Singer’s style is equally matched by substance
- Credit: Archant
Getting hold of Laura Mvula has proved tricky. I’ve been trying for weeks and, when she finally comes through, it is immediately clear why. Thoughtful, modest, but slightly hesitant, she sounds almost out of breath. Not through any singular excursion, but rather as if this pause for reflection is a delicate port in the storm of this past year.
Consider, for instance, that just a few days before, her golden heels were clicking at the Royal Albert Hall Proms, faced with a packed-out house and backed by a 90-strong orchestra playing to her every vocal flourish. It should be a memory to cherish, yet memory doesn’t seem to have much space in the schedule.
“Listening back to it now – some of the arrangements are in my head – they had their own identity,” Mvula says, almost in the state of a trance. “The whole thing was just so beautifully put together. I think of Jules Buckley (the conductor and arranger) and I don’t know how he managed it.”
By the sounds of it, Kenwood House’s Live by the Lake has a tough gig to follow. Mvula’s prospects, though, are bigger than even the Royal Albert Hall. Shortlisted at the start of the year for the Critics Choice award at the Brits, as well as the BBC’s Sound of 2013, her trajectory is aping the early success of artists like Adele, Florence and the Machine and Emeli Sandé.
In March, she justified the hype with debut album Sing To The Moon – a record that mixed critical success with a top 10 position in the UK album charts. Her soulful, intricately-layered compositions struck a chord with festival goers earlier this summer and then came the tour, the Proms. And now, Mvula breathes.
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“Oh wow, it is,” she says, when I remind her it has been nearly six months since the album launch. “It feels like last week. Everything is still new to me, I’m still the same nervous performer.”
A writer since her childhood days, Mvula studied composition at university and, unlike most singers, still considers herself a writer more than a performer. Nerves, as a consequence, still fill her, but she is learning to embrace the fear.
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“I was having a conversation with someone the other day and he was talking about the positive role nerves can play. For performance, anything you’re doing, it’s a natural thing and can work to your advantage. It can give you an extra push, an extra burst of energy. Some of the gigs I’ve been the most nervous about have been the most exciting and you don’t want to lose that edge.”
Nonetheless, the 27-year-old does everything she can to feel comfortable onstage and a large part of that is her appearance. Regal, retro and pointedly angular, her long, flicked eyeliner and gravity-defying earrings have already gathered cult status. Amusingly, the singer is unaware of ‘Modern Sixties Makeup – Laura Mvula Style’ – a YouTube video demonstrating how to mirror her image. It has reached nearly 200,000 views.
“No, stop it! That’s hilarious! But yeah, I think about image, definitely. How you appear, for me, affects how you feel and how you perform. Some days I’m into clean cut lines and want to look quite classical, other times I like more animated shapes and bright colours. The look is very much part of the sound.”
That sound, described by Mvula as “orchestral, colourful, emotive”, has been honed and matured over two decades of music appreciation which began in her childhood Birmingham home. Raised in a strict, religious household, her earliest years were sound tracked by Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, jazz and gospel.
A genre of her own
With her unique blend of electronic hooks and strong, almost spiritual vocals, some have even credited her with creating a genre of her own, loosely known as ‘gospeldelia’.
“The original word came from my cousin. Everybody has family members who you look up to - he’s one of them for me and he called it ‘gospeldelic’. Now people say gospedelia, gospedelica, it has its point I suppose.
“Like Miles Davis said, though, it doesn’t really matter what you call it, as long as it’s authentic, has integrity and it’s honest. That’s always been my ambition with what I’m doing.”
Still touring her first album, Mvula is modest about her chances and doesn’t believe she has had a true breakthrough moment yet. Taking each step day by day, she nonetheless does have one goal in mind.
“I’m trying to make it happen that I can work with an orchestra for a whole gig. Do all the songs with the orchestra, more live vocals. That’s the short-term goal. It was really funny after the Proms, because my manager said, ‘Don’t get any ideas.’”
She gives a guilty laugh. “And of course I have.”
n Laura Mvula plays Live by the Lake on Sunday (August 26). For more information, visit www.livebythelake.co.uk.