Mica’s journey from Gospel to Gospel by Juliet Fletcher

Mica Paris is immediately recognisable to most of us. Her dark sultry looks, with eyes that draw you in and are, at the same time, like pools of still waters through which you can see a soul’s reflection. Add to that a genuine, full sunshine smile, and a rich depth and openness to her voice that signal her golden vocal resonating tone, it isn’t surprising that for the past thirty plus years Mica has been the lead Queen of British Soul Music.

Well, my lyrical description, inspired by the cover of her new album, entitled Gospel, seemed to be inviting, yet hinted at revealing a mystery. Therefore, when the opportunity came for me to interview Mica, it was my hope I could get to understand why this super singer had left the gospel scene, left the church and, seemingly, left God. Where did she stand in releasing this, her first album in ten years?

Of course, due to COVID-19, the interview was conducted via the chosen method of Zoom. It had been some 23 years since we had previously talked at length, but immediately it was as if we had only missed a week!

Confirming her church roots, Mica described her early days, living with her grandparents.

I was born in Islington of Jamaican parentage, one of six, in North London. By arrangement between my parents and my grandparents, around the age of nine my sisters (Dawn, Paula) and I moved to live with my grandparents, while my three brothers (Jason, Rashard and Che) stayed at home.  My grandparents, Mr and Mrs James and Gwendoline Armstrong, lived in a big five-bedroom house with their eight children. 

“Pastor and Mother Armstrong were leaders of the Brockley New Testament Church Of God (NTCG), which was connected to Lee NTCG as the Mother church. They were the foundation of my life, and we were the first family of the church.  Y’know, we had to be ‘perfect’. Everything centred around going to church services, prayer meetings, choir practice, Bible study… In those days, New T was hardcore – seven days a week – not like now (lol). My friends would be out playing, but I knew nothing else. It wasn’t like I was depressed about it. It was cool; it wasn’t boring to me. I loved it. I appreciated it. We had a big home, a big garden. We grew up with my aunts and uncles, and my grandmother was always cooking (which I now love to do, but I’m no way as good), and people would come from miles for her fried fish.  Our home was like a real major train station stop – a lot of church, a lot of prayer, a lot of music and a lot of food. Always busy.”

During the best part of seven years of living with her grandparents, Mica’s destined path was set: the carving out of a firm foundation, connected to something deep within her soul. 

“It was my grandmother who ‘discovered’ my voice, when I would run around the house singing ‘Rupert The Bear’. Also significantly, my auntie Colleen Armstrong (Grandma’s youngest daughter) brought over LP imports from the States that included Andraé Crouch and my particular obsession, The Hawkins Family. The first song I learnt was ‘God Will Open Doors’. Soon I became popular and even famed among the church. I really worked hard, especially after I won the national singing competition at the age of eleven, singing ‘He’s That Kind Of Friend’ during a New T Wembley Convention. I learned every ad lib and vocal nuance. When I held those long notes, and people just danced in the Spirit… Oh! I just loved that. On a personal level, around the age of thirteen, I began to feel a spiritual connection to God – a real high while I sang. It began to be a real ‘out-of-body experience’ for me, and to this day it is still so. I sensed that connection between me and the congregation, the audience and their response. It was thrilling.  I was growing in confidence. My sisters and I formed a group called The Harmony Sisters. And then I joined The Spirit Of Watts, the vocal group from which I launched into my solo career.”

The Spirit Of Watts – original members Barrington Desouza, Verna Wilkes, Leroy Barrett-Ashley, Errord Jarrett and Mica – was formed and managed by music author and entrepreneur, Viv Broughton. 

I loved everything I was doing, but many tensions arose around my singing. Most significantly was the view that the gospel singing of groups like LCGC was too ‘worldly’, but I thought it was fantastic. It was heavily frowned upon in New T at the time. There were so many great concerts then, with singers like Lavine Hudson, Patricia Knight and The Wades. My sight was now set on wanting a real career in music. 

“When Viv Broughton visited my local church and met my grandparents, they took to him straightaway. He told them I was uniquely talented and had a real gift. Contrary to popular belief, it was I who persuaded Viv to get me a record deal. For me. Viv was not willing. He wanted me to sing gospel, but by now I really wanted to get out and break free of church. I ran for my life. I didn’t want to have anything more to do with church. However, against his better preference for me, Viv got me that record deal. Just to say, Viv Broughton has done a lot for gospel music, and there has been a total lack of recognition for his incredible contribution to pushing and contributing to its growth. He’s a great guy!”

Mica’s entry into the world of popular music happened at a key time – both socially and culturally – for Black Britain. 

“I had moved to live with my sister in the Brixton area. It was a troubled time. My brother was beaten up by police for no reason, but thankfully he and all my family never became twisted or bitter. They excelled, with PhDs and Masters. When I got my record deal, one of the first things I did was to take the TV crew making a documentary to follow me down to my old school in Lewisham, to the teacher who had told me I couldn’t be anything like a Diana Ross. For me, when I’m told I can’t, it’s not a demotivation but fuel for my rocket. I was a precocious teenager at seventeen, I wanted to be and do it all! Now signed to one of the biggest Black music labels – Chris Blackwell’s Island Records – on the same books with Bono and Grace Jones, and my first album went platinum straightaway!

“I love the story of the Prodigal Son. This so speaks of my life. Can you imagine the amount of stories the Prodigal had to share about his return to his father? The son that went all over the place, then went a bit nutty, but the father received him back and respected him. I’m all about that journey. 

“I love the moral fibre of the Christian faith. It’s a personal relationship that I Iove. I’m a big-time believer. I could not be standing here without my faith. I follow JESUS as opposed to religious dogma. 

“Gospel music I deeply love. I am deeply committed to it. Recording this album has been a watershed moment in my life. My life over the last 32 years has been one of triumphs and challenges. Going back to my gospel roots has given me hope and faith at a time we all need it, and I hope others will feel the same. Last year I was so inspired to see artists like Stormzy make gospel music current again. 

“My recent documentary for the BBC, ‘The Gospel According to Mica’, was a game changer for me. I realised my voice had matured, and the pain of my struggles had added a new strength. Today we all face challenges like we’ve never had before, and faith in the future will help us all through this, so I hope my album will inspire people to have hope. As my grandmother always told me: ‘Don’t worry, prayer changes everything’ – and she was right. 

“The first single to be released, ‘Mamma Said’, is inspired by my grandmother. My grandparents taught me the meaning of life. They were of the Windrush Generation, who encompassed what hard work was. My grandmother was really my first agent. She took me to sing in every church in the UK from the age of nine, and soon I was winning singing competitions. This led me to make soul music and achieve worldwide success. In these uncertain times, it’s the power of music that will get us through. Some of the best songs in life have brought me through the toughest periods of isolation.” 

Mica sang ‘Amazing Grace’ during this year’s Festival of Remembrance on Remembrance Sunday, and will be presenting a gospel show on Christmas Day on BBC Radio 2 from 6pm to 8pm. 

Her new album, Gospel, is on sale now on Amazon and other online retailers. For more information, visit her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/MicaParis/ . You can also follow her on social media:

twitter.com/MicaParisSoul

youtube.com/MicaParisOfficial

instagram.com/mica_paris_soul

vimeo.com/micaparissoul

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