For the last five years, Mike Posner has existed in the strange shadow world of the formerly famous. In 2010, the Detroit native's jaunty debut single, "Cooler Than Me," peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100. Its follow-up, "Please Don't Go," hit No. 16. A third single, "Bow Chicka Wow Wow," featuring Lil' Wayne, got to No. 30. He was 22 years old.
After that, Posner's high-pitched rasp disappeared from the radio. "I was still fighting my depression, and the world felt too big," he would tell fans in a video a few years later. He scrapped two attempts at a sophomore record, Sky High and Pages, and turned his attention to songwriting and producing. He gave "Boyfriend" to Justin Bieber and "Sugar" to Maroon 5, and wrote songs for Austin Mahone, Nick Jonas, and Big Time Rush. A career as the next Dan Wilson or Linda Perry did not seem unthinkable.
But while he was out of the spotlight, Posner didn't stop making music on his own. In 2015, he released an EP, The Truth, full of sensitive acoustic jams. One of them, "I Took a Pill in Ibiza," baits the hook with a story of a wild night Posner experienced with the Swedish DJ Avicii, before swerving toward its real subject: Posner's complicated feelings toward his own mild level of fame. "I'm just a singer who already blew his shot," he sings. "I get along with old-timers 'cause my name's a reminder of a pop song people forgot." The song wasn't a hit, until Posner's vocal track was picked up by Norwegian duo SeeB, who sped it up and added a pulsating EDM beat; their remix has "Ibiza," a year after its release, in the Billboard Top Ten. (In the U.K., where the Mediterranean island is a more relatable reference to the average punter, it's currently at No. 1.)
Posner is aware of the irony: A song he wrote attempting to disavow his fame has made him more famous than ever before, thanks to no particular effort of his. (Both versions of "Ibiza" will appear on his second album, At Night, Alone, coming May 6.) The day before he performed the song on The Tonight Show, he stopped by Vulture's offices for a candid talk about success and ambition, and what he's learned since his first brush with fame.
We'll start with the question I'm sure everybody asks: On a scale of one to ten, how autobiographical is the song?
I want to say about 9.5. The only part that's not 100 percent autobiographical is the third verse of the original, where I say, "I met some fans on Lafayette." This exact encounter did not take place with these exact quotes. I had some version of that interaction with different words.
When you play the song live, are you playing the remix or are you going to play the album version?
I do a bit of a hybrid. The remix is too fast for me physically, so we slow it down. It starts off with just me and it ends at just me. It'd be a bit selfish to completely abandon the remix at a concert, where people paid money and want to hear that version of the song. But if I'm at a radio thing, I play the more acoustic original version.
How does it feel for the song to chart so high as a remix?
Great. People say, "Are you pissed that the original one didn't go?" I find that to be a very pessimistic outlook. In one respect, they're right. I produced one version, and then these guys reimagined my thing, and it's much more popular. I'm not jealous of them.
You're not an EDM artist, you were never going to make an EDM version.
I'm grateful that this one exists. A lot of people are hearing it. A lot of people seem to like it. And a certain percentage of these people that hear it go back and hear the original. It makes my original one more popular. And I believe in the ethos of the remix. From what I understand about Shakespeare — which is not a whole lot — I've read that one of the factors in helping make Shakespeare Shakespeare was that there were no copyright laws then. He could quote, sample, anyone he wanted. And I come from a hip-hop background, so I've sampled. I've remixed a ton of songs myself.
How do you feel about the "Mike Posner is back!" narrative? From your perspective, you didn't go anywhere.
I understand. It's like I'm back into some sort of "spotlight" — for lack of a better term — which I suppose is accurate. I have more of a problem when people say, like, "high" and "low." For me, the time where I wasn't on your TV doesn't necessarily mean I was out. And a lot of it I bring on myself, you know, because I talk about the struggles I had in that period. But that doesn't mean that it was just a bottomless pit of despair. It wasn't. I had great times in the last five years. [He draws a curving line, then points to its extremes.] It's a high and a low, if you want to call it that. But this point is only a high if this low is there. If you're just looking at it in the moment, it's not high. It's just a squiggle. People are like, "Was this part harder than this part?" But it's one thing! This is one connected line.
I saw an interview where you were saying that you were in sort of a dark place for a while, and you had to get out of that. Do you regret saying that?
