Mica Paris kicks off the Cork Jazz Festival tomorrow night with a show featuring the songs of Ella Fitzgerald. She tells Ellie O’Byrne about her own rise to fame and her love of the American legend.
How deep do your roots in gospel go?
“I never lose it. My grandparents raised me and they were ministers, so I went to church seven days a week. Choir practice, bible study: it went on for 15 years. It was great, because it was also a whole community of musicians.
My grandparents were Jamaican, Pentecostal church. Their house was full of music. My aunts and uncles were classically trained, and they were always rehearsing, everything from ragtime to Mozart.
When I walked home from school, I could hear the piano from the bottom of the street.”
From your gospel background to your platinum-selling debut album and partying with the stars so young: that must have been quite a change?
“I signed my deal with Island Records when I was 18, and the album came out when I was 19 and went mental in the charts. I didn’t know it was going to happen so quickly; I was quite surprised.
Browns was the big club back then, in Holborn, and everyone was there: George Michael, Prince, all these record execs. We’d go, but I couldn’t keep up. I wasn’t a drinker, so I was always throwing up in the toilets.
I think I was lucky: because I was such a kid, everyone was protective of me. I remember thinking, why do two people keep going into the toilet all the time? I remember asking someone and them saying, ‘Mica, they’re doing drugs.’
And it was like, ‘Aaaah, I see.’ I was so green.”
What kept you on track?
“My grandparents really thought I was going to become a drug addict in the industry so I kind of made it my mission to prove them wrong.
They were terrified; I had to beg them to let me sign my first deal because they thought I’d end up a train wreck.
But too many of my idols had gone that way; Marvin Gaye had just died a couple of years before my deal, and he was my number one.
I had all the dangers drilled into me and I had the fear of going to hell because honey, trust me, I was pretty sure it would happen. If you are indoctrinated seven days of the week than you kind of believe it.”
The music business is notoriously tough, and yet you’ve had this remarkably enduring 30-year career. What has that taken?
“I’m an eternal optimist and I always knew this was what I wanted to do.
When everyone told me it would be tough for me, or impossible, or that I’d never get signed, I just had an unshakeable belief in the gift I’d been given, and it didn’t matter how many people said no. I just didn’t stop.
My job here is to touch people with the gift I’ve got. That might sound romantic or idealistic but it was my modus operandi and it’s what kept me going.
When you’re on stage and you see people respond emotionally to your voice and they’re uplifted by it, you kind of know that that’s bigger than the other stuff. It’s the most powerful thing in the world.
No industry can own you.”
When you had your first chart success, black artists in the UK music scene were relatively rare. Now, they’re front and centre. Is that satisfying to see?
“There aren’t a lot of female performers though. It’s mostly male: female vocalists? Not really.
It’s true, when I started we only really had Sadé, and she was really big. The UK hadn’t had someone with a big gospel voice before; I was a teenager with this huge voice.
Brits were like, ‘Wow, she’s not American’. Then it was Shaka Khan, Prince, Natalie Cole: I was swarmed on by Americans and they dragged me over and I ended up touring the States and living there. I still visit a lot.”
You’re Chris Eubank’s cousin; when was the last time you saw him?
“I saw him in June; we were at the Polo with the Queen and stuff. I hadn’t seen him for months, but usually I see him quite a bit when he’s in London. We catch a drink or we bump into each other.”
He’s such a sharp dresser, does that run in the family?
“Yes, I’m like that too. Chris has his own thing going on but for me, I think taking pride in how I dress comes from the church thing too.
You had to have your Sunday best, your church outfits were pristine and weren’t touched for anything else.”
You’ve lent your voice to numerous causes. You’ve worked with the Amy Winehouse Foundation, you’re a Fair Trade ambassador, and when your brother was shot, you spoke out against gun crime. Do you feel it’s important to use your position in the public eye for more than just entertainment?
“I’ve been an ambassador with the Amy Winehouse Foundation for six years; it’s an amazing foundation and they do great work.
Whatever I do, if it’s a song, a radio show, a book, the intention is always the same: to inspire. That’s what an artist’s job is, any way you can do it. We’re here to serve humanity.”
Why is Ella Fitzgerald such an inspirational figure to you?
“I felt drawn to pay homage to her two years ago on her centenary. This woman was incredible: I just wanted to give her some respect. She probably had the longest career known to man, and she was totally independent.
People run around with this feminism thing now, but she was out there for years doing all these things that only men were supposed to do and she didn’t make a big drama about it.
As a musician, she was constantly evolving, which is why her catalogue is so massive. Her versatility makes her a hero of mine, and the fact she died doing what she loved, and the fact that no-one sounded like her.
I do Ella in Mica Paris way; I’m not here to copy, I’m here to appreciate and pay homage.”
Did you know that Ella also performed at Cork Jazz Festival, in 1980?
“Well, I’ve got chills now. No, I didn’t know that. Thank you for telling me! I hope I’ll get as warm a reception as she did: fingers and toes crossed.”
Mica Paris sings the songs of Ella Fitzgerald at the Everyman as part of the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. The show is sold out