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Q&A: Mike Posner returns to campus as DEMAN keynote speaker

Mike Posner, Trinity ‘10, first topped the charts with his 2010 single “Cooler than Me.” Since then, he has enjoyed success with hits like “Please Don’t Go” and song-writing titles on Maroon 5’s “Sugar” and Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend.” Posner is coming to campus this weekend as the keynote speaker for DEMAN Arts and Media Weekend. The Chronicle’s Jessica Williams conducted an email interview with Posner about his time at Duke, his favorite music of the moment and DEMAN. 

The Chronicle: Did you map out a career plan while at Duke, or did things fall into place after graduating?

Mike Posner: I had a vision of getting a recording contract and so I took what I thought were the necessary steps to get myself to that. When I scored that after my junior year, I had to make new goals. So to answer your question, I had a rule for myself. Each day, I would do at least one thing to advance my musical career. That could have been making a new song, or getting my music on a big music blog, or hiring a manger, or editing a video of myself making beats in my dorm room. I just had to take at least one step every day.

TC: Did your time at Duke influence your music?

MP: MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE. Prior to coming to Duke, I made dark, pedantic, Detroit hip-hop music. Being on campus in North Carolina helped me stumble upon my more melodic sound. I had never sung before coming to Duke, only rapped. There was something about the weather and the people I was around that brought new music out of me. We wrote and recorded my first hit song “Cooler Than Me” in Kilgo Quad. There were kids in my dorm starting businesses down the hall. It was a very inspiring place to live.

TC: What is your favorite song or album that you have ever worked on? Why?

MP: Like most songwriters, I’m most excited about the material I just made. So I’m really excited about the batch of songs I made last week, but of the material that’s been released I’m probably most proud of “Beneath Your Beautiful” by Labrinth and Emeli Sande. I got to write and produce this song with Labs. I think it’s really good work.

TC: Which artist have you had the most fun working with?

MP: Labrinth. He and Bruno Mars are just supernatural musicians. Working with them has made me incredibly jaded when it comes to collaborators. Working with Lab is also special because he’s a really dear friend. I care deeply about him as a person, not just a musician. When you work with someone like that, the love you have for them makes it a much deeper and gratifying experience.

TC: Was there ever a time you thought a career in music would not work for you?

MP: Totally! I started writing songs when I was eight years old. I didn’t honestly believe I could make a living doing music until I was 20 years old. So that’s 12 years of not really knowing. I also fell off the stage at Shooters at my mixtape release party in 2009. :).

TC: Would you recommend Duke students interested in music to pursue a career in the music industry? Why or why not?

MP: A fan of mine emailed me this quote from Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. He says, “Becoming the thing you dream of is a long shot, no matter what. The key is to HAVE a dream, a destination, a personal definition of perfection in life, and then to use that end goal to help decide what to do next. It is not the end goal that changes you, but the summed total of each of the small, daily decisions.” I believe students should follow their heart and intuition when deciding what to pursue. As Mr. Hadfield elicits, the end goal doesn’t matter so much as long as you have one. The journey to get there is where all the growth, transformation and bliss occurs. 

TC: Were there opportunities or events like DEMAN at Duke while you were here? How did they impact you?

MP: I honestly don’t recall. I only recall going to one guest lecture when I was at Duke. The founder of Chipotle gave a talk. It was really honest but I remember I didn’t really identify with him. He was such a mature adult. This is the reason why I wanted to come back to Duke before I got too old and couldn’t relate to the students. Though I don’t do keg stands anymore, I certainly remember what it was like to be in school and feel the uncertainty of the dreaded “real world” lurking behind senior year. At the same time, I’ve managed to live in the “real world” for six years now without actually living in the “real world.” I am my own boss. I make a living doing something I absolutely love and would do for free, and I travel the world. Saturday I want to talk about the possibility of you doing that too. I’m not being paid to do this talk. I just want to give something back to the place that gave me so much before I’m a mature adult.

TC: How do you think cultural events like DEMAN impact campus?

MP: One of the mistakes I made at Duke was sort of living in a beautiful/perfectly manicured/Sarah P. Duke Gardens bubble. Here are some folks who’ve left Duke, done some cool stuff outside of Duke, and they want to share with you what they’ve learned. I think only good comes out of that.

TC: Why should Duke students come out for DEMAN this weekend?

MP: Have you ever wondered: What should I do after college? Who should I be friends with? How much should I drink? Why am I tired all of the time? Why does everyone seem to know what they are doing with their life but me?…. This is what I’m going to be talking about Saturday. I’m going to share all the terrible mistakes I’ve made so that you don’t have to make them too.


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