His 2007 debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion, introduced Michael Penniman, a.k.a. Mika, to the world as a classically trained pop star with accessible dance hits like “Grace Kelly” and “Lollipop.” But while Cartoon mused on childhood innocence, The Boy Who Knew Too Much — his sophomore effort, out this week — picks up where that record left off, as a swelling, rock-operatic ode to teenagerdom. The Lebanon-born, London-based Brit was in town recently and spoke to Vulture about Boy, his songwriting, and his possible involvement in Hugh Jackman’s upcoming The Greatest Showman on Earth.
You moved around a bit when you were younger. Has music always been a big part of your life?
I was always inclined to it. From the age of, like, 7 years old, I used to do it all. I sang and I used to make mix tapes — that was the biggest indicator. I used to make mix tapes that were categorized by emotion. I used to make happy tapes and sad tapes and dancing tapes. For me, it was never about who was singing it. It was just about what it made you feel like.
Your vocal style has often been compared to Freddie Mercury. Did you have any pop idols growing up?
Never had any idols, ever. I never had any posters, nothing.
You had a blank wall?
I’ve always had a blank wall. And as a child, I used to clean it. Most kids stick shit all over the walls. As a kid, I used to clean my walls. My family thought it was so bizarre.
The new album is your homage to adolescence. What were you like as a teenager?
I was quite introspective. I didn’t have the confidence to ever say anything to anybody’s face. If you look at most people who are attracted to pop music, they’re often outsiders — because the idea of a populist art form that you can create is attractive to someone who is not necessarily popular when they’re younger.
You’ve described this second album as a “second adolescence.” Can you elaborate on that?
It’s the second album that defines what the rest of your career is going to be like. And when your life changes as much as mine has, especially with the amount of touring I’ve been doing, the context of what I do has changed — and the concept that when you are doing something for the first time, you’re doing it out of context. And the second time around, you start competing with yourself. Inevitably, it’s like a coming-of-age.
For this album, you stepped away from storytelling and are writing more in the first person. Was that a big adjustment?
For me it was a little bit more difficult, but it was something that I needed to do. I wanted to write about characters and have the ability to write in the first person. But even when I write in the first person, I kind of imagine myself as a cartoon character and write from that perspective. And it helps. It magnifies real life, it simplifies emotion, and it makes things a little more clear.
Your songs are quite cinematic. When you write, do you visualize?
Massively. Anything written down doesn’t make any sense to me. I was always doing very badly at school until I came up with a technique of learning everything by tape. So I would record, I would get audiobooks with my textbooks, and I would record lessons and I would learn everything by hearing it. And I would never use any books. And that’s when my grades suddenly shot up. Everything I do is very visual and very aural, so I don’t read music and I draw as much as I write out lyrics.
Speaking of visuals, you’re reportedly doing the soundtrack for Hugh Jackman’s upcoming PT Barnum musical, The Greatest Showman on Earth. Can you tell us about that?
I’ve been approached by Fox, and I’m still considering it. I would treat it just like writing an album.
So what now? What do you like to do when you’re in New York?
I like going out here, but I’m a little bit ignorant about it. This little place I used to hang out with my friends in the basement — Lit bar? Do you know that place? You go down into the guttery basement, and it was always slightly wrong, but it was fun. I like that. It’s hard — there’s this one place I got taken to, and you lean against a phone booth, and you’re in a tiny bar without windows. New York is a bit of a dangerous place to me because you often leave in a blur.