Songs of freedom
They’ve powered Laura Mvula to surprising musical acclaim.
By Naila Francis
Laura Mvula is still trying to make sense of all the fuss.
When the British songstress released her debut album, “Sing to the Moon,” earlier this year, she was simply happy for the opportunity to revel in a free-ranging artistic expression.
“I grew up in the kind of environment where my family was always very encouraging of me making music or writing songs, poetry, stories, drawing or putting together dance routines. I was given room to do all of that,” says Mvula, who only a year ago was working as a receptionist for the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in her native city, writing songs on the side at the suggestion of her husband, Zambian-born baritone Themba Mvula.
“When I did ‘She’ and ‘Green Garden,’ which are the first demos I did, that was very much just me doing something that I felt I wanted to do. There was no sort of vision. It was just me for me.”
What began as an exercise in self-expression has rocketed the somewhat-reserved singer-songwriter into a stratosphere beyond anything she could have imagined. “Sing to the Moon,” which was released in March on RCA Records in the U.K. and stateside on Columbia Records two months later, has been one of the most acclaimed albums of the year, almost universally praised by tastemakers and critics on both sides of the pond. Weeks before its release back home, Mvula was nominated for the 2013 BRITs Critics Choice Award. She was also shortlisted for the prestigious BBC’s Sound of 2013 poll.
But the whirlwind that has accompanied the release still feels like a dream.
“It’s very strange,” she says. “So far, I’ve enjoyed the freedom of having a record that’s entirely something that kind of came from my head and heart. And I had a lot of support to push it out. And now I’m touring and that’s a separate adventure in itself. I’m enjoying playing to different audiences. It feels like a really good time for me but I’m in the middle of discovering what this is all about.”
The classically trained 27-year-old grew up playing the violin and piano, and it is those influences, among myriad others, that have shaped her debut into an otherworldly, boldly unconventional affair. The songs are stately and sumptuous, layered with intricate vocal and orchestral arrangements, that span as many moods as they do backdrops. Pop, jazz, soul, gospel, even the influences of her Caribbean heritage — her mom is from St. Kitts, her father is of Jamaican descent — are grafted onto her classical template.
Mvula, who performs at a sold-out show Monday at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, was about 8 when she noticed some of her friends taking violin and piano lessons.
“There was something about that I found so intriguing, where someone could sit at the piano and make a beautiful noise — or not. You know, to do it so young, I begged my parents to let me have lessons in violin and piano,” she says. “They consented and from there, I just got more and more excited about music and playing in groups.”
The instant she joined her first orchestra as a girl, she became enamored of the string section. She also sang in church and in her aunt’s a cappella group and formed the Douglas String Trio with her brother James and sister Dionne to play at weddings and other events.
But for all of what seemed like a singular commitment to music, Mvula had no clear aspirations for her future.
“I never really thought about a career. If you asked me when I was younger, ‘What do you want to be?’ I would have said I want to write film music. I find it very romantic and lovely,” says the singer, who has a degree in composition from the Birmingham Conservatoire. “I just knew I wanted to write and perform in groups. I wanted to teach. I still want to teach.
“There are all kinds of ambitions that I had, that I still have, in music, just because I think it’s very rich, the world of music. There’s so much for me to discover.”
For a while, the only thing that was certain was she would work behind the scenes, having been plagued by stage fright from a young age. But as she began to find her voice, stitching her tales of encouragement and romantic struggle, simple joys and elegiac longing into a lush tapestry of sound, she was buoyed by a new confidence. Her songwriting never struck her, however, as particularly adventurous.
“I wasn’t so much aware of it being unconventional other than people having that reaction or that stance. In a way, ignorance is bliss,” says Mvula. “For me, it’s just the way that I found my natural voice.”
She hesitates to overthink the supposed complexities of her sound or process.
“In some ways, I’m a bit wary that I’ll kind of drain myself of something that was really personal to me,” says Mvula. “I was trying to lift myself up with these songs and I was trying to heal myself. If I had to label it, I would just label it as freedom.”
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