Not afraid to use her voice: Laura Mvula is looking forward to Cork Jazz Festival

Laura Mvula tells Ed Power how she’s looking forward to her jazz festival appearance in Cork at the weekend

Not afraid to use her voice: Laura Mvula is looking forward to Cork Jazz Festival

Laura Mvula tells Ed Power how she’s looking forward to her jazz festival appearance in Cork at the weekend

ALL her life Mercury- nominated singer Laura Mvula has had to fight the world’s perception of who she is and what she should be doing with her life.

As a young black woman growing up in Birmingham she learned early on people wanted to put her in a box and keep her there. When she signed her record deal and became a feted pop star, her music breathlessly likened to everyone from Adele to Bjork, the sense of being caged by strangers’ exceptions was heightened further.

“When you’re young black and female you’re going to learn pretty quickly that society in the Western world looks on you in a specific way. You have to figure out very rapidly how you can navigate through that. Music was my saving grace.”

Talk to any female artist and sooner or later they will point to the contrast in how men and women are regarded in the industry. A man standing up for what he believes is perceived as committed to his art — a rebel sticking it to the corporate industry complex. A woman in the same position is often put down as wilful, a troublemaker.

“I’ve learned that the business of music and the music business are two different things,” says Mvula. “I’m becoming less and less afraid of speaking out — expressing myself.”

Mvula (32) comes to Leeside this weekend to headline the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. She’s always enjoyed bringing her exhilarating fusion of jazz, pop and contemporary music to Ireland — but Saturday night’s gig will hold extra significance. It will be one of her first shows since signing a record deal with Atlantic — thus ending a period of limbo since she was dropped by her previous label, Sony.

To have Sony show her the door two years ago was, needless to say, a wrench. In 2012 she had been plucked from her obscure former life as a receptionist at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and nominated for the BBC’s Sound of 2013 Poll (finishing third behind Haim and Chvrches).

That same year, she received a Brits Critics Choice nomination. Six month later, her debut, Sing To The Moon, was up for the Mercury Award for the year’s best album. She ultimately lost out to James Blake — but this seemed beside the point. One of the most intriguing new voices in British pop — equally comfortable singing with an experimental choir or accompanied by acoustic guitar — had announced herself.

But things went off the tracks thereafter. Sing To The Moon combined her love of jazz, r’n’b and classical orchestration and though an astonishing creative accomplishment sales fell short of expectations. It peaked at nine in the UK charts, number 15 in Ireland and 173 in the US.

Three years later, the follow-up, The Dreaming Room, fared even worse, at 21 in the UK and 23 in Ireland. Again the reviews were ecstatic and she scored a coup having Chic’s Nile Rodgers guest on the track ‘Overcome’. Still, Sony wasn’t swayed and Mvula was in the wilderness.

She was struggling through personal issues too. The intense touring and the pressure to be always “on” took a toll. She had spells of anxiety and was diagnosed with monophobia — a fear of being alone. Her personal life took a hit — in 2015 she became divorced.

“I’ve been through two years of solitude,” she reflects. “I wasn’t in control. It was traumatic. It sucks to be in a period of limbo. People I trusted deserted me.”

One thing she held on to was the fact that her music is cherished by artists she respected. This included not just Nile Rodgers but also Prince, a prominent champion of Mvula. The depth of his respect was made clear at the 2014 Brit Awards, where the Purple icon was invited to deliver the best female solo artist award.

He had expected Mvula to win. However when he opened the envelope, it was Ellie Goulding’s name that was there instead. Prince refused to read it aloud and had his 3rd Eye Girl backing band do so instead. Mvula was devastated when he passed on two years later.

“I was thinking about him yesterday, ‘ she says. “He championed a lot of black, liberated women women.”

Mvula is looking towards her next LP and will play just a handful of concerts this year. She says she was honoured to be asked to perform in Cork — it will be an opportunity not only to connect with her fans but also with her bandmates.

“I haven’t see the lads for a while. I’ve been writing — everybody has been doing their own thing. It’s an interesting moment for me to to doing shows. It’s going to be a good time.”

Laura Mvula plays at Cork City Hall on Saturday.

Trail of Cheers: Selected Jazz Festival highlights

Billy Childs is at the Everyman tomorrow.
Billy Childs is at the Everyman tomorrow.

Billy Childs All-Star Quartet, Everyman, Friday

One of the world’s most acclaimed jazz pianists, LA-based Childs is known for his smooth yet bristling style — accessible to newcomers yet intricate and challenging with it.

Hypnotic Brass EnsembleCork Opera House, Friday

Barack Obama is a fan of the Chicago seven-piece whose joyous sound encapsulates soul, funk and blues. Jazz literally flows through their veins — all seven musicians are the sons of trumpeter Phil Cohran.

Blind Boys of Alabama, Cork City Hall, Friday

Just as it says on the tin, the harmony ensemble was formed by enrollees at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega, Alabama. They first sang together as nine-year-olds in 1939. Individual members have since come and gone — but they remain one of the most singular presences in vocal performance.

ECM Weekend, Triskel

The wondrous Argentinian musician Dino Saluzzi, and Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen are among the big-hitters in three days of music from the legendary European label.

Brian Deady, Cork Opera House, Saturday

A hometown show for the soul man whose latest album was recorded during a spell of self-imposed isolation in southern Spain yet which trembles with a zest for living.

Donny McCaslin Group, Everyman, Sunday

McCaslin was well regarded in experimental jazz circles but reached an entirely new audience when David Bowie had him and his musicians back him on his haunting final album, Blackstar.

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