Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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MICA PARIS: Back for good

Mica Paris
Mica Paris Mica Paris Mica Paris Mica Paris

Pete Lewis speaks to established UK soul Queen Mica Paris about her new LP ‘Born Again’ - her first album of new material in over 10 years.

Produced by British global hitmaker Brian Rawling (Cher; Tina Turner; Enrique Iglesias) and boasting song-writing input from the likes of soulful chart-topper James Morrison (the uptempo single ‘Baby Come Back Now’) and Rihanna mentors Evan Rogers & Carl Sturken (the pounding ‘Breathless’), the varied musical moods of ‘Born Again’ cater to the diverse audience Mica’s more recent radio and television work has brought her; while vocally remaining faithful throughout to her early, deep-set roots in soul and gospel.

Indeed, born Michelle Wallen in April 1969 in South London, Mica initially started out singing gospel at her grandparents’ church before, at just 17, signing her first solo deal with Island Records. With her big-selling 1988 debut album 'So Good’ spawning the transatlantic Top 10 single ‘My One Temptation’ (plus a Top 20 duet with Will Downing on a cover of Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway’s ‘Where Is the Love’), Paris would go on to release two more studio albums with Island (1990’s more-street oriented ‘Contribution’ and 1993’s largely-American-recorded ‘Whisper A Prayer’) before singing to EMI, where in 1998 she released the notably less-successful LP ‘Black Angel’.

While always retaining her credibility as one of Britain’s most renowned soul singers, Mica’s public profile through the Noughties has nevertheless centred more around radio and televison work - most notably her BBC Radio 2 ‘Soul Solutions’ show; her co-hosting of BBC TV’s consumer style programme ‘What Not To Wear’; plus her acting role as fictitious American jazz singer Amelia Walker in the 2007 television mystery drama ‘Marple: At Bertram’s Hotel’. Meanwhile, in addition to regular ongoing TV appearances via such high-profile shows as ‘Loose Women’, ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and ‘Songs Of Praise’, late 2007 also found her releasing her semi-autobiographical book ‘Beautiful Within: Finding Happiness And Confidence In Your Own Skin’.

Nevertheless, it’s this month’s release of the aforementioned ‘Born Again’ (whose soulful highlights include the string-laden, Eric Benet-penned ballad ‘You’re The Only One’; plus an acoustic remake of her aforementioned debut hit ‘My One Temptation’) that reacquaints Mica with ‘Blues & Soul’. As an ever-talkative and down-to-earth Ms. Paris speaks openly to Pete Lewis about such relevant topics as her new LP; her ongoing multi-media presence; plus today’s new UK soul movement.

PETE: Why has it been over a decade since you last released an album of new material?

MICA; “What basically happened was that I just couldn’t get ARRESTED when I left EMI after the (1998-released) ‘Black Angel’ album. But, while I couldn’t get a record deal, at the same time I was starting to get a lot of love from TV and radio. You know, people kept putting me forward for things like the Radio 2 show I had called ‘Soul Solutions’, which I ended up doing for five years. Then ‘What Not To Wear’ came about for BBC1… But over all that time I still wasn’t getting any love from the music industry. So I basically just went where the LOVE was.”

PETE: So how did the new album ‘Born Again’ come about?

MICA: “Though I didn’t allow it to mess me up in any way, in hindsight I think the rejection I was getting from the music industry did kind of hurt. I do feel that subconsciously there was a painful feeling inside of ‘Oh, I really wish I could make a bloody RECORD!’! So, when shows like ‘What Not To Wear’ started to become really successful, I’d often talk to Brian Rawling about how I’d love to make an album with him. Mainly because we’re mates, plus I also think he’s absolutely one of the best producers this country HAS. So, when he called one day and was like ‘Meesh, these people have come forward with some money, so I think we’re gonna be able to make that record’… I was like ‘Oh God, this is a GIFT!’. So he and I went straight in the studio, and decided to just start from scratch, by making an album that was both song-based and organic.”

PETE: Why did ‘Born Again’ then take two years to complete?

MICA: “The first year was really tough. Because the songs I was writing, co-writing and taking from other writers just weren’t CUTTING it, if I’m honest. And I basically just ended up throwing them all out, because they just weren’t good enough. But then, when Brian came to me with the Keyshia Cole song ‘I Remember’ and I went in the studio and recorded it, something just HAPPENED! Because after that, suddenly all these amazing songs just started to FLOW! First there was ‘Born Again’, then there was ‘Hold On’, ‘The Hardest Thing’, ‘Nothing But The Truth’… You know, just song, after song, after SONG! So that one song - ‘I Remember’ - did prove very much a transitional point. Which was weird, because it only happened after the first 12 months had gone by and I’d thrown out all the earlier songs I’d done.”

PETE: You’ve said this new album reminds you of recording your first LP (1988’s ‘So Good’) for Island Records, when you wanted to bring a lot of the church into your music…

MICA: “When I say ‘the church’ I don’t mean in a RELIGIOUS way. What I’m talking about is the SENTIMENT of the message - you know, always making sure that you inspire and touch people with the music. Which was the mentality I had doing the ‘So Good’ album, when I’d just come out of the church. And to this day I say that, with the exception of this new record, it remains my best-ever album. You know, because I had artistic freedom at Island to choose the writers and producers, I ended up being surrounded by the most incredible team of people who just really believed in my dream. And I’d never been able to capture that ‘team’ feeling again until this time round, working with Brain Rawling and his production company Metrophonic. You know, everyone involved with this album really believed in what I was doing and what THEY were doing. And it’s that kind of team spirit that makes it HAPPEN, and makes you a success.”

