Nature or nurture? It’s hard to tell with Laura Mvula. She’s an instinctive songwriter and composer who has benefited from nearly 20 years of classical training through the Birmingham Music Service. She also counts Eternal, Gerald Finzi and Gil Scott among her diverse influences.
The BRIT Critics’ Choice Award nominee and BBC Sound of 2013 shortlister has already garnered a serious amount of column inches this year, while debut album Sing to the Moon went straight into the top 10 earlier this month.
We found time in her relentless schedule to catch up with Laura and hear how her upbringing shaped her eclectic debut album and prepared her for super-stardom. Just don’t mention Nina Simone…
What’s the first song you remember hearing ever?
Wow! My mum used to sing a lullaby, ‘Ally bally, ally bally bee’… Oh no, I can’t remember how the second verse goes… It’s a Scottish one and it used to really move me. I reckon the song I think my song Can’t Live With the World is subconsciously my Ally Bally because I was obsessed with that melody right up until I was about nine or 10.
I’m attracted by anything simplistic. I’ve always enjoyed bringing really simple elements together to make something that’s bigger or more interesting. I’m just into things that circle round and round; it’s how my brain works. Obviously harmony is a big thing for me too. So when I was a bit older and we’d stopped singing Ally Bally, I finally grasped the idea of harmony. I couldn’t understand how three voices could make one sound – it was mind blowing!
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
It would have been when my dad finally said I could have his keyboard in my bedroom. To me that was like having a baby grand in my bedroom – it felt really romantic and I could make my own music. I wrote a gospel song and played it to my dad. He said, ‘Wow this is really good.’ We listened to it in the car on a cassette and my siblings were laughing at how geeky it was, but my dad was impressed so I thought, ‘Oh, this is quite cool.’
Is your family musical?
Yes, my dad fancied himself as a singer. He does have a really good voice, he’s like a Luther Vandross wannabe. Fair enough! He plays a bit of guitar or piano. My mum would say she’s not musical at all but she can sing. And then my brother and sister who are both younger than me – we’re a bit of a cliquey family. My brother and sister were my best friends growing up, which is a bit sad really! It was partly due to the way my parents brought us up. We were encouraged to entertain each other and music was the easiest way to do that. As soon as we could play instruments, that’s what we did for fun.
How do your siblings feel when you compose for them now?
I’ve always done it! It was my way of bossing them around and getting away with it. As parents, if your eldest is bossing the youngsters around but it’s constructive, you let them get away with it! My brother and sister would say their summers were wasted but I think we had fantastic times. If you’ve got three people and you’re trying to grasp the idea of three-part harmonies the easiest way is to do it yourselves. I remember getting them to sing different notes until we hit it. We were very geeky. If we were asked to wash up or clean the kitchen, a way of getting through it was to sing. So to them, all of this is very normal!
What attracted you to classical music in the first place?
When I moved infant schools from my first one, which I hated, to the second, I saw they had all these instrumental lessons and all my peers were playing violin. I thought, ‘Violin? That’s mental!’ I remember they were all playing from Abracadabra books and I said, ‘Mum, seriously, where’s mine?’
Mum and dad said I could have free lessons through the Birmingham Music Service when I got to Year 4. But it seemed an age away and by the time I got there I had such enthusiasm it was a little bit scary!
For me it was more childhood competition than anything else. Especially with my siblings around, because they were really great at sports and I never way, so violin was my thing. I had two particularly talented musical friends who had been playing violin a lot longer than me. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is something really amazing that they can do on their own. There is no one telling them to play this or that, they’re just doing it.’ And you can do it in duets, in an orchestra and then you can perform, and mum and dad come along and say, ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’ So it’s always been win-win for me.
So music has always been really social for you?
Totally. A lot of my friendship groups are around music and drama and dance. And then there was the pop thing. I remember I wasn’t able to listen to what I wanted until secondary school and by then it was the group Eternal. I was totally obsessed by them. I remember wanting to be in that place. I wondered how they were singing and moving like that. I remember they did one song totally a capella and I thought, ‘Right, let’s do this!’ There were so many musical experiences when I was growing up. There was the church thing with church music…
The orchestral and classical side was particularly attractive because it wasn’t the done thing in school. It wasn’t cool! It was cool that I was on the netball team or if I wanted to do a bit of singing, but violin? Could you be any more geeky? But I just enjoyed going right through the whole Music Service. The best thing about it is that whatever school you go to there is continuous training that is available to everyone and you get passed through the system with lots of amazing opportunities right from the start until the end.
You are always described as ‘classically trained’ but it seems so vague. What areas of within your classical training did you gravitate towards?
