M gets under the skin of Under the Skin composer and musical auteur Micachu…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 20 Mar 2014
  • min read
Pop anarchist, classical composer, DJ and now film score writer - it seems there are no musical forms Micachu (aka Mica Levi) can’t turn her hand to.

Mica has been causing a sonic kerfuffle since she studied violin and viola at the Purcell School before learning composition at the Guildhall School of Music.

She formed the Shapes with Raisa Khan and Marc Pell at the Guildhall, balancing her classical training with the group’s discombobulations and love of cut and pasting underground rhythms. The resulting albums – Jewellery and NEVER - have given way to high profile work with The London Sinfonietta, mixtapes with fellow creative eccentric Kwes and taking on the mantle of the London Southbank’s role of artist-in-residence.

Her most recent projects have included the ace partnership with friend Tirzah and providing the soundtrack to Jonathan Frazer’s latest acclaimed, alien cinematic freak out Under the Skin. We catch up with Mica for a breathless chat about the creative process…

What’s your first musical memory?

The piano. Listening to tapes in the car. Just being a kid and dancing. I’ve got loads of early memories of music but it’s hard to define. It’s a bit like asking when was the first time I brushed my teeth. I can pinpoint different experiences but I’m from a musical family. So it was everywhere.

Did you have a classical upbringing?

Yeah - it’s fed into the music I’ve made. If you’re surrounded by that music, and you start to train classically, you’re very immersed in technicalities. You need to learn from a young age and takes a lot of discipline. It’s had a massive impact on everything I’ve done.

Did you enjoy this kind of training?

Yeah but I couldn’t really handle the competitive aspect. There are pieces that everyone plays and I was always trying to find things that no one else plays. I didn’t strive to be competitive. If you write your own thing, you can express yourself more freely. It is up to people to say whether it’s good or bad but that’s subjective.

How did you get involved with Under the Skin?

They were looking for someone with an addictive personality. And that was me.

Did you find it a challenge?

Yeah it was definitely a challenge. The music has to come from a sincere place. I mean music always has to come from a sincere place but you’re dealing with something which needs technical attention. I was learning on the job the whole time.

Is it creatively stifling to work to the structure of visuals?

I was given a lot of licence to do whatever I wanted. It’s just the structure of what you’re working on. If you’re gonna write house music, there are loads of ‘rules’ there too. It has to be this tempo, be a certain length, have an intro. These structures make sense on different platforms. The rules are there to be broken but there are some you need to adhere to.

What else are you working on at the moment?

I skip between a lot of projects because I get addicted to one thing, then feel an urge to do something totally different. I’m doing singing really at the moment. And writing instrumental music.

You’ve collaborated with many people – how do you find these different musical partnerships?  

When you collaborate, you’re both working and hanging out together – talking – it’s a different social thing too aside from the music. When you’re making music with someone else, you’re forcing yourself to do something different. And because you’re not thinking too much, you improvise. It comes more from your crotch. Things happen in the cosmos more. It’s like when you’re talking to someone else and you get thrown a ball, you put out a hand and catch it in the maddest way. I like that more than if you plan to do it. It’s more magical.

How did you previously find working with an orchestra?

Well the main challenge is communication. You’re dealing with notation, in principle you’ll be able to hand a score to an orchestra and they’ll be able to play it without you having to speak to them. You need to be as clear as possible and decisive.

The players just want to know you have a handle on your material. You’ve got some players there who’ve played some of the best music of the last 100 years. They’re experts in their field and can smell a rat.

It sounds quite intimidating?

It’s scary – but at the same time, everyone is there to do a good job. There’s no point in someone being there and being annoying cos they’ll get a bad rep as well. Everyone is there to enthusiastically create.

Is it easy to flit between these different styles?

It’s funny - sometimes I feel like a bit of a tourist. Classical music and my own stuff are kind of worlds apart but it makes sense. It’s important for me to understand what people my age were listening to. I explored music by doing it myself. I feel mixed about that – about genre hopping in  a sense. I don’t think about it like that at the time but I can see how it looks.

Do you have a favourite piece of kit?

When I’m writing with Tirzah, I’ll use CDJs and jam something out. Or just use software. I don’t really have any hardware or plug ins. I like midi, I like all the presets. I don’t mind rough recording. Not sure if it’s laziness but I’m more interested in the content and the material than I am in the production of it. Which is a bit immature in a way as a good combination would be best. There’s a lot of artistry in producing records well and in the technicalities of producing good records. I use a microphone and software and that’s enough in my mind – there are infinite possibilities.

Have you got any advice for aspiring songwriters?

Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. Don’t be late on your tax payments. You’ll get fined. Read the news. If you’re clever you can avoid earning enough money to pay tax. Put that in there because some people might not know that. Always hover around the poverty line.