Laura Mvula once wanted to create her own genre. She wanted to make magical music. She wanted to be a gamechanger. “I was taught as a young black kid that I would always have to work 10 times harder than the majority. In order for me to succeed I couldn’t just be good, I had to be exceptional”.
And she was exceptional: her commanding vocals and lush blend of orchestral, jazz, blues and soul music felt fresh and original when she first emerged and her debut album Sing to the Moon, released in 2013, earned Brit, Mercury and Ivor Novello nominations, and a MOBO award.
Her second, 2016’s The Dreaming Room, won the Ivor Novello Album award. She was a critical darling, a protégée of Prince, and she was respected – lauded – in music’s most authoritative and influential circles.
Your guide to what to watch next – no spoilers, we promise
But the “exception” part was the problem. Mvula grew up in Birmingham, her mother was a humanities professor and her father worked in youth legal protection. She played violin and piano at school, sang in her church choir and her auntie’s a capella group, and went on to study composition at Birmingham Conservatoire.
After, while doing supply teaching and working as a receptionist at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, she wrote music, and as it got attention, and her star rose, a narrative began to develop in the way she was spoken and written about, in which she, a young, black, classically trained musician, was painted as a curious anomaly – an “alien”, she once said.
It wasn’t troubling at first. “I was enjoying some of the flattery from taglines like ‘Our generation’s Nina Simone’, ‘She lives in her own lane’. And it was positive – I was writing and performing with orchestras and touring all over the world.” But she began to turn those labels and expectations inward. “I was aware pretty much from day dot that I needed to go on being this ‘thing’,” she says, now 35.
Even in her image, “I had to get comfortable with being cocooned.” She remembers the video for her breakthrough single “Green Garden”.
“The white dress, the flat brogues, the shaved head, this very clean, angelic, relatively harmless soul. It was a hard thing to sustain. I had created a cul-de-sac where nobody expected anything else of me.” Amid the praise, “Underground, I was suffering with the terror of knowing that each time each creative process became harder because I was trapped.”
We’re speaking as she prepares to release her third album Pink Noise, an excellent and propulsive disco album full of drum machines and choral synths. It has taken five years to make. The pressure she was under grew to be “ginormous”.
Until 2017, that pressure was self-imposed: from that early discipline drummed into her by her parents – she points out that it “birthed incredible material and was also tiresome and burdensome” – and the promises she’d make to herself about what she wanted to achieve. Then a few months after she released The Dreaming Room, she was forwarded a seven-line email from her record company Sony informing her that she had been dropped.
“The shock of it…” she says now. “It never even entered my mind that I could be let go.” Not, she says, because she was arrogant. But because it didn’t make sense to her. “I was dropped on the album that won Album of the Year at the Ivor Novellos – it seemed bizarre that I had all this critical acclaim, was applauded over and over again, but where it counts on paper it just wasn’t translating.
“That’s so heartbreaking, to know financially, it’s not a worthy investment. I’m not a worthy investment. That was a tough pill to swallow. I’ve since learned that the music industry is a complex beast.”
At the time, her public response was sanguine. She tweeted: “So sad Sony have dropped me today but thankful for where they’ve gotten me to. Excited for the future – so much music I want to write.”
Privately, it added to feelings of failure and low self-worth she was already struggling with. The previous year, she spoke for the first time about suffering from panic attacks and anxiety after her divorce from Themba Mvula, a musician she met at the Conservatoire and married aged 23.
Her anxiety was so debilitating that for a period she was accompanied at all times by her sister Dionne – she made a BBC documentary about her experiences in 2017 and still has panic attacks now.
New music didn’t come as easily as she’d hoped. Her confidence was shaken – it began to repair when David Byrne chose her to join him on his 2018 American Utopia tour, but lockdown stole her sense of purpose.
“I can’t tell you how much at one stage I didn’t think I would ever write a song again, let alone a whole body of work,” she says. Pink Noise explores fear, loss, love, freedom, a break-up, Black Lives Matter. It is also upbeat, snappy, optimistic, clear, its electronic danceability is a break from her past work and is inspired by the songs she listened to growing up, that her parents called “’big people music’, meaning I wouldn’t understand it yet” – Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind and Fire. Sounds she always wanted to “regurgitate” and that she listened to far more often than Bach fugues.
