Mike Posner Talks Second Chances, Comeback Hit “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” & His Long-Awaited Sophomore LP
Mike Posner came out swinging with “Cooler Than Me” in 2010. The infectious anthem climbed all the way to number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and his debut LP, 31 Minutes To Takeoff, produced two further top 30 hits. The Detroit native looked set for stardom, but experienced diminishing returns with subsequent singles and his sophomore albums (he recorded two) were never released. What sets this all-too-familiar tale of woe apart is the happy ending.
After parting ways with RCA, the 28-year-old found a new home with Island Records and promptly released introspective EP The Truth in 2015. It was spearheaded by a dark ditty called “I Took A Pill In Ibiza,” which seemed like an extremely unlikely candidate for a dance remix. Norwegian duo Seeb were up to the challenge, however, and their interpretation exploded in Scandinavia. It then took off organically in the US, becoming Mike’s second top 10 hit this week.
I recently caught up with the singer/songwriter to talk about his career rebirth. Mike opened up about his search for authenticity in music, the influence of country greats like Merle Haggard and Hank Williams on his songwriting and the direction of his long-awaited sophomore LP. He also spoke about co-writing Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend” and Maroon 5’s “Sugar.” Find out more in our Q&A below.
How does your current success compare to 2010? The difference is, in 2010 it was my first try and it went really well and so I thought, that’s just automatically what happens. I think I was naive to the rarity of such rides. It’s really amazing that I got to do that in 2010 and it’s even more amazing that I get to do it again now. I think the knowledge and the experience of 2010 was required for me to say that prior sentence. It was required for me to be grateful and enjoy it more.
Did you ever think you might not bounce back? Yeah, everyday. For sure, it weighed on me like a ton of bricks. I had this fantasy. I felt like the game quit me. I wanted to quit the game, I wanted to be successful and leave on my own terms. Yeah, for sure. Like I said in a lot of my concerts, I go through ups and downs like anyone else. When your ups are really up, your downs can feel more down.
Were you feeling that way when you wrote “Ibiza”? Not particularly, it was the day after my birthday. I turned 26, hanging out with my friend Jake Owen and we had fun before that. We wrote a song called, “It’s My Birthday”. Just a total ridiculous parody of a tune.
When you’re writing well, you’re not skating on the ice rink of small talk. You’re in the ice water swimming around in the things that maybe you haven’t processed. That doesn’t mean an emotion you express in the song is indicative of your homeostasis mood. If I write a sad song it doesn’t mean I am a sad person. It means I have sad feelings and I was expressing those that day, that part of that day.
“Ibiza” is a shade of me. It’s not an inauthentic shade. I wrote it and I meant it and I still do. What I always say is, “I’m a rainbow,” and that song is a color… I just have to remind myself and other people I am a rainbow. The blue is not all of who I am.
Your sad song is now being played in clubs and at parties. It’s hilariously ironic. I know that I am not the first artist to deal with that. You look at Bruce Springsteen and “Born in the USA”. A pretty serious tune, a social commentary on America and the wars that we were wrapped up in and how they affected the young people in the country and probably, you know 90 percent of the people that hear it think it’s just a patriotic anthem. To the point where Ronald Reagan, whose politics, The Boss did not agree with, was using it as his campaign song. Bruce Springsteen said, “No. This song is about the opposite of that.”
It’s the same thing, but mostly I just think it’s cool. A lot of people are listening to it. If you want to listen to “Born in the USA” and not listen to the words and just rock out, there is nothing wrong with that. It’s no one’s responsibility to dissect my lyrics. Sometimes you just want to listen to music and not read it like a book and that’s totally fine.
What was your initial reaction to the remix? It’s cool. At the time, I was listening, almost exclusively, to Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard and Hank Williams and Hank Williams Jr. I think it’s really well done by the Seeb guys, really creative. It changes the tempo, and I’ve never heard a song on the radio where like the vocals are just like… unnatural. I think they have to had a lot of balls to do that. I never thought it would be like this big song, but it’s really cool that it is.
Were you amazed that the song took off so organically? Yeah, I learned a lot from that. You can’t plan everything. There’s that old saying — if you want to make God laugh, make a plan. It really wasn’t until I let go of the project a little bit, before I had this notion of myself becoming the 2016 Bob Dylan. I would only perform with my guitar, I never performed with any other instruments because I wanted everyone to hear every word.
I wouldn’t do interviews like this. I would only do it if they sent me the questions so I could write them in print. I was just holding on to the thing really tightly. I sort of just like let go, and I started making new music for another project that’s still a secret. When I started working on other things, everything else just started happening with this one. I think there’s power in letting go.
Did you really spend a million dollars on girls and shoes? The line is not exactly super clear. I said, “I’ve made a million dollars and I spend it on girls and shoes.” Present tense. I’ve got into it with people like, “Man you’ve spent all your money on girls” and I’m like, “No, I am present tense, still spending it.” I spent an embarrassing amount of money on girls and shoes. Not a million dollars but I made over a million dollars and spent an embarrassing amount of that on girls and shoes.
I read that you were inspired by country music. Can you elaborate? They just tell the truth in their songs. Do you know a song called “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard? He really was in jail and there’s a line in the song, “I turned 21 in prison.” It’s like lines like that, they hit you right in the fucking heart. I spent a lot of time writing songs in LA. As a songwriter, I wish I could tell you how many times one of the great writers in the room would say, “We can’t use that line because no one can relate to that.”
