Name: Mica Millar
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Recent release: Mica Millar's debut album Heaven Knows is out via Golden Hour.
If you enjoyed this interview with Mica Millar and would like to keep up to date with her work, visit her official website. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
For me it’s about a need to express myself and process my emotions in a way that can’t be done through other channels - language doesn’t always have the capacity to communicate all that can be communicated when you combine it poetically with music.
For this album (Heaven Knows), I used a ‘stream of consciousness’ approach to writing quite a lot, either over an instrumental I've created or starting with finding chords on the piano that resonate with me in the moment, and feeling out what kind of emotions and words they evoke. This approach involves basically singing whatever comes out and then you interpret it later.
A lot of what you express from a process like that I think comes from the subconscious mind so it’s difficult when people ask what inspires me or what songs are about. I always go into writing without an intention and use the process to identify things I probably need to process. But of course, the subconscious mind is made up of all of the memories from our day to day lives so relationships and human experience are the things that often surface and express themselves through the lens of my political spiritual and political beliefs.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
When my approach to the song begins with instrumentation rather than writing on a piano, then I will often map out the structure of the instrumentation first. Sometimes that might be just a verse and a chorus or it might be the whole song.
That said, usually I am more drawn to working with simple or repetitive chord structures, for example, songs with four chords all the way through. I enjoy creating the complexity more subtly in the melodies and the arrangements and I also like to be in a very meditative state when I’m writing. Working with chords that don’t change is the best way I find to induce that sort of flow-state.
In terms of lyrics, there are only a couple of songs on the album - 'Heaven Knows' and, I think, ‘No Money, Nor Faith’, where I approached this with a particular message in mind that I wanted to communicate.
Again though, I think for this track I had developed an instrumental which drew out that sort of feeling and those words. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation isn’t it?
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
I sometimes do research when I’m mid-way through writing a song - usually if I’m looking for words that rhyme with a line that I love or if I come up with a word or sentence that I don’t fully understand. That happens for me in stream of consciousness writing sometimes.
‘Down River’ was written entirely using this method and in one take from start to finish.
‘Flashlights’ for example, was mostly written as a stream of consciousness but there were quite a lot of words and lines that didn’t quite make sense in the first recording so I had to spend time trying to maintain the rhythmic pattern of the lyrics, interpreting the meaning and finding words that resonated with me and the other lyrics which had come out with more clarity.
In terms of early versions, for this album for the majority of the songs I created ‘demos’ first and laid out the whole song before going into the production and recording process. I tend to just use stock instruments in Logic for demos but I do have some lovely piano plugins that I use for the early creative process too - sometimes great sounds are the things the inspire ideas but I don’t really fuss too much about sounds or tweaking and perfecting things at that stage, I just like to get the ideas down.
The demos were then used as ‘maps’ for the musicians I worked with and those formed the basis for developing parts for the fundamental instruments like drums, bass, piano, organ etc.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
I don’t really have any rituals for writing apart from that I always write at night, generally in low light and always alone.
I know a lot of other songwriters love to collaborate with other writers but that has never been something that has appealed to me. I think to get into that flow-state that I love so much and where I find my best work comes from, I need to be isolated. I don’t really like it if someone else is in the house when I’m writing, I think I have an awareness that someones listening to my process and it’s incredibly personal and not something I’ve ever really been able to or comfortable sharing with anyone else.
The writing process, for me, is something that is a means to process my own emotions I suppose and what comes out at the end of that process is the ‘creation’ which is what I feel comfortable sharing. Going through the process of writing an album, I think I realise that by the time I’ve taken a song to its conclusion, the emotion that was attached to it initially has also been fully processed and I think ‘releasing it’ is a bit like letting go of the emotion.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
It depends on the day and how I’m feeling. Sometimes things just flow out with ease and other times I could be sitting for hours not really finding anything that resonates. I think it depends a lot on mood and mindset.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
It’s quite rare that I write lyrics without music. For me, music and lyrics come at the same time but depending on the song, the lyrics and vocal melodies can take longer to mold and shape than the chord progressions.
I used to write a lot of poetry. ‘My Lover’ which is the first single I released in 2017 and has been remastered and included on the album is, I think, the only song I have ever written which was born out of a poem.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
I like to write lyrics with a layer of meaning.
I think if you can listen to a song and create your own interpretation of what it’s about - if it’s relatable, that’s really important but I also like to underlay that with more complex ideas that you might think are simple initially but when you know the song really well you could find other meanings in it. I love the fact that it’s about how the listener listens and thinks and what they want to hear or take from it in terms of meaning.
Sometimes there’s a really simple lyric in a song and it’s those which have really affected someone. Words and music are so beautiful in that way.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
In terms of a finished piece it was a long process for this album and each song was very different.
With 'Preacher Man' for example, this was one that I created mostly ‘in the box’. I wrote the chorus on piano and recorded that and then built the instrumentation, having parts recorded like the kick drum, claps and organ. For the organ part, I cut this up from multiple takes to create the organ arrangement. Then I think I wrote and recorded the verses and then had the midi-bass part replaced with a live bass from Jerry Barnes (Whitney Huston, Chic) and then I added all the extra production elements like reverse cymbals, percussion, backing vocals, brass etc. Then it was mixed by Brian Malouf in LA (we did our mixing sessions via Zoom) and then I mastered it with Geoff Peshe at Abbey Road.
With a song like 'Nothing’s For Keeps', I mapped out a demo, rehearsed and arranged it with my live band and created an arrangement in those rehearsals and then I recorded it at Middle Farm Studios with a group of session musicians. We listened through the demo and the rehearsal arrangement, discussed it and made some changes/developments to the part and then we recorded it live in one take all together.