No, I think I've been in several dark places in my life. Everyone has. And I think it's important to pull the curtain back on celebrity culture. I really look up to Louis C.K. I think he's great. And obviously he's very popular, more popular than me. Years ago, I was thinking, naïvely, it would be great to be that popular. And then I thought about it and then I realized that, with his money and his level of notoriety, he has all of the same emotions that I do. He feels negative emotions, sadness sometimes, the whole spectrum of being human. That was an epiphany — there is no magic level of prestige or money where those things disappear. When I was a kid, my parents were always like, "Money doesn't buy happiness." I thought, You just didn't make enough money. I had to go find it out for myself. And so I set about acquiring these things like prestige and notoriety and money. And I was pretty good at it, and I got them at a young age. And they did not get rid of negative emotions.
Because you're still you.
In fact, a lot of my insecurities were exacerbated by those things. Wanting everyone to love me. Not feeling confident in myself. Feeling insecure. All of the sudden I had more people telling me they loved me, but also a lot of people I don't know telling me they hate me and that I suck. Someone wrote me today, "Mike Posner used to be bae as fuck. He's so ugly now." Things like that used to crush me. My time out of the spotlight, between the first album and now, I learned to be happy without attention for the most part. It stings a little less when I read that. Because I know if no one knows who I am, I can figure out a way to be happy. I'm pretty confident in my ability to do that. Not happy 100 percent of the time, but I can enjoy life still.
When you were a little kid, did you want to be famous?
I remember I wanted to be an athlete. I wanted to be in the NFL or NBA or something, and I don't think I dreamed of being a benchwarmer. I'm sure I wanted to be the best. But I didn't really ever think I was going to be a famous musician.
When did it hit you that you were?
Well, in many ways, I'm not. It's all relative. I can walk down the street right now and no one's going to know who I am. All of these people would know my song when they hear it, but they don't really know my face or even my name. But I do remember when I started to get noticed a little bit, I wanted more. I wanted to be the most famous. And it wasn't until I hung out with Justin Bieber that the whole thing got demystified. The mystique of it was gone. When something is unfamiliar — whether it's the opposite sex or a new car — it has that mystique that comes with not really knowing what it is. And then when you get to know it better, you may not think it's as special. That's how I feel about fame.
Did you worry about being forgotten?
I worried about it all the time at first. It took a couple years where I was like, "Okay, I'm getting less popular every day." My self-identity was really wrapped up in that. But then, slowly by surely, I just grew to view myself — I know this sounds corny — not as a singer but just a human. You know? You learn to describe yourself with adjectives that are less temporary.
Has it been hard to get back into shape for this kind of intense schedule that comes with being back in the spotlight?
It was a challenge that I asked for. Because if I look back six months ago, I was living in a van. I really got tired of L.A. I bought a '94 Dodge Ram conversion van with a bed in the back. I donated all of the clothes that didn't fit in it, packed up my house, and drove away. I went to Utah.
How long did you live in the van?
I was out of the house like five months. But I wasn't in the van every time. It kind of became posh vagabonding. Because I have too many rich friends. They say, "Oh, you're going to Florida? Here are the keys to my condo!" And I'm sitting in a condo, like "How did this happen?" But the time in Utah was great. I went to Burning Man with the van.
Did people recognize you?
One person. My thing was, you go with something to give. And at first I had these scarves to protect people from dust and stuff. Then I realized, that's a bunch of bullshit; you're good at music, go share that with people. So I'd wake up for the sunrise, put my guitar on my back, and just find people that were chillin'. I'd say, "Hey, you wanna hear some songs?" They'd look at me kind of quizzically and say, "Okay." And I'd play my mini set and at the end they said, "Man. You have it. You gotta do music, man!" And I said, "Thank you," and I'd give them a hug and I'd ride away and I'd do it again. All day. And it was a great exercise for me, because in normal society, I get rewarded for what I do. And it's nice to get rewarded, but I started to think, Do I still love music, or do I just love the by-products? At Burning Man, the by-products are all gone — at least for a guitarist, because singer-songwriters aren't held in prestige there. But what I found was, Hey, I still really love being a musician. That was healthy for me.
Does it feel like a long time ago, the first time you were famous?
A long time ago. I don't know about you, but I feel like I'm learning and growing, or, at least, trying to. So whenever I look back at even three or four months ago, I'm like, That guy is an idiot.
I feel like with social media, we have such a record of the people we were three or four months ago, and it's hard to not just hate your past self sometimes. But that's not a healthy emotion, either.
