I wrote this back in April 2016, with the original intention to have it coincide with the release of Michelle John’s EP, Paper Doll.
If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of Paper Doll, the answer is simple: it was never released.
I asked her a few years later why she didn’t go through with it and she cited two reasons, which – on giving it a bit of thought – I concluded were different sides of the same coin.
The first: shortly after recording was completed (but before the scheduled release), Michelle appeared in series 6 of The Voice UK (she eventually gave in after years of repeatedly being invited to appear on the show).
The second was because she was struck by that thing that plagues many creatives, akin to buyer’s remorse: she simply felt it wasn’t up to the standard she had set for herself.
That meant I had this great story about one of the women I’ve come to admire the most in the UK Gospel scene, not just for her vocal ability, but also for her positive outlook on life, vulnerability, disarming openness and bags of personable charm.
Michelle has since gone on to do some amazing things, but unfortunately it seems the world will probably never get to hear Paper Doll.
I had the opportunity to listen to some of the songs being recorded live in the studio, and this is the story of that evening.
‘I know who he means…’
The Premises Studios, Hackney, East London. It’s about 7:45 pm.
I step indoors, out of the chilly spring night.
‘I’m here to see Michelle’.
The guy behind the reception counter stares back at me, blankly.
In my head I start to work out how best to describe Michelle John: songwriter. Artist. Arranger. Activist. Accomplished vocalist…
It’s unlikely any of those will help Reception Man, even though they’re an accurate selection of the many hats she wears. And she wears them extremely well.
Another guy I hadn’t noticed pipes up from behind the counter: ‘I know who he means. Come on, I’ll take you. It’s right at the top – bit odd to get to. You might get lost, mate..’.
While it doesn’t have the profile of Abbey Road Studios on the other side of town, The Premises is incredibly significant to those in the know, and sadly becoming one of the few key, heritage music studio spaces left in London.
Last time I was here I witnessed the making of something truly groundbreaking, the end product going down in UK Gospel music history as a true international milestone.
Back then Nicky Brown was on production duties with Janine, Chris, Gillian and Lisa, led by the indomitable Isaiah-Raymond Dyer working out of one of The Premises’ smaller rooms.
What came out at the other end of that process were tracks that included a reworked version of Song in the Midnight (that’s what was being recorded the day I was in), making up Raymond & Co‘s seminal Playing Games album.
Professional Background Person
Unless you’ve been around the UK Gospel scene a fair while, chances are that – at best – you’re only vaguely aware of who Michelle John is.
There’s good reason for that: she’s a professional background person, featuring both as lead and backing vocalist, as well as an arranger for some of the best Gospel talent the UK has had to offer over the years, including London Community Gospel Choir and Noel Robinson‘s Nu Image.
Michelle now occupies that rare space dreamed of by many but actually lived out by few – she’s one of the UK mainstream music industry’s go-to support vocalists for many international names you’ll recognise including Will Young, Annie Lennox, Eric Clapton and Joss Stone.
She’s in London for less than a week, having just returned from South East Asia a few days ago.
After this recording session she’s off to New York in 3 days’ time as part of Joss Stone‘s current international tour. As usual, her schedule is jam-packed.
Hang in the Studio
Michelle and I have been meaning to do the ‘come hang with me in the studio’ thing quite literally for years, but we could never make our diaries work.
Sometime later in the evening when our conversation gets round to that fact, she says, in a quite matter-of-fact, yet philosophical way: ‘nothing before its time’.
It’s a reflection of how zen she’s become in recent months, wearing years of life’s pain on her sleeve, but somehow mostly transcending it.
Like the rest of us, Michelle has her down days, but in the main she’s on the up and up.
Paper Doll – Highs and Lows
Anyone following her on social media will be familiar with her life’s highs and lows: from growing up in Peckham, South East London to the struggles of single parenthood, to personal fears and insecurities, to insight into the hard work, and – it has to be said – glamour of working across the globe.
A lot of that informs the life stories going into her second solo recording, Paper Doll, scheduled for an August 2016 release.
The studio she booked out is on the topmost floor, and Second Reception Man was right: I’d have got hopelessly lost if I’d attempted to come up on my own.
The room has a cosy, warm glow. Most of the illumination comes from a couple of spotlights embedded in the ceiling, with backlit buttons, switches and faders on the mixing desk adding to what already feels like the laid-back ambience of a Jazz club.
