No more staying behind the scenes for Laura Mvula

DESPITE a lifetime at the piano, a degree in composition from Birmingham Conservatoire and experience in a vocal harmony group and community choirs, it had not occurred to Laura Mvula that her musical future might lie in pop music, until her husband, a classical baritone, suggested she try writing and performing her own songs.

Laura Mvula's sound is characterised by unusual jazz melodies and graceful orchestral arrangements. Picture: Getty

At the time, Mvula was behind the scenes, working as a supply music teacher and as a receptionist for the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Three years on, her debut album Sing To The Moon has been nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize and it is hard to credit that this striking, charismatic woman had to be coaxed into taking the limelight.

“Singing became something I had to get over myself – I had such a lack of confidence,” she says. “When I started to see it as purely another tool in my music that took the pressure off me.”

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Mvula also credits her classical training at the Conservatoire with instilling a sense of sonic adventure. “My tutor encouraged me to be limitless in how I write. Because I had access to as much as I needed – if I needed a string section, I knew I could get four or five string players together – subconsciously I was never thinking ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that’. Whatever colours I wanted to create, the palette was there.”

From this broad palette, she has fashioned an idiosyncratic sound, characterised by unusual jazzy melodies, graceful orchestral arrangements for strings, horns and harp, devotional choral harmonies and a tribal rhythmic infusion on peppier numbers such as That’s Alright, a refreshing spin on empowerment, and Green Garden, a slice of musical magical realism.

Mvula’s influences include Jill Scott and Erykah Badu but her eloquent esoterica is more reminiscent of the work of Nina Simone and Alice Coltrane. She plays down such comparisons but concedes: “I fell in love with the concept of harmony and having four things going on at the same time that could move you, not necessarily with words, but with sounds.”

• Laura Mvula plays the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh 
on 30 September.