Mica Paris (Mail Weekend, July 18, 2020)
I met Mica Paris back in the day when she was a famous pop star, beautiful voice and gorgeous girl. I always knew she was more than just hot glamour and great vocals. We met again recently, just before lockdown via mutual friends, she had cooked amazing Jamaican chicken with rice and peas. This woman can cook. Celebrity Master Chef semi-finalist doesn’t even tell you the whole story. I think you can actually taste love on the plate.
First off, you think ‘what a strong powerful woman’, but her strength comes from vulnerability and faith. She stands tall and confident, but on the very day we met, she’s nursing a heartache. Her best friend – Paul Field – an editor for the Mail group had unexpectedly died. They saw each other all the time and were working on a book together about female singers who rocked the world. Right now, she is about to rock the world with a BBC documentary: Mica Paris and Gospel Music. It’s built around six songs about suffering and redemption over three centuries. Mica has always had faith. She grew up in the church; she and her siblings were brought up by their Pentecostal grandparents. Her grandfather was a pastor and everything was very strict. From a young age, she sang in church. I’m eating her delicious Jamaican chicken: “I’m a food person. I cook really good. I can cook anything – Japanese, Jamaican. I cannot bake to save my life”, then she lets out a big dirty laugh. Rylan was her rival semi-finalist, she loved him: “he’s a wonderful guy, I was very pleased about my Jamaican chicken dish, everyone was saying how wonderful it was. But then I saw flour, milk, eggs and sugar and I thought I was gonna die. It meant baking. I couldn’t even breathe because I knew I was going to get kicked out, and I made the worst crepes ever.”
This week (June 22) she releases the song In Broad Daylight- vocals that reach inside your heart and all proceeds going to Black Lives Matter and Mobo Music awards Charitable Trust
And she’s made the definitive gospel music documentary full of detail and resonance– everyone can relate to these songs. Hearing her sing brings a warm shimmer to the soul, it seems particularly fitting that this program should come out just post-lockdown. Watch it, and even though you might not be religious, you understand why churches need to open. “It’s produced by Lenny Henry’s company. I wanted to do two programs, one talking about gospel music and the other talking about all the women singers – Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston – who had been tortured in the business. The BBC wanted me to do the gospel first because it’s my heritage, it’s about me. The program opens up with Stormzy at 2019 Glastonbury performing a rap version of ‘…’. It’s moving, and he literally brings the entire Glastonbury crowd to church. “Church was like a little community. It was a social event, it worked for me. When I was a kid, I felt I had a party trick. I would hold that note and the room went ‘oooommmm’. I felt like Bill Withers on ‘Lovely Day’.
“I come from a family of six, I desperately wanted to be noticed, so you had to do what you had to do.” Growing up, she had to be extremely well-behaved.
It’s normal in Caribbean families that the children are looked after by the grandparents. She saw her parents all the time: “my grandparents were lovely but super strict. As my grandfather was a pastor, we were the first family of the church so we had to be really circumspect. My Sunday clothes and Sunday shoes could not be touched for the whole of the week and on Sunday we had to have a beret to cover your head for church. Everyone looked at the first family for leadership. So when my parents were playing out, I was not allowed. I was in the house doing choir practice. A Victorian house in Lewisham that’s five bedrooms, a garden, a dog, a rabbit, a chicken and a cat. We still ate chicken rice and peas – just not that chicken. Everyone came to the house so there were lots of activities like a Monday prayer meeting, a Tuesday Bible study, so going out wasn’t even an option, but there was always something going on at home. It didn’t even feel weird. When I got to fifteen, I suddenly wanted to go out with my friends. And I did. And my grandmother followed me to my friend’s house. There was this dark figure darting around the street, watching me, going around the corner. She was very strict. But in a weird way, I don’t think she was controlling, just protective. And I’m actually thankful they were like that because a lot of my friends ended up really messed up. And going into the music business actually really helped me. I moved out when I was sixteen and signed my first deal at seventeen.”
She was studying art at Vauxhall college, and went to live with her sister in Brixton. “My grandparents had a complete meltdown and said ‘you’ve got to come back home’ it was horrible.” What were her parents doing at this point? “My mum and dad would visit us at weekends. They were total sixties children, all about the party – so imagine the contrast. The very strict Pentecostal upbringing. My grandad always wore a tie at home, we would have three meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and were never allowed to eat between meals. Dinner was served at six o’clock, and then you don’t eat again until the morning. When I used to go visit my mum and dad at weekends, it was curries, goat, chicken all the time and dub music, and people walking in and out of my mum’s house. I actually didn’t like it. I preferred the quiet and chill of my grandparents’. It’s a very Caribbean thing, that the children were looked after by the grandparents. It was about stepping in and looking after the children while the parents work. I remember getting told off by lots of people – mum, dad, grandparents, aunties, uncles. A line of people were telling me to behave myself. You didn’t say anything, it was all about ‘respect your elders and shut up’.” For anybody this would be hard to take, but for Mica, who is all about self-expression and telling it like it is, she found it impossible: “I couldn’t take it. I got to sixteen, and I moved out. I left the idyllic quiet life and strict upbringing and I thought ‘this is great’.” It’s always a woman to embrace extremes and feel quite at home in both of them. She was the youngest of the girls and then three boys followed. The three sisters sang together. Her elder sister, Dawn, has a PhD and is a lecturer The next sister, Paula, is a well known gospel singer.