I think the emphasis on classical is funny. Whenever my tutor at the Conservatoire reads that he must laugh! It’s so ambiguous – what does it mean? It’s something I struggled with right through university. Here I was on this course, just enjoying writing a little bit of melody and sometimes putting it down on manuscripts and most of the time not. But I was surrounded by these young composers who were burning their own fires, extremely intelligent, amazing musicians. We studied all sorts of different music and composers I’d never heard of before.
I met my husband at the Conservatoire and he’s a baritone. I used to try to go to all of his performances and a lot of them were chamber choir performances, which for me at the time seemed a bit of a hassle, going to sit in a cold church somewhere to show my face. But I remember hearing Gerald Finzi for the first time in that context and being completely blown away. It moved me from my belly, but what was it? I hadn’t grown up with that kind of music. Themba, my husband, just walked me through a whole world that he was excited about.
How did you fit in at the Conservatoire?
It was really new to me and I opened up in different ways. I think the intimidation part of being on that course was huge. It was so competitive because everyone is trying to get their music played and musicians together, you’ve got to really behave as though your music is worth effort and it’s interesting and engaging enough for people to come and see it. It was a world I hadn’t known before. My advantage was a) growing up in Birmingham and b) having the a capella group Black Voices as an outlet, right from when I was 17. They asked me to start doing some arrangements for them.
You went far with that; last year’s Jazz Suite commission for the PRS for Music Foundation springs to mind…
Without things like that I might not have had the confidence to put things together for myself. It all matters, it’s all connected. I’m always looking back and thinking about all the amazing opportunities I’ve been given through the Birmingham Music Service and loads of teachers, musicians and so much…
I think there are so many strands that I miss out when I talk about what got me here. I think I am a product of the nurturing I’ve received my whole musical life and I’ve been showered with opportunities you just wouldn’t believe. I was probably underdeveloped for a lot of them but they really helped me.
When you sat down to write your album did you have an aesthetic in mind?
I think I did. I would’ve at least liked to have said that because it sounds better! I had become frustrated by the realisation that I wasn’t the soul singer that perhaps I wanted to be. I did some gigs with Black Voices when I was allowed to and I remember feeling squashed from the experience of trying to sing with ‘real’ singers. For me it was an immense experience. All those difficult and painful experiences of letting go were really useful, you know, accepting that I’m not this or that. Even though I’m trying really hard I’m not a Gil Scott or an Erykah Badu, I’m not a gospel artist… But all the while I had a feeling about the kind of emotions I wanted to put into the music – certainly when my parents divorced. That split came as a real shock our family unit.
In some way the foundation for it was all there and it was very natural and easy. The music was just me. After my band [Judyshouse] broke up I came away thinking that I always just play what I know. I’m not a jazz pianist at all and I don’t really have that kind of knowledge, but I enjoy improvising at the piano and some things come out that I don’t know what they are. I started to build on those things, things that were not familiar to me but could make sound familiar. For me that became exciting and it became a method.
What do you think of those boundaries in music? Is it easy to flow between genres?
I think it’s that age-old argument – why do we need to give things names and put things in categories? I used to listen in on debates at the conservatoire – although I could never offer my opinion! I remember people getting really worked up about categories. I remember saying ‘world music’ and getting slammed by somebody!
But I think I can understand why it’s natural to reach for reference points. But I’m learning that everyone’s reference points are very different. For some they may hear The Beach Boys because they grew up listening to them and can hear something in there, but to someone who’s never heard of The Beach Boys might say it’s a Nina Simone thing. The new Nina Simone? Give me a break!
Sometimes it far-fetched and a bit silly but sometimes I’m quite flattered by it! I try not to think about it because certainly with comparisons like Nina Simone, it’s ridiculous to consider even being in the same sentence as her! That’s not just because she is somebody that I revere, it’s more because I think that what I’m trying to do is in its infancy. I feel like I just got started and I’m hoping it’s going to be a lengthy development and journey that will take lots of different shapes. Not that I’m belittling this album – I’m really passionate about it – but what I learned at the Conservatoire is that music is far more than something temporal that’s here for a moment and gone the next. I hope that I’ll continue to develop and conquer some of my musical insecurities, of which I have very many. I think being compared to people doesn’t really help. I’m just trying to do this me thing and figure all that out.
How does all the attention feel?
I’ve been brought up in an environment that really isn’t aware of the accolades. I would’ve watched the BRIT Awards and seen things on the screen but that world has always been very detached for me. It’s something I never would’ve associated with myself and it makes it easier because I remember life before all that and the reasons for doing my music. It’s fantastic when anyone says anything nice about your music, let’s be realistic, but at the same time I’m aware of the dangers of processing everyone’s thoughts on how I’m going to be the next this or that… While there’s all this crazy hype around me my familial unit is very strong and really there’s no change because we’ve always been making music together. It’s like doing it as normal, but with an audience.
This interview formed the basis of the feature Musical Magpie, published in M magazine (M47) and M online.