National Portrait Gallery

Devotees

Mica Paris (b.1969)

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Mica Paris was born Michelle Wallen on 27 April 1969 in London, but abbreviated her forename to Micha before adopting its phonetic version as she moved further away from her gospel roots. Gospel united the Wallen family and inspired the careers of both Mica and her younger sister Alyesha (who enjoyed modest success as a solo artist herself). Paris performed in her grandparents’ church before joining the esteemed Spirit of Watts gospel group (with whom she featured on the 1985 Gospel Joy EP). Gospel would infiltrate Paris’s career as no other British contemporary female soul vocalist; it would influence the quality of her vocal tone and play a part in the material she would write and record.

Gospel has tutored many of soul music’s finest interpreters who often leave the hymnals behind in order to explore broader lyrical expression within secular music. Paris was no different. Despite possessing a voice rich in maturity and evocation, she was also a teenager keen to narrate her romantic and personal concerns. She started on this path by joining dance act Hollywood Beyond and appearing on their album, If (1985). After a brief period recording and touring with the band, Paris signed a solo record deal with 4th & Broadway when she was 17 years old.

My One Temptation, the lead single from her debut album So Good (1989) was the mid-tempo hors-d’oeuvre of material to come. The album highlighted Paris’s vocal and personal perspectives – from the sexy (Breathe Life Into Me), the artistically contemplative (Nothing Hits Your Heart Like Soul Music) to the slyly buoyant (Like Dreamers Do). Paris’s duet with acclaimed singer Will Downing was a collaboration that illustrated her professional far-sightedness and vocal competence (they covered Donny Hathaway & Roberta Flack’s Where Is The Love?). In just one album Paris was debutant, duet partner and co-writer.

Just a year later, the album’s successor, Contribution (1990) was released. It featured the track If I Love U 2 Nite, written for Paris by Prince, who during a London after-party performance handed her his microphone in the crowd while he accompanied her on guitar, on stage. Producers were always keen to work with Paris, and she found no shortage of collaborators. The benefits were obvious: their joint success raised their individual profiles and could lead to further commissions within the music industry at large.

With Omar Lye Fook, a classically trained musician with an unparalleled street soul reputation, Paris created arguably the greatest British street soul track in I Should Have Known Better (1990). It was issued on the b-side to I Never Felt Like This Before, which was promptly embraced as a club classic. Ray Hayden, an east London-based producer and singer-songwriter, also teamed up with Paris to make the most of her gospel background and romanticism. They recorded three tracks: the ballad Waiting For The Morning, the haunting gospel Bless The Day and the duet One on One (1992).

Despite sealing her status as one of the leading Black British soul singers by collaborating with the rising production talents of the day, even more collaborations and featured projects followed. From recording with Anita Baker, Bonnie Rait and Natalie Cole on the album Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute For A Free South Africa (1990) to providing the title track to Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels movie soundtrack (1991) to working with saxophonist Courtney Pine (Redemption Song/1992), British dance act The Stereo MCs (Don’t Let Up/1992) and the legendary Bobby Womack (I Wish I’d Never Met You/1991). In the midst of all these projects, Paris gave birth to her daughter, Monet, and later released and co-produced her third album, Whisper A Prayer (1993). After nominal collaborations on album tracks with the likes of US rapper Guru on his rap meets jazz concept album series, Jazzmatazz II, (Looking Through Darkness/1995), Mark Morrison (Tears For You/1996) and Maxwell (Mantra – Uncut/1996), Paris released the album Black Angel (1998/Chrysalis). It contained an unexpected and powerfully delivered cover version of U2’s One, and a duet with James Ingram, but it failed to find favour with fans. More collaborations followed with Seraphim Suite (Heart/2003), Omar (Confection/1994), percussionist and actor Max Beesley (High Vibes, Fast Response/1994), Dubversive (Police & Thieves/1998), the Mobo All Stars’ compilation (1998), Mister Exe (One Million Smiles/1998), Prince (Just My Imagination/2000), Boy George (I Could Be Someone/2000) and Jools Holland and Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour (I Put A Spell On You/2001). A Best Of collection was released in 1999 around the time that Mica became one of the first British soul singers to feature on a Walt Disney soundtrack, High Heels & Lowlifes which was later included in the Primal Screen soundtrack compilation album (2001).

Although she remains behind the microphone, Paris moved out of the recording booth and into the broadcaster’s chair in 2002 when she hosted the acclaimed Soul Solutions’ programme on BBC Radio 2 and narrating several music documentaries for the station.

In 2004 she released the album If You Could Love Me (Wounded Bird Records), which featured backing from the Brecker Brothers on the title track. In the same year she took part in the UK tour of the stage play, The Vagina Monologues. In 2003, Paris received a Gold Badge Award from the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters for her outstanding contribution to British entertainment. Two years later saw her inclusion in the London Evening Standard’s Top Black Britons Poll. Paris continues to perform live (notably with jazz pianist Julian Joseph) while also appearing on a variety of television programmes – from Channel 5’s news talk show, The Wright Stuff, ITV1’s all-female panel talk show, Loose Women, and BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing. She is currently co-hosting the consumer style programme, What Not To Wear for BBC television. She gave birth to her second daughter in June 2006.

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