This is something I had to deal with a lot. Because, as a musician, I really stunk then. I was a good writer and good at making beats and a good producer. But I didn't play instruments. I used to look back on my first album when I couldn't play and just be so mean to myself in my own head, like, Man, that guy sucked. And he did suck. But then you step back and you're like, that should always be the case. Because you should always be getting better. A month from now, I'll be a month better at piano than I am now.
I feel like this album is sort of your attempt at dealing with the fact that, even if you're not the most famous guy in the world, you're always going to be "Mike Posner." Like the first line of your obituary is not going to be, "Insurance adjuster Mike Posner dies."
If I died right now, it would probably say "singer," "musician." I think, in this year, I feel like an artist. Where, as much as I like to deny it, before my goals were mostly to stay afloat. To stay where I was. Treading water.
Stay afloat how?
Stay afloat, stay relevant in music so that I can keep doing it and people keep thinking I'm cool. And it wasn't until I lived in the van for a while and I saw a financial adviser, that this changed. Because I had made a considerable amount of money, but I wanted to know, am I spending too much or not? Do I have to keep doing a lot of shit? I said, "What if I stop right now and never do anything else?" He says, "If you stop right now, you could live on this budget for the rest of your life." This budget is less than I live on. So it's a lifestyle simpler than mine. But this knowledge gave me the leverage, in my own mind, to stop doing everything I didn't want to do. I was doing a lot of co-writing sessions with pop groups and I decided one day: "This music sucks! Why am I here? This artist isn't good and I could write better songs by myself at home." So I just stopped doing all that, and then, now, all of a sudden, because I don't need more money, I can just do really weird stuff.
I've always been curious: How many hit singles does a person have to have before they don't have to work again?
It depends how you want to live, you know? Because if I wanted to go live in my van, I could stop right now. Bye!
When you're writing songs for other artists, did you feel a pressure to make it a hit?
Sometimes, but those are the ones that didn't become hits. The ones that did become hits were all ones that we just thought were cool. We never thought they'd be hits. Especially "Boyfriend."
You didn't think "Boyfriend" would be a hit?
No. I don't know if you recall, there was like this period in 2011 where everything on the radio was four-on-the-floor EDM songs. Like, Kesha "TiK ToK," Enrique Iglesias, "I Like It."And if it was below 120 [beats per minute], it basically didn't get played in that era. So "Boyfriend," we never thought that would be on the radio. Radio's more open now than it was in 2010, 2011.
I've been thinking a lot about the concept of "selling out." Sometimes it feels like our generation has sort of gotten away from that as an insult, but there's still this stigma. How do you feel about it?
When I started out, I was an underground artist for a while. And then I had a song that did really good on the radio. And it was the same song; it was on my mixtape before I got big. And then when it became popular, all of a sudden it was like it was no longer cool. That's the definition of cool, right? Something that's not mainstream. But it hurt because — and a lot of people have said this about my first album — it sounded a lot different than my mixtape. But the reason it sounded different is 'cause I was listening to different stuff. I was changing and I was growing older. The misconception I think a lot of people have was, "You did this with a label so you must've done this because they told you to, you're doing it because you want to be really popular, you're doing it to make more money." When something of mine gets really popular, some people get this idea that I, like, manufactured the thing to make it popular, when in reality the opposite is true. Anytime I have tried to manufacture something to be popular, it's never been popular. It's been the shittiest work.
I think people are very uncomfortable seeing people make money from art because it's supposed to be —
Just to be the "struggling artist."
But then if you struggle too much, it's like, "Well, get a real job."
If you struggle too much, you're not a real artist, right? Like if you're bagging groceries and then you say, "Hey, I'm a poet," people are like, "No you're not, you're full of shit. You bag groceries." But if you're really rich, people say you're not a real artist. That's one of the reasons I like Burning Man. People are out there doing these amazing pieces of art for nothing, just to have it seen. For me, like, it's hard for me to show a lot of people my stuff without making money. How do I get popular and make no money?
You could be a classical musician.
Yeah, but even then, my friend Lang Lang — not a good friend; an acquaintance, a periphery friend — he's superrich. People pay a lot of money to see him play. And I think we live, for better or worse, in a Hamiltonian society. Art can come out of that. I didn't know this, but an LP is the length that it is for economic reasons: The size of the record determined how much music they could fit on it. This is an artistic pillar that we all use, and it doesn't make sense anymore. No one listens to records. We can make an album that's a thousand hours long if we wanted. But we still hold to this ten-to-20 track LP model, and that become an art form. What are you going to do within the framework that's interesting and original? And the framework was set up because of capitalism. You know? This system is not as egalitarian as we all would like, but art still came out of it.