- Carola Kolbeck
Soul Music and its Identity: Songs in Empathy and Comradery by Mica Millar
© Photography Jasmine All-Cock Fox
Music label owner, producer, singer-songwriter, documentary-maker, racial activist, and passionate soul music advocate - Mica Millar is more than just a bright star in soul heaven.
It’s hard to believe that Mica Millar, owner of a voice so stunning that it doesn’t compare to anything or anyone else, has never had formal vocal training. Instead, she puts the development of her incredible voice down to being a songwriter, repetition, and honing in on her artistry as a musician.
At only 35 years young, the Manchester-born and bred soul star has more experience performing a variety of genres than many others and, on top of this, runs her own music label. She recently won Jazz FM Soul Act of 2022, an acknowledgment she celebrated amongst industry veterans such as Jools Holland and Marcus Miller.
After a freak accident over two years ago that nearly left her paralysed, you’d expect Mica to take things slowly. Instead, she is busy editing her new music video whilst simultaneously preparing for her upcoming 2023 tour, planning international gigs, and getting involved in music’s latest technological advances.
It seems like she never stops; “I am quite focused as well as a bit of a control freak and perfectionist”. The multi-passionate artist is also an avid ally with a keen interest in Black history, society, and human emotions and behaviours. The former lead to her presenting a two-hour black history month programme on Reform Radio, and the latter prompted the filming and release of her own mini docu-series The Defender.
In between snippets of time, Mica spoke to INJECTION Magazine about the highlights of her career, her love for soul music, and her passion and vision beyond her identity as Mica Millar - the singer.
You credit your parents and growing up around soul music for being where you are today. You were also part of a band and ventured into electronic music. Can you describe how it felt to make music that wasn’t “the musical love of your life”?
I think it’s really interesting to explore other genres because you learn a lot from them. At that time, a number of years ago, I had been writing songs in my house and recording with this 16-track desk, which was quite limiting. I remember feeling very frustrated as an artist that I wasn’t able to create a finished piece of music.
Electronic music enabled me to explore more about technology and music production. I also worked with producers who were not working with live instruments, and that made me realise that there were other ways to approach having a finished piece of music. I have since utilised elements of that in some of the productions of my own album.
You say that your songwriting process is very intimate, and you need to be alone and work with your flow of consciousness. Was it, therefore, easy for you to return to being a solo artist?
I think there were some pivotal moments back then. I was working with a good friend of mine, who is a producer and is doing a lot of soul-hip-hop but with electronic production. We spent six months in the studio together and pretty much wrote an album, but when we looked at it we just didn’t feel that it represented me.
There was also an intervention with two vocalists, who are soul singers in their own right but also performed backing vocals for me. We’d gone to this international women’s day event together, and afterward, they sat me down, and they told me that when we’d been rehearsing, and it was all stripped back, everything was amazing, but when you put it into the context of electronic music it just lost the magic. They were completely right.
I guess I knew that I was always going to go back to being a solo artist, but it was really difficult to take that leap, also financially, because it’s really expensive to record and produce live music!
You write, record, produce, and market your music - are there elements you can see yourself handing over to others over time, and how do you look after your physical and mental well-being?
I think it’s very challenging because I’m using two different head spaces: one for creativity and one for business and marketing. Those things are very separate, and whilst I can get into those headspaces and enjoy each of them, moving smoothly between the two is really the big challenge. You can’t do anything unless you’ve got the music, the videos, and all the creative stuff - that always has to be my priority. It’s difficult to hand things over mid-task when you’ve been handling everything yourself for some time, but yes, there are other people coming onto the team, for example, to help run the label, and of course, I have a great team working PR, Radio and a live agents and sync agent as well. I always want to make sure that everything is done in a certain way, and I think there will be things that I’ll always be involved in, but others I can let go of.
Because I’m very focused, I often find myself prioritising work over my own sanity and physical health. But obviously, I had an accident on a trampoline in 2020 and had to do rehabilitation. I have just started doing neuro-physio-therapy because, finally, there is a department for that in Manchester which is amazing! I feel like I’m really applying myself to that, and that’s helping me in a physical sense to take breaks and focus on my physical strength. This is also good in preparation for the tour because I need to be fighting fit for all of these shows!
Your song, Girl, is a love song to all women, celebrating our strengths and struggles. How do you feel when you perform it?
When I wrote that song, I was having quite a difficult time, I think it was after my accident. I was working with some backing vocalists, and we’d really bonded and became really close over a four or five-year period. They inspired me by how supportive they were and the conversations we had around the kitchen table after we’d been rehearsing. So, I suppose when I perform Girl, I really get that sense of togetherness and that support, that female comradery, that empathy, and that understanding we have for each other.
It's important to me to support and champion women, and I feel like having a song like that is important!
© Mica Millar via Instagram
You won the Jazz FM Soul Act of the Year last year in October and picked up your award amongst other legends such as Jools Holland and Marcus Miller. Can you describe that moment for us?
