Laura Mvula is in the pink right now with an Edinburgh International Festival gig celebrating her new third album, appropriately entitled Pink Noise. Three years in the making, it came on the back of a time when she contemplated giving up the music business altogether despite the backing of Prince, Nile Rodgers and David Byrne and numerous awards, but now she’s back with a sound that embraces the diverse influences that made her sound unique. At 35, it’s her time to shine, to revel in what she calls her Laura Mvula-ness and turn up the volume.
A mix of 80s influenced power pop bangers mixed with synth, soul and a soulful duet with Biffy Clyro’s Neil, she declares Pink Noise, with its singles Safe Passage, Church Girl and the duet What Matters, “the album I always wanted to make.”
Speaking on the phone from London where she’s getting ready for the Edinburgh Park gig she’s relaxed and ready for the road, the clear as a bell voice giving long, thoughtful answers which often blindside the listener by being punctuated by laughter, as if she can talk seriously but that’s not how she takes herself.
Her unique sound is a mix of musical influences from her childhood, upbringing and influences and her look a having-fun-with-fashion mash up of Grace Jones’ sensual prowl and right now shoulder pads and Talking Heads oversized jackets.
Mvula was always going to be musical, growing up in Birmingham in a church-going family with Caribbean roots, singing on Sundays and in her aunty’s a capella choir Black Voices, while dreaming of being in the 90s girl band Eternal. Gospel was layered with the big sound of orchestral symphonies when she began playing the violin with school orchestras, progressing to studying music at Birmingham’s Conservatoire. There she met her now former husband, Themba Mvula, a Zambian-born saxophonist, keeping the name (Zambian for rain) post divorce rather than revert to birth surname Douglas because “it's awesome, and he's so kingdom and it became part of my musicality and my whole thing”.)
Into the gospel classical mix, were added her love of Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, Earth, Wind and Fire, jazz influences such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, some R&B, and soul, Nina Simone, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Des'ree, Omar and Grace Jones.
It wasn’t long before she was offered a record deal and the awards came thick and fast with debut album, Sing Me To The Moon (2013) and follow up, The Dreaming Room (2016) both nominated for the Mercury Prize, the latter winning an Ivor Novello Best Album award. She also picked up the BBC Sound Poll, the BRITs Critics Choice Award, two BRIT Awards in 2014 (British Female Solo Artist and British Breakthrough Act) and two MOBO’s in 2013 (Best Female and Best R&B/Soul).
Yet despite her success, Mvula struggled in her twenties with anxiety attacks following her parents divorce, compounded by the sudden fame after a sheltered upbringing, and she retreated from the music scene.
After two albums she felt she had nothing to say, that the first was a “happy accident”, she was no longer relevant and she started looking for teaching jobs in London where she lives and considering her next steps. And yet, she couldn’t let go and when she was invited on tour with David Byrne, for his 2018 American Utopia tour, jumped at it.
“David Byrne is a master of the essence of creativity and freedom in music. And I just felt being on tour with him and his team reminded me of the very simple, very simple artful expressions of sound, communal sound, working together. It felt like a church experience to me. And that's when I started messing around with synthesizers.”
Holed up at home with a laptop, midi keyboard and USB mic she produced the track ‘Safe Passage’, and Pink Noise was on its way.
As Mvula evolved on her musical journey and grew in confidence in her personal life, she wrote a very different album to the previous two.
“I went through a whole period of wanting to be in a completely different space to Sing Me to The Moon or The Dreaming Room. The approach in those songs was more traditional. I was always influenced by orchestral textures, obsessed with big massive symphonies and romantic composers, that kind of sound, so I was always going to do something with that, but I knew that I wanted to make MORE noise.”
Without a big budget or a band, it was Mvula and the musician Dann Hume who had produced The Dreaming Room. He and I spent the best part of a week reinventing my old songs with a new fabric and I think that was very much the seed for Pink Noise even though I didn’t know it at the time.
