Singing star Laura Mvula tells David Johns how she jumped at the chance of composing the music for a Shakespearean masterpiece – and then thought, ‘Oh f**k, what have I done?’
Birmingham’s very own singing sensation Laura Mvula has come into the nation’s conscience big time in the past year. She’s sung before the Queen in the Royal Albert Hall, appeared performing live on TV watched by an audience of millions, and she’s been shortlisted for a host of top music industry awards. Not forgetting a hit album too… and becoming the voice of Christmas with her catchy Debenhams TV ad version of Ready Or Not.
But all of that was a cakewalk compared to what Laura has taken on over the last few months after she accepted an invitation to write the music for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Antony & Cleopatra. Laura admits: “It’s way the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, the hardest by miles. After jumping in and agreeing to do it, the realisation of what I had taken on suddenly hit me, and I thought, ‘oh f**k!!”
BIT OF A FACADE
Laura was asked to provide her own unique musical take for the play by director and friend Iqbal Khan. Never being one to turn down the challenge of something new and fresh, Laura says: “When the offer came about I put on a bit of a facade and I thought, yeah, I can do this. Then when I thought about it some more and got into it, I just knew everything about it was alien to me. “I’d been to see productions at the RSC as a kid growing up and at uni – a friend would get me in to see the performances. But I’ve never worked in theatre before, until now.
“I wasn’t sure what the process would be. Do I write a couple of songs for the production, or do I write everything you hear? It was the latter – everything you hear! Boy, has the experience been a kick up the arse. I get a bit emotional even thinking about it.”
Laura says that at first, when the reality was months away, the idea of writing for the RSC seemed somehow cool. But then as the weeks moved on, it was soon time for her to jump into the world of Shakespeare and the RSC in earnest. “I was terrified, in all honesty,” she says. “But I was familiar with Iqbal’s approach which is to take risks and be adventurous. And as we worked, it became the most intense, authentic collaboration I’ve ever experienced. In my normal world of singing, artists talk about collaboration and it means a couple of hours with each other singing in a studio. This was completely different, intense.”
BACK TO SCHOOL
Laura describes it as like going back to school. “I had to know the play, so I was given Antony & Cleopatra to read. I tried to read it, but thought to myself ‘Oh no! This is why I didn’t do very well in English Literature at school!’. I just couldn’t get to understand the language used in the book at all.”
Things changed for the better though after Laura attended the first read-through session with the RSC’s actors and cast. “I’d never been in a room before with actors,” she says. “But as they read their parts with such power and passion, I thought ‘Ok wow’… now I understand. I knew that to do this right I would need to access parts of me that I hadn’t been to in my own music and albums.”
Laura says everyone knew she would never approach Shakespeare in a classical way. In her head, she says, the starting point was somewhere between Prince’s Purple Rain and jazz legend Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. She took a solid two weeks of eight-hour days, recording the music herself and using a variety of plug-ins to create ‘weird and wonderful’ sounds. The end result she describes as the sound of “Laura Mvula in ancient Rome with a synthesiser and a choir”.
As we spoke, Laura was involved in auditioning singers for the choir in a studio in Clapham, London as well as running through the music with the play’s cast, who also have to sing during the performance. Then minutes after finishing our interview, she was in a taxi heading for the airport and a flight for a short tour of the US where she played in Miami, Washington and New York.
Laura has a big following both in the States and of course here in the UK. The girl who grew up in King’s Heath and played in Christian bands and sang in church choirs before studying at Birmingham Conservatoire, also has huge fans in the music business. Her debut album Sing to the Moon was released in March 2013 to rave reviews. Her second studio album The Dreaming Room was released in June 2016 also to great critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the 2016 Mercury Prize. She was also nominated for four MOBO awards.
In November, Laura sang Abide With Me at the Festival of Remembrance attended by the Queen at the Royal Albert Hall. The following month, she sang together with Robbie Williams at BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year at Birmingham’s Genting Arena watched by a live TV audience of millions.
On her return from the States, it’s straight back to Shakespeare and rehearsals with the RSC in Stratford ahead of Antony & Cleopatra’s opening night on Saturday 11 March. “I’ll be there on opening night that’s for sure, nothing will keep me away,” says Laura. “If it all works, this could be a new direction for me. I’ll have more ideas.”
The new challenge and fresh ideas couldn’t come at a better time for Laura after she was controversially dropped by record label Sony after six years. The move brought widespread disbelief and condemnation from Laura’s peers, including fellow singers Charlotte Church, Ellie Goulding and Paloma Faith, as well as the likes of Sir Lenny Henry.
“Sony told me by e-mail. A seven-line e-mail that basically said thanks and goodbye. No reason or anything, ” says Laura. “But I’m looking at this as now the sky’s the limit for me. I can get on with new projects, make a new record, be independent and do whatever I want. There’s a new season coming up and I’ve got loads of festivals which I’m committed to in the summer.”
She adds: “Prince before he died, I had two conversations with him, and he kept telling me how I should go and make it on my own. He was keen that I should be independent. Now I am.” The first fruits of that new independence will be seen in just a few days when the curtain goes up in Stratford on what everyone fully expects will be a tour de force for Laura and her music genius.