“I’ve heard that I’m ‘frowned upon’ in the music industry”

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“It’s like this: imagine if I dated an amateur boxer for ages,” Laura Mvula says a few minutes in our Zoom interview. And then I was like, ‘I’m never going to date a boxer again – they’re assholes. “But then Anthony Joshua comes in and invites me out. It was exactly like that! I was like, ‘Hmm – OK, let me check my schedule then…’”

According to Mvula, this playful analogy sums up why she signed with Atlantic Records in October 2018 – less than two years after another major label, Sony, bluntly abandoned her. She could have chosen to release her next album herself, but Atlantic convinced her with a simple sales pitch: “You are a good artist who writes great music. It’s just a matter of helping people see it.

Fast forward to July 2021 and it’s clear she made the right decision. Mvula’s new album, “Pink Noise,” is a triumphant reinvention that streamlines her many vocal, songwriting and production gifts into a brilliant ’80s-inspired ensemble. The wacky single “Got Me,” channeled by Michael Jackson, deserves to be one of the biggest hits of the summer – so let’s hope Island of loveMusic programmers pay attention to this.

Elsewhere, she duets with Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil on ‘What Matters’ – a sweet ballad that could be taken from a John Hughes movie – and mixes Prince with vintage Whitney Houston on the cathartic dance-pop banger ‘Church Girl’ . Some lush vocal arrangements provide a cross-sectional line to Mvula’s more subdued previous albums, her 2013 debut “Sing to the Moon” and the 2016 follow-up “The Dreaming Room,” but she has never sounded as dynamic as on the album. album three. “’Pink Noise’ is the party version of me,” says Mvula, “but of course there are dark corners too, because it’s always me. “

Mvula’s renewed energy also lights up our hour-long Zoom interview. Occupying a quiet corner of the hip east London members’ club, Shoreditch House, she is a warm and caring presence who is happy to discuss everything from her release from Sony to her passion for the British girl group under- esteemed Eternal. Although the R&B quartet racked up 12 Top 10 singles during their ’90s heyday, their impact was quickly eclipsed by that of the Spice Girls. Still, they clearly left a lasting impression on Mvula, who was a seven-year-old who grew up in South Birmingham when they emerged in 1993.

“They were absolutely amazing singers, but at that age I wasn’t necessarily recording their voices,” says Mvula. “It was more than I knew something amazing was going on. They were doing [the girl-group thing] with long braids up to the buttocks, massive baggy jeans and CAT boots. And there were three black girls and a white girl – it’s the opposite of my existence! But we still love Louise [Redknapp, formerly Nurding]- Oh my God.”

Mvula says a minor aside in an Eternal video from the time – Louise saying “we’re continuing now!” Before the band took the stage – was really formative for her. “I swear to God, I remember recording that moment like, ‘This is what I want to do – I need it in my life,’” she says. “And I swear to God – you might not believe me – but I’ve never had the confidence to tell anyone before.”

Mvula’s enthusiasm is heartwarming after the few years of blue she went through professionally. Her recording career began brilliantly in 2013 when ‘Sing to the Moon’, an elegant blend of soul and orchestral pop, went gold and earned her a Mercury Prize nomination. During this period she was invariably described as “classically trained” because she had taken piano and violin lessons at school, then graduated from the Royal Birmingham Conservatory with a degree in composition.

She has since declared that she felt “trapped” by the label and is now happy to say that she “separated” from it. “I can’t think of myself as classic training because that’s bullshit, man,” she said firmly. “I took the piano up to the level of the eighth grade and the violin up to the seventh grade. [because] I was too shit to play. I think it became this weird form of institutional racism where it was like, ‘Oh my God, the nigger is playing the violin.’ “

Looking back, you can perhaps hear Mvula resent that notion with 2016’s “The Dreaming Room,” on which she broadened her sound to include more upbeat disco and funk elements. Classy legend Nile Rodgers co-wrote and performed on this album’s single “Overcome”, while Wretch 32 added a rap to his reflective “People”. Although “The Dreaming Room” was critically acclaimed and another Mercury Prize nomination, it did not sell as well as its predecessor. In January 2017, just six months after its release, Mvula tweeted that she had been ditched by Sony. She later revealed that she received the news in a forwarded seven-line email.

