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Laura Mvula on Performing for Quincy Jones, Writing An Album That “Feels Sexy”

British soul singer talks sophomore album ‘The Dreaming Room’ and paying tribute to Michael Jackson at the BBC Proms.

British soul singer talks sophomore album 'The Dreaming Room' and paying tribute to Michael Jackson at the BBC Proms.

Laura Mvula‘s sophomore album The Dreaming Room sweeps and swells like a modern wall of sound, her signature stacked vocals humming underneath and lyrics shifting from raw vulnerability to pure joy.

Mvula reflects on darker moments on the album. The six-minute, pop orchestral track “Show Me Love” was the first time she tackled the pain of her divorce, and since recently opened up about her experiences with anxiety and depression. The Dreaming Room resonates louder as a space that can be at times haunting or sorrowful, but always beautiful. Inspired by Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Bach and Janet Jackson, Mvula will bring her rich collection of instruments, synths and vocal sounds to Bluesfest in April.

We chatted to the British soul singer about performing live, the pressures of a sophomore record and learning to use her voice.

How do you find performing festival stages compared to small venues?
Festival stages are better for me because my sound is bigger and better than the first album. I mean obviously it’s probably not going to make a difference for you guys because you haven’t seen like a progression. First time around, it was a very different kind of sound, live. It was very, intricate, intimate textures, whereas this time with The Dreaming Room, it’s very big, it’s very ethereal, it covers – there’s a lot of layers to the music. I fill the festival stages, it’s much more enjoyable for me than it was.

The Dreaming Room uses textures that are a little bit richer, how was that process in changing your sound?
I guess on some level I always set out to look forward, and to change and to experiment, to try new things. It’s like when you go from small school to big school when you’re younger, and you can’t wait to make that transition. When I did Sing to the Moon, it was a beautifully virgin experience of being in the studio and putting together a whole body of work. I’d never done that before. Touring was new to me. So I think by the time The Dreaming Room came around, I was so ready to realise my ideas more fully, knowing what I knew.

Did you feel any extra pressures in making The Dreaming Room after the success of your debut album, Sing to the Moon?
Yeah, definitely. I felt really under pressure, because people were describing Sing to the Moon as, innovative and fresh and hard to categorise. And then people would say off back of that, ‘what she could possibly do next?’. And because I couldn’t answer that question myself, that was the scariest time. I had to take time out of the whirlwind of what it means to put out an album when you’re signed to a major label and all the implications of that. I knew I wanted to make a bigger album, I knew that I wanted to use guitar because Sing to the Moon was without guitar. I don’t know whether that had to do with the fact that I was going around to different festivals and hearing all kinds of different bands.

The roll of the guitar is so vital, in a manner of speaking. I guess I had guitar envy. I knew also that I wanted to have songs that were, maybe a faster tempo, or that at least that would speak more quickly. Sing to the Moon was an intimate collection of songs but I could easily play the whole thing on piano as a solo performance. Whereas The Dreaming Room, I wanted it to be a whole sound world that would be one complete experience, where you’d be washed in a wall of sound thing, so to speak.

Was there a turning point for you musically, in knowing the kind of album you wanted to make next?
Yeah, I wasn’t conscious of it. But the thing for me was always to feel unlimited, and as though there were no rules. I wasn’t thinking stylistically — I mean that was the point, to think about the music as a feeling. I saw colours, but I didn’t have a complete fixture or vision. It wasn’t as though I said ‘oh now I want to write more of a soul album’, it was more ‘I wanna write an album that makes me feel big, that feels sexy in the truest sense of the word, that’s in its own skin, it’s raw, it’s very fresh’. People say we overuse the word fresh but I listen to The Dreaming Room and I feel as though it’s fresh to me. I listen to the songs on that and it feels otherworldly.

I think one of the clearest examples of that — especially when you say you wanted to make an album that makes you feel sexy — is the “Phenomenal Woman” video clip.
[Laughs] Yeah. In many ways, that tune stylistically is a departure from the rest of the record. Ironically, the message of the song embodies what the whole album is about. It really is this kind of, coming of age. Maybe it has to do with turning 30, and my divorce, and just so many things in my life. Lots of chapters ending and new seasons beginning. The Dreaming Room felt like the right expression of all of those things.

And then there’s a song like “Show Me Love”, which embodies those feelings in a completely different way. What’s going on for you lyrically and musically, and how did that song evolve?
“Show Me Love” is the cornerstone, it’s the heart of the record, for sure. It’s the longest piece of music I’ve probably ever written. Lyrically it was the right time for me to explore what was the traumatic heart break I’d known. And I hadn’t figured out a way to talk about it up until that point. In fact I was avoiding it for a while. I remember people would say — and I would get annoyed — “oh you’ll write songs that are surely going to be therapeutic for you, or a way of expressing that”. Nup. It was almost too soon and too raw. “Show Me Love” was my first attempt at dealing with what I was feeling. I knew it was going to be this very moving, prayer/love song – kind of like the feeling where you’ve had a really vivid dream but for some reason you don’t remember it until the middle of the day and leaves this haunting feeling. That’s how the song makes me feel — it’s a song that lived in that space.

