Anita Awbi spends time with Laura Mvula to uncover her songwriting sparkle.
‘Ally bally, ally bally bee, sitting on your mammy’s knee,’ coos Laura Mvula, before descending into a fit of giggles. We’re sitting in a stark corner of her manager’s north London office one chilly afternoon and laughter is bouncing from glass to concrete and back again. In between the giggles Laura is reciting the 19th century Scottish song Coulter’s Candy, the first lullaby she ever heard. ‘Oh no, I can never remember how the second verse goes! But my mum would sing it to me and I was really moved by it,’ she says. ‘I think my song Can’t Live With the World is subconsciously my Ally Bally because I was so obsessed with that melody right up until I was about nine or 10.’
That’s Laura all over. She’s a musical magpie. She doesn’t hop from genre to genre; she steals and treasures musical moments, using them to embellish her own songwriting. As a result, her debut album delivers a striking blend of invention and simplicity. It’s high in the fun stakes too. Frivolous arrangements for timpani and tubular bells — offset by found sounds and featherweight melodies — make for an alluring pop record. And, although it’s only just hit the shops, Sing to the Moon promises to be one of the year’s landmark releases.
Much fuss has already been made of fledging Laura’s soulful harmonies and bracing compositions. The Birmingham-born singer-songwriter is emerging as the charts still buckle under the success of Adele, Emeli Sandé and Lana del Rey. So it didn’t take long for last year’s early murmurs of greatness to explode into full-on media hype as 2013 dawned. Nominations for the prestigious BBC Sound of 2013 poll and BRITs Critics’ Choice Award made sure of that. But she’s not so bothered about the hullabaloo: ‘I’ve been brought up in an environment that really isn’t aware of the pop accolades,’ she says. So, while critics clamour over each other to name drop increasingly unlikely musical reference points, it seems that Laura remains ambivalent.
To some, her melodies are reminiscent of The Beach Boys, to others she’s a modern day Nina Simone or Billie Holiday. Grandiose claims, then. ‘The new Nina Simone? Give me a break!’ Cue more laughter. ‘I think I can understand why it’s natural to reach for reference points, but I’m fast learning that everyone’s reference points are very different. All these comparisons can be far-fetched and a bit silly, but I suppose sometimes I’m quite flattered by it.’
In person she remains modest and coy, but her album is anything but reined in. Sing to the Moon reveals that Laura is as comfortable digesting choral baroque music as she is the rhymes of Erykah Badu or the timeless pop of Amy Winehouse. And, if genre-hopping is nothing new, she brings a fluid musical language that is way beyond the contemporary. Her strength lies in her ability to elevate elementary melodies into complex five-part harmonies. Her musical dialect carries echoes of her upbringing, her on-off relationship with pop and her broad classical training at the Birmingham Conservatoire. ‘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,’ she explains humbly.
Our conversation flows like Laura’s music as she skips from one ‘life-changing’ experience to another, ending up in ever-decreasing circles of influence and inspiration. Her memories are constructed from a series of musical flash points. Childhood is underlined by sibling harmonies, teenage years by the competition of school orchestras and an adoration of neo-soul girl group Eternal, while university is a coming-of-age tale. Instead of feeling out of her depth, Laura seemed to come into her own at the Birmingham Conservatoire, where she studied for four years under renowned composer Joe Cutler.
Her natural songwriting ability springs from a restless curiosity to learn and a simple play-and-reward culture encouraged by her parents. Twenty-six year old Laura first began to experiment with music as a very small child. She would boss her younger siblings into practising three-part harmonies she’d constructed for them while doing the washing up ‘to make the time pass quicker and the chores more fun’.
‘My brother and sister were my best friends growing up, which is a bit sad really!’ Laura giggles again. ‘It was partly due to the way my parents brought us up I suppose. 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.’ Predictably, she wasn’t the only Mvula sibling to take to music. Her brother James went on to do a Masters at the Royal Academy on cello and her sister Dionne is studying music at the University of West London. ‘The family I grew up in was an extremely secure unit and very important. I genuinely felt loved and expressing yourself through music was just normal to us.’
Laura went on to build all her friendship groups around music; after-school orchestras, church choirs, lunchtimes in the playground reciting pop songs with her classmates. But it was the Birmingham Music Service that offered her the biggest outlet. Laura went right through the system from start to finish, learning instruments including piano and violin, seizing every opportunity she could. It has shaped her career so far and its eclectic influence is audible in the threads that bind her debut record together. She should be the poster girl for music education and funding, I tell her.
‘Without things like that I might not have had the confidence to put things together for myself. It all matters, it’s all connected,’ she explains. ‘I’m always looking back and thinking about the amazing opportunities I’ve been given.’ The nurturing continued apace throughout university where she finally found her voice and began laying down the groundwork for a solo career. Her old teenage ties to the Birmingham female choral group Black Voices helped bolster her confidence and gave her an outlet for early compositions. In 2011 she secured funding through PRS for Music Foundation’s Women Make Music project, which commissioned her to write Jazz Suite for the group.
But when university ended and Judyshouse, the neo-soul group she’d formed, disbanded 18 months later, Laura found herself at a loose end for the first time in her life. She’d become frustrated by the realisation that she wasn’t the soul singer that she wanted to be. By now she’d done plenty of gigs with Black Voices and recalls feeling squashed from the experience of trying to keep up with ‘real’ singers.
‘For me it was an immense experience. But letting go was really useful, you know, accepting that I’m not this or that. Even though I was trying really hard I’m not a Gil Scott or an Erykah Badu, I’m not a gospel artist… All the while I had a growing feeling about the kind of emotions I wanted to put into the music.’
Her parents divorced around that same time so she used music as an outlet. The words came easy and she trained herself to improvise on the piano, letting melodies come and go at her fingertips. She started to build on these early constructs, before teaming up with producer Steve Brown who helped her realise the record she wanted to make.
‘I started to build on the things that were at first unfamiliar to me, to try to make them sound familiar. For me that became exciting and it became a method,’ she says. ‘It’s hard to explain — I think there are so many strands that I miss out when I talk about what got me here now. 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.’
So where does Laura see it all going from here? ‘I hope that I’ll continue to develop and conquer some of my musical insecurities, of which I have very many,’ she confides. ‘I think being compared to all these great people before me doesn’t really help. I’m just trying to do this me thing and figure it all out.’
Laura Mvula is published by Universal Music Publishing.
Her debut album Sing To The Moon is out now.