First waltz: It’s Friday night on Jools Holland, and old faithfuls such as Christy Moore and Yusuf Islam are rubbing shoulders with young pretenders such as Razorlight. Also on the bill that night is a dark, long-haired chap named Mika, whose dexterous piano playing, skittering, high-octave vocals, and showtune songwriting style make him sound like a strange hybrid of Rufus Wainwright, Randy Newman and Tiny Tim. This was the debut TV appearance of the 23-year-old singer/songwriter/producer. He’s on a mission to put the fabulous back into pop and can be counted on to turn a dowdy tune into something swish, sparkly and dripping with diamante. Mika made his first stage appearance in a Richard Strauss opera at the age of 11, performing on a set designed by David Hockney, and fell in love with the glam and glitz of the stage. “It was a magical world that you could live in” he recalls. “A parallel universe for people that is illusory and enchanting and amazing.” Since then, Mika has followed his own shining vision, inspired by such singular stars as Elton John, Prince, Nilsson and Michael Jackson.
Mika’s debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion, is out now, and features songs that move with all the zing and zaniness of a Pink Panther showreel. Songs include the joyous Love Today, the gaily abandoned Billy Brown and the reassuring Big Girl (You Are Beautiful). But the stage is where Mika feels most at home, and he can’t wait to get out and perform his songs live. “It’s where it all comes together for me.”
It wasn’t all diamonds and pearls when Mika was growing up in war-torn Beirut. Survival was foremost in the minds of Mika’s family. When they fled the country, his dad ended up a hostage in Kuwait. The family eventually settled in London, but Mika always felt an outsider in school. He found solace in the music of Dylan, Joan Baez and Serge Gainsbourg, taught himself the piano and, with the help of a tough Russian singing teacher, perfected the vocal gymnastics that allow him to leap across four octaves. His mother found him work singing with the Royal Opera House and doing a recorded telephone voice for British Airways, but was unfortunately unwise in the ways of commerce. “Looking back on it, I think 45 quid for the Orbit chewing gum jingle could have been a little too cheap,” says Mika.
When he was 19, Mika enrolled in the Royal College of Music and began writing songs and performing them at parties. He signed a development deal with a major label but, when it tried to turn him into the new Craig David, he retaliated by writing his flamboyant signature tune, Grace Kelly. Enlisting sister Yasmine to help him with his colourful artwork and blagging recording time wherever he could, Mika followed his own yellow brick road to stardom.