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Return to Grace – Laura Mvula

Rhian Jones welcomes back singer-songwriter Laura Mvula.

Laura Mvula would be forgiven for feeling she deserves her second Mercury Prize nomination even more so this time around. The accolade, for critically acclaimed The Dreaming Room, comes after a difficult four years. Since the release of her debut Sing To The Moon in 2012, she has divorced the man she met while studying at Birmingham Conservatoire, has battled severe anxiety while learning to be on her own, and conquered a slow and painful two-and-a-half year ‘second album syndrome’.

“When I found out I was elated, but then I realised I have to go through the ordeal of trying not to hope that we get it,” she says of the nod. “Last time I was told I was the favourite from various different sources and almost believed it myself, then on the night felt devastated. This time I’m trying to be cautious.”

Mvula’s debut album, which missed out on the Mercury to James Blake’s Overgrown, took eight months to complete. It was written about family from the perspective of Laura the daughter, sibling and member of a close-knit church community, who is going through the pain of her parent’s divorce.

Contrasting emotions

By contrast, explains Mvula, The Dreaming Room “was my own divorce, facing issues with anxiety and panic attacks and trying to make sense of how life has changed for me in the last four years”. As a result, the latter is a more open and brutal record.

Mvula explains: “It’s a mix of ugly, sexy, powerful and weak. There’s a lot of fragility in this music and the sound world is very different. I got tired of not being heard, quite literally. My first album was such an intimate album that we’d play festivals and you wouldn’t be able to hear the music because the rock guitars on the next stage would drown us out.

“I made a choice that this album would be difficult to ignore live as well as on record, that it would be a really dynamic piece of work that could stand up on its own two feet. I was lucky enough to have people on board who understood that.”

Released in June, The Dreaming Room was produced by Troy Miller. British composer Steve Brown and rapper Wretch 32 (under his real name Jermaine Scott Sinclair) are also on the list of collaborators, alongside Nile Rodgers. While Miller shares Mvula’s excitement for “making a lot of noise” and organising it, Rodgers makes her music more accessible.

“I find Rodgers’ ideas to be endlessly challenging and nurturing,” says Mvula of the legendary Chic man. “He helps me think about the dangers of music being so far from what people are familiar with that you alienate them. His point is, ‘How can we take people’s hands and bring them into your Laura Mvula land of changing time signatures and modulations in the middle of the song, or whatever it is’. It’s an ongoing conversation, which is exciting because I want to be a better communicator and songwriter.”

Living the song

The Dreaming Room hit No.21 in the UK, and was awarded a number of four-star reviews for its invention and originality. It’s ‘an album that often resembles pop music made by someone who has almost no idea or interest in what pop is supposed to sound like,’ said The Guardian’s chief critic, Alexis Petridis.

Indeed, when it comes to music making, following the ‘rules’ in order to reach commercial success isn’t Mvula’s style. She draws inspiration from ‘90s R&B/soul singers Des’ree and Omar, her dad’s jazz favourites Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as mainstream acts like The Jackson 5 and Diana Ross.

Mvula also hails singer and composer Lizz Wright for her musicianship, and the way she speaks about writing and performing. “It was Lizz that said you really have to live the song, and that stayed with me,” she says.

Arranging music for her auntie’s a capella group taught Mvula to reinvent songs, and playing violin as a child sparked a love for classical music. It was the latter that influenced the decision to study composition at Birmingham Conservatoire, but it’s the philosophy of jazz that shapes Mvula’s non-conformist attitude.

“I’d watch a lot of Miles Davis documentaries or music of the era rooted in civil rights with my dad when I was younger,” she remembers. “I was particularly aware of the role that music could play in society, and that it should be something that never has limits. It shouldn’t be categorised and it should always progress. I had this hunger to make something that was fresh to me. I was influenced by what the musicians and artists I was listening to were saying about the music more than what they were doing.”

The accidental songwriter
It was while studying composition at Birmingham Conservatoire that Mvula discovered her love of songwriting. A performance during a goodbye ceremony for an exchange trip to a music school in New York State was the catalyst for turning a creatively frustrating period around.

She says: “That was the first time I’d played and sang in front of a group of people and I found it to be liberating, surprising and natural. When I got back to university, I played the song I’d written to a teacher and he said, ‘That’s it’. My first reaction was; ‘That doesn’t really fit here with what I’m supposed to be doing.’ But he helped me see that I had missed the point and that creativity was the root of the course.

“He insisted that I rehearse a band and perform songs that I’d written for my recital. I protested for ages because I wasn’t interested in singing solo, that terrified me, I avoided it at all costs. Eventually I had no choice otherwise I would have come away with nothing. So I put on this show and it was a strangely successful evening that showcased me in this new format that I didn’t think was possible.”

Before discovering who she was as a solo artist, Mvula spent time imitating those she was listening to, like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. Then, her younger siblings moved to London to study music, which gave Mvula the courage to leave the safety of her parent’s home in Birmingham to do the same. While there she found direction from fellow musician Eska Mtungwazi, and abandoned all notions of traditional music making; five piece bands with bass, drums, guitar, keys and other voices.

“Eska graciously took me under her wing when I was quite young and I would ask her about a thousand questions every time I got a chance to talk to her,” says Mvula. “She was the first person to bring me to London, I came with my band, played a show and thought I was the next best thing. She congratulated me but at the end of the conversation she said it was amazing music but I didn’t hear you, your voice was lost to me.

“At first I thought she was saying she couldn’t hear me because the music was too loud, but she was saying no, your internal voice, your artistic voice. It was a healthy disappointment that I ran and battled with it until I wrote She – the first song from Sing To The Moon. Eska was one of the first people I played it to because I knew she would understand that I’d finally found that thing you can’t really articulate. It’s a biting point when the core of who you are pours out of you in creativity and expression, rather than you having to create a facade or imitating someone else.”

Putting the Mercury Prize aside, Mvula’s future ambitions include writing music for picture – a dream she’s had since being enthralled with the way music holds the story in Disney films.

Battling anxiety and panic attacks is ongoing process, and Mvula has had Lightning Process therapy for stage fright. For now, it’s about taking small steps to regain a sense of independence, and finding confidence in the mystery of music.

“I feel like music is this universal language that speaks far deeper than we can really understand or articulate,” she explains. “I know some of the rules but I couldn’t tell you why, and that gives me an untouchable confidence when it comes to stepping on a stage, talking to someone that I’m intimidated by, or working with another artist.

“I realise that the reason I’m here is because I gave myself over to this music thing and it’s beyond me, it’s beyond you, and yet we get to participate. To me that puts us all on a level playing field.”

Laura’s new album The Dreaming Room is out now.

Article first featured in The Works [2016]


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