Michaela: The performance poet who is Fixing Barbie

Friday 8th January 2010

Mike Rimmer spoke at length to Essex-based purveyor of poetry, MICHAELA


There were a couple of reasons why I wasn't sure about interviewing Michaela. First of all, she's a poet and my experience of Christian poets hasn't always been positive. Secondly at the time she was known on the circuit as Michaela: The Birth Of A Poet which seemed both a mouthful and a bit pretentious.

There's nothing pretentious about Michaela when I get to talk to her. She has been performing live for three years now and her material has been available in a limited independent way and on myspace. She's made a bit of a name for herself in the London hip hop scene and at poetry events but largely remains unknown outside that narrow scene.

But that could all change with the release of her debut album, the excellently titled 'Fixing Barbie'. Although if there are others like me out there, she'll have to overcome our prejudices about poetry having suffered poetry at the hands of unsympathetic English teachers at school. "To be honest," she says, "those poor school children probably never took the chance to research poetry because when I was a child I loved poetry. I didn't start writing poetry until I was 18. I'm 21 now so that's three years ago. I always liked to read and interpret other people's poetry and I guess because my English teachers were always enthusiastic that just followed on."

So what made her start writing poetry, did she have a boy dump her? "I didn't, I have had, but that's not what made me write poetry. A lot of depressing things make people write poetry. I don't understand that, I write poetry when I'm happy. How I started was really weird. Before I became a Christian I had a lot of insecurities about myself that other people had put on me and I couldn't tell myself things like 'I'm beautiful'. I spoke to a friend who was a Christian and explained how I was feeling and he said, 'That's something you need to pray about, us Christians always say pray, pray, pray'. I said to him how will praying help me tell myself 'I'm beautiful' and he said, 'Just pray'. So I did and I woke up one morning really happy telling myself I'm beautiful. I wrote it down because I understand the power of words and I always have. So I wrote another line after that and another one and before I knew it I had a page of words and I realised it rhymed. I showed it to my sister and that was the beginning."

The track "Beautiful" is featured on the album and we'll come back to that later. In the meantime I want to know how Michaela became a Christian. "I went to college in Walthamstow," she explains, "and before that I went to a Catholic school and a Catholic primary school but with schools you're never really taught any concept of God so I had no idea about spirituality or faith. In my college there was a Christian Union. They put on a Christian video and I went and watched it and I was just terrified and ran away from any concept of faith because it scared me. Then I met a girl in the year above me and she took me under her wing, she said she was a Christian and thought I was a Christian. So I played along as if I was a Christian. But it was a fake Christian thing, where I thought I was a Christian but I wasn't. Then I went to a church in Mile End which is the church I still go to now, and the pastor did an altar call and said 'If you haven't accepted Christ into your life raise your hand.' I didn't want to raise my hand because in my mind I was a Christian but somehow my hand was in the air and I was wondering what was going on. He called me forward and I remember just apologizing to God and that wasn't something that anyone had told me to do, so I know that it came from my heart. I was apologising for all the rubbish that I had done in the past 18 years of my life and the fact that I had slapped everything that he had given me in his face and I just felt so bad. And then I felt really good and I know that's the moment I became a Christian."

Michaela hasn't forgotten what it was like to not believe and it is this which makes her such a good communicator in the work she creates. One of the best tracks on the album is "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" which she admits draws on her own experiences. "Anything you hear in any poem that I do, I've done it," she confesses, "or I used to do it and I think without those life experiences I wouldn't be able to write what I write. That was me out on a drunken night, nothing else to do but drink, acting really sleazy, that was me. It's not me saying 'Look at you', it's like, 'Look at what I used to do'."

I observe that the girl in that song is very insecure. "She is," agrees Michaela, "and just like the track 'Beautiful' that's who I used to be, extremely insecure and my confidence depended on other people's opinion of me and not on God's opinion of me or my opinion of myself. You go out and that's what you do. So when you look at the sphere of people who love raving so much, it's not even about just having a good time, it's just about being the centre of attention and wearing as little clothing as you can. I see myself in those people and that's why I wrote that poem."

Is Michaela a poet because she can't sing? "No!" she responds emphatically. "I'm currently in drama school and I'll be going to Guildhall School Of Drama And Music in September. You have to work on your voice a lot and it has flourished. I guess being in church and hearing such beautiful singing, you catch the bug and I know that I can sing. I chose poetry because I think it's a lot more powerful especially when you're doing live stuff to just speak. That's why I often don't use music when I'm live because I think the words just pierce you more when there's just no music. Obviously it's powerful when there's music but I think there's something I can express on a personal level when it's just raw straight words to you."