PETE: So what for you is so special about Brian Rawling and his Metrophonic writing/production team?

MICA: “Brian has a stable of about six or seven incredible writers who all work at his place. And being around exceptional people like Paul Barry - who did the title track ‘Born Again’ and is just a fantastic writer - is just HEAVEN for a song interpreter like myself. Because it means you’re surrounded by people who are as good as YOU are, but in the WRITING form. You know, there’s no point in having a great voice and a mediocre SONG. Which is something that has always been a problem for me over the years. You know, after my first album I was never really able to find the level of incredible writing that I needed to match my level of voice.”

PETE: How do you now look back on your early days singing in your grandparents’ church?

MICA: “When I look back on those days, to be honest I feel really blessed to have had grandparents who were ministers. Because what’s fantastic about that upbringing is that it really teaches you to be a live artist! You know, when I was 10 years old I was always being told to solo and stuff at the front of the church. And I had no idea at that time that I was actually learning my trade and being groomed for the future. I mean, there is NO WAY I could be the live performer that I am today had it not been for that upbringing! Because, when you sang in church back in my day, you weren’t singing for self-gratification! As I said before, you were singing to touch and inspire the people - otherwise you weren’t allowed to be UP there! So what I‘ve got from the church is the knowledge that it’s not about ME! It’s all about how you make the LISTENER feel, and the fact they must be moved and touched by what you do.”

PETE: So let’s talk about your BBC Radio 2 show ‘Soul Solutions’ (which ran from 2002 to 2007), and how it spawned your 2005 covers album ‘Soul Classics’

MICA: “They initially approached me to do a guest spot, and I ended up staying for five years! You know, the show was really great. I had a really amazing fan-base - like half-a-million people listening every week - and I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. So I had guests like Mary J. Blige; I had Jill Scott do my jingle... I had a WONDERFUL time! And the ‘Soul Classics’ album was totally the idea of Sanctuary Records. To be honest, I didn’t really want to do a covers album. But, at the same time, I thought it might be a nice little treat for the listeners if I made an album based on me singing songs that they’d personally chosen as their favourites. And so it was really all about me doing what was required of me because of the radio show. And it was actually through making that record that I originally met Brian Rawling, and we first got to talking about making an album of original material together.”

PETE: And what was the story behind you becoming a highly-successful co-host (alongside former model Lisa Butcher) of BBC TV’s consumer style programme ‘What Not To Wear’?

MICA: “To be honest, I’ve always been a bit of a clothes freak. I’ve always been one of those girls who’s like ‘Why are you WEARING that? You can’t go out in THAT! You gotta sort it OUT!’!... So the only difference with me doing ‘What Not To Wear’ was that the CAMERA was on me! Because I was basically just doing what I always did ANYWAY! You know, I’d always dressed up my sisters and told them what to wear, even though I was the youngest! And I think the reason that show really worked with me and Lisa doing it was because, with me having never seen Trinny & Susannah’s show, I just went in there and did it my way! Lisa put me forward for the programme; I just went in there with a blank canvas - and I did it like a South London girl WOULD do it! I was just totally being me. Whereas maybe if I’d gone on there trying to be like Trinny & Susannah, it wouldn’t have WORKED!”

PETE: What are your ideas on the new-generation of UK soul artists like Amy Winehouse, Adele and James Morrison?

MICA: “Well, because we had such a long cycle of stuff sounding incredibly poptastic and incredibly manufactured, the sound just HAD to go back to basics. You know, everything goes in cycles and the British soul scene just had to evolve again, come back to where it started, and get RAW. Because there was nowhere else for it to GO on the poptastic front. And I think it’s absolutely fantastic that we’ve created this sound in England with artists like Amy, Adele and James. I remember interviewing Amy like five years ago, when she came on my ‘Soul Solutions’ show around her (debut) album ‘Frank’. And I was championing that girl so much that I even put her on my show at the Jazz Café with Omar and everybody else! You know, she came onstage and everyone was like ‘Who’s that little scrawny white girl you got up there?’… And I was like ‘Listen, man. That girl? She’s the SHIT!’!,. You know, I KNEW she was bad - though a lotta other people didn’t get it at the time.”

PETE: So why do you feel this whole movement has emanated from the UK?

MICA: “The UK is very good at creating new SOUNDS, because we’ve got the most multicultural STREET society here. You know, because you’ve got all of the different cultures merging, we come up with some really edgy stuff. I mean, having lived both here and in The States, I’ve seen the difference in how WE make music and THEY make music. While they may be more polished in the way they produce records, we’re definitely more edgy in terms of IDEAS. And, with the industry being in absolute agony and pain right now - they had the WARNING about what was gonna happen with the internet but they didn’t HEED it - what’s so exciting about the UK coming up with this sound is that it’s created a whole new generation of live music artists who’ve taken it all, as I just said, back to basics. To where it’s now once again all about going back on the road and performing live shows. Which, for an artist like myself, is great news. Because that’s what I’ve always BEEN about!”

Mica performs at Ronnie Scott’s, London on June 10/11/12; and at 606 Club, London on June 22

The album ‘Born Again’ and single ‘Baby Come Back Now’ are both out now through Rhythm Riders

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