LAURA MVULA IN LONDON, OCTOBER 2016. PHOTOS: MATT HOLYOAK/KAYTE ELLIS AGENCY. STYLNG: ALEX PETSETAKIS. MAKEUP: AKGUN MANISALI/THE LONDON STYLE AGENCY USING CHANEL. PHOTO ASSISTANT: LUKE WELLER. STYLING ASSISTANT: JOANNA GYAMERA. RETOUCHING: THE SHOEMAKER’S ELVES.
After her debut album, 2013’s Sing to the Moon, Laura Mvula—the classically trained soul singer from Birmingham, England—began fielding comparisons to Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse, and Jill Scott. While she shares musical DNA with all three women, Mvula’s sound stands out in that it doesn’t adhere to a linear path. On Sing to the Moon she melds elements of jazz and soul, occasionally veering into pop territory; on The Dreaming Room (RCA), her second album released earlier this year, she drives deeper into pop, with infusions of disco and massive instrumentals provided by none other than the London Symphony Orchestra.
In part because of her musical risk-taking, and in part because of her sheer talent—her voice can modulate from majestic to mysterious in one breath—Mvula is making waves far outside of her native England. The Dreaming Room, which features artists such as Nile Rogers, set Mvula on a massive global tour, from Europe to Australia to North America and back again. This Friday, she will release a special extended version of the album with six new tracks. It seems that now listeners realize Mvula is in a league all her own.
We caught up with Mvula back in August when she was in New York, preparing for a performance at National Sawdust in Brooklyn.
MATT MULLEN: You’ve been on tour for a while, and you still have a lot of European dates coming up. How have you been holding up?
LAURA MVULA: I think generally good.
MULLEN: I imagine touring is really exhausting, is it not?
MVULA: It’s okay if I’m having fun. Even though I normally have jetlag, being out here has been so much fun that I haven’t felt it. [laughs] I think that when I get home I’ll probably crash.
MULLEN: And where is home?
MVULA: London. I’m from Birmingham, but I live in London now.
MULLEN: It’s been almost a year since, but tell me about the process for creating The Dreaming Room.
MVULA: It was a very different process from my first album in that I really had to take my time, and I’m really not good at taking that time, generally. So the first challenge was to be patient and not rush through writing something that I didn’t feel proud of, or wasn’t sure of. I also went on holiday, and then I was in New York, just hanging, going to friend’s shows, which helped me to create the energy to experience something outside of my own space, so that was good. And then when I felt ready, I started putting down words. Sometimes it would be 16 seconds of music, just because that was all I could manage. But it was a really good exercise in picking good ideas and running with them. Then I started thinking, “What kind of album do I want to make? What kind of sounds do I want to make?”
MULLEN: What kind of sounds did you want to make?
MVULA: I knew guitar was going to be a really big deal for me, because I wanted some of the energy of Fela Kuti, [who] I’ve been listening to a lot in the last couple years. I wanted that spirit to be in the music. I also was experimenting with synthesizers, like old analog synthesizers—I didn’t know what the hell I was doing—so that was an exciting experience, which again is different from the familiar process of writing these things, when I’d just sit at the piano. I think it was also new because of collaboration; I’ve never collaborated before, so when Nile Rodgers said, “I want to be on the album,” I thought it was some kind of sick joke. I didn’t think it was real.
MULLEN: How do you go about choosing collaborators? It sounds like sometimes they come to you, but what’s your thinking behind the kind of musicians you want to work with?
MVULA: Honestly, I must sound almost like an arrogant asshole, but when I say to you that people come to me I genuinely mean it. [both laugh] John Scofield, who plays guitar on the record, is another one. I didn’t realize that I have these resources at my fingertips.
MULLEN: Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to?
MVULA: Kendrick Lamar or Frank Ocean.
MULLEN: Have you heard Frank Ocean’s new album?
MVULA: Yes! I was in the shop the other day, I was getting some headphones, and this beautiful voice came on and I was like “Shit!” So I said to the shop worker, “Is that who I think it is?” And she was like, “Yeah, that’s Frank Ocean’s new album.” And I was like “fuck!” And now I want to introduce to myself.
MULLEN: Yeah, he’s great. Who else?
MVULA: Chance the Rapper I would love to work with. I’d love to work with Erykah Badu; that would be just a dream to have her in the room. The collaboration isn’t even necessary, I just want to be amongst her energy. But [there’s] also my dearest friend and mentor Jill Scott. I’m praying that the day will come when we will share a place.
MULLEN: How did you get to working with her?
MVULA: She phoned me up about three years ago, and again I thought that was a joke, but I saw on Twitter that she was hitting me up. So she phoned me and I remember we were on it for two and a half, three hours … She’s the ultimate poet, to me, and it’s a dream for a lot of us singers to be in her presence. I had that first opportunity of asking her every single question I’ve ever wanted the answer to, and more importantly, she stuck with me, she stuck by me—she is always there. I’m very open and vulnerable so when I think when we are close, that’s the vibe. It’s often that you meet someone one time and then the next time they act like they don’t know who you are, but Jill… There’s never a time when she doesn’t pick up the phone.
MULLEN: Given that your album is so instrumental, how do you prepare for a live performance? Are all those instruments there with you?
MVULA: Honestly we are still working that out. It’s always evolving. It depends on the venue. It’s about, “Okay, how can we reinterpret the record but still have it maintain its core?” We discovered that there are plenty of different ways to do that. Some of my favorite shows that we’ve done have been with the bass and drums and me. And it still works—you’re just drawing on different colors. So this time around, tonight, I’ve got a five-piece band—which is a reduction in what I’m used to—but actually it’s proving to be a whole other experience. I’m becoming a different singer again because I’m not relying on my background sounds.