Photography by Meredith Truax
Everything was going so well for Mike Posner. His infectious single, “Cooler Than Me,” was a multi-platinum hit, while his debut album 31 Minutes to Takeoff immediately entered the Billboard 200 Top 10 upon its release in August 2010. But after that summer of total ubiquity, things began to go wrong. RCA shelved one completed sophomore album, then another, and the pressures of global stardom forced Posner to temporarily retire from the spotlight.
Since then, he’s become a behind-the-scenes hitmaker, writing chart-topping songs for Maroon 5, Nick Jonas and Justin Bieber, but it’s only now that he’s finally returning to the main stage. The Truth, a new 4-track EP, takes Posner’s music in an unexpected direction. Avoiding the dance-pop sound that made him famous, he’s focusing instead on old-school lyricism and stripped-back piano instrumentation. Think introspective Dylanesque balladry with a Joan Didion-like eye for anecdote, and you won’t be too far off. We caught up with Posner to chat about his new sound, his struggles with the music industry and making old white men smile.
You exploded in 2009 with your mixtape, A Matter of Time, and its lead single, “Cooler Than Me,” but we haven’t heard much from you since. What’s been going on?
“In addition to writing for other people, I was on RCA and I was what they call ‘an industry shelfed’ Basically, if I didn’t make a song that was a hit on the radio, then my album wasn’t going to be released. I don’t blame anyone for that. The decisions I made had put me in that position. They let me off the label, and I actually made two albums for RCA that didn’t come out. I could’ve put out those old albums now, but I’ve grown since then [and] so I’m putting out my new record with Island.”
Will any of those songs ever see the light of day?
“Some of them have, like ‘Sugar’ by Maroon 5 was a song from my album, my song, ‘Boyfriend,’ ended up being a song for Justin Bieber. I wanted to put the rest of them out for free, but business and politics got involved.”
You’ve written some huge pop tracks in the past few years, like Nick Jonas’ “Numb.” Do you feel you write differently when you’re writing for other people?
“Nah, I don’t really write for other people. I just write what I think is great, and sometimes later if I decide not to use it, then I’ll send that song to someone else. Occasionally I’ll write in the studio with another artist as I do with Labrinth and Nick. That’s sort of different because you’re writing with someone.”
That kind of music is very different from what you’re releasing now, though.
“I’ve grown as a person against my best efforts. I wasn’t setting out to do an album like this. The songs just sort of showed up and I was scared of them at first, like what the hell do I do with this? My friend IN-Q, he’s one of my favorite poets, and he wrote that the art is more important than the artist. It’s my job just to serve the songs, not to serve me.”
On “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” you discuss partying with industry heavyweights like Avicii. Did your experiences in the music industry’s upper echelon influence your songwriting?
“I don’t know about the music industry, just experiences in life. In the last year or so, the things that I was scared to talk about were the things I needed to talk about, and now I am. I only wanted to show people the parts of myself that I thought were good and beautiful, so I wanted to pretend that I was infallible. That involves putting a lot of walls up and putting makeup on, always having cool clothes to wear that I’ve never worn before, never making a mistake on stage, and just pretending. It’s fucking exhausting. Now I’m just unafraid to be human.”
The EP definitely seems more personal than your older work, particularly “Buried In Detroit.” Do you manage to spend time in your home city?
“My parents live there, so I go pretty often. I like the DIA, Detroit Institute of Arts, and my best friend Jacob Smith lives there. I like it a lot, especially in the summer. The song is about doing a lot of stuff everywhere else and ending where you begin. The other thing is that my hometown supports me, so I get a lot of work there.”
You first blew up in the college scene. Do you find you’re still getting love from students?
“I don’t know. I don’t pay much attention to who I’m getting love from because if they stop loving me, then what? I can’t control that, so I try to just love myself and be as purposefully oblivious to that question as I can. I have trouble listening to everyone’s feedback and not internalising it, so I choose just not to listen. My job is to make the art I want to exist and not care.”
Did you find that being at Island has been more conducive to that than RCA?
“David Massey has a great philosophy that if he lets artists be artists, he finds that they make great art and people tend to like it. I definitely think that’s important.”
Is there an album on the way?
“I’m still putting the finishing touches on it. I wish I had a date for you, but I don’t. I just know that when I’m done, it’s gonna come soon. For my fans that may seem like an empty promise because I’ve been saying it for years. I used to be cryptic about it and say an album was coming soon, then it never came and I’d make another one. That happened twice and this is the third one. I can just say that I feel really good about my partners now.”
Are you looking forward to introducing people to the new music in a live setting?
“People don’t realize it, but I’ve been performing it to new audiences for the last year. I play in little shitty venues in LA and wherever I get the chance to play. Most people in the world don’t know who I am, and I enjoy it. Now I have the skills to go into room full of old white guys over the age of 50 and play ‘Buried In Detroit’ and everyone enjoys it, including me. I love playing piano; I love singing. I work really hard at it, so being better is rewarding for me.”