Followers of the better soul media (e.g. – MarkTurner’s excellent Soul Strutter blog and of course, this one!) and the more aware soul stations will, by now, have come to know and love Manchester soulstress, MICA MILLAR. She’s been on the scene for a few years now but since January Mica has released a trio of acclaimed singles… the powerful ‘Preacher Man’, the retro-tinged ‘Girl’ and the gorgeous ‘Heaven Knows’ which just happens to be the title track on Ms. M’s new album which hits the sales racks this Friday, 10th June. (see our reviews pages) So, it’s an obvious and opportune time to meet up with Mica and learn more about this much-anticipated long-player. But first, of course, first, a little background!
I’m originally from Withington in South Manchester, that’s where I grew up. I went to Parrswood High School in Didsbury. My dad is a drummer and also has a shop in Affleck’s Palace (a large “alternative” sort of market in an old department store) so I was brought up around a lot of music and alternative fashion. My mum worked in PR in the music business for a few years when she was younger as well, that’s how my parents met.
What were your musical influences growing up and when did you decide to make a career out of music?
I always loved Soul music. My mum was really into Motown and collected a lot of vinyl records when I was a kid and my dad was into Folk, Blues, Prog Rock and a lot of more leftfield artists – there was always music blasting from our kitchen at night, someone would be cooking a meal with the stereo turned up full blast. My dad used to have evening rehearsals or song writing sessions at our house either in the kitchen or his studio in the basement. Between my parents, they introduced me to Stevie Wonder, Jackson 5, The Beatles and The Beach Boys when I was a kid and my auntie had given me a record player, they took a while to deliberate which records to give me …pretty solid choices!
I grew up in the 90’s and it was all about 90’s RnB, American Hip Hop, UK Garage at that time. I think all of these genres as well as more traditional Soul, Blues, Jazz and Gospel have had an influence on me.
I don’t think I ever really ‘made the decision’ to make a career in music, I was always writing songs from a very young age so my path has very naturally brought me to this point in my life.
I read that amongst your first steps in the business was with a band … Red Sky Noise. What can you tell us about that?
I was performing solo a little bit with a band before Red Sky Noise and then I was approached by an old friend who wanted to put a music project together. We released a song that I wrote called ‘Only You’ which won BBC 1Xtra single of the week and featured on EA Sports NHL back in 2015. We worked on that project for around a year but we found in the end that we all wanted to go in different directions musically. I love electronic music, but my passion is for Soul music and always has been.
… and what about your radio DJ work? What can you tell us about Reform Radio?
Reform Radio launched around eight or nine years ago and I was approached by the Directors and asked if I wanted to present a show. It was an amazing experience, we launched the station with three shows including mine, broadcasting from the basement of their house. Then we moved to Old Granada Studios and then later to a bonded warehouse. I presented on Reform for about five years, and it’s been amazing to watch the station grow from three shows to hundreds, winning awards along the way. I’m proud of what the team there has been able to achieve. I’m no longer involved due to time commitments but when I left, I was the longest standing presenter alongside my good friend Jenna G.
Would you like to talk about your first steps as a solo artist… the singles ‘My Lover’ and ‘Not The First’?
It was quite a big step for me releasing ‘My Lover’ after being involved with electronic music releases for a few years. I had always felt like I wasn’t really being my authentic self as an artist’s back then and ‘My Lover’ I suppose, was like the unveiling of that for me and it was very raw, stripped back and exposed. The song was so well received, and it really gave me a lot more confidence that doing what I love artistically would resonate with people. It’s for that reason that I decided to include it on the album and it was remastered at Abbey Road Studio along with the other thirteen tracks.
So, as your career was shaping up, we were all hit by Covid and you of, of course, suffered a horrendous back accident… are you prepared to tell us how you coped with that… what kept you going?
I had an accident in 2022 which resulted in me crushing one of my vertebrae and severely damaging my spinal cord. I was very nearly paralyzed so I’m incredibly lucky. It’s a long-term injury so it’s a lot to come to terms with but I’m definitely getting there.
Going through something so traumatic in the midst of recording the album was a real challenge but honestly, I just really didn’t want my injury to define me or impact what I had been working towards creatively. When Covid hit, it felt like one thing after another for me, I just thought, the universe is telling me to take some time out now. There were nine months where I was learning to walk so it wasn’t really feasible to work on the album, but I think that period of time did give me some perspective and when I was able to get back into my studio, I had a much clearer vision for how I’d finish the record.
Covid, in many ways, opened up a lot of opportunities for me to work with people I’d always wanted to work with in the US. Given everything was online at that time as we were in lockdown, recording remotely meant that could happen anywhere in the world. I’m glad I was able to take such a difficult situation and to make something really positive out of it.
