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Music interview – Laura Mvula: ‘I really want to be a voice that grows with the times’

Laura Mvula will be in concert at Harrogate International Festivals. Picture: Zoe McConnell
Laura Mvula will be in concert at Harrogate International Festivals. Picture: Zoe McConnell
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After a busy period of recording and performing Laura Mvula appears in Harrogate next month. Duncan Seaman reports.

Laura Mvula arrives at Harrogate International Festivals next month fresh from a recent flurry of activity. An appearance at Hay Festival was swiftly followed by a handful of dates with David Byrne.

The 32-year-old Birmingham-born singer admits she knew little about the American pop polymath until she received an invitation to join the British leg of his American Utopia tour. “Then I did some digging and I was like ‘This is some legendary musician’,” she says. “But more than that I was curious because even though I knew the name I didn’t realise how wonderfully eccentric and free David’s legacy is, so that was exciting to me.”

As soon as things have “calmed down a little bit”, Mvula intends to “refocus” on penning new material. “I’m looking forward to writing some new songs,” she says. “I always get to a point where it gets desperate, not really for anybody else, but for me. I need new stuff for myself. It’s a nice place to be at the moment.”

Recent joint releases with House of El and Naughty Boy have opened her mind to further collaborations. “That was just scratching the surface with me not really trying,” she reckons. “With the next record my idea I’m working with a team of people, coming up with ideas of unlikely collaborations and some more obvious ones.

“I want this next project to be out of my comfort zone. I haven’t really worked with other people; I’m used to being in my own world, but I’m very much looking forward to experimenting and joining forces with other artists and producers and beat-makers.

Laura Mvula. Picture: Zoe McConnell

Laura Mvula. Picture: Zoe McConnell

“I’m really interested in hip-hop. I don’t know whether I’m going to make a record that sounds like it has that influence but at the moment I’m listening to a lot of hip-hop so I guess I’ll probably be in the studio with a few talented producers.”

Rather than being floored by being dropped last year by Sony Records after two highly regarded albums – Sing To The Moon and The Dreaming Room – that were both nominated for the Mercury Prize, it seems Mvula is warming to the freedom she now has. The decision, she says, was only difficult to take at the time “because I didn’t really have perspective”.

“I was caught up with the bull****, to be honest. I had bought into the very false narrative that somehow having a record deal with a major label defined my career or meant that without that I didn’t know who I was. Looking back now, wow, I was really lost at that point.”

Today, she’s more sanguine. “I think it’s good to get to those positions because I think it’s going to make the next thing all the more exciting. I realise now that actually Sony liberated me and it’s so exciting to be at the other end now, with all the labels approaching and wanting to sign me off the back of the last record but me being in the position of me taking my time.

Prince really passed the baton to a lot of interesting female artists. He really had time for us and for those who weren’t necessarily topping the charts but are making powerful music.

Laura Mvula

“I really want to be disciplined and patient enough not to rush it. It’s tempting to want to get in the mix with everybody else because the climate these days, it’s all about having ‘fast success’ and momentum, but I think I’m made from the old school, or maybe it’s a new school. I think I’m going to work hard at it and take time over it and ignore the people who think I’ve been sitting on my a*** for a year doing nothing.”

Mvula thinks being freed from the cycle of albums and tours could be transformative artistically. “That’s the hope, anyway. I’m around a lot of people who really believe that I have some kind of place here. I really want to go on being challenged, I would really like to grow as an artist. I really want to be a voice that grows with the times; I want to be fearless as well, not just for the sake of it, but I want to end up making art that really has meaning and stands for something and has life.”

She says it’s “too easy” to get caught up in the idea of making music for popularity’s sake. “A part of my generation’s pop culture were obsessed with that, being liked, being followed, being adored.”

