Ahead of a five-date UK Valentine’s Tour and a new album, Mica Sings Ella, AJ Dehany interviewed MICA PARIS, a major presence on the UK music scene since first emerging in 1988. He writes:
Nothing in life really compares to being called “darling” by Mica Paris.
The soul superstar’s voice and surpassing presence have made her a cherished figure over three decades in music. She’s worked with Prince, Alexander O’Neal, and Lemar, and become a fixture on TV, radio and the stage. This year she added another string to her bow with her powerful interpretations of Ella Fitzgerald. I spoke to Mica ahead of her forthcoming tour and album, taking for my “angle” that Mica Sings Ella represents “the First Lady of British Soul meets the First Lady of Jazz”. To my surprise she embraced it with graceful style: “Yeah, totally! I agree, darling. Absolutely!”
Throughout 2017 the jazz community has been celebrating the centenary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth. Mica has been performing the songs made famous by the First Lady of Jazz, appearing with the Guy Barker Orchestra and her own band to equal acclaim.
“It’s been a whole year of Ella. I started in February and it’s just been building up. I didn’t expect it to go so well! We did the Love Supreme festival and had seven and a half thousand people in my tent. People go crazy for this stuff, honey! I don’t even understand what’s going on! If I knew that I would have done it earlier!”
Mica is recording the album Mica Sings Ella with the Guy Barker Orchestra, due to be released in April following a tour in February 2018. Guy Barker’s epochal arrangements and Mica Paris’s soulful delivery are a potent combination, holding their own even against Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington’s defining work together in the 1950s. “With Guy, his interpretation of Duke Ellington was so fabulous! When I’m working with Guy I feel like Guy and I are doing Duke and Ella, it feels great!”
In classic style they are recording the album live in the studio, with the whole orchestra around Mica (who is singing into the iconic C-12 valve microphone). “It’s a fabulous feeling. You feel like you’re weightless. You feel like you’re being carried by 80 musicians. It’s incredible to have that as the backdrop to your voice. It’s interesting—when I’m singing with my ten-piece band, I’m driving them. When I’m singing with the orchestra, I’m being carried by them…”
The arrangements stand up to comparison with the classic recordings but have a force and modernity all their own. “The thing is it was never about copying Ella. It was always about interpreting her in my way. She did that all the time. She would sing the Beatles, Gershwin, rock ‘n’ roll. She always made it her own and that’s what’s important. If you copy somebody you’re basically doing karaoke.”
Musically, both Ella and Mica come out of gospel. Ella’s parents were Methodists; Mica’s were Pentecostal. The singers almost share a birthday: Mica, April 23; Ella April 25. Mica shares and even expands on Ella’s eclecticism, bringing the full force of her own personality to bear on the material. How does she feel about the different energies of gospel, pop, soul and jazz?
“When you sing gospel it’s a very, very different energy. Gospel is about empowering and making people feel that they’re gonna get through their problems. Pop is more about emoting this feeling of love, the love vibration. Jazz is different, you have to be very open to where you’re taken because it’s the timing of jazz. Jazz is all about timing. You have to really feel what the musicians are doing and you have to work with it. No two jazz shows are the same. It’s very raw, very naked, so if you’re not a great interpreter of music you’re gonna have problems singing jazz. You’re really naked!”
The Mica Sings Ella tour in February is being styled as a ‘Valentines tour’. Is this one for the lovers?
“Yeah, which is really beautiful! One of my favourite songs is called You’re My Thrill. It emotes that feeling: you know when you’re really into someone and they just blow your friggin’ mind and you can’t actually cope? When they walk in the room and you can’t breathe. You know the universe is telling you they’re gonna be a big problem to you later on. Anyway,” she laughs, “moving swiftly on…”
Just as Ella’s life had its dark clouds, Mica has had more than her share of sadness. Since 2003 she has acted as an ambassador for anti-gun crime after her brother Jason was shot dead in South London. Her extraordinary strength as a performer comes from her resilient attitude to facing down the pain of life.
“It’s the pain that makes you able to touch people with the gift. If you didn’t have the pain you wouldn’t be able to do what you do and be effective with it. The music has always healed me. That’s what’s kept me in the game for 30 years. It’s the music: writing, and performing on stage. Cos’ when you’re on stage, darling… that’s it! There is nothing else compares to that. It’s out of body. That’s why so many artists end up taking drugs. Nothing can replace the high you get on stage. We’d like to be up there all the time, wouldn’t we?”
On that note, I asked if Mica has any favourite singers interpreting Ella. Her answer was thought-provoking.
“Everybody does Billie! You don’t really hear people do Ella much, funnily enough. Hey, it’s great. I’m doing it; maybe this is the start of something. I want her to be celebrated for what she’s done. Billie Holiday got all the press cos Billie was the face—and the media glamorize drugs. But Ella was superior vocally.”
It’s great to hear an artist appreciate another artist for their art rather than the myths that can misrepresent them. Mica Paris takes a long view. “I wanted to resurrect Ella because she lasted longer than all of them! You know, my girl was singing in a wheelchair with no legs. And she was still killin’ it! Amazing. The story of her life is incredible. It’s not just the centenary, I’m doing a theatre show about her next year as well, and a documentary. For me it’s important to educate people about the greats. I wanted to bring back Ella so the younger generation know that this woman had a voice that transcended her race, just like Nat ‘King’ Cole. They managed to transcend race, which is a very powerful thing. I want to celebrate her because we’ve heard her all our lives but she’s in the background to everyone’s life, she’s on every damn advert you can think of.”
Jazz is a great means of rediscovery and making things new again…
“That’s right. You got it! That’s why I’m doin’ it, baby! It’s not just a centenary, she’s an unsung hero—and I wanna give Ella her props.” (pp)
AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk
11 February – Islington Assembly Hall, London
13 February – The Fleece, Bristol
14 February – Ruby Lounge, Manchester
15 February – The Jamhouse, Birmingham
16 February – 2funky music cafe, Leicester
LINKS: TOUR DETAILS
Mica Paris website