“Those massive tall high ceilings of the venues that I had played with David Byrne, really utilised the space and a stage where you couldn't really see what was going on at the sides and these wireless instruments the band played. It was amazing and just so imaginative. I think that really threw me, catapulted me, into my own little space, my own little planet. And then I started experimenting with songs and new song ideas and I stayed in this space, this Laura version of Talking Heads.”
Always an imaginative dresser with a keen eye for the visuals, the Byrne influence could be seen in her recent Graham Norton appearance in a Stop Making Sense style oversized jacket, reminiscent of Byrne in the 1980s.
“It wasn’t just the power suits, but that was definitely there,” she laughs. “Yes, David Byrne’s one of my heroes.”
What can she tell us about Pink Noise, and why is that the title of the album?
“I couldn't think of a title for longest time. In the end I knew pink would feature because I spent a lot of time thinking about the color pink because of the skies in California where I made the album, the sunsets as I made the journey to my Airbnb after a day of recording.
“Then I came across a boring YouTube tutorial session on drum set sounds and just as I was about to fall asleep, one of the tutors said ‘Oh, and this here is pink noise’. I immediately knew that was the title of the album. It was one of those meant to be moments. I researched what pink noise actually is - I'd heard of white noise - and was really overjoyed to discover a whole Pink Noise community.”
So what exactly is pink noise?
“It's in higher frequencies and lower frequencies, a particular kind of noise that can help us relax. It’s also said to help memory loss, but generally it’s a particular noise that does really interesting things to mind, body, soul. So I thought ‘well that’s potentially what my album would hope to do’.”
“There’s lots of pink noise all over the record and moments, spaces, where hopefully you can engage with more nostalgic, meditative, romantic, tranquil vibrations.”
In a nut-shell it’s a feel-good record and Mvula hopes that will be the result for listeners.
“I do hope so, because this album has got so much poured into it. It’s nearly three years’ work. I feel I haven’t worked so hard on anything in my life, so I do hope it makes people feel good.”
How would Mvula describe her music with its melange of influences and elements, from 80s pop to gospel, synth, dance, jazz and soul?
“I think it's soulful sci-fi, infused, with... I don’t know… It feels like Prince mixed up with Earth Wind and Fire, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Grace Jones, Janet Jackson, even peppered with Kanye West. If they were all in some kind of commune,” she says and laughs.
Wouldn’t that be a fantastic commune to be in? I’d volunteer to cook every night and take the bins out just to be a fly on the wall.
Mvula laughs. She’s one for stepping out of her comfort zone and mixing things up, as she found when she did the music for the RSC’s Antony and Cleopatra. In 2017.
“One thing I love is that I’ve had different pockets of experience where I could just step in places perhaps I hadn't explored before.”
“The beautiful thing about the RSC experience was I wasn’t a performer so could experience it as an audience member and that was a unique thing for me. It also fed into how I was able to comfortably be uncomfortable with stepping into a new sound world, writing for instruments or sounds I hadn't done before. I dabbled a bit with guitar for the last album but it was very much an afterthought, whereas for this album, bass, drums and guitar are kind of essential, it’s like the DNA of the album - and I play none of those instruments,” she laughs.
“From the get-go I was out of my comfort zone, I had to create where it comes from, the essence of the sound, find my safe space within this world. Not only was it aesthetically new, it was also louder. I was fortunate, working with David Hann, who co-produced the record, and was able to find a way to get my Mvula-ness, my neoclassicism into my 80s kind of planet in a way that you can hear everything.”
In the song Church Girl, Mvula talks about ‘the devil on your back’. What was she referring to with this one?
“My very sheltered and narrow way of seeing the world growing up. I wanted to liberate myself from trying to fit into some sort of ideal, whether it was a wider societal thing or just within my own community, family, my own inner self.”
She describes her favourite scene from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, when Sidney Poitier says to his father ‘You’ve got to get off my back!”
