Mica Levi Is a True Musical Genius
The artist also known as Micachu has won a major songwriting award for scoring 2016 film 'Jackie,' but the crux of her talent runs deeper than that.
Mica Levi (centre), with bandmates Marc Pell and Raisa Khan (Photo via Rough Trade)
Within the first few seconds, you’ve been hit. Jackie – Pablo Larraín’s 2016 biopic about Jackie O’s life in the immediate wake of her husband John F Kennedy’s assassination – opens to darkness and the wail of a strings section. The score, written by leftfield London artist Mica Levi, swells ands swoops like a jet storming towards the ground, already sounding like sadness. And of course it does – we already know how this story goes. Natalie Portman’s Jackie, will soon be covered in blood when JFK is shot in an open-top car on 22 November 1963. As Jackie’s memories flicker across a stop-start timeline, you realise that this is essentially a film about PTSD and love and how the formal structures of the American presidency leave little room to process either.
At the end of last week, Mica won an Ivor Novello songwriting award for this score. This news came at a time when most of the music industry’s eyes were swivelling towards some combination of the return of Gorillaz, Instagram stories of Kanye West’s listening party, or the unfinished pint on their bedside table after a big night at Primavera/Governors Ball/All Points East. And so, Mica’s win flew under the radar. Then again, so much of what she does tends to resonate on a quieter level. Just one point about that though, if I can quickly add something: she’s a genius.
Mica Levi is one of Britain’s most consistently astounding composers (see: the Under the Skin original score). She’s also not the sort of person who would shout about her talent. She wouldn’t even necessarily do so by couching it in the humblebrag modesty that informs so much of the way celebrities are made to toe the line between ‘I’m the best out there’ bravado and ‘I do it for the fans’ deference. Instead, Mica seems to pour that energy into the music itself. She turns film scores into embodiments of their characters while also shoving clattering four-chord punk sensibilities into the pop she makes with Good Sad Happy Bad and its predecessor, Micachu and the Shapes. And maybe that generosity speaks to why she should be one of the biggest names in UK music but remains an ‘in-the-know’ act.
Case in point: Mica didn’t even watch Jackie before writing most of the music to accompany it. “I just knew about the period of time and the main things that happened to her,” she said to Vogue, in 2017. “I just got going on it pretty quickly. I looked at a few pictures of her, and thought about the time.” When you listen to the double-tracked flutes or shivering strings, it’s interesting to imagine how Mica created those sonic textures by only really seeing Natalie Portman’s performance in her mind’s eye. One of the main elements to include was the sense that Jackie was “kind of high all the time,” as Mica put it to Fact Mag, in 2016. “She’s got the seriousness and the trauma of all the lives that she’s lost – her kids, as well – and all of this is being brought up while she has to face all of the world. But she’s also smashing back the drinks, smashing back the pills, because she’s trying to keep level somehow.”
So much of the awe inspired by musicians comes from the sense that they do something most of us never could. That could be reaching a soaring high note; it could stem from stringing together melodies in a sequence that makes them cut through to the bone marrow; it could be about clever wordplay in 16 bars. But, when thinking about ‘typical’ songwriting, you might imagine some combination of a few steps. A person wants to tell a story. They draft the lyrics and melody to do so. Then they find their way from some placeholder sounds mumbled into the nearest recording device or a few hastily jotted-down guitar tabs to a fully-formed track.
Mica’s orchestral scores go beyond this, into a place that seems somehow locked off. Instead, her music sits in the domain of people who actually know the squiggles of musical notation, of those who’ve spent years studying that written language, of that friend with perfect pitch who rolls their eyes at top 40 radio because 80 percent of its songs use the same three chord progressions. For most of us, who weren’t classically trained like Mica (she attended Purcell music school in Watford, then London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama), the process behind composing an instrumental score and making it bang so hard is shrouded in an even thicker cloud of mystery.
Part of the beauty behind this ability, then, comes from how little energy Mica spends on trying to translate what she does, for the sake of non-musicians. “How did I do it?” she asked in a video call interview from 2016, repeating a question about her Jackie score creative process. “I just waited until everyone had gone to work… Actually maybe I didn’t; I was on my sofa quite a lot.” A long pause. “I’ve got a good view out of my window – I can see the street, and, er… I think windows are really important, actually. For me.” The journalist encouraged her with an “mhmm.” “I like a window to look out of,” she said, in conclusion. The question “what’s your creative process like?” leads to windows, rather than the mechanical steps she takes between ‘I’ve not written a song yet’ to ‘I’ve written the 14 pieces of music that will score a film.’
You can almost hear the screech of the journalist steering her in the ‘right’ direction, trying to get her to drill down into a less winding soundbite. No luck. When he nudged her towards how much the outside world plays into her creative process, she came back with “It’s certainly better than looking at a screen. And if there’s no one else around to make the music with, I just always end up looking out the window and looking at people.” This makes me smile because if any of us could write music as well as her, by just looking out of a big window, Soundcloud would be rippling with higher-calibre beats, scores and bands. To be clear, I don’t think Mica is actively trying to be obtuse or evasive, or reckons she’s ‘above’ breaking down her process. I just believe that she’s the sort of artist whose process is difficult to truly see and understand from the outside. She strips some of the elitism away from “classical” music by being true to herself.
Connoisseurs of Real Music love it when someone creates alone. In this way, Mica’s method would please the sort of people who think Beyonce is a fraud for writing with several people, or that anything more than a John Lennon and Paul McCartney double act is a sign that an artist is just a record label puppet. Mica doesn’t spend time bigging up the solitude in her process, though. From what I’ve seen in person, interviewing her a couple of years ago, she doesn’t pat herself on the about much at all – at least not when sitting with a complete stranger as an interview subject. Instead, she carries on with the legacy she created with her weird-as-hell Filthy Friends mixtape back in 2009: of going to places our ears wouldn’t expect. She’s managed that in pop, electronic music, orchestral compositions played by “three bassists, eight violins, six violas, six cellos, two flutes” and a percussion section. She’s done it as a vocalist and now as guitarist in Good Sad Happy Bad while ex-Shapes keys player Raisa Khan sings.
Whether playing a literal vacuum cleaner or croaking into a mic, Mica Levi just gets on with making music. And maybe that’s the thing that’s hard to explain – ‘I do this because I do it,’ feels more like trolling than a real response. So, for the sake of those of you who want a straight answer about Jackie, here’s one of the closest things you might find. In that video interview, she described the score’s sound as one that revolves around “a kind of luxury” – yet one with a “young… airy thing about it.” Then she scrunched up her face and directed a question back at the interviewer through her webcam: “am I answering your question?”