King’s Heath girl Laura Mvula has been transformed into a veritable queen of pop in a little over 12 months. The former receptionist still hasn’t got her head around what’s happened. We speak to her about her rapid rise to fame
Words: Jon Card
It’s been a whirlwind of a year for Laura Mvula. Just over 12 months ago, all but a handful of people, mostly the readers of ‘in the know’ blogs, would have even heard of her. Since then she’s released a critically-acclaimed album, toured several countries, pioneered a new form of music: “gospeldelia”, and now returns home as one of the City’s favourite daughters. But the singer-songwriter is still having trouble accepting her success and adapting to fame. “In September last year we were doing the iTunes festival and I felt totally out of place around all these serious musicians. Even when I had signed with Sony, it still hadn’t sunk in what was happening,” she says. “I don’t think of myself as a singer. I wasn’t ready for people to say they thought my songs were good, I just thought it was hype. I just kept my head down.”
Mvula’s rise to stardom has been a mixture of the effortless and the accidental. She didn’t continuously tour the country in a VW van or receive endless rejections before hitting the big time. In fact, she hardly left Birmingham before signing with Sony. However, Mvula’s been playing music all her life and is a former student of the Birmingham Conservatoire, where she studied composition. “I was completely surrounded by music and it was like that for four years. There were some genius composers and I just surrounded myself with these incredible forms of music.”
Mvula (nee Douglas) grew up in a musical family in King’s Heath, Birmingham. Her brother James and sister Dionne play the cello and violin respectively in her band. The family were regular church-goers and Laura played the keyboard in Christian bands and sang in choirs right up until she headed out on tour. It’s been written that pop music was “effectively banned” in her childhood home, but Mvula scotches such stories. “It wasn’t banned,” she says. “My parents just reacted when I came home singing lyrics like ‘boom, boom, boom I want take you in my room. Any parents would.” In fact, her family home was filled with the music of Michael Jackson, The Carpenters, funk, soul and many other varieties of pop, she says.
Indeed, Mvula’s childhood days sound happy and productive. She recounts how she used to rope in her brother and sister to sing with her so she “could learn three-part harmonies”. Her hit single ‘Green Garden’ was inspired by summer holidays in the backyard. “There were all these hot summers in the mid-90s and I just remember being in the garden a lot, having waterfights and barbeques on the patio. Before that I wrote ‘She’, so this was a song to cheer me up.”
After finishing school, Mvula chose to study composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire, an experience she adored. It was here she met her husband Themba Mvula, a Zambian-born baritone opera singer, who “introduced me to this whole world of music I had never heard before.” They married in 2009. But Mvula was still shy of the stage at this time and was far from being added to any A&R man’s list. “I used to go to The Yardbird just to be a part of the buzz, but I never went on stage.”
Yet she was increasingly persuaded by those around her to start writing and performing more. As a teenager she had sang in her aunt’s group ‘Black Voices’ which was “inspirational”. But now she formed Judyshouse (named after her landlady) and was the group’s lead singer. It was the band which would inadvertently propel her to fame. “Judyshouse was a really safe experiment for me to work as a vocalist for the first time. We did okay locally and did a lot of gigs and we had a lot of support from radio and churches, but eventually it faded.”
Upon leaving the safe confines of the Conservatoire, Mvula found work, firstly as a supply teacher and then as a receptionist at the City of Birmingham Orchestra (CBSO). “I worked as a supply teacher, which was really tough, but inspiring, then I got a job at the CBSO and thought: ‘wow – I am going to be so close to all this music’. It was good for a few months but then I got really bored.”
Mvula was also recording compositions on her laptop and adding them to social media sites such as SoundCloud. Then, as the legend goes, she received a call which changed her life. A former Judyshouse bandmate was attending an event where the acclaimed musician and composer Steve Brown was due to speak. A Judyshouse demo was passed to Brown and soon he and Mvula were discussing working together. “I was coming home from Alvechurch community choir and I got this email from Steve Brown saying ‘this is great, it’s amazing. What are your plans? Do you have management?’”
Brown’s involvement quickly led to a deal with RCA Records (a subsidiary of Sony) and he and Mvula began recording what would become her first album, ‘Sing to the Moon’. Brown is well known in the industry for composing music and scores for TV shows, so he is perhaps an unlikely pairing for Mvula. “It’s a strange connection; I wouldn’t have thought he was someone we could do our first album with. He was the one that listened to my songs when no-one knew who I was. I feel like I owe him everything really.”
TO THE MOON
Mvula’s debut album ‘Sing to the Moon’ was released in March 2013 and has received tremendous reviews. The blogosphere was already filled with acolytes tipping Mvula as on the artist of the year before she had brought out the record. Pretty soon it began to dawn on Mvula that she was verging on hitting the big time. “We were doing Green Garden and there was this massive crew. Even though I had signed with Sony, it still hadn’t sunk in what was happening. We were shooting the video for Green Garden in LA and then we heard about the Critics’ Choice review on the BBC. Then it just exploded.”
As we speak, Mvula has just returned home after a long period of overseas touring. She suggests she’s not a natural performer on the stage and is still overwhelmed by being the centre of attention. Nonetheless, she’s enjoying the experience, and ticket sales and reviews suggest her music is making its mark. “It feels like a lot of pressure. I am never sure if I should try to be confident before going on stage or allow myself to be vulnerable, as that is the nature of the songs. The album is full of really emotional songs. It’s quite rough and challenging to keep emotionally stable.”
The past year has been such a rush for Mvula, I ask what she imagines the next 12 months might have in store. “I can hardly think beyond the next couple of months, let alone the next year,” she says.