stage, with people singing along with you, is just extreme. I love the performance, but I get really sick of the moving around.
But it can be really interesting. Before this I was in Korea, and there are no record sales in Korea – I mean there are, but it’s mainly streaming. And the astonishing thing is how over time my record sales have completely shrunk in Korea because the market has changed. But my ticket sales have expanded about 20-fold, to the point where I’m playing serious concert halls and arenas on my own without having to be associated with a festival.
In key markets that’s the way it’s been going – record sales going down, ticket sales going up. So it’s really necessary to tour, especially if you’re a niche pop artist, which is what I am. I’m not a big pop star, I’m not a big American pop star, and I have no ambitions to be a big American pop star. I’m really happy making niche pop music, which sounds like a contradiction, but is actually what I do. In order to be able to exist in that way, I have to tour a lot.
You’re touring with your latest album, which is your fourth. What’s the story behind the album’s title, No Place In Heaven?
“No Place In Heaven” is also the title track of the album. After an album that dealt with childhood, with adolescence, with the idea of heartbreak, now comes an album that tries to find its future. Where I as a writer, and as a person, try to figure out what the next few years are. That means everything from considering my private life, to my relationship with religion, to those strings that tie us to family. The song basically says there’s no place in heaven for someone like me, but there’s also no place in hell. So in actual fact it’s not sad – it’s quite a freeing statement. It’s like if there’s no place in heaven for me, and there’s no place in hell, then I guess I’ll have to find my own way, and my own path. Kind of freeing myself from a lot of the stuff that I grew up with. I was born in Lebanon but I grew up in Catholic schools and I started making music because of church music. I studied church music, and I can still sing you various different masses.
Are you religious now?
No. I’m not politically religious but I respect religion enormously and I think that spirituality is essential. But religion’s politics only lead to disaster, and I mean fundamental, cataclysmic disaster over and over again. We’ve seen it for thousands of years, and we’re now in one of the worst such religious disasters since The Crusades and the Hundred Years’ War in Europe with what’s happening in the Middle East.
I think a lot of people of my generation, who have grown up with religion in their life, have also given themselves the freedom to dissociate themselves from the parts of it that they don’t want to associate themselves with. And I don’t think that’s by choice – I think the current climate has provoked that response. And I think that also goes for sexuality politics as well. People have had to take a stance and say “even if I go to church on a Sunday, and even if I say a prayer when I need some help, it doesn’t mean I agree with everything you’re saying”. And I think that that is really important. That’s going to be the guiding force behind the next phase, the next few generations – at least of the Roman Catholic Church.
Talking of sexuality, at the beginning of your career you were quite coy –
No, no, not coy – human. There’s a big difference. “Coy” is calculated. The one thing that everyone has to understand when it comes to sexuality is that there is no consultation process, there is no formula, there is no recipe. Just because someone is asking you the question under the spotlight at the age of 22 doesn’t mean that there is an answer. When you’re personally more comfortable with your situation, and you’ve aligned your cards and dealt with it responsibly, then from that standpoint you can go and be more public. But you should never do it the other way around because it can be very destructive.
It’s not an easy thing to process for any person in the world, and it has consequences for dozens of people in each person’s life – and therefore it has to be addressed. Sometimes you do it with tenderness, you do it with time, and other times you have to do it quite brutally. But whatever it is you need to do, it will have consequences. So I just needed time to live and to make sure that when I did talk more openly about sexuality, it was from a place where I honestly felt like all my ducks were in order and I had nothing to hide or make me nervous.
So are you glad you came out?
Yeah, but I never didn’t. That’s why it was this really funny, tender joke among my fans who had read every one of my lyrics and it was just so obvious. But to the people who care politically, I don’t know. From a political point of view, from a media point of view, the one thing that makes me happy about having more clarity and being more vocal when it comes to sexuality is that firstly it’s really interesting and it’s really inspiring.
And I think that if you are a 13-year-old kid in the south of Italy or something, and someone’s sitting on television telling you it’s OK, that’s actually quite powerful. It shows that there’s a way through – not a way out, but a way through. And that’s really important. Anyone who gets too blasé about sexual politics is taking it for granted, because this conversation in itself is actually a privilege in certain places around the world.
Since this year’s Oscar nominees were announced, the film industry has come under enormous pressure for being racist, sexist and homophobic. Is the music industry more accepting?
It depends on what kind of musician you want to be. When you want to be commercial, inherently you impose on yourself certain limitations. And different degrees of commerciality will impose more pressures because, by default, you have to appeal to more people and therefore you have to make yourself more and more bland. It’s the same thing with marketed coffee and it’s the same thing with actors – it’s just the same thing.
At the same time, I think it’s not necessarily just the movie studios’ fault – I think it’s also the media’s fault. If you think about it, if movie studios were never hiring gay people, then some of the greatest actors of all time would never have ever made movies. The movie studios chose Cary Grant. But would the media allow a Cary Grant to exist today? That’s the question.
PHOTOGRAPHY RAUL DOCASAR AT FAST MANAGEMENT
HAIR GARY SUN AT HAIR CORNER
GROOMING PHYLLIS CHEUNG AT HAIR CORNER