British star shoots for the moon
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, November 15, 2013
A day before the British Mercury Prize ceremony, Laura Mvula is taking a breath for what sounds like the first time in a year.
The British singer’s debut album, “Sing to the Moon,” was nominated for the Mercury, which rivals the Grammy award for album of the year. After a year packed with performances with Prince, recording for John Legend for the “12 Years a Slave” soundtrack, playing myriad music festivals and raking in critical acclaim, the statuesque 27--year--old has settled into a quiet London hotel room simply to wait.
“Oh look! It’s me on the telly!” she shouts with genuine shock during our recent call.
“Oh, no!” she adds, suddenly catching herself. “Oh, that’s so lame to do on an interview. Sorry, that was the most uncoolest thing ever.”
But that kind of moment, when you gaze at the television and see yourself on it, is a new experience for the young woman who two years ago was a receptionist, answering phones for her hometown orchestra. Who could blame her for the rare lapse in coolness?
It was Mvula’s insanely catchy single, “Green Garden,” in which she sings of taking flight like a butterfly, that helped the Birmingham, England, native grow wings. Shortly after it was released early this year, the BBC named Mvula (pronounced “Mmm--VU--la”) to its Sound of 2013 short list. The Telegraph called her the “transcendent voice of 2013.” The Mercury Prize nomination would cement it all, even if James Blake ultimately won. Mvula is on her second U.S. tour this year, which brings her to the Hamilton next week.
It’s an unusual trajectory for a music composition student who never had a desire for fame.
“I always wanted to be writing the music,” she says. “I couldn’t be a frontwoman.”
Mvula recalls that it was a college professor who told her, “ ‘Laura, I think you should write these songs. I also think you should perform the songs.’ And I said, ‘No, no, no, no.’ ”
Personal tragedies, including her parents’ split, led Mvula to change her mind.
“I felt I had to express some of this stuff,” says Mvula, who wrote “She,” a tender dirge in which she sings of hoping to find her footing: “She’s looking for a savior / someone to save her from her dying self / Always taking 10 steps back and one step forward / She’s tired but she don’t stop.”
The song, the first written for what would become “Sing to the Moon,” was a relief, Mvula says. “Finally, this feels like something that’s me. It was about me, expressing frustration with constantly feeling like you think you’re heading somewhere, and then, all of a sudden, it can look very bleak in a short amount of time. How do you find strength in that? How do you find beauty?”
Fans have been finding it in “Sing to the Moon,” released stateside in May. The hundred--layer cake of a record has the chanteuse seamlessly blending big--band orchestrations, doo--wop and soul. At moments, there are hints of the sass that made Adele a star, but it’s the orchestrations that set Mvula ---- a composer masquerading as a pop singer ---- apart.
Mvula, who grew up playing violin and piano, freely confesses her musical sensibility. She recalls how she used her Sony Discman to repeatedly play a CD she had nicked from her uncle. It wasn’t Michael Jackson or Kylie Minogue, but Paquito D’Rivera’s “Snow Samba.”
“For some reason, it just filled me with so much joy,” she says. “I always tried to imagine myself as the conductor. There was so much counterpoint of rhythm and groove in it, it was infectious to me.”
As she continues her campaign to woo American fans, the British singer is contending with new circumstances, including the attention that has taken the shy musician by surprise ---- and around the world in a year’s time. “This kind of musical lifestyle is a metaphor for life,” she says. “There are good moments, there are things that are fun, and there are things that are not so fun about it.”
One way she keeps herself insulated from the industry’s dark side is by bringing along her equally handsome younger siblings, sister Dionne and brother James, to play violin and cello in her band.
“When I started violin, my brother started cello and my sister started violin, and before we knew it, we had a string trio,” Mvula says of their childhood band, which performed in churches. “Our greatest moments together were when we were playing music.”
This past spring in a performance at the Birchmere, the band, including drummer and musical director Troy Miller, seemed to fortify Mvula, who suffers from stage fright.
“I think it was the best decision I’ve made so far,” she says. “Anybody not in the music industry might not see the side to this whole thing that is all--consuming and exhausting and challenging. And in those times, I would say you need people around who you trust. Who you love. And James and Dionne, they’re a constant reminder of who I am.”