I just think that whole logic is wrong. It’s not what I liked about the music that I listened to growing up, which was hip-hop. In hip-hop music I can’t relate to any of it but I could tell, I could sense intuitively, that the artists that I liked, whether it be Outkast or Talib Kweli and Mos Def, I could sense intuitively that they were telling the truth about their lives and I connected to it on an emotional level.
Not, “Hey yeah, I spent time on that street corner too.” Who gives a fuck? You know what I mean? If a guy is expressing himself in a real way and you know that emotion that he felt. You relate to that emotion, you don’t relate to the event. No one listening to my song took a pill in Ibiza to show Avicii they were cool, only I did that. Maybe there is one other guy that did that, I don’t know.
You also penned hits for Justin Bieber and Maroon 5. Did you record “Sugar” first? Yeah, a version of it. My friend Ammo, he really brought the bulk of that song. When I went to his house he had the track started and the melodies and I thought it was amazing. [Jacob Kasher] and I, we wrote the lyrics to it. I really struggled with the lyrics on that song for a while because I was trying to write it in the tongue-and-cheeky way that I wrote “Cooler Than Me,” that I wrote “I Took A Pill in Ibiza,” where there are lines that are simultaneously funny and sad.
It didn’t seem to work on that track. Finally I said, “What would Marvin Gaye say?” I just wrote the song like that, the lyrics like that. Then [Adam Levine] worked on it and he puts his own spin on it and [Justin Bieber] too. They get in there and they changed the words and make it more Maroon 5 and more Justin. That’s really important, those guys wrote that song too. They both respected me. On both those tunes, they were writers as well.
Why wasn’t your version of “Sugar” released? It’s an obvious hit. I guess it was so obvious to them. After a song is a hit, it’s easy to say it was an obvious hit. I think I was coming off like a couple of singles that were not hits. We thought that were obvious hits before, like the songs “The Way It Used To Be,” “Looks Like Sex” and “Top Of The World.” None of them reacted like “Cooler Than Me.” I am proud of all those songs, but they weren’t big hits.
If you’re asking me what RCA was thinking I’m sure it was, “Hey man, we spent a ton of money on this guy, we can either keep spending money on him and maybe make some back, but probably not.” It would be a safer bet to just do nothing and we can spend money on bigger artists that are more of a sure thing, or people that have more momentum going which they had many. That was probably the right decision.
Honestly, I would have done it too if I was running that business. So I asked if I could leave the label and they graciously allowed me to go eventually and now I have a really awesome label. Not to say RCA isn’t awesome, but I am just in a different situation.
Will we ever hear the songs from your shelved albums? I am working on that now. I think we’re close to getting the rights to it. The tricky thing for me now, honestly is, I mentioned the secret project I’m working on, so I have that coming and then I have my new album coming. Really, I just don’t know when to put it out. My fans are probably like, “Dude, you suck. Just give it to us now.” I just have a lot of new stuff coming out that’s more current to me, so I’d like to really focus on that. Then maybe, present this old music in a cool way. I’m not sure exactly how I want to do it.
Are songs on your first album that haven’t aged so well? I’m pretty proud of most of the stuff I’ve put out. I’ve made three mixtapes and one album that has come out. The stuff that made it on the album, I pretty much like it. There’s a few tracks on some of the earlier mixtapes. There’s probably 60 to 80 songs total. There’s probably two or three that are clunkers. I could have written them better.
“Cooler Than Me,” I wouldn’t write that now, because I am different now as a human, but I think the writing is good and it’s clever and I like the internal rhyme schemes. I think I’m better now, but I always will think that. At any point, in the present I would have been song writing for the longest period of time of my life, whereas before I would have had a little bit less knowledge.
Does the new album sound more like the original version of “Ibiza”? The album sounds like the original. There are ten songs like that and a couple bonuses. At the end, as treats, there are several remixes from people all over the world. So SeeB did one, this guy called Jordan XL did one. I never met any of these guys.
You still haven’t met Seeb? Oh that is a lie, I have met Seeb. The other guys, I haven’t met any of them. I’ve talked to some of them on the phone. Really I didn’t give them much direction, they just took my songs and made new things up, which I think is really cool. You hear the song one way, then you hear the song a different way. The original album is my dark singer/songwriter, organic album. It was fun for me to make an album with all live instruments, we had an orchestra on one song. I had a blast.
When is the album due? I think we are talking about May for the album. I do not have a hard date. I’ve heard people on my team mention the month of May.
Is it finished? Yes. We just got a feature. That is a secret. I had to see if we could put it on the album. I turned it in Monday.
Congratulations! Thanks, man.
What advice do you have for other artists on the comeback trail? I would say to any artist, your job is to make the art that you personally want to exist. That’s it. That is very, very simple. It’s not to make art that your friend would like or your manager would like, or the radio would like. It’s just for you. If you’re doing art that you think someone else will like, you’re doing their job. That’s what they’re supposed to make. I think when you boil it down to that simple level, a lot of the B products that we worry about like prestige and notoriety and money. They all seem to just take care of themselves.
I’ve learned that first hand. I have tried to make music that everyone is going to like and it sucks. It is my worst music that I just hide on my laptop. And then when I’m just writing things that I think are cool like, “Ibiza.” That was cool. [Justin Bieber’s] “Boyfriend” was like that. When we wrote “Boyfriend”, it’s like everything on the radio was four on the floor. I am not trying to say we’re like visionaries or anything like, but we’re doing what we thought was cool. We never thought it would be on the radio, never thought in a million years. That tenet has really worked through me.