Something about that moment really just took over the first time I saw it, everything inside me, creatively, said ‘yeah! I really recognize that sentiment and want to be able to express that in music for myself.’”
Which brings us to What Matters, the duet, released as a single, that she made with Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil, something she reveals she was at first reluctant to do.
“Dreamy Simon Neil... just extraordinary,” she says. “I have my manager to thank for that. I was asked over and over by the label - features are a really good tool to get a bigger reach and who did I have in mind? Quite honestly I was so drenched in my own world I wasn't really into the idea. I was terrified of doing something inauthentic, so I said to my manager, okay, it will be the song What Matters, and wanted to recreate the feeling of a Kate Bush/Peter Gabriel thing. He said Biffy Clyro and I said yeah ‘I know Biffy Clyro’, then refreshed my memory and saw something Simon Neil had done with an orchestra so obviously my ears pricked. I texted him and it was very informal, and sweet and meaningful, and he said he loved the song so much, and within a week he had recorded.
“It’s funny because everybody was saying you want to be really prescriptive, tell him exactly what you want him to do, and I was like, ‘this guy's gonna know exactly what to do’. He instinctively knew how to make the song more of itself, how to work with me. He did it magnificently. I couldn’t get enough. I still can't. That's the one that I play probably the most.”
With Prince, David Byrne and Nile Rodgers (she collaborated with him on a track for her second album) all backing her, why was it she had a crisis of self-confidence?
“Quite literally and metaphorically I thought my presence wasn’t loud enough and that critical acclaim, as much as I could feast on that for a bit and felt so empowered by some of the accolades and nominations, I realised if this thing was not translating, it wasn’t sustainable.
“I’d lost a lot of confidence. I felt I've done work that deserved to be championed but for whatever reason wasn’t and got tired of being labeled the underrated artist, undersung, under dog. That was getting more than exhausting. I always want to do things with integrity, not for the sake of it so was asking myself serious questions about what next.
What pulled her out of her malaise was a Sister Act moment in the film of which she was a fan when she was younger.
“Whoopi Goldberg’s character says ‘if you wake up in the morning and all you want to do, or you can think about is singing, then you’re a singer.’ It’s a famous encouragement to all artists by Rainer Maria Rilke in the book Letters to a Young Poet, the essence of which is if you have to do this thing, then do it. And that's what it came down to for me. But it took a few years. I had to get to that point.”
Time’s running out, but I can’t let Mvula go without asking about Prince and what it was like to work with him when he contacted her after seeing her on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury in 2013.
“It was something I am still reliving and still doesn't quite sink in, because I spent most of my life regarding this particular human as the icon that he is. But then he makes his way into MY sphere, which is in itself is a strange thing to comprehend, and then to be having conversations with this person who is one of the biggest artists of all time… I just couldn't believe how ordinary our conversations were, and meaningful.
“It reminded me of talking to somebody at music college. That thing that creatives have where they just want to talk about that thing all day. As much as he was like this lone megastar, he was just one of us trying to do it, just a muso. Trying to get by, trying to fly.
“He was so generous with his time and platforms for me and still to this day, I think it will be years before I really understand the magnitude of that relationship.”
With the Scottish gig ahead, Mvula is looking forward to playing in Edinburgh, not least because she harbours a hankering for a Scotsman.
“You know, I always thought I was gonna marry a Scotsman. It was my dream. Well it still is on one level,” she says. “I have to say that the Scottish voice is to me one of the most beautiful sounds. Next to singing, I just think it’s amazing. I really do.”
She’s coming to the right place, I tell her. Is she available?
“I’m very available,” she says and laughs again.
Laura Mvula performs at the Edinburgh International Festival on Sunday 29 August, at Edinburgh Park, tickets, £21–£26 www.eif.co.uk/events/laura-mvula
Her album Pink Noise out now on Atlantic
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