I don’t listen to “Show Me Love”, really, even though I think it’s the most important song on the album. It’s so personal, and it’s so literal. Not to cheapen it, it reminds me of how I feel when I listen to Boléro by Ravel. We get this motif, or collection of motifs that go around, and they build, and they might start in one place and a few minutes later, it’s almost too devastating to listen. That’s how the end of “Show Me Love” is.

You grew up in choirs and a cappella groups, did that influence the improvisation, or even just the way you layer your vocals?
Absolutely, definitely the way I layer my vocals. I write so vulnerably in the studio, and I’m so self-conscious about my voice, or at least I have been. I never saw my identity as a singer because I feel as though I grew up around what I consider to be real singers.

Yeah, I was comfortable with using my voice as a tool, as a part of the palette, but by no means would I announce myself as a singer. I grew up around singers who, I mean my goodness, in terms of vocal power and range, had all the things that we conventionally consider to be attributes of a great singing voice. I was learning to use my voice in a way that I understood singing, my own personal individual singing, and it was a very different thing. So I think when it comes to improvisation, when someone says ‘yeah if you could just ad lib over the top’, I would, especially as a young person I would cringe, because I would get self-conscious and feel weird about it. But I think I found my own language, it was a way of singing that feels right to me, and a way of improvising that feels right to me.

A cappella singing is such a high art form. I remember, when I was very young, I would follow my aunty’s a cappella group around and she was gracious enough to let me do that, but as I started to study with the group it was one of the most rigorous and exposing experiences. I really learnt to use my voice in that environment, I discovered my voice in an a cappella group.

It’s quite a spiritual experience, maybe not even in a specifically spiritual sense but it’s instinctive and intuitive. Do you find that when you’re performing now, is there a marriage of those feelings from when you were first singing how you feel when you sing now?
Always. I always say to people, ‘gosh if you knew where I’ve come from, you wouldn’t believe I was the same human’. When I was younger I struggled to open my mouth and make a sound, even my speaking voice, I wasn’t particularly fond of talking to people. It’s funny how much that vulnerability still plays a roll in how I communicate through song. It’s as much as a part of the power of what I do as anything else. I think people connect with my story because it’s it’s blemished, and yet there’s still beauty there. That’s the human experience.

How do you feel before live performances?
Depends where it is. If it’s my own show, for example when I come to you guys, before a show, I’ll feel relaxed and excited and I’ll be laughing a lot with my band and everybody will be on a high. If it’s a collaborative thing, or – I’ve been privileged enough to be invited to do different things. I sang in New York at a global goal dinner for the United Nations General Assembly, and the filmmaker Richard Curtis invited me to come and sing and close the evening. I had to wait until the end of the evening to perform, and I couldn’t eat anything, I couldn’t really talk, I was terrified. It was the same thing when I did the BBC Proms for Quincy Jones — I was closing the show with a Michael Jackson song. And again, I couldn’t breathe before I was. So it depends what the occasion is.

Doing something like cover a Michael Jackson, is there more of a willingness to perform really well?
Performing Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” in front of Quincy Jones was one of the highlights of my life.

What I love about the capacity we have as humans to rise above or to rise to an occasion, I was inspired to play and sing beautifully in that moment, even though everything else in my body was doing something else. What I ended up experiencing was pure joy. Being overwhelmed with the honour of playing tribute to Michael and in the presence of his mentor, you know, it was an amazing privilege. And it’s always been like that, with the David Bowie tribute, when Prince passed, and before he passed and I did two shows with him, collaborating with the great Nile Rodgers.

Sometimes I’ve gotten sad about the fact that I have felt sometimes excluded in the mainstream, like the big cats of today like the Kendrick Lamar’s of the world, the Beyonce’s, the Janelle Monae’s, the whoevers, sometimes I feel like nobody knows and nobody cares. And then I’m reminded that the people that champion my stuff have come to be the living legends, or people that we’ve lost in the last year. So I, you know I tried to encourage myself with their literal encouragement. When Elton John phoned me the other day, just to tell me what he thought of my album, and then to tell me that I didn’t need his affirmation but he just felt it necessary to say. It’s mind blowing.

Laura Mvula plays Bluesfest next Easter, with sets on the 16th and 17th of April, alongside a run of sideshows — Sydney’s The Metro on April 12th, The Recital Club at Melbourne on April 13th and Brisbane’s The Triffid on April 15th. Tickets available here.