Mike Posner: In His Own Words
With In Their Own Words, we talk to artists, and cut out our own conversation to let their words stand by themselves. In this edition we talk to Mike Posner, whose recent singles “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” and “Be As You Are” reveal a new side of the Detroit-born singer-songwriter.
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“Why don’t you just tell the truth?”
The question was asked by Mike Posner’s friend and fellow songwriter Jake Owen, late one night when the two of them were trading songs on guitar. Owen is a country artist, where “three chords and the truth” is a mantra, so to him it seemed only natural. Posner on the other hand never thought of it like that. Why didn’t he just tell the truth? It seemed so obvious. So that’s what he started doing. Literally.
In short time the 28-year old singer-songwriter and producer, whose debut album, 31 Minutes to Takeoff, included electro-pop bangers and Billboard chart-toppers like “Cooler than Me” and “Please Don’t Go” – shifted gears and started writing songs that came straight from the heart.
The result was last year’s successful EP, The Truth, composed of personal, heart-wrenching stories of love, life and inner struggle. And not only did the lead single, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” become a gigantic hit, but things really took off when Norwegian electronic duo SeeB remixed the track, turning Posner’s introspective and intimate song into a smooth, balearic and riveting EDM smash.
Below, on the eve of dropping his highly-anticipated sophomore full-length, At Night, Alone, Mike Posner talks about his first musical influences, vulnerability and being inspired by Bob Dylan.
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I got into music before I can remember. My mother just shared this story with me. I think I was like three or four years old, and she said that I used to go on to the porch and the birds were chirpin’ and I would try to sing the chirps back to them. I don’t remember doing that. The first thing I remember is my big sister showing me Nirvana, R.E.M. and Silverchair. Bands like that. And I started to write my own music, my own raps, when I was eight. And started to do my own beats when I was 13.
I honestly didn’t think I could make a living doing it. That never really crossed my mind until a friend of mine did. You guys know him now as Big Sean, back then it was just Sean or Sean the Don. He didn’t have that nickname yet. But he used to come to my mom’s house in Detroit and we’d make music together and I’d do beats for him and stuff. And then he got a record deal. Kanye and Island/Def Jam signed him. So those things that seemed really far away from me, a record deal, song on the radio, et cetera, suddenly seemed very close. That’s my homie, so if he’s doing it, why can’t I?
I’m a music fan. So I listen to all different type of music. My music is an amalgamation of the stuff that I listen to. Anything I hear that I like, that’s a color on my palette. So as I listen to more stuff, my taste changes and the things I put into my music change. It’s not just music, it’s also art, or poetry, or some of the novels I read. Philip Levine’s poetry is definitely an influence to me. Dave Eggers’ writing. It all gets in there. My job, as Maria Popova says, is to make the art that I want to exist. That’s it. I get to make what I want music to sound like. And the stuff I hear in my head, it doesn’t exist right now, so if I do it, that’s my job. I have to do it. Otherwise it’s not there.
My musical heroes growing up were mostly rappers. Nas, Talib Kweli, Outkast. Loved Outkast and still do. Andre 3000 in particular. There are so many rappers. I loved the rapper Sygone back then. I loved DMX. Common. Stuff like that.
There’s tons of albums that changed my perspective on music. Aquamani. It still sounds new today. And a couple of weeks ago I was listening to David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. The way the songs all flow into one another is amazing. There’s music like that all the time. Sage Francis. You can’t really tell if it’s poetry or hip-hop. It beautifully walks that line.
I was pretty old the first time I performed in front of an audience. I didn’t really perform until people started to like my recordings. And I had been making recordings since I was very young. So I got better at that part of music first. By the time I was doing live performances people knew the words to my songs. And that struggling artist thing, I didn’t live that. I felt guilty at times about that, but I don’t anymore, it’s just the path that I’ve taken to music.
I was in a studio with my friend Jake Owen – he’s a country artist and a really sweet guy. And Jake and I were trading songs on the guitar. I’d play one then he’d play one, back and forth, back and forth. And I played this song. And Jake goes: “I like that one, what inspired it, what’s it about?” I said: “It’s about a girl in New York and I mixed her story up with a girl in Ohio. And some of it I just made up.” And he looked me in the eye and he said: “Why don’t you just tell the truth?” And I didn’t have an answer for for him. He goes: “You know there are writers out there who just tell the truth and they don’t give a fuck. They just tell the truth.” I thought, wow. He showed me some of these songs: Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard. It was this goldmine I didn’t know about. I guess that was another moment for me where I realized: Wow, you can just literaly say the truth and it’s beautiful, and it’s heart-wrenching and it’s funny. It’s all these things at the same time. It’s happy and sad at the same time. That night I had a flight to Russia and I wrote “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” on the plane. And that’s when I knew I would do a whole album like this.
It feels more vulnerable. But vulnerable is actually very liberating – to not have these spots that I’m trying to hide from people. It’s so much easier. Even to do this interview right now. Five years ago, when I would do this, I’d have half of the things in my mind that I know about myself that are okay to talk about or to share – and then half that aren’t. I used to feel like I needed to hide [those things]. Because I felt they weren’t beautiful or they weren’t cool. And to get rid of that lie and say, Fuck it man, I’m just a human. I deffocate, I used to masturbate and if I’m lucky I fornicate. Like anyone else. To be able to say that and just be a human instead of a manicured caricature.
My record label emailed me and asked, “Is it cool if we get some remixes to ‘Ibiza’ and some other songs?” And I said yeah, because I started out doing remixes. So I just think it’s a beautiful thing to get people to reinterpret the art and make new art. That’s hip-hop. They would take the soul records and find the break and make a new song out of it. So that’s part of my ethos. So they send it to me and it was a time when I was really heavy into Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, all these really serious singer-songwriters. So when they sent me the song it had been months and months since I had listened to anything EDM, so I was like “cool,” but honestly I barely listened to it. It just felt very déjà vu to Cooler Than Me, where I had my friend Gigamesh remix the song. The original is me and Big Sean. And the remix got big. I don’t know how but I just get lucky. People redo my songs and make them, I guess, the way the public wants to hear them. And I feel blessed. And I met those guys [SeeB] through Skype now and they are really sweet guys.
I’ve sent them another one of my songs that they might remix. I still think its very beautiful to have people remix and remake my art. And reimagine it in different ways.
Dylan has inspired me in so many ways because he’s written so many great songs and so many different great songs. A song like “Don’t Think Twice.” You almost wouldn’t even think of it as a Dylan song, ’cause he’s talking about a girl, and he doesn’t usually write break-up songs. I read a quote of his. “When I say the word house, you think of one house, and I think of another. And the same is true of every other word I’m using today.” I thought, wow. And that’s just an interview. It’s not even a song.
I’ve been working on this gratitude thing. So for the last 20 days I’ve been doing this exercise where I wake up in the morning and write down ten things I’m grateful for and maybe like halfway through I will start writing down: I’m grateful to be alive today, This could be my last day, so Im gonna enjoy it. Who knows? This could be my last day alive. It’s not so much that I would do anything different. It’s more about enjoying and being grateful and being present in the moment.
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