Songwriter Interviews

Laura Mvula

by Dan MacIntosh

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Laura Mvula's unique sound has been described in many ways - retro-soul, orchestral pop, harmonically complex, ethereal. BBC writer Paul Lester provided a particularly interesting description: Billie Holiday meets the Beach Boys. She was classically trained at the conservatoire in her native city of Birmingham, England. She describes herself as "the geeky kid of R&B," and has a thoughtful, gentle demeanor that belies her powerful singing voice.

Mvula's debut, the She EP, was released in 2012. Her full-length album Sing to the Moon quickly followed in 2013, and her song "Little Girl Blue" was featured on the soundtrack for 12 years a Slave. She finished fourth in the BBC's Sound of 2013, a list of rising music stars. Her most recent project is a session of remakes recorded at Abbey Road Studios with a Netherlands-based jazz/pop orchestra - Sing to The Moon at Abbey Road feat. the metropole orkest.

We spoke with her shortly after she exited the stage at Coachella in April 2014. Mvula, who gave a passionately soulful vocal and keyboard performance, was accompanied by a drummer, bass player, cellist, violinist, and harpist - all of whom also supplied back-up vocals.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Everybody in your band sings, so the thought crossed my mind: How difficult is it to find somebody that can play the harp and sing beautiful harmonies at the same time? Your drummer is your music director?

Laura Mvula: Yeah. He's the music director. [Laura's drummer and music director is Troy Miller, who has also worked with Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson, Daniel Merriweather, David Jordan, and Jocelyn Brown.]

Songfacts: Did he put the band together?

Laura: We both put the bands together. When it came to finding a harpist, the harpist I'd worked with on my record is amazing, but she didn't sing.

Songfacts: So to tour you needed somebody that could do both?

Laura: Yeah. The label insisted. Because they weren't going to give me six backing singers.

Songfacts: You had to find the ones that could do multi‑tasking?

Laura: That's right.

Songfacts: It must make a difference for you as a performer to have real musicians that almost have a jazz aesthetic to the way that they play.

Laura: They do have a jazz aesthetic. I think I'm spoiled, because I don't know anything else. Sometimes I think I'm taking it for granted, but this sound to me is the organic sense of the music. I'm not sure it could be any other way. Or maybe it could be, but it would take some time to figure out a new concept. But it was very important to me that there are strings in there. I'm very much obsessed with this medieval sort of raw sound.

Songfacts: In your song "Like the Morning Dew," you sing about trying "to write the perfect song for you." Where did that come from?

Laura: I was just having fun with the idea of it. Because I was so new to this industry way of working, these elements - the components of the music industry that most artists are familiar with - for me was all very new. It still feels very new. So I was having fun with the idea that you might as well suggest that artists are trying to write perfect songs.

There are songs that are successful and they have chart success, or they sell records, or whatever. So there was that sort of tongue-in-cheek meaning: "Tried to write the perfect song for you, then I realized I didn't belong to you."

Songfacts: The song "She," is that about a particular person?

Laura: No. The song "She" is a composite. It's more about the idea, the emotion. It's the feeling of desperation.

I'm fascinated by the idea that as human beings, even in that ultimate sort of desperation - loneliness or isolation or coming to the end of yourself - there could be something as small as hope, as small as a mustard seed. It could be minute, but it's enough to sustain you for however much longer. When it feels like you have nothing left, there's always something. For some people it's God, for others it's relationships, or whatever.

Songfacts: Have any of your friends come up to you and said, "Was that song about me?"

Laura: No. [Laughing] Not yet. I remember with "Father Father," there's a verse that starts, "Brother, brother." Everybody assumed, including my brother, that it was about him. But it wasn't.

Songfacts: So you had to explain it to him.

Laura: I had to have that sort of awkward, "It's not about you" talk.

Songfacts: That's the thing about being a songwriter. It's like being any other kind of fiction writer. You draw on all the people in your life, but you certainly don't want them to think you're writing about them, because then they're going to change the way they behave around you.

Laura: That's right.

Songfacts: I notice there's a lot of joy in your music when you perform.

