Laura Mvula: “I’ve heard that I’m ‘frowned upon’ within the music industry”

“It’s like this: imagine if I was going out with some amateur boxer for ages,” Laura Mvula says a few minutes into our Zoom interview. “And then I was like, ‘I’m never dating a boxer again – they’re dickheads.’ But then Anthony Joshua comes along and asks me out. It was exactly like that! I was like, ‘Hmm – OK, let me check my calendar then…’”

According to Mvula, this playful analogy encapsulates why she signed with Atlantic Records in October 2018 – less than two years after another major label, Sony, had unceremoniously dropped her. She could have chosen to self-release her next album, but Atlantic won her over with a simple sales pitch: “You’re a good artist who writes good music. It’s just about helping people to see that.”

Fast-forward to July 2021 and it’s clear she made the right decision. Mvula’s new album ‘Pink Noise’ is a triumphant reinvention that streamlines her abundant vocal, songwriting and production gifts into a shiny, ’80s-inspired package. The delirious, Michael Jackson-channelling single ‘Got Me’ deserves to become one of the biggest hits of the summer – so let’s hope Love Island‘s music programmers are paying attention.

Elsewhere, she duets with Biffy Clyro‘s Simon Neil on ‘What Matters’ – a balmy ballad that could be ripped from a John Hughes movie – and mixes Prince with vintage Whitney Houston on the cathartic dance-pop banger ‘Church Girl’. Some lush vocal arrangements provide a through-line from Mvula’s more subdued previous albums, 2013 debut ‘Sing to the Moon’ and 2016 follow-up ‘The Dreaming Room’, but she has never sounded as vibrant as she does on album three. “’Pink Noise’ is the party version of me,” Mvula says, “but of course there’s also some dark corners, because it’s still me.”

Mvula’s renewed energy also lights up our hour-long Zoom interview. Occupying a quiet corner in trendy east London members’ club Shoreditch House, she’s a warm and thoughtful presence who’s happy to discuss everything from her Sony exit to her passion for underrated UK girl-group Eternal. Though the R&B four-piece racked up 12 Top 10 singles during their ’90s heyday, their impact was soon overshadowed by that of the Spice Girls. Still, they clearly left a lasting impression on Mvula, who was a seven-year-old growing up in south Birmingham when they emerged in 1993.

“They were absolutely incredible singers, but at that age I wasn’t necessarily registering their voices,” Mvula says. “It was more that I knew something incredible was happening. They were doing [the girl-group thing] with long braids down to their butts, massive baggy jeans and CAT boots. And there were three Black girls and one white girl – that’s the opposite of my existence! But we still love Louise [Redknapp, formerly Nurding]– oh my gosh.”

Mvula says a minor aside in an Eternal video from the time – Louise saying “we’re going on now!” before the group went on stage – was truly formative for her. “I swear to God, I remember registering that moment as: ‘That’s what I want to do – I need that in my life’,” she says. “And I swear to God – you might not believe me – but I’ve never had the confidence to tell anyone that before.”

Mvula’s enthusiasm is heartwarming after the bruising few years she’s been through professionally. Her recording career began brightly in 2013 when  ‘Sing to the Moon’, a classy blend of soul and orchestral pop, went Gold and earned her a Mercury Prize nomination. During this period she was invariably described as “classically trained” because she had taken piano and violin lessons at school, then graduated from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire with a degree in composition.

She’s since said she felt “trapped” by the label and takes delight today in saying she’s “broken out” of it. “I can’t call myself classically trained because that’s some bullshit, man,” she says firmly. “I took piano to Grade Eight level and violin to Grade Seven [because] I was too shit to play. I think it became this strange form of institutional racism where it was like: ‘Oh my God, the Negro plays the violin.’”

With the benefit of hindsight, you can perhaps hear Mvula chafing against this notion with 2016’s ‘The Dreaming Room’, on which she expanded her sound to include more upbeat disco and funk elements. Chic legend Nile Rodgers co-wrote and played on that album’s strutting single ‘Overcome’, while Wretch 32 added a rap to its reflective ‘People’. Though ‘The Dreaming Room’ earned more critical acclaim and another Mercury Prize nomination, it didn’t sell as well as its predecessor. In January 2017, just six months after it came out, Mvula tweeted that she had been dropped by Sony. She later revealed that she received the news in a forwarded seven-line email.

