Laura Mvula: I feel like I’m creating my own narrative now more comfortably
“You should be a megastar,” the disco pioneer and Chic guitarist, who had been drafted in as a producer, told her.
“You haven’t found a way to hold people’s hand and take people in.”
Mvula recalls this moment as we discuss her latest album, Pink Noise – which manages to combine her much-discussed classical sensibilities (she attended the Birmingham Conservatoire) with an inviting, pure pop sensibility.
“I struggled with hearing that,” she explains.
“Because I was tired of hearing from people: ‘Oh, your music is too complex. It’s not going to break through because it’s got too many layers. It’s beautiful but it’s not going to reach a lot of people’ – as though that was my motivation.
“It took a lot of growth, or maybe even just baby steps, to understand that the two are not mutually exclusive.
“I can be absolutely myself and learn the craft of reaching people.”
The composer and songwriter, originally from the suburbs of Birmingham, is one of Britain’s most gifted contemporary musicians.
She has two Mercury Award-nominated albums under her belt – 2013’s Sing To The Moon and The Dreaming Room, as well as an honorary doctorate of music from Birmingham City University and various other accolades.
She has worked across theatre (scoring the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2017 production of Antony And Cleopatra), and performed at the Queen’s birthday party.
Her journey to this point, however, has not been easy.
Mvula struggled with stage fright and was later unceremoniously dropped by her label, RCA Records, part of Sony Music, in 2017.
However, she tells me the last few years have ultimately helped her grow.
“I feel relieved,” she admits as we speak shortly before her new album is released to the world.
“I, quite honestly – the last three years – feel like there is a really good chance it might not have happened for me.
“Or maybe that is just from my perspective.
“But it took a lot to readjust after everything changed for me with the team that I started with for the first few records.
“It is now not the same team and that has been a positive thing, maybe even a lifesaving thing for me.
“It’s been an adjustment period and a time to figure out what kind of sound I want to make next.”
During this lengthy hiatus she summoned the courage to try something new.
“I had got used to certain tags like ‘orchestral soul’ and ‘classically trained Mvula’ and perhaps I hadn’t realised I felt almost trapped by that.
“And I had to find my way out of it. Because really, that was never the whole story for me.
“I needed to make something that showed much more of who I am and not be so obsessed with sticking to a script.”
Mvula was reborn to the public on Graham Norton’s BBC chat show earlier this year.
Appearing inside a glowing box and wearing an oversized white suit with shoulder pads, she delivered a performance of her single Church Girl, channelling both Whitney Houston and Prince, but sounding utterly unique.
Mvula also recently featured in Google’s Nest Sessions, where disco DJ Dimitri From Paris and UK producer Romare created remixes of Church Girl with accompanying music videos.
“I’m someone that feels things quite deeply,” she recalls of the frantic early days of the pandemic.
“So when the first lockdown got underway I had a huge sense of, ‘Gosh – how are we going to cope with this collectively? Where are the tools? There’s no handbook here.’
“I’ve had a thing about safety and security and needing to feel that in a profound way since I was quite young.
“And because music has always provided some kind of solace, some inner peace, I knew that this record was going to be that on lots of different levels.
“I chose an uptempo vibe because I wanted dance to be a big part of it.
“I wanted to make something that I myself would stick on and be able to move freely, move with abandon.
“I don’t consider myself a dancer at all, but that’s the point. It’s not really about that. It’s about freedom.”
Pink Noise is a personal record featuring songs about romance, joy and loss.
But it also reflects the events that were going on in the world – including the death of George Floyd in the US in May 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Lyrically, I needed some outlet,” she recalls.
“I needed some form of expression.”
“I remember when I made Remedy.
“By then we had already set up a home studio in an Airbnb in the countryside, like Glastonbury way.
“But it was the time that London was taking to the streets, marching for Black Lives Matter.
“And I remember feeling that very painful pull and need to not just say something for the sake of it, when things become trendy, but actually re-engaging or engaging with it on a different frequency.
“Because, let’s face it, in so many ways, this is not a new story.
“And so I needed to find a way to say something and Remedy was my offering to the struggle.”
At 35, Pink Noise appears to mark a new era for Mvula.
During the recording process, she did things she had never done before – working extensively with other songwriters, returning to and rewriting songs constantly, introducing unfamiliar instruments.
“I was prepared to see my career as a working musician as I get inspired by something and I’m just a vessel – I’m just a vehicle for that thing, and that’s great.
“Whereas now I was being made aware that I’m someone who needs all kinds of inspiration to make something new.
“To want to innovate, to take risks, to go places I haven’t been before.”
Importantly, she is taking inspiration from a generation of millennials – singer H.E.R., rapper and drummer Anderson .Paak and pianist, record producer, songwriter and musical arranger Robert Glasper.
“I enjoy the way that there’s a real culture of confidence.
“The term woke is kind of out of date now.
“But there’s not much that gets past these young people and I really respect that.
“It caused me with this album to not hold back, if I think about what it means to push forwards.
“I used to oversimplify the conversation about, ‘Oh, you’re considered a niche or independent artist trying to do something in the pop world. How does that work? It’s one or the other.’
“I’m not so sure. It’s way more nuanced.
“And I feel like I’m creating my own narrative now more comfortably.”
Laura Mvula’s Google Nest Sessions music videos are available now on YouTube. Pink Noise is released via Atlantic Records today
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