Laura Mvula on resisting the pressure to make new music and on getting an Emmy
With two Mercury nominations to her name, Laura Mvula is an artistic force to be reckoned with. She talks to Joe Nerssessian about the advice Prince once gave her, how she's dealing with her anxiety, and the Windrush scandal
AS SO many musicians can attest to, the industry doesn't always value those with the most artistic credibility. Laura Mvula found that to be the case in January 2017 when she discovered in a seven-line email that she had been dropped by Sony
Just months later, the softly-spoken former supply teacher scooped an Ivor Novello award for best album and dismissed the disappointment she had initially felt by the record label's rejection.
It's been 12 months since then and I note the time frame to her.
"I can't believe it's been a year – that's f***ing crazy," she replies. "What have I been doing with my life?"
Funnily enough, that's not a bad question. The truth is, she says, it has been a long period of introspection in which she has been trying to remember how to be alive. She also acquired a dog – a Yorkipoo called Emmy.
"She's adorable and a moron at the same time," Mvula laughs. "I don't know how something so small can cause so much chaos."
The singer has spoken before about her anxiety and it is of course an ongoing struggle. Getting Emmy was a way of her focusing energy into caring for something else, she says.
"I want to build an individual lifestyle rather than just existing to write music like a factory," she adds.
As well as a dog, she's planning to learn how to drive and has become a self-described fitness freak.
Exercising started as a way to correct her lack of discipline. "I think people misunderstand that about me," she says. "With the music, must have come extreme discipline. I've been an obsessive personality but I've never been good at seeing things through."
Her words, dressed in a Birmingham drawl, come slowly. The pace could be mistaken for nervousness, or an attempt to guard herself. But what becomes clear during a lengthy conversation is more a desire to consider – and be considered.
The daughter of parents of Caribbean origin (her mother from St Kitts, her father Jamaica), Mvula was simultaneously shocked but not surprised by the recent Windrush scandal.
"It's the climate isn't it?" she says. "This stuff is everywhere now. Weirdly, I feel a sense of relief. When ideologies and prejudices and straight-up racism are exposed for what they are, it's a better place to work from."
It also made the 32-year-old question her place in Britain – although not for the first time.
"I've always questioned it since I was a kid," she continues. "The first time we went to the Caribbean I never understood why my grandmother's generation took off and came here in the first place."
Mvula is funny and self-deprecating. She says she treats the festival season exactly how she treated the wedding season when she was an amateur musician.
"Make of that what you will," she says.
When discussing her forthcoming support tour with David Byrne, she describes the former Talking Heads lead singer as "a force, but not a force I'm familiar with".
That honesty is what attracted Prince to Mvula. He often championed her work and it is said he would listen to her music before going on stage. Nile Rodgers (with whom she collaborated on her sophomore album, The Dreaming Room) is another fan.
It's unsurprising then when she reveals there is plenty of interest from big labels, but for the moment she remains "free".
"It's very flattering. Apparently people think I'm some sort of thing... it's nice. I'm getting reminders from my manager about meetings. But I keep thinking about Prince and what he said. He was really candid with me about owning my own s**t and doing it myself and being emancipated.
"I'm not sure what I think and feel about it because, at the end of the day, if someone's got a pot of money and that's gonna help me make a record, and the pot of money doesn't come with a billion strings attached, it's probably that simple to me."
She is asked about potential new music daily, she says.
"I'm having to find ways to silence it. Otherwise I'd go a bit loopy. Like, 'F**k, what am I doing? I need to write some music."
But she is working on something – which, she teases, is a "collaborative effort".
The collaboration part is a process she's finding difficult because she's so used to working alone.
"I'm still very much going to be the captain of the ship but there's going to be quite a few fingers in the pot," she says, mixing her metaphors before pausing. "Even saying it makes me feel a little bit sick because it's a risk but I think it's a necessary one."