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We can all serve others through our creativity

Soul singer Mica Paris talks to Renée Davis about her upcoming tour and what she learnt from her upbringing in church

My whole life was music and church. I grew up having a strong faith

 LAST year marked the centenary of the birth of US jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. To celebrate, UK soul singer Mica Paris recorded and released ‘Imagine My Frustration’ and ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ – two classics from the Ella Fitzgerald catalogue.

Tomorrow (Sunday 11 February), Mica is setting out on a tour of UK venues to sing more Ella Fitzgerald songs with a live band. As we talk, she tells me about her admiration for Ella and how she is gearing up for the concerts.

‘Ella Fitzgerald was my hero when I was growing up,’ she says. ‘I loved her because her sound was completely different. It was universal and versatile.

‘I was about seven years old when I saw her for the first time on television, on an advert for Memorex tapes. It was the first time I saw a black person on television and I thought to myself: “Yeah, I want to be her!”

‘Touring with my new jazz band is going to be exciting. When I recorded the two Ella songs last year, I didn’t think things would take off like they did. We performed at the Royal Albert Hall in December and it was fabulous. Audiences are going to have to put on their dancing shoes.’

Mica describes Ella as someone who transcended genres with her voice and talent. But Mica has also demonstrated her talents in a variety of ways during a 30-year career in which she has scored hits with songs such as ‘My One Temptation’, ‘Black Angel’ and ‘Stay’, appeared in the musicals Mama, I Want to Sing and Love Me Tender, taken part in Strictly Come Dancing and Celebrity MasterChef and presented Radio 2 soul and gospel programmes.

‘I’ve been blessed to have had hits here in the UK as well as the States,’ she says. ‘When I started out in the industry, I decided I wanted to make records that would stand the test of time. I was raised listening to all the greats, and I thought that it was a good idea to make music like them. I was only 17, but I realised that they had lasted a long time doing what they did. I knew I had to keep making that kind of music.’

During her long career, Mica has worked with, among others, Prince, Jools Holland, Anita Baker, Dionne Warwick and Natalie Cole.

She says her breakthrough in America provided her with many opportunities.

‘Flying to Minneapolis as a teenager and being summoned to work with Prince over there was fabulous. Singing with Bobby Womack was also a memorable time in my career. I wrote a song and he said that he wanted to duet with me. Having him come to the studio and sing it was special.

‘I was also blessed to have people like Chaka Khan take me under her wing. I remember once sitting in her kitchen drinking coffee and thinking: “Wow!”

‘I’ve known her for a long time now. She’s a dear friend and godmother to my eldest daughter.’

Mica’s roots in music run deep in gospel. As the granddaughter of pastors, she spent most of her young days in church.

‘My upbringing was quite strict,’ she says. ‘As the “first family” of the church, we had to lead by example to the rest of the congregation.

‘We went to church six days a week and regularly had choir practice, Bible study and so on. I loved that there was always something to do. My house was filled with music because my grandparents were obsessed with it. My auntie and uncle were classically trained and were rehearsing every day. I was exposed to composers from Scott Joplin to Mozart.

‘My father is a trumpet and flute player, and I get my singing voice from him. My whole life was music and church. I grew up having a strong faith and learnt that everything we did was not for us, but for others.’

Mica says she feels that she does not own her talent; rather, she sees it as a gift that she can use to serve others.

‘I believe God gives us our talents to touch other people,’ she explains. ‘In an age of narcissism, to be of service to humanity is a powerful thing.

‘God made us to be creative beings, and I believe we can all serve others through our creativity. It could be something as simple as gardening or cooking. It doesn’t matter how; what matters is that we’re here to work for someone else.’

Mica aims to work for others through being an ambassador for the Fairtrade movement and through her backing of Kibera in Need, a charity that supports people in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

‘I’ve visited Kibera a few times and it has changed my perspective on life,’ she says. ‘The people there have absolutely nothing but are the happiest people you could come across. The first time I went, I cried my eyes out and felt like a complete idiot for every complaint I’d ever made about life. But the trips I’ve made have been empowering because the people are so appreciative. It’s fabulous to be there and see how the charity’s money gets used.

‘A lot of the time, people are too detached when giving to charities. We can’t just put money in envelopes and not know where it’s going. We have to get involved.’

On home soil, Mica’s plans are set to keep her busy.

‘Everything I’m doing this year is about celebrating women,’ she says. ‘I’m writing a book about women in music. It will be from my perspective, talking about the journey of female singers and all that we have to go through.

‘In many industries, it can be hard for women because we’re expected to juggle career, motherhood and everything else. It’s difficult and can sometimes lead to unnecessary guilt.’

But she is keen on encouraging young women to pursue their passions.

‘My job is to help other girls realise that they don’t have to be a stereotype,’ she says. ‘They can break the mould and do what they put their mind to, even though it might not be popular all the time.

‘A lot of people have been upset with the choices I’ve made in my life. They weren’t always lucrative, but I don’t care about the money. I never have. I care about loving what I do.’

Or, as Ella would say: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. 

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