Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Mica Levi is a musician influenced by Harry Partch, an early 20th century composer who dismantled the conventional Western tuning system he felt arbitrary and unjust to create his own microtonal scale system – and then adapted new instruments to fit into it. Partch often used his new method for large compositions based on his atavistic philosophies but Levi (better known under her stage name Micachu) aims for immediacy as well as intimacy, rubbing – sometimes abrasively – against rock, garage, grime, hip-hop and R&B. Her work ranges from an orchestral piece for the London Philharmonic (commissioned whilst she studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama), two albums with her band the Shapes, collaborative mixtapes – most notably with Kwes – and the 'Chopped and Screwed' performance and subsequent live album she put together with the Shapes and the London Sinfonietta. All are marked by her experimental and resolutely DIY bend.
Her latest project is producing new singer, and old friend, Tirzah. They've been working together since at least 2009, with unreleased tracks showing up in mixes and the pair performing live or making short vidoes together, but the 'I'm Not Dancing' EP is their first official release. It's some of the most direct stuff Micachu has ever made too, the music given an easy accessibility thanks to Tirzah's equally impressive voice: one strong enough to soothe but idiosyncratic enough to play against the free-form productions.
It's some of the most direct stuff Micachu has ever made too, the music given an easy accessibility thanks to Tirzah's equally impressive voice: one strong enough to soothe but idiosyncratic enough to play against the free-form productions.
At just a nip over ten minutes long 'I'm Not Dancing' is a very brief – but essential – collection of downtempo and off-kilter love songs that are a mixture of sad, cynical, pragmatic and vibrant, with Tirzah casually bemoaning crumbling relationships over beats that crash with a messy inevitability but perk up or warp unexpectedly. The general mood is typified in Ooo Never – a muted breakbeat interlude with the title hook and a lethargic complaint – "you never sit down/you only move around" – looped over before distintegrating again as it reaches the minute mark. The track also displays the synergy between singer and producer – with the voice almost entirely woven in with the beat – but the emotions and sonics are explored best in the other three longer songs. Slow Jam, for example, takes the heavily romantic sub-sub-genre and weighs it more with resignation than longing – the drums crunching along with a melody that sounds like it's blown on the top of a bottle. Tirzah's chorus slows the subtle riffing style she frequently uses to a stunted, climbing intonation and the sentiment is strange too: a song ostensibility about a boy ("I'm sorry, my son") but told with a maternal or even brotherly affection. It's as if she's trying to tell more than one story at the same time or with a wariness of being an overbearing girlfriend (the lyric "I'm just a giant thumb" could partly be understood in the terms of her possible critics).
Inside Out is similarly alienated and defeated. "I could wait another year/for you to change/or disappear" she half-heartedly suggests at the start of a verse, before immediately conceding: "I'm bored or lost/aren't you the same?/we've tried again/and again/and again/and again…". Her downcast musing is underlaid by a enveloping bass pulse and dense polyrhythms made from various percussion instruments, objects and buried vocal samples – the murk briefly lifted by a contrasting part plucked on an adapted harp on the hook. It's a fine song and, along with Slow Jam, the fullest expression of the pair's understanding of texture and tone on 'I'm Not Dancing' but the stand-out moment here is still the title track, first revealed just over a week before the full EP release.
I'm Not Dancing is sharp, urgent and certifies the potency of the whole EP; both in the quality of its experimentation and the depth of its feeling.
I'm Not Dancing is a relatively simple song that encapulates the themes lingering on the rest of the project and moves them away from exceptional sketchbook pieces into the pop gold realm. An upfront 2step-esque beat with faltering wind instrumentation, the track runs on a set of oppositional couplets that follow from and back up to the statement "I'm not dancing/I'm fighting", all reeled off with an unassuming and matter-of-fact air. It espouses a lust for life that can come off as trite but is refreshed and liberatory in this context: words that sound they should be delivered in escapist, utopian wails told with a gravity that acknowledges and vows to overcome all the things that can and probably will get in the way. The song is sharp, urgent and certifies the potency of the whole EP; both in the quality of its experimentation and the depth of its feeling.
Greco-Roman released Tirzah's debut EP 'I'm Not Dancing' on 5th August 2013.