Singing in church and singing with her first record label were a lifetime apart, much further than the distance from Lewisham to Brixton. “My granddad said ‘you’re going to become a harlot’. I had to look up in the dictionary what that meant. And I told him I was prepared. I had had fifteen years of Jesus and I was prepared.” Curiously, she can still quote with precision and passion from the Bible. She might have left Jesus, but I’m not sure Jesus ever let her go. “No, it never does. In fact, it got me through the pitfalls. You know, how one minute you’re loved and everyone wants you, and the next minute you’re just gone. I’ve had many peaks in my career, and many lows.” Peaks included her debut single My One Temptation – it was a worldwide smash, and two seasons of hosting What Not to Wear, as well as successful Radio Two presenting shows, Mica Meets and West End musical like Fame
“There have been many lows, and it’s my faith in God that gets me through that. I don’t go to church, but I pray. I pray in the morning, I pray in the evening. And I have a faith that is unshakeable. I believe there is something bigger than us, I’ve seen it work in my life many times.
Just yesterday I was speaking to Chaka Khan who is one of my oldest friends, and God-Mother to my eldest, Monet. She wants me to do some shows with her in America. I remember when I lost my second deal with EMI records. It was a time when they had Robbie Williams and they decided he was their next king, and anyone else didn’t get a look in. I made this album ‘Black Angel’, produced it, wrote it, did everything myself. And EMI said ‘this album is too urban we don’t know what to do with it’, I was devastated. I had been making this album for two years, I was with Raphael Saadiq and James Ingram. I suffered for that, it was 1997. Horrible times.” I wonder if anyone would say that these days, ‘it’s too urban’
Urban was a dirty word .it meant unplayable. Despite how far we’ve moved, clearly racism still hurts us all. “I went mental at EMI and said ‘I’m gonna be here after this building is gone’, I walked out, went back to my flat, and suddenly thought ‘what have I done?’ I haven’t got a deal, I haven’t got any money. And that’s when I got a phone call from Chaka who was in London doing a play, Mama, I Want to Sing! and she said ‘I hate it, the only way I can get out of this play is if you take it’. No problem, so the other day I said ‘you know, Chaka, you saved me’. I had no money, and I had paid thousands for this record, then lost the deal. Then I got this, that’s God.
I was in that show for six months and one day a producer Mike Peden, who produced I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, by The Chimes came to the show and wanted me to do another U2 song called One. I’d never heard the song (even though it’s one of U2’s most famous) so I did my version without being influenced by the original, and it was a massive hit. Bono wrote me a beautiful letter saying I did a great job. It just shows you how, in this business, you have to have faith, everyone had written me off, saying I had had my moment then I had a resurgence.” Here’s hoping that Black Angel will now have resurgence along with her new career as a documentary maker.
She has two daughters, Monet and Russia, and for now she’s a single mum. We reminisce about a man she loved very much, Max Beesley. “We were together for four years, but Max then was not who he is today (a sought-after television actor who starred in Suits) he was playing in Paul Weller’s band. I was just splitting up with Monet’s father, and I was heartbroken then I met Max and we totally fell in love, I couldn’t help myself. I had had a lot of dalliances in my life, Max was one of the best things that ever happened to me. The problem was the timing, I was so traumatised by the breakup of the marriage to Monet’s father it didn’t matter that Max saved up for four months to buy me a ring, he was only a session musician. But he was a legend, the best step-father and the best boyfriend you could ever have. But did I see it at the time? No. I was still traumatised by the previous relationship.
“He’s making another record and he wants me to get involved, which of course I will. He’s married now and living in LA. But if I could rewind the clock… Divorce is not easy, I was 25, had this little girl, Max was amazing, though I couldn’t see it then. We’re still friends.”
Gospel is all about stories of suffering and redemption, you feel it hard when she sings … .. she’s been through it.
In the program, she’s in a house in Memphis, which was a safehouse for slaves seeking their freedom. It was a basement. When the screen goes black and you imagine the darkness that they lived in and their fear for life itself Mica cries, anyone who watches it will cry. It’s no surprise that Mica rose up from nervous breakdowns: “I had a nervous breakdown after I split from Max.”
