Mika -- he of the voluminously curly hair, brightly colored clothes and ridiculously contagious melodies -- was the biggest new pop star to emerge in 2007. Everywhere, that is, except the United States.
With his debut disc "Life in Cartoon Motion" selling more than 4 million copies worldwide, Mika (pronounced ME-ka), 24, won three World Music Awards, including best new artist, and scored four huge singles in England. He is nominated for four Brit Awards (the U.K.'s Grammys), including best British album. As for the Grammys, Mika's "Love Today" is vying for top dance recording on Feb. 10. In conjunction with that show, he's on a short North American tour that brings him Wednesday to First Avenue in Minneapolis.
Mika's music is retro but fresh, with echoes of Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Prince, the Bee Gees, David Bowie, Robbie Williams and Leo Sayer. If those references are too old-school for you, think of him as a one-man Scissors Sisters, (the campy disco band that's also huge in England).
His songs seem obsessed with identity: his smash debut "Grace Kelly" is about fashioning an image to please someone else; "Billy Brown" is about a married man who falls in love with a man, and "Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)" is a self-evident salute, in the spirit of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls."
Mika's back story is as colorful as his Crayola-esque music. Michael Penniman was born in Beirut; his mother was a Lebanese clothes designer and his father an American banker. He was moved to Paris as a newborn to escape Lebanon's civil war, then to London at age 9 after his father was trapped in Kuwait in the first Gulf War.
A classically trained pianist and singer, he was performing in operas at age 11. Dyslexic and with a yen even then for bold outfits, he was mercilessly teased at school. After studying at the Royal College of Music and recording advertising jingles, he turned to pop music.
As he prepared for his second North American tour, Mika called from London's Heathrow Airport while "eating a burrito, waiting for my delayed flight to Nice [France]."
Q How will this second tour of the States be different from your first?
A Different show, different vibe, bigger venues. We're doing everything from 10,000 capacity to, I think, the smallest is 1,500 in Salt Lake City and Minneapolis. When I did my first U.S. tour, it was like "Let's go check out this interesting thing we discovered on the Internet." And now tickets have sold even faster. I think most of them are sold out, apart from Minneapolis.
Q You performed in Minneapolis last January and you're returning in winter. Do you love the cold weather that much?
A I love it. Heh, heh, heh. It intensifies every creative process.
Q You'll be playing First Avenue, where Prince filmed "Purple Rain." As a Prince fan, how do you feel about that?
A I came across "Purple Rain" quite late on, but it kind of shaped the way I was doing things for a while. [Playing First Ave] is obviously novel to me, as well. As a fan, it's visiting Mecca.
Q You are huge everywhere but the United States. How do you feel about that?
A It's fine. It's part of the process. What I'm concerned with is my live show. When I played my first show a year ago in New York, I played to 100 people, my second show four months after that, about 1,000 people. Then I played to 2,000 people, and now I'm going back and playing to over 5,000. That's growth.
Remember, the U.S. is geographically massive and very diverse. Secondly, there is a different attitude on radio in the United States. ...
Q How do you feel when people say your music is too dance-y, too campy, too gay for the U.S.A.?
A Um, I think there may be a little of that. And I know when I was trying to get "Grace Kelly" on the radio in the U.S., we had one station come back and say "We can't play a song that has a man saying he wants to be like a woman." Of course, that infuriates me. But I'm certainly not going to let that stop me. ...
I think there is no such thing as "too much anything" when it comes to music. That goes against the whole premise of music. But when it comes to commerce and they have to sell toothpaste next to your song, then it becomes too something else.
Q You've done many interviews in the past year or so. In what percentage of them have you not been asked about your sexuality?
A About 40 percent. It started off hardly anyone, then it went almost everyone, then it's gone down to almost half and half.
Q With your stage show, your album cover, your website, you seem a very visual artist.
A When I write, I always draw things. It's part of my process. Maybe it's because I don't rely on words too much. I never write down lyrics; I just do little doodles next to the things that I'm working. It's a way of me harnessing my ideas. You can attribute that to a creative background or you can attribute that to dyslexia. It's just the way I work.
Q What impact did your dad being held hostage in Kuwait have on you?
A A lot of things that happened in my childhood that were destabilizing showed me that things weren't always there. They took away an inborn sense of complacency, which I never really had, which I do think a lot of people have. It was a little hard to deal with at times, but it also gave me a sense of freedom. Not everything's going to be there tomorrow, so you might as well make the most of everything, and you have the freedom to achieve whatever you want.
Q What country or countries are you a citizen of?
A U.S. and U.K.
Q So you're able to come here more often than other British and foreign artists?
A Yes. And it also means I pay a lot of my income to the U.S. government.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719