OF LATE Laura Mvula has been getting into superhero stories. Marvel movies. Star Wars. It’s a new thing for her, she says. “I couldn’t stand that stuff before and now I’m completely transfixed by it.”
The reason? Well, maybe, just maybe, the classically-trained singer-songwriter can see a reflection of herself somewhere in those fantasies. In 2021 it is possible that she has finally discovered just how much power she actually has.
Mvula, 35, is a hugely respected, triple Mercury Prize-nominated artist who carved out a space for herself with her orchestral balladeering that drew comparisons with everyone from Amy Winehouse to Erykah Badu and Nina Simone. And now with her latest album Pink Noise she has reinvented herself as a proper 1980s-inspired pop princess.
And yet this is a woman who in recent years has also had to weather the storms of divorce and being dropped by her record label (by email, to add insult to injury). This is a woman who in the past has admitted to having panic attacks in the shower and who revealed in a BBC documentary in 2017 that she needed a support worker, “somebody that could be in my house with me so that I wasn’t alone because of my struggles with anxiety.”
Some four years on she seems a woman reborn this afternoon. And isn’t rebirth a key element of the superhero narrative?
“I very much feel that is part of my narrative,” Mvula agrees. “It sounds cliched, but I want to fly. And I want to do that without being shackled to anything. And that’s including myself.”
She certainly looks the part these days. The promotional photographs for Pink Noise reveal a woman who wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of a Marvel comic. All tulle, big shoulders and statement hair, she’s a vision of strength and beauty.
I do like a pop star who looks like a pop star, I tell her.
“Yeaah! Let’s bring that back,” she roars. “I don’t know why we lost that.
“I think there’s something inspiring about the otherworldly that can really be a necessary thing in tandem with the music. Creating a whole world is part of the escape. Yeah, I love the power dressing.”
She not only looks the part but today she is talking the part too. Her conversation is studded with declarations of self-belief. Now and again, though, a glimpse of vulnerability can be seen. Even superheroes are human, I guess.
The new album, her third, and also the third to be nominated for the Mercury Prize, is definitely a pop album. A noisy, punchy, 1980s-flavoured thing, full of clean electronic lines and empowered lyrics, fuelled by Mvula’s diva-sized vocals. Tracks like Safe Passage and Got Me would have sounded just as great coming out of the radio in 1985 as they do in 2021. If Grace Jones and Whitney Houston had a baby …
When I listen to it, I suggest, I hear someone who just wants to dance. “That’s perfect. That’s what I had in mind all the way through.”
And that was also the challenge, she says. How so? Because. Mvula says, she had to shake herself out of her comfort zone.
“I had set myself up quite neatly in a world where I could sit at the piano with an orchestra and play my very lush, expansive chords and be quite settled in that and lament in my very heartfelt ballads.
“Whereas this is a very different agenda, and I put pressure on myself quite early to write music that is up-tempo for me.
“This is three years of work, nearly. I can quite easily go back in my mind to a time when I could never imagine I would have something that I’d be this intensely proud of and that it would be finished, let alone actually shared out in the world.”
The result is “an album of liberation,” Mvula says. “Weirdly, as we were going into a lockdown, I was becoming free, making a soundtrack to my own life. Bizarre but amazing. To the point where I listen to this record or parts of it every day and I find something refreshing and new in it each time.”
A new you? “An exposing of the true me. I think I’ve shown other feathers before and that’s been great and that came about in orchestral form. But this time I wanted to do something louder and something that spoke more immediately. And that’s true to me too.”
Today Mvula is at home in Clapton. “I am lying on my sofa, horizontal.” Just as it should be. She doesn’t say that anyone is standing behind her waving a fan over her head and feeding her grapes but if I want to think that who is going to stop me?
You can hear the Brummie accent when she talks. Born in 1986 she grew up in Birmingham with her brother and sister. Her mum was a humanities professor, her dad a youth legal educator in her dad.
In the 1990s her life revolved around church and music lessons. She was clearly musically gifted, but she has also said she was very shy. As a teenager she joined Black Voices, an acapella group set up by her aunt as well as joining a local band. She also opted to study composition at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.
When she performs as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, it won’t be her first visit to Edinburgh in August.
When she was 11 or 12 (she’s not sure which) she was one of five young musicians sent to the city from Birmingham as winners of a music contest. “I got a new violin and as part of the package we were sent to Edinburgh as a group.
“I remember they took us to see Steve Reich and he gave a concert and a talk. But obviously, I was young. Not just in my age, but young in my musicality. I wasn’t ready for Steve Reich. Looking back, it’s hilarious because, when I went onto study composition, Reich became one of my favourite composers.
“We stayed in a hostel somewhere in Edinburgh. It was wicked times. It was probably the first time I’d been to Scotland. It was freedom away from parents, playing with friends. String players are the best mates, I’m telling ya.”
Music gave her that sense of freedom and validation. But sometimes that hasn’t always been enough.
She once told fellow singer Jessie Ware on her fellow singer’s Table Manners podcast that she went to the Conservatoire to find a husband. And she did, meeting classical baritone student Themba Mvula, who was in the same year as her.
