Onstage and in videos, Laura Mvula is ethereal, her face painted in swaths of ebony or electric blue. When she sings, her posh British accent comes through, and she wears feathers, tall platform heels, and high, structured collars as easily as she does a soft summer cardigan.
With her 2013 debut album, “Sing to the Moon,” we learned that she was a classically trained musician, like each of her siblings, and that she married young and credited her husband, a fellow musician, with encouraging her professional singing and songwriting career. She mentioned offhandedly during her first NPR Tiny Desk performance that she tends to write her musical arrangements in six parts, a relatively rare feat to sustain for an entire album and the very reason her debut sounds like little else being released today.
Mvula was a model new artist, technically astounding and practically mythical in style, performance and public biography.
It would’ve been easy for her to retain that aura in the wake of her sophomore album, “The Dreaming Room.” Instead, four months before the album dropped on June 17, the Guardian published a profile on the singer titled “Laura Mvula: ‘My body spasms. I think I’m going to collapse.’ ” It’s a stark, incredibly open piece about the panic attacks and anxiety that Mvula has battled since the beginning of her professional career. She discusses how the condition contributed to her divorce and how she struggled with guilt over just how much she had come to rely on her family’s support.
At first, a read like this seems dissonant; the image it presents of a jittery, confessional woman plowing through a hamburger during an interview doesn’t match the larger-than-life ingenue the public had come to know through puff pieces, music videos and stage performances. But before long, the profile begins not only to make sense but also to become as rare as everything else about Laura Mvula. Choosing to go public about the mental health tolls that fame can take is still something of a taboo, as are celebrities themselves offering their honest assessments of what caused their divorces.
Mvula seems as willing as ever to forge a path forward as an artist that few have tread. And it shows in her second studio album. “The Dreaming Room” is an album of regret and loss (“Show Me Love”), reconciliation (“Angel”) and brooding (“People”). Its penultimate track, “Nan,”’ is an interlude that features a recorded phone conversation between Mvula and her grandmother.
Given what we know of Mvula’s trials, the weariness in her voice seems weightier. It sounds like she’s called Nan for a little bit more courage to finish the journey. When she asks Nan how she is, Nan quips, “Not as good as you.” When she tells Nan she’s nearly finished with the album, Nan urges her to write her something uplifting and danceable: “Write a song I can jig me foot.” It’s only then that it becomes clear what Mvula’s pre-album-release candor has given us: a work of hard-fought victory. Her last track, “Phenomenal Woman,” then, becomes not just a cheery womanist anthem but an answered call to arms.
Usually, when we argue about whether we can or should separate what we know of an artist’s personal life from the art she creates, we do so in the wake of scandal. We’re asking if the artist should still have our support after committing some unsavory or criminal act. Rarely in those moments do we consider the great good that comes of knowing more than we deserve to about an artist’s personal experiences. Laura Mvula hasn’t just given us the gift of another unmatched album; she’s given the anxious and heartbroken a balm. She’s given them a brighter bit of light to guide them through the tunnel.