She recalls the late superstar Prince, who had his own battles with record labels, once offered her some sound advice. “He kept saying ‘Own your own music, do it your own way’. He once said to me that he wouldn’t work with me until I was liberated from my contract with Sony, and at the time there was just no way I could think like that. He said ‘When you’re free we’ll make all the music you want’. Sadly that wasn’t supposed to happen but I know that his legacy lives on.

Laura Mvula. Picture: Zoe McConnell

Laura Mvula. Picture: Zoe McConnell

“He really passed the baton to a lot of interesting female artists. He really had time for us and for those who weren’t necessarily topping the charts but are making powerful music.”

Having long dreamed of writing music for theatre and film, Mvula says she “really treasured” the experience of being asked to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company on their 2017 production of Antony and Cleopatra. “I was privileged to even be considered let alone for them to go through with me,” she says. “I was naive going into the process of that; I didn’t know whether I was going to write some music and remain pretty much detached from the actual theatre production and just come and sit on the front row. It was entirely different from that, way more intensive and collaborative. I’d never worked with actors before, I’d never worked in the theatre. It was 24-7, a real hard slog sometimes, really boring sometimes. The theatre was cold a lot of the time and I don’t like the cold so I’d be sitting there in my hat and my winter coat giving directions to the pit but it was amazing.

“Also the feeling of something going on, being lived out, performed, being expressed, a part of me without me there. I think it ran 120-something shows between the Barbican and Stratford. I didn’t know what that felt like until then so I was very grateful for the experience.”

Next up is a commission for the BBC Proms. She laughs when asked how it’s progressing. “It’s the same story,” she says. “It’s all very good singing and dancing about. I got so used to it rolling off the tongue and then getting down to it in the last two weeks. Of course I am a lastminute.com composer and I thrive under the pressure but really it’s been a bloody nightmare. I’m trying to learn to value experiences even if they turn out to be disastrous. This could quite possibly be a mistake but I think it will be a worthy one and it might not be, it might be something quite beautiful. I’m enjoying that not knowing.”

She considers herself “very lucky” to have opportunities this and supporting David Byrne. “I get to express myself and be a bit of a kid in a very grown-up world and people are very gracious most of the time, they let me flail about or fly or fail or whatever.”

Mvula clearly values her new-found independence. “Again I’m learning,” she says. “I’ve got my eyes open a bit more now and I try to connect with artists, authors, actors, anyone in the arts world – and not just in the arts world. People who just have this strong, free and independent way of living in the world and wanting to make a valuable mark and help one another make sense our human existence. That’s all I want to do.

“Getting all caught up in the stuff that complicates that in a bad way is something that I’m unlearning now. It’s taken a minute because I’m human but I’m definitely on my track of Laura gloriousness,” she giggles.

Greater confidence has also inspired the singer to open up about her struggles with anxiety. She says she feels encouraged that the Generation Anxiety programme she made last year for the BBC has helped others in a similar situation. “I never realised that it was going to [have that effect],” she says. “It was selfish, it was for myself, that’s why I did it. I was like ‘I need to know more, I need to know that I’m not alone’ and then it ended up being this thing where people felt comforted and encouraged. That was amazing, that was genuinely humbling because I realised the power of my little platform is not just to look pretty and make nice sounds, which is why I love that bit, but the part of it where I tell my story, not just through music but the parts that are grey and the parts that universally we can all identify with – struggles, suffering, and trying to find answers – what a great thing to be able to do and go on doing in different ways. I am trying to connect with like-minded people, and also people that I don’t know in different walks of life who I can learn from. The Generation Anxiety film has really changed things for me.”

She reveals that she’s just come from a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) session the morning we speak. “It was my second session – there’s ten sessions – and I don’t mind sharing that because I’m still very much on my journey but I believe in progress, even if it’s the smallest steps. I believe in change and being transformed, so I’m happy to be that voice, for sure.”

Laura Mvula plays on July 27 at the Royal Hall, Harrogate, 7.30pm. Tickets: From £24. Box office: 01423 562303, harrogateinternationalfestivals.com