The 405 meets Laura Mvula
Neo-soul singer-songwriter Laura Mvula has, over the course of roughly a year, been whisked from teaching in secondary schools, to releasing a highly-anticipated album on the back of BRIT Critic's Choice and BBC Sound of 2013 nominations. The slivers of music released so far: 'She', 'Green Garden' and 'Like The Mountain Dew', are remarkable moments of pastoral tenderness interspersed with jazz, classical and indie-pop. Describing the past year is difficult for her, with so many massive changes taking place in such a short amount of time. "My adrenalin these days is through the roof, as I'm trying to deal with everything. I'm still trying to process things that have happened! It's exciting feeling as though anything is possible, at least musically."
She's got a powerfully strong voice and a seemingly innate mastery over the sonic arts, drawing comparisons to Adele and Emile Sandé, but performing and recording music was never necessarily part of her life 'plan'. "It all happened very quickly. I never had a vision or strong desire to do what I want to do now. I met with Steve [Brown, producer] with the intention to write songs as a casual experiment for me, while I had this part time work. It was just about producing something I was proud of. The exposure came when I signed with Sony and went to do the iTunes festival, and since the release of the first EP it's been a roller coaster ride. The pace hasn't slowed, it's just snowballing. I never had intentions for this kind of thing." But there's no resentment. It's more like wild-eyed wonder, kid-in-a-candy-store style awe. "Hearing from my heroes like Eric Whitacre and Jamie Cullum over Twitter was unreal. When people you respect are fans its a shock."
Her album Sing To The Moon is due early March. It's been a pretty gruelling process, but she got there in the end. "Finishing the record was a miracle for me. I think all through my education I was always doing activities to keep myself busy but lacking self-confidence with them. I'm a good starter, I'm good at brainstorming, but I've never quite finished a product. For me it's a big deal to have the album finished." From start to finish she's impressed people, and finally the release of the record is on the horizon. "I met Steve about eighteen months ago. When I met him I'd already sketched two song ideas – 'She' and 'Green Garden' – and he showed an interest. His advice was to follow my instincts when it came to songwriting. It was liberating to hear that. I would come to the studio with Steve and use live musicians or samples to flesh out the sounds, and over ten months the album was born.
Mvula has a wealth of musical experience to draw from, coming from a hugely musical family and routinely getting involved with community projects. The tracks she's released so far are such a fine mix, that the genre of 'gospeldelia' has sprouted up to define her style. But even that isn't entirely accurate, as it bypasses her jazz and classical influences, and her love of a plethora of styles. "I draw influences from my subconscious. There's jazz like my Dad listened to. I grew up with black gospel traditions and Anglican choral classical. When I started writing myself I was listening to Michael Tippet and Eric Whitacre. Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill Erykah Badu... Miles Davis made one of my favourite albums of all time. I've been involved with lots of community projects in Birmingham, whether that's folk or music in Zulu. I've had the privilege of dipping my toes into many styles. I love contemporary sounds too: Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, Thrice, Michael Kiwanuka. I love discovering music."
But the album wasn't just spawned from music-nerdery. There's a darker vein ripping through the sounds, and also a very calculated one. "Lots of songs have a sense of loss and tragedy about them. They're lyrically simple, my ideas are repetitive, but I think that's a style I like. I like finding ways of saying the same thing from different angles, and just altering it slightly. The lyrical content is painful, but I like to think the sounds and harmonics express freedom and joy."
As evidenced by her award nominations, her releases so far have made a big impression. There's a palpable hype around her debut, due to the inspirational deviations from standard 'pop' sounds and the inclusion of well-informed musical subtleties. She's not aimed for a certain sound though, everything's just come quite naturally to her. "It's hard for me to think about trying to do me. Whatever that is. Having grown up with music in church and studying it, I was surrounded by classical music. I sang in an a cappella group, I lead community choirs. I've always had these incredible influences. The whole point was to remove limitations or expectations of myself on the record, in the time that followed after a band at uni doing neo-jazz covers of Erykah Badu, after that and trying to emulate her sound, I tried to do whatever was natural for me."
When it comes to other artists, she welcomes the different approaches to music, regardless of background or influence. "It depends who you are and how you look at the world and what you want to say. I think there's room for all sorts of music, probably because what I've been exposed to culturally. It's important to be honest and to be authentic. As long as it's coming from a place that's true, I don't think you need to delve more deeply than that."
Live performances are still scant on the ground as of yet, with her first television appearance happening less than two weeks ago (February 1st) on the Graham Norton Show. She's still finding her feet. She's not at all apprehensive about doing so, though, speaking through a collected confidence. "I feel like I've done so few gigs, but the ones I have done, the audiences have responded differently. In Amsterdam people were hollering and dancing, it was different because some gigs are very still. There's lots of space in my music, and I like to enjoy that element, and the space between myself, the audience and the music.
The horizon is bright for Laura Mvula, with a lot of the year jotted down already. The pace of this rising star is unlikely to falter, especially with the release of what promises to be an outstanding debut. She's excited for what's to come. "I've not really been to a festival before so playing live at them is gonna be huge for me. I'd love to say that I've worked with an orchestra by the end of the year as that's a big dream of mine. I'd love to say my year is about conveying the album live. It's been interesting using a reductionist method, because in the studio recording there's twenty-two musicians, so it's going to be an interesting year figuring out how to make it work live."
With the insane buzz around her, and music as formidable as hers, Mvula is likely to go far.
Sing To The Moon is due out March 4th on Sony. For a list of her forthcoming live dates, head here.
Purchase and listen
Laura Mvula stopped by BBC 1Xtra Live Lounge and covered Michael Jackson's 'Human Nature'. [read more]
Laura Mvula has announced she'll be releasing her debut album this March. [read more]