Her name came from what seemed out of nowhere, to become one of the most touted new musical talents for 2013. Birmingham-born Laura Mvula (pronounced “mmm-voola”) had arrived, pioneering a genre-defying, incomparable new sound for the music industry to digest and ultimately embrace – all out of a tiny studio in Acton, West London.
Self-deprecating, highly intelligent and thoughtful, Laura told IDOL how her complex recordings grew out of simple song-sketches made on her Mac before work; why her friends’ support was ultimately career-changing, and that she is lucky to be appreciated just as she is.
THINGS SUDDENLY KICKED OFF HUGELY FOR YOU WHEN YOU WERE NOMINATED FOR THE 2013 BRITS CRITIC’S CHOICE AWARD, AND FOR THE BBC SOUND OF 2013. HOW DID THOSE NODS MAKE YOU FEEL?
I’m just high as a kite all the time – it’s quite exhausting! I have to pinch myself every now and again because it feels like such an immense privilege. I’m just really excited for what’s happening now, and also for what will come in the future. I’m hoping it’s going to be a really adventurous year, musically and creatively.
HOW HAS YOUR LIFE CHANGED RECENTLY?
People don’t recognise me in the street yet, but it is strange when I pick up a paper and see my face, and read about myself. In terms of just focusing on the music, which for me is totally what I’m all about, that feels really normal. I’m quite lucky to have friends and family in my band at the moment. That familiarity at this stage is really good for me and feels really nice.
TO THE PUBLIC IT MAY SEEM AS THOUGH YOUR NAME CAME A BIT OUT OF THE BLUE, BUT YOU’VE BEEN WORKING ON YOUR CAREER FOR A WHILE. CAN YOU TELL THE READERS A BIT ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY IN MUSIC TO THIS POINT?
I was always interested in music when I was young. There has always been a piano in our family home and I started messing about on it. I showed an interest in anybody that could actually come to our house and play the piano, and I decided that I wanted to learn. My parents were keen, and took it a step further and got me learning the violin and my brother and sister followed playing cello and violin, and we all played together in a group as a string trio. We’d play a lot of weddings and parties, performing classical pieces and popular arrangements. When we did more popular songs I sometimes needed to make it work for three strings and that’s where I started exploring writing and arranging. At that point it was just a way to boss everybody about, which is what a big sister does!
When I was about 10, I heard my auntie’s a capella group, and I was totally captivated. Hearing these five voices that were singing so beautifully together I remember being really moved. When I was about 14 I asked my aunty if I could be a part of the group – she said no, but I could come along to rehearsal. I learnt every part that I could hear, and eventually I was drafted in when one of the ladies wasn’t able to perform. That was where my interest in harmony grew from. Then I went to university to study composition. I came away with a degree and during that time I put together a soul jazz band. We had fun experimenting and writing for the first time in a new way, really imitating my idols at the time, like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill. I was doing it pretty badly, and when it disbanded it was clear that either I would need to pursue something else, or drop music altogether. I got a couple of part-time jobs, got married and then I started to do these casual song sketches.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY SONG SKETCHES?
I would be in my flat in the morning, prior to working at a reception job in the afternoon. Before getting on my laptop I’d get on the piano and improvise a loose sound – I’m reluctant to say song because they were never complete ideas, just me messing around. I’d put them on my laptop, using garage band – basic software – and I started building up song sketches. They were really small, a minute and thirty seconds or shorter. It was just a way of expressing ideas and being creatively healthy. Then I put them on my Facebook page through a Soundcloud account and my friends seemed really into it. I took that as a good indicator that this was something worthwhile and I should develop it.
THANK GOODNESS FOR YOUR FRIENDS!
Yeah! Absolutely! And one introduced me to Steve Brown, who produced my debut album. He heard the stuff and introduced it pretty quickly to his manager who is now my manager. They asked whether I’d be interested in doing a project. They said follow your instincts, it’s all really good. Because they gave me such simplistic advice I found it really liberating, kept going and eventually got in the studio with Steve, and then we were signed in the process of that to Sony RCA. We finished the album just before Christmas.