“There are two things I want people to engage with,” she says. “The party, the black barbecue in the garden, and then the more solemn lullaby soulful lament, which has always been a part of my music.”
Writing “Safe Passage” – which opens the album with the line, “I would give you all of my soul, for your pleasure” – felt like a miracle. She uses words like “release”, “relief”, “rebirth”.
“I just got out of the way of being like, ‘I must be the biggest thing to come out of the UK, or else’.” She cackles at herself. “What?! What are you talking about?! Would you like to make music? Yes. Do you enjoy making music? Yes. Do you have something to say? Maybe, let’s see. And that’s it.”
It isn’t quite it. Losing her record deal was like losing a game she didn’t know the rules of. This time, she is determined to understand what’s going on at every stage of the process to ensure Pink Noise has the best chance to be heard. In the past, “I went into the studio, recorded the music, handed it in and that was my job done – as far as I understood it.”
That won’t work anymore, not when you’re an album artist in a landscape governed by social media, streaming platforms, algorithmically engineered TikTok dance-friendly earworms.
She used to think involvement in the mechanics of it all compromised the art. “By my nature, a girl from Birmingham with a degree in composition, I was never intending to go to bed with the UK music industry. I was gonna be a teacher. That was cool for me. But I think this particular life choice has required me to become a bit more savvy. It’s required me to develop thicker skin, which is an ongoing thing for me.”
If you’d asked her in the past, Mvula would have said she already had thick skin. “I’ve always been very assertive, almost aggressive when it comes to the music-making process, always so confident in what I’m trying to achieve, a good leader…”
She now realises that her relationship to feedback wasn’t healthy – she was not ready to cope when things eventually went wrong. She describes striving since she was young for ultimate acceptance, a “ludicrous, damaging” obsession she had with waking up and wondering how to please people, “to make people like me…” Everything that has happened since has made her see “it was becoming more than unhealthy, almost destructive.”
She became compared herself, endlessly, to others, not only in her music. “I’ve had to consciously take steps away from that way of thinking.” As if demonstrating this, a few days before we speak, she tweets, “Today I was told I’ve gained weight. I said OK”.
“That’s the kind of thing that a few years ago would have completely devastated me,” she says now, “the kind of thing where I don’t want to come out of the house, would have immediately started some mad unhealthy diet… Body dysmorphia is such an easy thing to become slave to. I’m done being slave to the ideals that are so loud and powerful in my face.”
Mvula is an open, involving person. She is introspective, speaks comfortably about her mental health, and is quick to laugh – she regularly mocks herself. I wonder if her candour is freeing, if it is part of the acceptance she has reached after the last few years. She says it’s not new. “I’ve always enjoyed my nakedness, I’ve always enjoyed things in their rawest form.”
She remembers once putting toothpaste on her pimples and her mother hitting the roof when she tried to leave the house to go to the corner shop: she didn’t see the issue.
“It’s like the thing of hairy armpits on a woman, or if I go the toilet and I pull out a tampon from my bag, and I’m trying to find ways to hide it… Things that we all know are part of our human existence, I’ve never understood the shame or the privacy of it.”
What has changed are the expectations she has of herself. She’s still ambitious, but doesn’t make grand vows or allow others to define her, as they so often once did. She won’t let her work define her either.
“I don’t believe in the terms ‘success or failure’ anymore. It makes me uncomfortable knowing I’m a part of an industry that heralds notoriety, as though by being well-known I’m somehow better… Who I am is far more precious than the things that I can achieve.
“I can’t tell you what kind of gift that is,” she continues. “Having been in some of the darker places where I’ve been so fragile and overcome with fear and depression, just because I decided I need to be what everybody else thinks is acceptable and beautiful and high art, or digestible art. I’m slowly letting all of those things go and guess what? I’m happy.”
Pink Noise is out now