IS IT too early to predict who’ll make it big on the pop scene in 2013? Not if you’ve come across the soulful, stunning ballads of Laura Mvula, writes David Smyth
To a glittering list that includes Adele, Jessie J, Florence + the Machine and Emeli Sandé, we can soon add the name Laura Mvula. It’s tipping season in pop, when the stars of the next 12 months are picked before 2013 has even started. The shortlist for the next Brits Critics’ Choice Award was announced last week, and Mvula (pronounced “Mmm-voola”) looks like the hot favourite. She’s also on the long list for the BBC Sound of 2013 poll, announced earlier this week. To judge by the line-up of past winners, hefty sales figures are all but guaranteed. Is she ready?
The singer and pianist from Birmingham is painfully aware that she’s being launched by her major label, RCA, at the time when traditionally, pop’s giants are on their holidays and the stage is free for the new batch. It’s a cut-throat period when acts with potential jostle for attention and can easily be in the Top Ten or forgotten entirely by March. “As much as I would want to sit here and think, ‘Oh my gosh I’m gonna be the biggest thing next year...’ Really? In terms of my value system, it’s not really important to me,” she says. Mvula would say that, but there’s also a deeper modesty at play here. Having performed no more than six concerts so far as a solo artist and with a knack for Olympic standard self-criticism, it would appear 2013’s brightest star is more of a shrinking violet.
With her shaved head covered by a headscarf tied with sparkling stones, daunting heels, a giant smile inside a tiny face and eyelashes you could land a plane on, the 26-year-old can’t help but stand out as she stirs porridge in the corner of a London brasserie. “I’ve never been particularly good at articulating what my music sounds like,” she says. “I’d say it’s sort of jazzy, but not really jazz, and I’m trying to work with orchestral instruments.”
If she won’t blow her own trumpet there’ll be no shortage of others to do it for her. No one has been treated to a full listen of her debut untitled album, not due until March, but the handful of tracks I’ve heard so far are stunning — unusually structured ballads painted with piano and percussive chimes, over which she sings in a restrained, soulful voice which she then layers into huge vocal washes.
“It’s extremely self-indulgent, to create a choir of myself,” she says. Nina Simone and Minnie Riperton, both inspirations, spring to mind. Her only single so far, She, could sit next to the current organic soul of Adele, Sandé and Michael Kiwanuka that has been so popular lately, but there’s something eerier about it that sets it apart.
The songs sound confident even if she doesn’t, and well they ought. This is a seriously well-educated musician – Mvula has played the piano since she was eight and violin since ten, before taking on a four- year course in composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire. “I was totally overwhelmed by the breadth of music ability there. I felt like a little bit of an idiot writing my songs while everyone else was making clever, incredible music. It felt like it was too easy. But the tutors encouraged me to do it.”
Even more valuable was a four-year stint in the second half of the last decade in Black Voices, a successful a cappella group that has been performing for 25 years under the leadership of Mvula’s aunt, Carol Pemberton. Growing out of Birmingham’s reggae scene, they have developed from singing the songs of their Caribbean heritage to soul and gospel spirituals. As well as concerts, Black Voices run workshops, which Mvula was often asked to lead.
“It was one of the best development experiences I’ve ever had,” she says. “It was hellfire. Nerves can completely paralyse me. But the kind of work Black Voices does means you have to find a way to cope or you just sink.”
The whole family is musical. Her cousin also sings in Black Voices. Her brother is a cellist, studying for a masters at the Royal Academy of Music, while her sister does a course in pop vocals at the University of West London. Mvula’s parents split while she was at the conservatoire and she no longer sees her father, but recalls reverent Miles Davis family listening sessions as a girl. “I remember being in the car and saying, ‘Dad, didn’t he just play a wrong note?’ The look he gave me was as if I’d said the worst thing ever. It affected me so much that I remember being determined to find out what exactly was so precious about this music.”
Even when a career as a musician seemed an impossible dream, she stayed close to her passion. After she finished studying, she taught music as a supply teacher in a secondary school. “I found it really rough. I’m not a shouty person, I didn’t get results.”
Then Mvula took a job as a receptionist at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. “I needed to be earning, and couldn’t pursue music full-time, but I thought, at least I’ll be near the music. One time the actor Anthony Hopkins came over to talk to me. He’d written some music for the orchestra. I got really excited but he just wanted to borrow my scissors.”
Also keeping her feet on the ground is her husband of three years, Themba Mvula. A fellow conservatoire graduate originally from Zambia, he’s doing very nicely as a baritone in the field of early music, singing with Birmingham’s Ex Cathedra Choir and taking the role of Jesus in next year’s St Matthew’s Passion at Birmingham Symphony Hall. “He’s extremely together, very calm, which is great for me,” says Mvula. “When we talk about it, this has always been about making music that is authentically me.” A pop career must look extremely fleeting to someone immersed in music that’s 500 years old. It’s obvious Mvula is looking at music as a lifelong occupation, regardless of whether she’s playing pubs or stadiums.
The other men in her life include her drummer and musical director Troy Miller, who also drummed for Amy Winehouse. When she finally goes on tour next year he’ll have first-hand knowledge of the dangers to avoid. Then there’s Steve Brown, her producer, who also discovered Rumer but is still better known for playing the conductor Glen Ponder in the Alan Partridge TV series. “He gave me whatever I wanted for the album. When I figured out that whatever I sketched for him was actually going to be realised, I just let rip, and that’s what the album sounds like in a good or a bad way. There’ll be some surprises – what you’ve heard so far doesn’t fully represent the sound.”
As for what her life will be like once the album is released in March, she doesn’t like to speculate. “Maybe next year I’ll be a cocksure bitch and it’ll all have gone to my head, or maybe I’ll be back on the reception desk — who knows?” I think I do.
• Laura Mvula’s debut single, She, is out now on RCA. www.lauramvula.com