Michelle is standing over the desk, in deep conversation with the mixing engineer. She catches me out of the corner of her eye, comes over, gives me an exceedingly warm, familiar hug before heading back to the desk.
It’s quite obvious from watching her work that she’s one of those creative types who is absolutely clear on how she wants her narrative conveyed through her craft.
She’s also completely unfazed by the sheer physical dominance of a studio setup, with the myriad options that high-end studio equipment, people and possibilities present.
The telling of her story is paramount, and absolutely everything in the room is nothing more than a tool for her to tell it the way she needs it told.
She’s in complete control. As in: in control of everything – a solid steel fist under a sweet-looking velvet glove…
The sound engineer may know about the technical stuff: the faders and buttons, and the musicians their instruments, but there’s no doubt who’s in charge around here.
Michelle puts her hat on. It’s some kind of trendy, mini bowler thing.
Someone says it’s her ‘studio hat’ and she laughs in response, but a couple of seconds later I completely get what they mean – donning the hat seems to make her already businesslike focus dial up a few more notches, as the music playback begins.
She turns round, looks at me and does that apologetic thing many creatives do when they’re about to share a work in progress: ‘these are just guide vocals, Yinka..’
I sink into a deep leather sofa and take in my surroundings: on backing vocals in the recording room on the other side of the glass are a few faces I recognise…
Wayne Ellington (great vocalist in his own right and Michelle‘s former colleague from their Noel Robinson & Nu Image days), Faye Simpson (from another seminal 90s group, Nu Colours), Samantha Smith (whom I don’t know) and – from the new generation of vocally fantastic artists – Christina Matovu.
Pain in the Project
I take in the songs on playback and it doesn’t take long to spot a running theme here: there’s a lot of pain in this project.
But there’s also strength and several shades of hope: from tangible reassuring hope, to hope borne of a longed-for resolution and freedom from current situations.
And there’s hope that springs from the intangible optimism powered by the decision of personal determination: the choice to make a better life.
Michelle John’s Life
Paper Doll is the true story of Michelle John‘s life in song, an unflinching narrative of relationship reality and the challenges it can sometimes bring.
From the struggles, joys and aspirations of single motherhood on ‘To Raise A Man‘ to the feeling of helplessness and being trapped on ‘I’m Alone‘, to the despair of the aftermath of a strained relationship on ‘How Can I Trust You Again‘, and the beginnings of renewed hope on ‘I Found Me‘
And while these song titles broadly suggest powerlessness, the opposite actually holds true: sometimes you can only move on in life when you truly acknowledge the scars of hurt life has dealt you, and become completely comfortable talking about what you’ve learned, as opposed to the damange they’ve inflicted – there’s a freedom that comes with that level of openness…
Suggesting Paper Doll is some kind of self-pity project is to miss the point entirely: this is Michelle John in her own words: honest and deep, painfully vulnerable, her life writ large from her personal perspective, and – most importantly – she’s finding the power in her pain.
Tell Your Story Yourself
The session still has a while to go, but there’s a break and we resume our conversation – I share my thoughts on how personal the songs are, and wonder about her thoughts around making so much of this public.
Her reply is telling: ‘when so many people have told a version of what your story is, you might as well tell it yourself’.
She says this without suggestion of much bitterness. However there’s a quiet determination that suggests there are a few records that need setting straight.
I decide not to push for more details on Paper Doll‘s narrative, even though I’m curious to find out more about the cast of characters in these true-life stories.
But: the truth of the matter is that it doesn’t really serve much purpose beyond satisfying a crude tabloid need… Besides, the title says it all: the protagonist in this story is the doll, not the other characters in her life.
I have a feeling that – as personal as some of the incidents being recounted are – they are all too familiar for all too many people, both within and outside the church.
And even if it’s for that reason alone, Michelle John‘s Paper Doll is one to look forward to...
- Michelle John Website
- Michele John on Instagram
- Michelle on series 6 of The Voice UK
- The Premises Studios
- Abbey Road Studios
- Raymond & Co
- Faye Simpson
- Wayne Ellington
- Christina Matovu
- Nicky Brown
- More Michelle John – Celebrating UKGospel: Ladies Edition (Part 1)
Enjoyed this? Check out more in the UKGospel Legacy Series