It’s a typically grey Saturday afternoon in Birmingham and deep within the subterranean structures of the O2 Institute, a tired and unexpectedly small Laura Mvula sits hunched, hooded yet talkative. In just a few hours she will appear on her hometown stage rejuvenated and present, in front a room of awed family and fans. It’s not immediately obvious what’s enabled this change (caffeine? nerves?) but however this Mvula-magic is cooked up she might consider bottling and selling it to the rest of us.
“I wanted to change anything that felt like a method.”
Transformation is the root of Mvula’s musical energy. She inhabits her songs like sonic costumes or “sound worlds” as she likes to call them, using them to explore those deep emotions that can be expressed no other way. “I’m positive my therapist came up with it”, she says of the title of forthcoming LP The Dreaming Room, “it’s that place in your mind where one is most free and liberated, where you don’t see things happen and judge them or call them anything, just witness them. Pure consciousness.”
The standard has already been set impeccably high, both with 2013’s mercury-nominated Sing To the Moon and her two latest rip-roaring singles ‘Overcome’ and ‘Phenomenal Woman’. With the former featuring icon Nile Rogers (“he called me and said ‘I’m gunna make you a hit’… he didn’t” she laughs) and the latter taking its namesake from poet Maya Angelou, Mvula’s set a clear trajectory to create art that can stand alongside her personal heroes. One of these is Prince, whose salaciously funky fingerprints are all over ‘Phenomenal Woman’, as well as a personal friend and mentor whom she lauds as “a massive champion of what [I] do… an incredible guy, a musicians musician”.
“It’s that place in your mind where one is most free and liberated, where you don’t see things happen and judge them or call them anything, just witness them”
Here Laura has accidentally hit upon her own appeal, producing tracks that are a rich synthesis of Gospel, Neo-soul, Jazz, Classical and much more, that can picked apart by a trained ear yet are still radio friendly and casually enjoyable. Its centrepiece is of course her voice, and it’s a serious instrument. You’d be easily mistaken into thinking it was some kind of spectral mouthpiece for Nina Simone, the way its full, dry tone so often emulates hers. Mvula’s early training with her aunt’s acapella group Black Voices and her later studies at the Birmingham Conservatoire have given her a razor-sharp control over her vocals that is so sorely missing from modern expectations of a ‘good’ voice- wailing and drenched in unnecessary runs and showy tricks. It perfectly fills the powerful choruses of ‘That’s Alright’ and ‘Green Garden’ before settling like dust in her painfully fragile rendition of ‘Can’t Live With the World’, to which an audience sing-along has her teary eyed.
When asked if the anthemic, uplifting singles released so far indicate a less introspective tone on her next effort, Mvula chuckles, “Ummm…no, I’ve just fooled everyone with the singles. Sing To the Moon is a collection of songs, whereas The Dreaming Room is a whole world of sounds. I’ve had a lot of fun with electric guitars, it’s endless, and because I don’t really know how to play them I would use it in ways you’re probably not supposed to.” “Good mistakes?” I ask. “Exactly.” she agrees.
“It was painful, beautifully so, and really good for me.”
The explanation of the shift in sound she accredits to “genius” producer and percussionist Troy Miller, who clearly has an eye for the cream of UK talent, having previously worked with Amy Winehouse. Mvula’s composition technique has also developed: “I wanted to change anything that felt like a method. Often there’d be no vocals for a good while after having built up a track with lots of layers. I was more interested in sound and mood and colour, so a lot of the lyrical ideas were secondary.”
Easy as it is to imagine Mvula and her cohort having an absolute ball making this record, she assures me it wasn’t all clear sailing. “I couldn’t really write when I started writing for this album which sounds like a contradiction because… it got written somehow. With Sing to the Moon I would sit down to do something and by the end of a 5-hour stint I’d have a song. The Dreaming Room, my god, I’d be lucky if I got 5 chords after 5 hours. It was painful, beautifully so, and really good for me.” Not that she shies away from looking at it humorously- I’m treated to one of her infamous scatological analogies: “If Sing was diarrhoea, then Room was like when you think you’ve got to go, but then you sit and only miniature rabbit drops come out… by the end of the year you have a massive mountain”.
Perhaps the centrepiece of this cathartic working out of a recent divorce and openly discussed struggles with anxiety, Mvula debuts a beautifully fragile ballad and latest single ‘Show Me Love’, complete with sparse piano accompaniment and trademark tonal harmonies. The serious subject matter doesn’t stop her from entertaining the audience with an anecdote from the song’s video shoot though, involving an underwater scene submerged in the freezing cold British channel to find only a second-long snippet made it to the final edit- right at the end. Despite the humour, it’s a story indicative of Laura’s immense dedication to her music’s accompanying visuals. “I made a book, a visual essay, from images that I searched on the internet, in books and in magazines for all these pictures that best represented the record at the state that it was. I wanted something that anybody collaborating with me could pick and go ‘I know what you’re saying here, here’s my interpretation’ and so that’s why a lot of this fantastical, colourful, abstract thing is going on.” Or, she grins in simpler terms “put shit on your face that doesn’t look like makeup”.
As the gig draws to a close, a highlight being a stripped back cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ arranged by brother and band-member James on cello, Mvula’s continued success seems one of the few things this industry can bank on- like another disappointing yet record-smashing Adele album or someone butchering your favourite song on the X-factor. In a world where UK music is becoming increasingly renowned for its ‘safer’ exports (Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran I’m looking at you), it’s refreshing to see a musician like Mvula recognised for her uncompromisingly creative and unabashedly risk-taking approach toward her sound.
The Dreaming Room is out on June 17. Laura will perform on 10 July at London’s Somerset House.