Laura: Yeah. It's very important that performing my music still feels like a new experience to me, and a really special one. I used to do quite a few amateur singing choir projects. I remember we used to work with one choir every Monday afternoon in the English countryside. In the winter months, sometimes it felt like a bit of a slog to go from the city out into the country - especially when it was raining. But I noticed that in the core of those sessions, there would be always a moment where all of that dullness would dissipate, and the music takes over. The joy of singing together is such a powerful and mysterious thing.

I can be a pretty moody and unmovable character, so when music is able to transport me from one space to another, that for me is like a drug. A healthy drug.

Songfacts: Tell me about working with these choirs. Was this gospel music?

Laura: Yeah. Some of it was gospel music. A lot of it was folk music. A lot of the singers we were working with tended to be English amateur singers between the ages of 40 to 80.

Songfacts: People that were doing it for the love of it?

Laura: That's right. And for some of them, that's all they had to look forward to in the week. So it's a special hour or two. For those hours their focus is the music.

Songfacts: We talked a little bit about how your band has a jazz feel. Were there any jazz singers that particularly inspired you and influenced you when you were growing up as a singer?

Laura: The artist I listened to the most was Miles Davis. Sometimes you can listen to and live with an album for a while and then it goes away, but with Miles, I don't seem to be bored of it. It's a most strange thing, but that's since I was quite young.

I've always been in awe of jazz musicians. I don't know where that comes from, maybe my dad. He listens to a lot of jazz music. But I find jazz musicians a particularly interesting group of music-makers. I'm lucky to have drummer Troy Miller - he's very well-known in the jazz world. And Karl Rasheed Abe on bass. They would hate for me to say that they're jazz musicians. They hate being labeled.

Songfacts: If somebody called you a jazz singer, you would say, "Thank you very much."

Laura: Oh, "Thank you so much." That's right. I'm with you. These musicians bring something that's very different. With the strings, I arrange the parts and that's pretty much set, but there's the space with phrasing and tone that we change. In terms of improvisation - things that will change from show to show - Colin and Troy do that so magnificently. There's always some surprises. How is that possible?

Songfacts: So, you would hear that even when you're performing?

Laura: Yes.

Songfacts: They don't play a song the same way twice?

Laura: Right.

Songfacts: Miles Davis was a pretty crusty character. Are you able to separate Miles Davis the person from Miles Davis the musician?

Laura: No. I don't want to. I'm intrigued and frightened by him at the same time. The pictures that I like looking at the most and the interviews that I like watching the most are the ones where he's very into them and sometimes very cold. Not giving much, but giving so much at the same time.

Songfacts: Did you ever get to see him perform?

Laura: Never.

Songfacts: I saw him in one of his last shows. It was at the Hollywood Bowl. He turned his back to the audience, as he did towards the latter part of his career. He was playing these blues songs, and it was like he couldn't care less that there was an audience there. You talk about somebody that's dedicated to their art - it was all about making the music. And he really wasn't there to entertain anybody. I couldn't see you doing that.

Laura: No, no.

Songfacts: The day you turn your back on the audience probably be the last day you perform.

Laura: I don't think I could. Unless I became a jazz musician. [Laughing]

Songfacts: Which you are. Let's wind things up by talking about singers. One of the artists that I've kind of thought about, and maybe it's because I saw her recently, was Robert Flack.

Laura: Everybody says that, and do you know I do not know this lady's music? It's the most bizarre thing. I don't know why I still haven't sought her out. Maybe it's because I'm weirded out that I'm going to hear something and be, Oh, my God, this is what I've been doing!

Songfacts: So you weren't inspired by her at all?

Laura: I don't know who she is.

Songfacts: Okay. Can you admit to being inspired by any particular singer?

Laura: Yeah. I listened a lot to Jill Scott growing up. I listened a lot to singers like Oleta Adams, lots of ballad singers. But I admire all the big vocalists, Shirley Bassey. And nowadays, Gregory Porter I think is iconic in the way he sings a song. Who else? All of the soul singers.

Songfacts: Is this a good time for soul music?

Laura: I don't know. I kind of hope soul music progresses. We keep pushing for it. I feel excited by the possibility.

February 11, 2015. Get more at lauramvula.com.
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