Today, Mvula believes she is still paying a price for speaking frankly about what happened. “I’ve heard that I’m ‘frowned upon’ within the industry,” she says. “Somebody said to me the other day that when I ‘outed’ Sony for dropping me; it wasn’t seen as good form.” Though none of us can know for certain what is said in record label boardrooms, it remains rare for an artist to call out industry gatekeepers in this way. Last week, the fiercely talented singer-songwriter Raye sent shockwaves through UK music by tweeting that her record label, Polydor, is essentially blocking her from releasing her debut album.

Any accusations of “poor form” levelled at Mvula seem especially unfair because she refuses to apportion too much blame on Sony. “You know, I’m happy to say that I will put it on me,” she says. “I put the responsibility on me because I think that whole period was just about [me] being an infant in a very, very adult industry. I just didn’t involve myself in things that I should have.”

Mvula admits that she wasn’t “grown” or “savvy” enough to realise she could shape the direction of her album release, especially as social media became more important. “Perhaps when I was a bit younger, I would have been really dismissive [of getting involved in that],” she says. “Like: I make the music in the studio, I deliver the album, and then it’s done and I go on the road.’ That was my mentality then.”

Now, Mvula knows that every aspect of an album’s release has to reflect her original vision. “You could put the heaviest formula on something, but people just want to hear you and what you’re about,” she says. “In the past I’ve been in places where I thought I needed to complicate that just to get a look-in or my foot in the door. And then, I’m always humbled that it’s only when I’m completely myself that anything takes off.”

Still, being more hands-on must add to her workload – a challenge for an artist who has suffered from acute anxiety and debilitating panic attacks. In 2017, she made an affecting radio documentary, Laura Mvula: Generation Anxiety, for BBC Radio Four, exploring why the condition is especially prevalent in under 35s.

Today, she says having a new management team that fully understands her is really helping. “If I say, ‘I don’t want to do that’, or, ‘Can we do this differently next time?’, I don’t have to be worried about fulfilling the stereotype of ‘the scary Black woman’ who, as soon as she says something with any degree of assertiveness, gets called ‘threatening’ or a ‘diva’,” she says. “I can speak freely and I feel like everyone has a shared desire to make this thing go the furthest it can go.”

“I now don’t have to be worried about fulfilling the stereotype of ‘the scary Black woman’”

Still, artists are often complicated creatures, and Mvula says that while making ‘Pink Noise’ she actually thrived on the initial indifference of her co-producer Dann Hume, who’s worked with Wiz Khalifa and Troye Sivan. Because he “didn’t seem bothered” about working with her, she almost felt like she had to “woo him”. Before she bonded with Hume, a member of alt-rock band Evermore, Mvula spent 18 months going into songwriting sessions with various producers she had never worked with before. It was a new experience for an artist who considers herself “very self-sufficient” – and one she says she enjoyed – but an album concept stubbornly refused to emerge.

“I got so overwhelmed that I remember asking my manager, ‘What’s the protocol if I can’t deliver [the album] and have to break the contract?’” she admits.

The breakthrough came when she and Hume began working on ‘Safe Passage’, a glistening mid-tempo track from the album that begins with booming, Phil Collins-style drums. “I remember leaving the session and thinking, ‘This is it – this is the album,’” she says. Mvula had already made the “skeleton” of the song at home, but Hume helped her to elevate it. “I think it’s hard for any producer to work with me because I produce as well,” she says. “It’s about taking something that’s already there and making it shine even more. And I think that’s harder than giving a producer [a demo with] a vocal and a guitar and saying: ‘Make a whole musical world for me.’”

Because she clearly understands how a fellow artist works, Mvula declined to over-direct Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil when they recorded ‘What Matters’. “Everyone at the label was like, ‘You should tell him exactly what you want him to do’, but I was like, ‘Nah’,” she recalls. Instead, Mvula says she simply texted Neil with the message: “I feel like you’ll know what to do with it.” When she got the track back a week later with Neil’s vocal part added, Mvula’s instant reaction was: ‘Oh my God – it’s amazing!’ So I mixed it and it was done – just like that,” she says. “The whole process was basic and organic.”

Credit: Danny Kasirye

By this point, we’ve been talking for so long that Mvula is being asked to vacate her spot. “I will get up and go,” she promises, “but I keep looking around because I’m in Shoreditch House in the library and I’ve performed here once before. I remember that gig so well because it’s such an intimate space, and I want that feeling again with ‘Pink Noise’.”

This time, however, Mvula believes the would be quite different. “People would sort of lament to my previous albums because they were made to make you feel very deeply,” she says. “‘But ‘Pink Noise’ is loose – real loose.” She smiles excitedly. “You know, I can’t wait to see people shackin’ out to these joints.”