Laura Mvula: ‘So much about prejudice goes back so far’

“That makes me smile, thinking back,” says Laura Mvula, recalling the last time we spoke before she performed at Harrogate International Festival in 2018.

Laura Mvula
Laura Mvula

At that point, the Birmingham-born singer and songwriter was between record labels, listening to hip-hop and contemplating a more collaborative approach to music. It is, thankfully, a far cry from where she is now, promoting her much lauded third album, Pink Noise.

“I just remember that umming and ahing stage and that searching and not being sure about what to do next and feeling like I have to have an answer, if not for myself but people that ask me, but then eventually arriving at something which felt like it took forever, I really struggled,” she says.

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“It wasn’t the sort of Sing To The Moon/The Dreaming Room writing experience where everything fell into place or fell out of the sky sat at the piano, it took a while. I travelled to collaborate with different people, I had meetings with people that I had worked with before, it was a real soul-searching experience for me. I had never been through that kind of waiting period or that kind of writer’s block before, so to look back and be here now with this album that I’m so proud of feels really great, it feels more than a relief.”

After the media brouhaha over her departure from Sony, who released her first two Mercury Prize-nominated albums, Mvula says she feels more at home at Atlantic Records, whose current roster includes Ed Sheeran, Anne Marie and Lizzo. She remembers an early conversation with Briony Turner, the company co-president, who had watched her perform with David Byrne on his American Utopia tour. “She was just like, ‘whatever you want to do, let’s do it, whatever kind of album you want to make, let’s make it’,” she says. “Just to have that confidence again was so refreshing and healing. It gave me the world of confidence so I could begin again.

“Also Atlantic is a machine that’s unparalleled, but it’s not robotic, they are people with passion and that care. From day one as we started to strategise this campaign around the music it’s felt that way, it’s felt powerful, it’s felt connected, like someone cares more than just me.”

Although she admits being dropped by Sony was “a terrible loss”, today she says she feels “grateful”, adding: “I think it was a good thing for me, I think it was important.”

Pink Noise veers away from the 35-year-old’s roots in jazz, classical and neo-soul towards a sound that’s unashamedly influenced by the high-end 80s pop that Mvula listened to in childhood.

Laura Mvula

“I was obsessed by Michael Jackson as soon as I was old enough to understand what a mega-star was,” she says. “I think a lot of that captivation came with his whole 80s aesthetic, and the Jacksons, their whole legacy, and Janet Jackson. Even though I would have been too young then to really appreciate it, I definitely absorbed things, I know that for sure.

“And if anything, I know later my dad influenced me directly in my creative life. He made sure that I was listening to a lot of 80s music because that was the music that he loved. Earth Wind & Fire were on constantly so they became part of my staple diet and a lot of not just early Motown but going into the 80s, and a lot of 80s soul-funk. I was already an active participant in that sound world growing up, and even when my dad was putting a function band together, because he and quite a few of his mates are musicians and when they discovered there was a gap in the local Birmingham market for soul wedding bands, my dad let me join the band singing backing vocals and playing keys, so then I was directly soaking up that music and learning it. Just from being in it, it became a part of me.”

She cites Jacob Collier and Janelle Monae as the kind of contemporary artists whose creative paths she admires. “These are artists that don’t require validation from any of the systems that dictate so many artists’ careers, they are just doing what they feel and what they envision and that’s inspiring to me because it means there aren’t limitations,” she says. “I think in order to really find innovation in music it requires a lot of courage, you need to feel there are no inhibitions and you need to feel you’re not alone as well. They’re good examples of people I look up to.”

The album is named after a sonic frequency. Mvula, who trained at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, says she discovered the terminology “by accident” while researching gated reverb. “This guy starts talking about ‘pink noise’ and I thought, ‘that’s the name of the album’. I was really intrigued to learn more about this particular sonic frequency, I didn’t realise that similarly to white noise it’s used functionally as noise that people fall asleep to and relax to. I didn’t know that it had its own community, so I’m fascinated by all of that. Pink noise is infused throughout the record which I love. It’s weird because the title didn’t come for a while, we had already built this sound world, by the time it came it was like an instrument in itself, which is unusual for me because I normally don’t care what things are called, but this felt like such a transition, such a point in time, that it had to inform, like a movement, I guess, because it means so many things to me.”

Songs such as Church Girl and Golden Ashes are “loosely” autobiographical. “It’s there, absolutely,” Mvula says. “I see it more like a fictional character but at the same time there are undeniable parts that are to do with me. I didn’t want to be restricted by the biographical thing, which I’m used to, that’s an approach I’ve used before. This time I wanted to be way more free and to explore different narratives and different voices, the romance of Magical and even What Matters – I’d never done a duet with anybody on my own stuff before.

“This was the first time I was introducing other voices – actually there are two on this record, there’s Oli Rockberger who is an artist in his own right and also plays in my band, he’s all the male BVs that you hear throughout the album, and then there’s Simon Neil (from Biffy Clyro) who duets with me on What Matters. There’s also my brother and my friend Dan who I grew up with us, they’re both singing on Magical. It’s the first time I’m using this male presence vocally, which for me was refreshing and signifies this interplay. I’m talking a lot about romance, I’m talking a lot about my love life or my fantasises. It was time to be more revealing in that way.”

Mvula’s personal favourite song on the album, Remedy, was written around the time of the Black Lives Matter protests. “It’s a bit more nuanced for me than just being a part of anything that feels like it trends,” she says. “This is much more profound what we’re dealing with.

“I suppose we’re dealing more openly on some level collectively as a country, as a society, but I think it’s so much more complex. Twitter hashtags are great tools but so much about prejudice and racial discrimination goes back so far, it’s interwoven into the mind of a nation or the world. I think it takes time and it takes widespread work to change such a deep narrative, and that takes such a lot of uncovering and a lot of facing of questions. The dialogues and the debates are great but I think real change, real action comes over time and through much more exposure, much more pressure. But it’s good that we’re at this stage and I do believe in change. I think Remedy needed to come out of me, it’s just one small offering to a much larger struggle. I hope that it’s heard on this record...and that I can convince the label to have a budget for a video so we can really tell some important stories.”

She is optimistic that this album can transform her career, taking her music onto a much bigger stage. “I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandparents recently,” she says. “My nan turned 95 the same day the Queen turned 95. When I think about my nan’s legacy, the ultimate matriarch, the sacrifice of a generation...They were celebrating the Windrush anniversary the other day, my grandparents were a part of the Windrush generation, and it makes me think back.

“All that they toiled for, all that they strove for in terms of giving their children and their children’s children opportunities that they could never have dreamed of. I expect more on their behalf. I’ve seen some listeners saying ‘it’s great that people are finally waking up to Laura Mvula’. I’d like in my nan’s lifetime for her to see even more of a global achievement because this is her legacy and my grandad’s legacy. The fact that I’ve been able to study anything I wanted to and I’ve been able to do anything I wanted to musically, this is an homage to them. And yeah, I do have that ambition, and I expect us all to win.”

Pink Noise is out now.