Laura Mvula: I don’t want to just exist to write music like a factory
With two Mercury nominations to her name, Laura Mvula talks to Joe Nerssessian about the advice a superstar fan once gave her and how she's dealing with anxiety
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 .
Months later, the softly spoken former supply teacher scooped an Ivor Novello award for best album and dismissed the disappointment she had felt after the record label's rejection.
It's been 12 months since then and I note the timeframe to her.
"I can't believe it's been a year, that's f****** crazy," she says. "What have I been doing with my life?"
Funnily enough, that's not a bad question. The truth, she says, is that 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 says. "I don't know how something so small can cause so much chaos."
The singer has spoken previously about her anxiety and how it is an ongoing struggle. Getting Emmy was a way of her focusing energy into caring for something else.
"I want to build an individual lifestyle rather than just existing to write music like a factory," Mvula says.
As well as a dog, she's planning to learn how to drive, an admission she accompanies with a guilt-ridden "I know", 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 two 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."
As well as considered, Mvula is funny and self-deprecating. She refuses to take herself too seriously and howls that she sounds like an "arrogant a***hole" after admitting treating a performance at the Queen's Birthday in April the same as any other event. "I've got a bit of a default setting now," she says.
Mvula's giggling again a few minutes later when saying 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.
It's refreshing to speak to a musician who does not feel the need to lace their words with superlatives, and there is an air of truth surrounding Mvula.
Later, 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*** 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's asked about potential new music between three and five times a day, she says.
"I'm having to find ways to silence it. Otherwise I'd go a bit loopy. Like, 'f***, what am I doing? I need to write some music and it needs to be Sing To The Moon and The Dreaming Room', which isn't really where I want to write from."
But she is working on something - which she teases as 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."
Laura Mvula performs at Harrogate International Festivals on Friday July 27 at the Royal Hall, Harrogate