Now you’re clearly in a better place and have three successful singles under your belt. How do you explain their success while your earlier ventures had less exposure?
I think you get out what you put in – this album has been three years in the making and I’ve spent a lot of time planning the release campaign with my team, filming music videos etc. With earlier releases I think I was testing the water really and with this I’ve really gone all out and the response has been incredible.
Your debut album is out this Friday, 10th June and the title track, ‘Heaven Knows’ has winning great reviews, why did you choose that as the title track?
For me, ‘Heaven Knows’ really sums up the themes across the album as well as my experience when creating it. The song is about moving between mindsets of belief and fear or self-doubt and trying to ground yourself in the knowing that everything is going to be OK – Heaven Knows or the Universe knows. The song explores themes of human nature, spirituality, oppression, love, empowerment and I think these all have duality or plurality in the way we experience them, and I love the duality of ‘Heaven Knows’ as a sentiment – it’s either an affirmation and a feeling of empowerment or an abandonment of control.
Yes, that one and the other two singles from the album all carry important messages… ‘Preacher Man’ dealt with escaping from capitalism in pursuit of what it truly means to be human; ‘Girl’ spoke of accepting and taking inspiration from the commonalities of our respective journeys through life and ‘Heaven Knows’ explores the complexities of faith and fate and the duality of moving between mindsets. Are there more “didactic songs” on the album and can we expect some cuts with less lyrical complexity – songs that deal with things like romance, relationships etc… the traditional fare of popular music for want of a better description?
There are a lot of topics I explore on the album but yes, there are songs about relationships, love and heartache. That said, I really didn’t want to write an album of ‘love songs’ (and I could have done – I have plenty of those written). I thought very hard about the track order and the plethora of messages that I wanted to communicate. There were definitely other contenders for ‘singles’ ahead of the album but I thought it was important not only to showcase the songs and me as an artist, but also to introduce the subject matter. The album is ultimately about being human and we are complex beings.
Did you write all the songs yourself and what about the producer and musicians on the album?
For this album, I wrote, arranged and produced it myself independently. I had an amazing mentor in the early stages of recording called Lewis Hopkins who engineered a significant proportion of the record in the first studio sessions which we did over five days at Middle Farm in Devon. For that session I worked with Miles James (Michael Kiwanuka, Tom Misch, Cloe Soul), Jonathan Tuitt, Marc Morrison and Arran Powell (members of Emile Sande’s live band) with Lewis and another engineer called Andy Thomas who also took the photograph that was used for the album’s sleeve artwork.
After that, it was Covid, and I started recording with people remotely. On ‘Preacher Man’ I played piano and programmed a lot of the instrumentation and John Ellis (Lilly Allen, Corinne Bailey Rae) recorded organ and Jerry Barnes (Whitney Houston, Chic) recorded the bass part.
I worked on the other tracks with musicians mostly from the US. ‘Will I See You Again’ has Bobby Sparks (Snarkey Puppy) on piano and Marcus Miller’s prodigy Brandon Rose on Bass. I worked remotely with bass player and engineer Vince Chiarito (Black Puma’s) at Hive Mind Studio’s in New York to record drums on ‘Girl’ and ‘Will I See You Again’ and he brought in some brilliant musicians to play keys and organ and also played bass on a number of the songs too. Ricky Peterson (former Prince organist) and David Z (Prince, Etta James producer/engineer) both worked on ‘Fool’s Fate’ with me. There’s been some amazing musicians who’ve contributed to the record and bringing together people from across the ages of Soul music has really made this album what it is in many ways.
What particular songs on the album would you like to direct us to. Which one are you most proud of?
That’s a very difficult question! For me, every song means a lot to me but (in order of how they appear on the album) I would direct you to ‘Heaven Knows’’, Flashlights’, ‘Will I See You Again’ and ’Down River’.
How would you describe the album’s sound… if we were to genre pigeon-hole it, where would we put it?
Simple… it’s a Soul album.
I believe there’s a tour lined up too. What can you tell us about that?
I will be launching the album with two big UK shows, one at Jazz Café London on 17th September and my hometown show at Albert Hall Manchester on 25th September. I’ll be performing with my amazing eight-piece band and it will be the first time we’ve performed the album live as a full band so it’s incredibly exciting. Some of the songs that were recorded remotely have actually never been played live to an audience in a venue so it’s going to be really special.
And where do you see yourself in, say, 5 years’ time?
In five years, I’d like to have a couple more albums under my belt and we’ll just have to wait and see about the rest…
… and where can we learn more?
There’s lots on my website https://www.micamillar.co.uk/ and I’m on Instagram, Twitter and Tiktok @mica_millar , facebook.com/micamillarmusic or youtube.com/micamillar