What happened? “I had a mass of anxiety attacks after I split from him. A doctor came round and called it ‘an anxiety attack’ I couldn’t breathe and thought I was going to die. They gave me morphine and told me I’d taken on too much. I was financially supporting many people and I was getting over the breakup. I had to stop being mummy to everybody, it was killing me. I hadn’t realised how much emotional support Max had been giving me until we split, and that’s when it all fell apart.”
Her pop career was still soaring she became close with Prince he wrote if I Love You Tonight for her. and had had a couple of encounters with Whitney Houston: “I’d just had my first hit record, My One Temptation, and you used to have to go to Germany to do this TV show. – it was like German Top of the Pops. Whitney was there. We had to do several rehearsals because the shows were not live, and all of a sudden we’re waiting in the greenroom and a big stretch limo turns up outside. I mean, you’ve never seen a limo as long as this, it took up the whole street. My record was killing it at this point, I was starting to get the bodyguards and that lifestyle, but not a limo the size of a street. Who’s got a car that big? Six bodyguards walk out, and then Whitney. She sang I Wanna Dance with Somebody. She was beautiful, super thin. Really shy. And awkward. Not comfortable in her own skin. We decided we’d go and have dinner afterwards. I told her ‘I think you’re really great.’ At the dinner table, she was playing footsie under the table, I think she was really into me but I had just come from the church and I was like ‘what? I don’t get it.’ I’m from south London, we don’t do that.”
They had stuff in common, they both came from a church background, “. I was 18, and although I loved her to bits, I was freaking out. Our next encounter was a year or so later when I got invited to Wembley when she was doing a concert. When I met her backstage, I said ‘good to see you’ I thought ‘this woman is so beautiful’. Forget the pictures, in real life she was so mesmerising, and I’m not even gay.” At that time, she was having a relationship with one of her female managers, Robyn. She was the best. She was strict with her but took good care of her. And then Bobby (Brown) came along: “he and I were really good friends, he liked my voice but he fancied my sister. We had a great time and lots of laughs and then Bobby met Whitney. Let me tell you, Bobby was a really good person, but he was influenced by others who were naughty. Do I think Bobby changed when he met Whitney? No. I think when Robyn was kicked out, Whitney went down. I don’t blame Bobby for Whitney, he just wasn’t strong enough to help her i think
The documentary shows the power of singing and redemption in a world where there was none. In a world where there are so many Black Lives Matter protests, it becomes all the more poignant. “We’ve got to remember, my thing is – and this is very hard to say as a black person – I love people, I love everybody, I don’t understand racism. I’ve even been told by my own people that I’m ‘not black enough’ because my children are mixed race. People even told Whitney she was ‘too white’ and that’s why she made the record Your Love is My Love, because she was trying to be black.” Whitney was famously controlled by Clive Davis and tamed into a pop princess. Mica’s record boss was Chris Blackwell at Island Records, who didn’t try to change her. “Bobby was fun, and an amazing performer, but he still had to go home to Whitney. And I don’t think women should ever have to apologise when they’re more successful than their man. He loved her, yes, but he wasn’t as big as her, and he was massive at one time. But he was with the queen so he wasn’t as massive. I feel the same thing happened with Amy Winehouse. I put her on my live show at Jazz Café which accompanied my Radio Two show called Soul Solutions. She wasn’t known at the time.
‘Gospel and women performers are my two loves. And this is the book I was writing with Paul, about why female singers are so tortured. Amy was always apologising for being successful. “Paul and I were best friends for 18 years, we met when my brother Jason was shot three times and killed by gun-crime. It was a massive story. Everyone was asking for the exclusive. Paul called and said ‘just wanted to say Should Have Known Better is one of my favourite songs of all time.’ I had had hell with that song because no one wanted to release it because it was ‘too black ’, it was also Whitney’s favourite song. I was so impressed the journalist even knew it, it had been relegated to a b side – so I said yes to the exclusive. And we became best mates, every month we’d have lunches that would go on for five or six hours. We’d go on holiday with his children and wife Michaela who is adorable Two weeks before he died we had a lovely dinner, and for the first time ever we went out raving afterwards. We were both passionate about food so going to a club was unusual. although he was also passionate about music – he had over 7,000 vinyl records. We went out and danced for two and a half hours, he died right after that. He was my best friend, I loved him. He’d take a bullet for you, in fact for lots of people. His dad had died in November 2019 and I don’t think he ever got over that. He was so good to so many people.”
She’s emotional, composes herself and talks about new projects. Her last Radio Two series was Mica Meets, where she interviewed people like Gladys Knight and Sister Sledge. And before that she took over from Trinny and Susanna presenting What Not to Wear. In an industry which is sexist and ageist, she’s coming into her time again – documentaries, acting and more.
Her cousin is boxer Chris Eubank: “he’s always said the British write you off when you get to a certain age, but if you’re passionate and you want to be relevant you still can.”
In Broad Daylight is out now.
The Gospel According to Mica is out July 25 on BBC 4.