LAURA Mvula’s new album, The Dreaming Room, is a wrenching chronicling of heartache, anxiety, and despair. That’s the record company sales pitch at any rate. Come for the experimental pop, stay for the bottomless angst.
But it is interesting that the British singer — intensely hyped since 2013, despite her unapologetically avant-garde sound — doesn’t see things in quite such dramatic terms. Yes, she found success to be moderately overwhelming and it was of course painful to go through a divorce as her career was taking off. However, she refuses to be defined by her setbacks — or to let them guide her as a musician. The Dreaming Room is about a lot of things. What it definitely isn’t is a stereotypical break-up LP.
“It’s much broader than any of that,” she says, far jauntier in person than her rather severe image might suggest.“People like to fixate. ‘Oh gosh, she’s gone through a divorce. There are all these breakup songs.’ Yeah — that’s important. The reality is it’s about a fifth of what the record is about.”
True, the heartache was real enough. From a strict Christian family in Birmingham, Mvula married young, only to find the relationship crumbling as she grew into herself creatively following the success of her debut, Sing To The Moon.
She still speaks positively of her ex-husband, an enormous source of inspiration early in her career. But the change in both their circumstances was simply too much and they couldn’t make it through. (“I failed him,” she said recently, “I failed him as a wife.”)
Meanwhile her own parents — whom she had believed the last word in god-fearing devoutness — had also split. Amid all of that, she was discovering life as a critically acclaimed artist was not as straightforward as expected and had started to suffer performance anxiety. She had never felt especially comfortable in front of a crowd. Suddenly, stage fright was crippling.
This, it would seem, is all behind her now. There is little evidence of jitters as she speaks to the Irish Examiner; indeed, Mvula comes across supremely confident, both in herself and in the avant-garde sound she explores on The Dreaming Room.
Recently turned 30, it is tempting to conclude Mvula has made peace with her place in life.
The Dreaming Room was not an easy album — in working with disco producer Nile Rodgers and rapper Wretch 32 she travelled far beyond her classical music background. Yet progress was steady and she was spared the angst and self-questioning that she suffered through her debut. She’s in a good place.
“Going into a new album was both exciting and nerve- wracking,” she confesses. “It felt like a long time coming. The Sing to the Moon cycle had gone on a a while. It was nice to jump into something new.
“A lot of it was recorded very late at night. It was a real ‘Nutty Professor’ experience, where you are thinking in a slightly different way. You’re on your own at an hour most people are asleep, making all these strange noises.”
Mvula took some time off after her last LP, acclaimed as one of the year’s most innovative, and a favourite for the Mercury Music Prize (it was nominated only to lose out to bequiffed synth whisperer James Blake). She remembers being buttonholed by admirers backstage at a gig by a friend’s band.
Where was the new album they demanded. It dawned on Mvula that it was time to return to the studio.
“They hadn’t recognised me until I pulled down my hoodie. Suddenly they were like, ‘Oh my god, Laura, when’s the next record?’ That was a surprise — a great feeling to know people wanted the next record. Of course it was slightly terrifying with it.”
Mvula makes astonishing music, an exotic swell variously recalling Bjork, experimental classicists Kronos Quartet and Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. Her background, however, is thoroughly mundane. She grew up in the Birmingham suburbs, the daughter of immigrants from the Caribbean.
She directed a local choir while receiving her degree in composition from Birmingham City University. Later, while humbly employed as a receptionist, a demo tape found its way to Sony Records. Before she had an opportunity to quite take things in she was at Abbey Road recording an album.
As per the publicist’s spiel, The Dreaming Room may be nominally a break-up album. However, its perspectives are as much political as personal. A black Englishwoman operating in an overwhelmingly white industry, Mvula had an eye on ethnocentric conflict in the US, channelling her complex feelings about race in contemporary western society.
“I’m talking about identity crisis in the West,” she nods. “I don’t have any absolute answers. What I’m attempting to do is participate in the dialogue in a positive way — build people up rather than tear them down, which seems to be happening at the moment.”
She laughs when asked if she is still the sensitive snowflake who emerged blinking to the music industry sunlight and suffered a chronic terror of live performance (in one UK interview promoting Sing to the Moon she said was living in constant dread of being “found out”). “There was an over-emphasis on that,” she says now. “It may all have come from one interview I gave in 2013. I love, love, love being on stage. I’ve been doing this for three more years now. It has been a period of growth.”
Speaking to Mvula one gets the sense that her 30th birthday weighed on her almost as heavily as divorce and her parent’s separation. She nods: She never imagined herself reaching an age at which she was supposed to think of herself unambiguously as an adult. That’s the change she is truly coming to terms with
“My twenties are gone,” she says, sounding a little astonished. “If you’re someone like me, who has grown up in quite a child-like state — that’s a surprise.”