Mike Posner takes wild ride from ‘Ibiza’ to the Grammys

A song about the end of his career gave the singer new life, which has been marked by personal highs and lows

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

In 2015, Mike Posner was a singer who had blown his shot. So he wrote a song about it.

Mike Posner performed Feb. 4 at the RedfestDXB festival in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

That song, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” detailed the Southfield-born and raised artist’s dealings with fame and the long comedown from the triple-platinum success of his 2010 debut hit, “Cooler Than Me.” “My name’s a reminder of a pop song people forgot,” he sang over the song’s gentle acoustic melody before arriving at the gut-wrenching chorus: “All I know are sad songs.”

For months, the song sat. Posner mounted a DIY tour behind it and the other songs on his acoustic EP, “The Truth,” playing free shows in parks and other non-traditional outdoor venues. He grew a scraggly beard and rode around the country in a van. His shot was over, but he was playing music.

“If I don’t do music,” Posner says plainly, “I’m unhappy.”

Fast-forward a few months. A dance-oriented remix of “Ibiza” by Norwegian trio SeeB brought new life to the song, and it started to pick up steam with audiences. By early 2016, the song impacted the charts, eventually hitting No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Posner made a video for the song, in which he illustrates the drug-fueled episode the title describes, and it became a sensation.

In the ultimate irony, Posner’s song about his shot being blown ended up being the biggest hit of his career. To date, it has earned a combined 1.5 billion hits on YouTube and Spotify, and at Sunday’s Grammy Awards, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” is nominated alongside songs by Adele and Beyoncé for Song of the Year, one of the show’s top three awards.

Posner’s ride hasn’t been all fun and games. In April, his father — prominent Detroit criminal defense attorney M. Jon Posner — was unexpectedly diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Posner moved from California back into his parents’ Southfield home to be by his father’s side in between professional commitments, including a summer tour with Nick Jonas and Demi Lovato. His father was there in early December when Posner received the news of his Grammy nomination, but he didn’t live to see how it turned out. He died at age 73 on Jan. 11, one month and one day before Sunday’s show, which falls on Posner’s 29th birthday.

When Posner received the Grammy nomination — his first — his father already had one foot in and one foot out of this world, Posner says.

“I’m not sure if he really understood exactly what it was,” Posner says, “but I don’t know if my dad really ever understood what I do. As far as the particulars of the politics of the music industry, he was blissfully uninformed. If you asked him the difference between an Oscar and a Grammy, he probably couldn’t tell you.”

It’s an outsider’s perspective Posner himself tries to keep in mind going forward.

“None of it really matters,” says the 28-year-old, downplaying the honor while on the phone earlier this week from Marina del Rey, California. “Five people get nominated for this award every year. Someone wins it. Then five more people come, they get nominated, and someone else wins it. It happens every year!”

Mike Posner, center, enjoys a Detroit Pistons-Cleveland Cavaliers game at The Palace of Auburn Hills in 2016.

Roots of breakthrough

That doesn’t mean Posner doesn’t want to win — if not this year, some year. He’s trying to find balance between his two selves: The driven, career-minded artist who would love the recognition of his hard work, and the spiritual being who hovers above him and is concerned chiefly about his mind, body and health.

Posner — the O is long, his nickname is “Pose” — has learned several lessons from the long journey of “I Took a Pill in Ibiza,” chief among them the ability to let things go. The song started taking off only after Posner shifted his professional focus to Mansionz, his musical side project with singer-songwriter Blackbear. Their debut album is due out in late March.

“It was because I wasn’t paying attention,” says Posner, who earned his first record deal while he was still a student at Duke University. “Prior to that, I was hanging on a little too tight.”

He also was fiercely independent and committed to remaining that way. He would conduct interviews only by email, so as not to be misquoted, and he was intent on performing on television by himself, never with the assistance of backing musicians.

That changed last April when he went on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and performed “Ibiza” with Fallon’s backing band, The Roots. It was an arrangement of the song he had worked out with his band, but The Roots performance was a breakthrough and established Posner as an energetic live act. (It helped that the Roots were the first concert act Posner had ever seen while visiting his sister in law school in Maine.)

Posner remains independent, as evidenced by his Grammy nomination. Among the nominees in the Song of the Year category — a formidable list that includes Beyoncé’s “Formation,” Adele’s “Hello,” Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” and Lukas Graham’s “7 Years” — Posner is the only nominee credited as the sole songwriter. (Song of the Year is a songwriter’s award; Record of the Year is a separate award honoring a song’s performer.)

“It’s probably more an indication of a weakness than a strength,” says Posner, who has co-written hits for Justin Bieber (“Boyfriend”) and Maroon 5 (“Sugar”). “I’m a control freak and I don’t get along that well with other people, creatively. So I don’t know how much pride I take in that. I guess all that matters is if the work is good, however you get to it. If the song is good, it doesn’t matter if it takes 80 people to write it.”

New chapter

Following the death of his father — Posner performed a cover of Bright Eyes’ “First Day of My Life” at his funeral — Posner spent 10 days in India, performing on a mini-tour and taking in his surroundings. It was a sudden, immediate break, and it’s a trip he’s still processing but describes as “teetering on ineffable.”

“It was like feeling a new feeling, a new emotion,” says Posner, who has practiced Transcendental Meditation for years. “It was something internal, a different shade of happiness.”

Beyond the Grammys, he has a spring tour lined up, which wraps with a May 2 performance at Saint Andrew’s Hall, his first-ever concert at the venerable Detroit concert hall. A book of his poetry, titled “Tear Drops and Balloons,” will be released March 17, to be followed at a later date by his next solo album, which he describes (in a nod to “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” author Dave Eggers, one of his favorites) as “breathtakingly innovative.” He’s already several songs into his next album after that.

It’s quite a change from the six-year drought between his first and second albums, when his record company shelved two projects and sent Posner scrambling for a new lease on his career.

“It’s a lot of duties this year,” says the Birmingham Groves High School graduate, who released his sophomore album “At Night, Alone” in May. “You had the years where nothing came out, and it’s sort of the opposite this year.”

Sunday’s Grammys mark the end of his “Ibiza” journey and the beginning of a new chapter in his career. Win or lose, his father will be on his mind, yet Posner — whose hair is currently dyed Joker green for the Mansionz project — would rather accentuate the positives of his relationship with his dad than dwell on his loss.

“I deal with it the same way I try to deal with life in general, which is each issue is really two issues, the negative side and the positive side,” he says. “We can take the example of my father, and his life ending, and I could choose to focus on the loss of my father and that I can no longer call him on the phone. Or I can focus on the fact that I had a father in the first place. He was an amazing dad, so I’m just grateful that I had 28, almost 29 years with him, and I’m not going to complain I didn’t have 30.”

All he knows are sad songs, Posner sings in “Ibiza.” But depending how you look at them, even sad songs sometimes have happy endings.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

Mike Posner opened for Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas for their Future Now tour at The Palace of Auburn Hills on July 30.

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