Like a ninja, Mike Posner bounces back

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Mike Posner already blew his shot.

That's what the Southfield-bred singer says on his new song, "I Took a Pill in Ibiza," where he opens up about his career and the detours it has taken in the last few years. It's a sparse acoustic track with light orchestral swells that has the plainspoken honesty of a black-and-white confessional. "I get along with old timers," Posner sings, "'cause my name's a reminder of a pop song people forgot."

That song is "Cooler Than Me," the bouncy 2010 club hit that rose to No. 6 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart the summer after Posner graduated from college. His debut album "31 Minutes to Takeoff" came out that year on J Records and spun off two more singles, "Please Don't Go" and "Bow Chicka Wow Wow," and Posner was positioned as a promising young star with a bright future ahead of him.

Then came the roadblocks.

In late 2011, Posner released "Looks Like Sex," an M83-like slice of electronic pop and the first single from his sophomore album "Sky High." But when the song stiffed at radio, the album was shelved by his label and never released.

Posner retooled in 2013 with another project, "Pages," which was preceded by the singles "The Way It Used to Be" and "Top of the World," the latter of which featured guest vocals by Posner's friend, Big Sean. Again, neither song generated much heat, and "Pages," too, was put on indefinite hold by his label.

So by 2014, Posner — the cocky pop phenom who earned a record deal from his dorm room at Duke University — was caught in a stifling holding pattern, and had seen his career momentum dissipated by industry red tape.

So, while Posner says his shot is blown, he's not done trying. "I Took a Pill in Ibiza" is one of several songs he's recorded for his new album, which he swears is really coming out. (He has a new deal with Island Records.) The album will be preceded by a four-song EP scheduled to be released in late spring/early summer and includes some of Posner's sharpest, most honest songwriting to date, including a hometown anthem that ties his worldwide travels to his roots in his hometown. Its title: "Buried in Detroit."

"I think things happen for a reason," says Posner, flashing a huge smile while seated in the living room of his parents' Southfield home. "Everything is so good right now! I have an album that I really like, my new partners are awesome and I've made more money than I need from writing music. So you're not going to get me to feel sad because those two albums didn't come out. Things are good in my life — really good. I have nothing to complain about."

Ninja style

He now lives in Los Angeles but on a recent Monday evening, Posner, 27, was in the front yard of his parents' home playing catch with his father. He has a scraggly beard.

Two days prior, he played a surprise show at a public park in Ann Arbor. It was announced only a few hours beforehand via Twitter, and there was no production, no stage, no tickets and no seats. Just Posner, an acoustic guitar, and around 100 fans.

The show was inspired by "The Art of Asking," a recent book by singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, who famously raised $1 million in a 2012 Kickstarter campaign. In the book, Palmer talks about "Ninja Shows," impromptu concerts held for small groups of fans, and the idea struck a chord with Posner.

"It's been a real eye-opener and an opener of Pandora's Box for me," says Posner of "The Art of Asking," which he listened to on audiobook. It inspired him to look at his fans in a different way and to use social media in a positive way, and it has helped him to broaden his worldview as an artist.

The impromptu Ann Arbor concert was the first of what Posner hopes is a series of guerilla-style shows; he followed it a few days later with another one in Nashville. The shows fall in line with his current aesthetic: Raw, real and no-frills, a stark difference from the flashy, bulked up hip-hop kid who dressed in team-branded leather jackets, sported an R&B beard and a closely cropped buzz cut and took his shirt off at live shows.

"My growth has been manifested in how I look, how I dress and how my music sounds," he says. "My job is to grow as an artist and as a human, and it's funny how much those two are really the same thing. If that Mike never turns into this Mike, this album doesn't exist. These songs don't exist."

From teacher to student

When Posner speaks, he quotes freely and cribs lines from an assortment of sources: Besides Amanda Palmer, he mentions filmmaker Werner Herzog, self-help author Wayne Dyer, Detroit-bred poet Philip Levine, philosopher Alan Watts, performance artist Marina Abramović, Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie and spiritual teacher Ram Dass.

He practices Transcendental Meditation twice a day, every day, but doesn't preach about his beliefs or findings. "I shouldn't be telling people what to do, 'cause I don't really (expletive) know," he says. "I don't know if I'm right!"

That was one of the lessons he learned during "Pages," where he says he was writing songs from the prospective of a teacher.

"Then there was a moment where I realized I'm just a student," he says. "I was giving people advice on what to do, and sometimes I do that still, but I usually qualify it by saying, 'This is just what I think, this is not the right way.'

"I'm just a singer," he says.

These days, he is working to be as transparent as possible, and has taken to penning emails to fans that read as long entries from his personal diary. (They're proofread by one of his former high school teachers before he sends them out.) In one, he discussed the shelving of "Sky High" and "Pages" and his record label switcheroo; in another, he talked about artists using makeup in press photos, a practice which he doesn't want to participate in anymore.

He has no regrets about his early work — "most of them, I think the writing's really good on them," he says of his songs — or the circumstances that brought him to his current career crossroads.

"I couldn't have written the new album without failing," he says. "And I don't think I would be the man that I am, maybe not a man at all, without failing. It was really good for me, I think, as a person."

And with that, the guy who already blew his shot lines up to take another shot.