YOUR SOUND IS VERY UNUSUAL, AND HEARING YOUR STORY ABOUT YOUR INTEREST IN VOCALS AND EXPERIMENTATION PUTS THAT INTO CONTEXT. HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR SONIC IDENTITY TO SOMEONE WHO HASN’T HEARD YOU?
The songs remind my family of the music from our Methodist church at home. The music is traditional, black gospel. My sound has a very traditional vibe to it. At points it nods to a neo-soul feel because of the harmonies, and I’ve subconsciously been influenced by jazz – I say subconsciously because I could never call myself a jazzer as much as I’d love to! I’m just not knowledgeable or talented enough. But I’m very into jazz.
THE PRODUCTION IS QUITE EXPERIMENTAL AS WELL. IS THAT A THEME THROUGHOUT THE RECORD?
Absolutely. Steve Brown, my producer, is one of the most interesting people I know. There’s never a point where he says, “No, we can’t do that”. There’s never any limit creatively, and you can hear that through the whole album. He’s always been very keen to keep things extremely organic and true to what they are. Lots of people think it sounds like we record in a massive studio with an orchestra, but we did it in a tiny studio in Acton, which can fit in a maximum of five players at any one time, so we had to layer up the parts, all the time. It was quite a long process, but the results are really satisfying and very chamber orchestra-like.
IT’S VERY REFRESHING, AS WITHIN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY THE FOCUS IS SO MUCH ON THE “MONEY CHORUS”, AND COMMERCIAL VIABILITY. HAVING SIGNED TO SONY/RCA DID YOU WORRY THAT YOUR SONGS WEREN’T CONVENTIONAL AND WEREN’T GOING TO FIT INTO THAT KIND OF BRIEF?
Ignorance is bliss. When you come from the kind of place I have, where you don’t know what a record deal is, and you know so little about the industry, for me it was just a surprise that anybody would be interested in signing me. Sony were most into the Laura Mvula project and they kept saying, “We want this just as you are.” So from the beginning I always felt like whatever we were doing was cool, and was right.
WHAT A GREAT POSITION TO BE IN.
Yes, it’s really liberating! And I feel like I’m giving them the truth. It’s refreshing for me.
SO WHAT CAN OUR READERS EXPECT, ON THE WHOLE, FROM THE DEBUT ALBUM?
Something different. Textures. Emotionally, the fabric of it is diverse. The EP was great in that it was the most tranquil part of my project. Those are the songs that really are the most melancholic and I was writing to evoke a feeling of deep pain and deep lust. Whereas other songs on the album have a different goal. Some are just a bit more fun. I like to dance – I’m not particularly good – but I love dancing and that was important.
NOW YOU’VE BEEN GIVEN THESE ACCOLADES BY THE TASTEMAKERS ARE YOU CONCERNED AT ALL ABOUT LIVING UP TO THE HYPE?
On rainy days, yes. When I have time to think about it. But realistically, I’m just privileged to be able to write an album and put out something that’s authentically me. That for me has been enough to feast on. The tastemakers are great when it’s positive and encouraging. If you’re new at something, like me, it’s been so amazing to have that initial positivity to give me confidence. But, if you have a mother like mine, you never throw yourself fully into hype. It’s important to protect yourself and be balanced.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR PLANS COMING UP?
Lots of touring, outside the UK as well as here. I can’t wait for the album to come out – I remember as a kid waiting for the summer holidays, and they felt so far away. For me, it has felt like that! I’m looking forward to the Isle of Wight Festival in June and the Blue Balls Festival in Switzerland in July. I’m super-excited about those, but petrified at the same time.
AND FINALLY, WHO ARE YOUR IDOLS?
My mum is probably my biggest idol. She is somebody who really gets behind good things. She is the main person who told me to go for my music, and do it fully and do it properly. I think musically there are loads of people who I really admire, but I do idolise a jazz singer called Lizz Wright. She’s had a lot of albums out and her music is amazing, but the way she delivers the music and the way she carries herself is something that I aspire to. She seems very relaxed, full of grace and has maintained such integrity for quite a few years now. Her latest album Fellowship is incredible.
Interviewed for IDOL Magazine’s Power Issue, in stores now.