Today, Mvula believes she is still paying the price for speaking candidly about what happened. “I’ve heard that I’m ‘frowned upon’ in the industry,” she says. “Someone told me the other day that when I ‘exposed’ Sony for letting me down; it was not considered good form. While none of us can know for sure what is being said on the boards of record companies, it remains rare for an artist to challenge the guardians of the industry in this way. Last week, ferociously talented singer-songwriter Raye sent shockwaves through British music by tweeting that her record company, Polydor, is essentially preventing her from releasing her debut album.

All the accusations of “bad form” leveled against Mvula seem particularly unfair because she refuses to blame Sony too much. “You know, I’m happy to say I’m going to put it on me,” she said. “I put the blame on myself because I think this whole period was pretty much [me] to be a kid in a very, very mature industry. I just didn’t get involved in things that I should have.

Mvula admits she hasn’t been ‘big’ or ‘learned’ enough to realize that she could shape the direction of her album’s release, especially as social media has become more important. “Maybe when I was a little younger I would have been really dismissive [of getting involved in that], “she said.” Like, I do the music in the studio, I deliver the album, and then it’s done and I go on the road. That was my mindset back then.

Now Mvula knows that every aspect of an album release should reflect her original vision. “You could put the heaviest formula on something, but people just want to hear from you and know what you’re doing,” she says. “In the past, I’ve been to places where I thought I had to complicate it just to take a look or get my foot in the door. And then, I’m still humbled that it’s only when I’m completely myself that something takes off.

Still, being more practical must add to her workload – a challenge for an artist who has suffered from acute anxiety and debilitating panic attacks. In 2017, she directed a moving radio documentary, Laura Mvula: Anxiety Generation, for BBC Radio Four, exploring why the disease is particularly prevalent in those under 35.

Today, she says having a new management team that fully understands her really helps. “If I say ‘I don’t want to do this’ or ‘Can we do this differently next time?’ I don’t have to worry about filling the stereotype of the ‘scary black woman’ who, as soon as I ‘she says something with a certain degree of confidence, she is called a’ threatening ‘or a’ diva ‘, she says. “I can speak freely and I feel like everyone has the common desire to make this thing go as far as possible. “

“I no longer have to worry about materializing the stereotype of ‘the scary black woman'”

Still, artists are often complicated creatures, and Mvula says that in directing “Pink Noise” she actually thrived on the initial indifference of her co-producer Dann Hume, who worked with Wiz Khalifa and Troye Sivan. Because he “didn’t seem to care” about working with her, she almost felt like she had to “woo him.” Prior to bonding with Hume, a member of alternative rock band Evermore, Mvula spent 18 months participating in songwriting sessions with various producers she had never worked with before. It was a new experience for an artist who considers herself “very self-sufficient” – and who she says she enjoyed – but an album concept stubbornly refused to emerge.

“I was so overwhelmed that I remember asking my manager, ‘What’s the protocol if I can’t deliver? [the album] and have to break the contract? ‘ She admits.

The breakthrough came when she and Hume began working on “Safe Passage,” a scintillating mid-tempo track from the album that begins with booming Phil Collins-style drums. “I remember leaving the session and thinking, ‘This is it, this is the album,’” she says. Mvula had already made the “skeleton” for the song at home, but Hume helped her raise it. “I think it’s difficult for a producer to work with me because I also produce,” she says. “It’s about taking something that’s already there and making it shine even more. And I think it’s harder than giving to a producer [a demo with] a voice and a guitar and saying, “Create a musical world for me.”

Because she clearly understands how another artist works, Mvula refused to direct Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil too much when they recorded “What Matters”. “Everyone on the label was like, ‘You should tell him exactly what you want him to do’, but I was like ‘No’,” she recalls. Instead, Mvula says she just texted Neil with the message, “I feel like you’ll know what to do with it.” When she picked up the track a week later with Neil’s vocal part added, Mvula’s instant reaction was, “Oh my God, this is amazing!” So I mixed it up and it was done – just like that, ”she says. “The whole process was basic and organic.”

Credit: Danny Kasirye

At this point, we’ve been talking for so long that Mvula is being asked to leave her place. “I’ll get up and go,” she promises, “but I keep looking because I’m at Shoreditch House in the library and have played here once before. I remember this concert very well because it’s such an intimate space, and I want to find that feeling with ‘Pink Noise’.

This time, however, Mvula thinks it would be quite different. “People would kind of moan about my previous albums because they were made to make you feel very deeply,” she says. “But ‘Pink Noise’ is cowardly – real loose. “She smiles enthusiastically.” You know, I can’t wait to see people let off steam in these joints. “


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