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'It was so special and surreal when Nile Rodgers called... I was speechless'

Published 24/06/2016

Star billing: Laura Mvula will be playing the Pyramid stage this weekend at Glastonbury
Star billing: Laura Mvula will be playing the Pyramid stage this weekend at Glastonbury
Supporting cast: Nile Rodgers has backed Laura
Supporting cast: Prince has backed Laura
New sound: Laura’s latest album is in contrast to her debut

Her Sing To The Moon debut met with wide acclaim, and Laura Mvula has the stars in her grasp with an even stronger follow-up. Ahead of her Glastonbury appearance on Sunday, she tells Andy Welch about making The Dreaming Room, and how she managed to rope in a few legends to help.

Laura Mvula is walking through London's Soho. Not that she's getting anywhere fast - every few feet she's stopped by someone telling her how much they love her music, and most of those yelling, 'Love your new record', across the street, or stopping her to really articulate what they think, are also musicians themselves.

Not that she's without 'regular' fans - her 2013 debut Sing To The Moon went to No 9 on the UK album chart and sold almost 100,000 copies - but musicians seem to absolutely love her.

Of course, being stopped in the street is better than the opposite: people saying they don't like her songs.

"That did actually happen once," says the Birmingham-born 30-year-old, with a characteristic cackle. "I was in a taxi and (her hit single) Green Garden came on the radio. The taxi driver turned it over, looked in the rear view mirror and said, 'That's a pile of s**t, isn't it?'. I had to say, 'That's me', and he didn't believe me, he thought I was pulling his leg. But in fairness to him, what are the chances of that happening to you?"

Mvula, it's fair to say, is a 'musician's musician'.

And with Glastonbury's famous Pyramid stage beckoning on Sunday at 2.30pm, Mvula is in good company this year with Adele, Ellie Goulding, Cyndi Lauper and Wolf Alice appearing at the festival.

But she has described the music industry as 'sexist', adding that Glastonbury is late to the party when it comes to giving air-time to female artists. She said it is 'sad and surprising' that Florence Welch was the first female headliner there this century in 2015.

The same uncompromising attitude is apparent in her music. Few records sound like the jazz, gospel and R&B-heavy Sing To The Moon, and it's impressive she managed to release it without intervention from a record label telling her to change something or water it down. Maybe it's just the sheer quality, and sumptuousness of her songs?

It's a fact that also came to light when making her second album, The Dreaming Room. Mvula says she discovered a latent fan base of musicians in the US; although her debut wasn't a huge commercial success over there, the respect the album earned garnered a very particular set of fans - which meant she could shoot for the stars when it came to looking for collaborators.

John Scofield, for one - the guitarist and composer best known for playing with Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Herbie Hancock, among other legendary jazz musicians - plays on The Dreaming Room, while Nile Rodgers is another big name, lending his signature funk to Overcome.

"It was so special, and surreal," Mvula recalls. "I'm a sucker for documentaries about musicians, and I used to think when you heard people saying, 'I got a call from...', they were just saying it to sound cool. But it was true. Nile actually picked up the phone and called me. 'Hi Laura, it's Nile Rodgers here...' I was speechless."

After some initial diary clashes, they worked things out, even if it did mean Rodgers calling at 3am to go through ideas he'd been working on in his studio.

"The first idea he had, he rang and sounded like a child, he was so excited. He played it down the phone but it was all so distorted I couldn't hear it. I didn't want to dampen the enthusiasm so I just said it sounded great."

She says the biggest worry was how she might ask someone of Rodgers' stature to rewrite what he'd done if she didn't like it, but fortunately, he was a dream to work with.

"Nile was so responsive. It blew me away how into the project he was, there was no ego, he just said, 'Whatever you need'. We worked together, we laughed a lot and we got it done. It was the most pleasurable experience."

Prince was another musical ally, and, having supported Mvula's career from day one, she was in regular contact with him about her music until his death earlier this year - something she says she still hasn't quite processed.

Both lyrically and musically, The Dreaming Room is bolder and more concise than Mvula's intricate, delicate debut. It's no accident.

"I'd already decided to make more noise on the record, and I was conscious of a problem I felt when we were touring Sing To The Moon. We needed lots of instruments to make it work, and when we were doing festival stages, I would worry that the thing wasn't carrying, or that people would miss the intricacies of it all.

"This album has been designed to be heard, and I did that with the lyrics, too."

On Phenomenal Woman, she's as direct as she's ever been with a message of empowerment. "I'm not dumbing it down either, I wanted to make something direct and more digestible. It's the difference between eating a messy burrito and a nice compact panini," she says, perhaps thinking about lunch. "It's just better and easier."

People, which sees Wretch 32 make a guest appearance, is about the West's treatment of black people, based around racism directed at Mvula when she was a child. "Our skin was a terrible thing to live in", she sings, inspired directly by the primary school experience of another child not wanting to hold Mvula's hand because they were "scared the brown was going to rub off on me".

In between making her two albums, Mvula released a live version of Sing To The Moon recorded with the Metropole Orkest at Abbey Road.

It featured even more heavily orchestrated versions of the songs, and was "a dream" to make, even if it did cause everyone, even herself, to think that was her future; singing with orchestras.

It's interesting the album she's actually produced as a follow-up is far away from that.

"Subconsciously I avoided it, maybe I got something out of my system and worked out that I needed to try something else," she says. "I'm not very good at being told what to do, and after, the atmosphere was, 'There's Laura, the girl that does classical', but that's not me, and creativity is limitless.

"I do feel the responsibility to be more than I could possibly dream of, to push myself, to go somewhere else, and reach."

She talks with boundless enthusiasm, and actually says she might be too excited about her career.

"I never thought I could do something and feel this proud and happy about my music. I can be quite loud, and I am aware that I have a lot of energy and people look at me as if to say, 'Chill out love'. I've never had anyone tell me to calm down but I know they're thinking it, I'm chattering away and they want me to shut up.

"I've been like that since I was a kid. I've always wanted to wear weird clothes, and changing my environment is another thing.

"Only the other day my housemate heard a big noise and walked into my room to find me dragging my furniture around, moving the bed and wardrobe.

"I love to rearrange things, no matter if it's big or small," says Mvula. "I just can't stand still."

  • Laura Mvula's second album The Dreaming Room is out now. She performs at Glastonbury Festival on Sunday; London's Somerset House on July 10, and at festivals across the UK throughout summer. See www.lauramvula.com

Belfast Telegraph

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