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Fusing pop, disco and soul into a thoroughly contemporary sound, Laura Mvula is many things but always herself. Currently riding high on a wave of critical acclaim she’ll be appearing at Bluesfest 2017 alongside the likes of Santana and The Doobie Brothers (Neil Young having heartbreakingly dropped out earlier this month).
Having rocketed to success with her 2013 debut Sing To The Moon (re-released within a year in an orchestral re-recording) which saw her earning the praise of critics around the world and shortlisted for the critic’s choice award at the 2013 BRIT Awards among other accolades, Mvula has wasted no time in making her presence in the music industry felt, with her first single being the first song she ever wrote.
Despite having spent her whole musical career in the spotlight, Mvula has nevertheless developed a very strong sense of self-creativity, pursuing her own goals and ideas rather than letting them be dictated by what is in vogue. Her style being greatly influenced by classic soul and jazz artists like Nina Simone and more contemporary figures such as Eryka Badu and Lauryn Hill on the one hand, she also drew inspiration from the girl band pop of her ’90s childhood such as I Wanna Be The One hit-makers Eternal, among others.
“The popular British music of the day is still very much a part of what I do I think,” she tells me over the phone.
“You know all the girl pop groups and boy bands were in their heydey when I was growing up and for me, it was really Eternal that had the biggest impact on me. So I took inspiration from all around me, and I never really felt like anything was off limits.”
This open-minded approach to music – a hallmark of her own work – is truly the legacy of her parents, Mvula confides. Growing up, her house was full of all different genres and styles and restrictions on what was and wasn’t music were never enforced.
“My parents listened to all kinds of music and they managed to stay really open when it came to their listening habits,” she explains.
“They would listen to a lot of church music, and a lot of Motown and a lot of classical music in the morning time. It was always broad.”
While those of us listening to her music today may nod our heads in understanding at this revelation, for Mvula, music, both listening to it and making it, was always a largely unconscious process.
“I mean I wasn’t particularly conscious of it, it’s just what I was exposed to and what I clicked with,” she says.
Still, the music that most grabbed her was the raw and powerful jazz and soul records her parents would play. She identified a lot with the voices and stories of these artists.
“I guess I was always interested in jazz music, which I think is the root of my fascination with the black American experience. That was something that I was always interested by as a kid in particular when it came to making music. I remember the first time I heard Oleta Addams I was just so moved by how powerful her voice and her music was. Even more so because she was a dark skinned woman who played piano like me. I really identified with her and hearing her music made me want to sing and use my voice powerfully like her.”
These dual influences of pop music and classic jazz and soul has resulted in her hard-to-pin-down sound. Sitting somewhere between the soulful artistry of singers like Jill Scott and the sheer pop bombast of Beyoncé, Mvula’s music can sit as comfortably in the club as on the stereo at home with the family. Never artless in her pop tendencies, her music has a class all its own that proves you can have fun without having to plumb the depths of popular music bombast.
Yet as if often the case with the music industry, unique talent and creativity is often met with efforts to define and compartmentalise it. In Mvula’s case Paul Lester of The Guardian attempted to suggest that her music was indeed a new genre that he labelled ‘gospeldelia’ while others tried to lump her in with everyone from Adele to Rita Ora. For Mvula however, such distinctions are of little worth or interest.
“I don’t really have any particular feeling about that these days,” she tells me in response to how she feels about critical attempts to put her music under a certain genre or label.
“My music is me and I tend to tune out when people start speaking about genres and putting things in boxes because I’ve always felt my desire to make the music comes from a desire to do what feels natural, and that doesn’t always necessarily have name or be directly derived from any one thing. I’m not really into being boxed into anything.”
Her latest album, this June’s The Dreaming Room saw her further refine and polish her sound and once again proved what an accomplished songwriter she has become, albeit in a very short time. The critics weren’t the only ones to notice this time, with Chic head honcho Nile Rodgers reaching out to Mvula after hearing her music and asking if he could appear on one of her songs.
“I was genuinely shocked when Nile reached out to me, and at how genuinely it happened.”
A nervous collaborator herself, for one of the most legendary songwriters and producers in the world to reach out to her was a shock, to say the least.
“I never reach out to people. A, because I’m too selfish to collaborate, and b, because I am terrified of people,” she confesses.
“So when he reached out and said ‘oh do you think I could be on one of your songs?’ I was just like ‘is this a joke?’”
Luckily for Mvula it wasn’t, with Rodgers very serious not only about wanting to work with her, but also his connection to her work and music.
“He really connected with what I was doing and he really seemed to care about the music and that really came through in how he worked with me on the song.”
While collaboration was new to her, for Rodgers working with other musicians is just another instrument he has mastered. Having worked with everyone from Bowie and Madonna to Daft Punk, as Mvula puts it”he is one of the masters of collaboration.”
This experience was most definitely felt when the two artists headed into the studio together. Immediately put at ease by the industry veteran, the resulting single Overcome would go on to be the lead single taken from The Dreaming Room as well as one of Mvula’s favourite songs on the album.
“He knows the best ways to work with other artists and he knows how to get the best out of them and with me he just made me feel very comfortable and really excited about what was possible,” she says, adding that “the track itself is one of my favourites on the record and I just really hope that I get to play it with him live one day. That hasn’t happened yet, but fingers crossed.
“He had real ambitions for me to reach a bigger audience, which is nice when that weight is shared with someone who is much bigger than you and who has been going for so long,” she says, adding that “the whole experience with him was very encouraging.”
With that kind of encouragement, it’s exciting to ponder where Mvula and her music may go next.