So, on her debut album, there is music and Michaela speaks with rhythm so what is the difference between what she does and what a rapper does? She sighs theatrically, "Oh Mike, don't call me a rapper, please!" She laughs. "I can't speak for other poets but I've noticed things like puns, I don't really use, whereas a lot of rappers use puns, double plays on words and things like that whereas my poetry is more conversational, it doesn't always rhyme, it's not always in rhythm, it's quite sporadic, a bit random sometimes. But I would say there's a thin line between rap and poetry."

Michaela: The performance poet who is Fixing Barbie

Aha! She's admitted that her poetry sometimes lacks rhythm and a rhyme scheme. Isn't she worried that poetry purists will get upset and denounce her as not being a true poet? She retorts, "I say keep your mind open."

Returning to "Beautiful" which is a key moment on her debut, it turns out it was also a key poem in her development. You'll remember that this was the first thing she had written and, it turns out, it was also the first poem she performed live. "It was only two weeks after I wrote it. I went to a bar in Ealing, West London, which is a long way from me because I live in Essex, so I hopped on the train went to this bar called West Beginnings. I'd heard they had this spoken word night on and that's why I went. I asked the owners and said I'd like to recite a poem that I'd written, they said 'Sorry it's not open mic, we only take people we've already planned to have on the show'. Then they said 'let me hear it now'. So I recited it because I'd learned it and they said I could perform it. I did it extremely fast because I was very nervous, it took about 50 seconds and that was what I remember, that was my first time."

She remembers, "I did get a buzz doing it, I remember sweating a lot if that's a buzz. Yeah, there was a buzz and I remember afterwards people coming up and saying how encouraged they were and that's the first time I heard someone's opinion other than my own about what I'd written which is probably what pushed me to keep going."

Another key track on the album is "Ode To A Supermodel" which at the time of writing is probably my favourite. However a lot of people I have played it to have been in danger of writing it off because Michaela sounds so much like Lily Allen. In her defence she says, "I can't sing like an American so I figured I'd just sing in my own accent. It is very Lilly Allen or Kate Nash, but I think they've stolen the idea of just singing how you talk. So everyone says, 'You're like Lilly Allen.' No! I'm like me, I'm just not like an American."

Was she again drawing on her own experiences with this track? "I used to have a lot of eating problems before I got saved. When I had a lot of negative comments from other people, it was about my weight and that I was too big and I took it all on and I decided that in order to stop those comments I'd stop eating. So I'd have a bag of sugar and I'd just eat that during the day to keep me going; not for long, maybe two months. I got myself out of that mainly through becoming a Christian, and this track is about how I can't stand the media that tries to push a certain image that isn't real. I don't like the image that magazines and celebrities try to push and that angers me a tiny bit. That's what this track is about, it's about forgetting those people and being happy. Jesus is the lover of your soul and that's fine, that's great."

If you've caught Michaela performing live, you'll know that she is a compelling act. She actually prefers spoken word gigs than some of the music showcases she's found herself on. She says, "What will always be important to me is words, not music. At spoken word events people will always be there to listen to what you're saying so even if I use music at a spoken word event people will listen to the words not the music. So if I use music at a spoken word event people don't really bop their heads they give their ear because they want to hear what you're saying, whereas at music events people are there to have a dance as well, which is why I prefer the spoken word events."

What is Michaela's intention with the album, what is she hoping that people will get from it? "It's an album not just targeted at women," she shares, "it's for everyone. But what I'm hoping is for people to be motivated and inspired and make them look at themselves and think is there anything I can add to myself and is there anything I can get rid of in life. From a personal perspective I'm hoping that I'm not the only one that goes through all these embarrassing situations so I'm hoping people will say, 'Did that happen to you?' and I'm hoping other people will say, 'Oh my gosh, that wasn't just me'."

But surely it's mainly just women that will get her because it is women's things she's singing about? From the pink cover to the girly album title, isn't she in danger of alienating a male audience? "Maybe on a few tracks but not all of them. Even on 'Ode To A Supermodel', guys go through the same thing. I also think, a guy that is curious to know a woman's perspective would pick up this album, and what guy isn't? We want to understand each other, don't we? So I think that's what it's good for, to have a peak into a woman's mind."

I have a confession to make. I used to write poetry when I was younger, normally when I was unhappy and always late at night. There, it's out now! We've already established that Michaela writes when she's happy but does she have a favourite place to write? "I don't actually write that often," she confesses, "you'd be surprised. I write maybe about five times a year. But if I start to write I'd write for the whole day, it's just something that I do. If I have one of those days I'll write until the evening and won't leave the spot that I woke up in."

Does she see herself as evangelistic? She certainly performs in plenty of non-churchy venues. "I am but not in the conventional sense. I think it depends how you see it, or who is hearing it. Some people find it evangelistic, some people find it motivational, some people just find it hilarious, some people find it emotional, it all depends on who is hearing it. I don't think I can define what I give unless I ask the person who is receiving." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Mike Rimmer
Mike RimmerMike Rimmer is a broadcaster and journalist based in Birmingham.


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