It was very triumphant! It’s been a long journey creating the album. Jazz FM has been a huge supporter of my music and has been fundamental to getting people to hear my songs. And then, I got to meet Jools Holland afterward in the press room, which was great, and I asked him if he would take a picture with me, and he said: “It would be my honour to have a picture with you!”. I was very honoured!
There are definitely conflicting feelings about winning an award for soul music, which is Black music. It’s important to acknowledge the roots of the music you make, and I’m incredibly passionate about it and the artists that have inspired me. I also think it’s about loving and preserving that music and its identity, so it lives on.
You have a new single coming out on 24th February. What can your fans expect?
Trouble is lifted from my album Heaven Knows, and I’m just editing its new music video! It’s the first time I’ve tried to do a video with a narrative; a lot of my previous videos are more performance-based. But this time, I really wanted to do something different and tell a story. It came to me as an inspiration about my grandad’s life, who was a lovable rogue; I actually wrote the song Heaven Knows on his birthday after he died.
I explored with my dad about my grandad’s life and how he was always looking over his shoulder because he’d done something wrong [laughs]. I remember him having this conversation with me when I was a teenager about redemption, really, so the concept for the video is about carrying Karma or baggage, which is the theme within the song Trouble. I can’t wait for the video to come out!
In 2018 you launched The Defender Campaign, a documentation that highlighted stories of people who did extraordinary things to help others. Why was this important to you, and can you tell us more about this and the connection to your homonymous single, The Defender?
The song The Defender explores feelings of empathy and compassion. The min-docs look at incidents such as someone being beaten up in the street and no one helping. Things like that would previously enrage me, and I’d think, why do people not step up? I started becoming aware of this bystander mentality, and I thought that there are also people in this world that aren’t like that. I was really interested in understanding what the driver behind both kinds of behaviour was.
We also told the story of Sarah, kidnapped by her dad, a Muslim from Yemen. Through the help of a Dutch lady, she was reunited with her British mother after around ten years. Initially, I had absolutely no empathy for Sarah’s father’s actions. I just thought what he did was horrific, and I still do. But during the process of the documentary, I began to understand things from Sarah’s perspective and why she had this level of empathy for him.
It made me realise that those are the crooks of how the world becomes a better place, that we have to approach things with an understanding that people’s beliefs and moral compass are broad-ranging, based on their own personal experiences of what the world is, and we all see it very differently. So I was hoping that the documentary was beneficial for those who took part in it and those who watched it.
What else are you passionate about?
A passion that stems from my love for soul music is engaging in discussions about racism in. Angelie, who was also in the music video performing backing vocals for Girl, is a racial activist, and I’ve been working with her for a long time. She taught me a huge amount, and together we did a radio programme, talking about Black history where I interviewed her, a female politician, and her dad, a historian who specialises in Black history.
There was some conflict from people who felt that, as a white woman, and this was before the murder of George Floyd, I shouldn’t be presenting a programme about Black history. Unfortunately, the point was really missed there, and it was also interesting that the rebuttal came from white people. I think there is still a lot of education that we all need to engage in for real change to happen.
As a white person, you need to utilise and acknowledge your own privilege and engage in those kinds of conversations and be an ally. And I think that, as time has evolved over the last few years since we did that programme, people’s understanding (including my own) of where white people fit into this picture and where their voices can be utilised has become better understood. I think there’s still a lot of work to do, but that’s an area I’m incredibly passionate about.
© Photography Jasmine All-Cock Fox
What are your visions for the rest of 2023?
It’s funny that you ask me that because I’ve just come up with an idea this morning, but I don’t feel it’s ready to be shared yet. I think one of the things I found quite interesting about being a woman in the music industry is that many times, people don’t acknowledge you for other aspects of your life. It’s more like: Mica Millar, the singer.
I feel very passionately about the other things I do, like music production and songwriting; that’s definitely something that I want to continue to develop and maybe work with some other artists too. I’m interested in putting someone else out on my label in the future, maybe not this year but next year, and really exploring technology and advancements in technology.
There are lots of interesting developments in technology; there are ambisonics mixes, there are NFTs (non-fungible tokens), there’s Dolby Atmos; we’ve just done a Dolby Atmos Mix for Trouble, which we’re gonna put out as well, so I’m really interested in exploring the ways that we can push the boundaries of music, and I really think that Dolby Atmos is the future of audio - these mixes just sound amazing!
I’m interested in exploring a few different avenues; of course, the focus is touring, and I will see what else I can cram into my schedule!
There is a serenity of Mica in everything she does. Her artistry and activism are effortlessly beautiful without acknowledging the hard work: Be it her voice, her songwriting, filmmaking, and tireless activism. She champions those who need it most. And her love for soul music is a gift for everyone.
Follow Mica on Instagram and TikTok, check out her website, and listen to her latest single, Trouble, on Spotify! You can also book tickets for her upcoming tour here.