At that point in her life, she tells me today, she had no big dreams. “I was just an amateur musician out of Birmingham trying to find my way. I was content with the idea of being in a local band. That’s what I wanted.”
But that’s not what happened. She had a spell as a receptionist and a supply teacher. But then she released her debut album Sing to the Moon, which contained one of her signature tracks, Green Garden, and it broke into the top 10 and was nominated for the 2013 Mercury Prize.
Soon – the night of the Mercury prize actually – Prince was texting her with an afterparty invitation and Niles Rodgers told her he wanted to work with her, which he did on a track for her second album, The Dreaming Room.
That is the stuff, surely, of proper validation, you would think.
And yet her divorce followed hard on the heels of her initial success. And all along she has struggled with anxiety. She still does. When she has talked about her panic attacks in the past it has sounded totally debilitating (“My body starts spasming, I think I’m going to collapse…” she once said).
And then in 2017 she was dropped by her record label. She’s never been sure why.
“Yeah, it was just a heavy time,” Mvula says when I bring all this recent history up. She is reticent to go there today. It is a possibly a marker of her current mood that she can argue that she is the better for all these experiences.
“I think what happened was good for me in the end. It became an opportunity to grow. That’s how I used it.”
Still, I say, it’s bad enough being dropped. But being dropped by email is just rude. “Very, very rude,” she agrees, laughing. “Not how I was raised.
“It’s an interesting one. The chess game of the music industry is something that I’m still wrapping my mind around.”
We talk about the idea of agency. I wonder if there have been times when she felt she didn’t have any?
“I think most of my challenges have come about because I felt I have agency. That’s where the frictions have come.”
The industry didn’t want you to have it? “Basically” she replies.
“Right now, in the industry everything is about momentum, everything is about maximum pace, maximum volume, maximum reach, which means waiting for inspiration or taking time to craft something isn’t fashionable anymore. The first thing people say is, ‘You took so long.’”
It wasn’t always like this, Mvula points out. Back in the 1990s, she says, the likes of Lauryn Hill or D’Angelo were given space and time. No longer.
“We’re in a culture of more, more, more. And that’s not really my DNA. And that’s where the friction has come.
“But I’ve been riding those waves for a bit now. I feel I know who I am in that regard, and I don’t make compromises. If I feel it, then fine. If I don’t feel it, forget about it. I’m not going to do something for the sake of it, or because we need to fill a moment.”
Given all the obstacles, I ask, was there ever a moment when she thought she might give music up?
“Oh, I’ve definitely had my doubts. Don’t we all have those days? I know people who are in marriage relationships, or have kids, and there are just days when you turn around and go, ‘Oh my God, if things were different …’ I think it’s part of the human condition.
“But I am learning to rejoice in where I’m at. I’m glad of all the things … even the very difficult moments that feel desperate. Somehow, I just have this faith that they are part of the fabric, part of the tapestry, to be as treasured as the things that give us immense pleasure and joy.”
Maybe, Mvula says, it’s because she’s getting older. “Let’s not say getting old,” she corrects herself. “Let’s say maybe growing up a little bit”.
Life is change, Laura. “I was chatting to a friend, another single black woman in the creative arts. We were wondering if we mellow a little bit as time goes on, so the things that seem so desperate and so life and death at one point, they lose – not entirely, but at least in part – some of the intensity of the drama.”
Some people love the drama, though. “Yeah, I think our ego thrives on drama. That’s for sure. For me, it’s when I insist on living there that actually I miss out on the true life-giving bits, you know? I miss on some of the beauty because I’m so caught up with getting upset about something.”
How does she now think of that young girl who went off to the Conservatoire looking for a husband? Does she feel far, far away?
“Yeah, it feels like a lifetime ago. Strange to think about. But in some ways, I enjoy thinking about it because I feel like, gosh, the amount that’s been packed into my little life has been extraordinary.
“I’ve been a housewife, a teacher at secondary school and I have also now made three albums and toured with Prince. It’s amazing to have this progression.”
And now, Laura?
“I want to savour moments rather than be just trying to hang on for dear life.”
It’s time for Laura Mvula to fly.
Pink Noise is out now. Laura Mvula plays Edinburgh Park as part of the Edinburgh International Festival on August 29
Laura Mvula on Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil
One of the unexpected guests on Mvula’s Pink Noise is Biffy Clyro’s frontman Simon Neil. Mvula and Neil duet on the soulful ballad What Matters.
“It was my manager who suggested Biffy Clyro’s Simon and I listened to what they’d done with an orchestra, and I was like, ‘’Yeah, that’s the thing.’
“And I remember the label trying to organise it very formally. And I was just like, ‘No, I’ll text him. He’ll know what to do.’ We shared one text conversation and he was so sweet; one of the sweetest, gentlest, kindest human beings I think I’ve ever met. He texted me and said how much he loved the song and asked if there was anything I wanted of him and I just said, ‘Do you.’
“I cannot imagine that song without him and that’s not true of a lot of collaborations that I’ve been a part of before.
“He helped me make sense of my own song. Who does that?”