In her native Britain, Laura Mvula is a bona fide star. In the United States, she’s the kind of secret discovery that fans love. Her 2013 debut, Sing to the Moon, was the kind of left-field wonder that landed on albums-you-might-have-missed lists, and made writers scramble to describe blend of nearly every genre imaginable, from classical and cabaret jazz to gospel and soul. Her new album, The Dreaming Room, seeks to fulfill that promise with the kind of hook-filled anthems that are impossible to overlook, including the feminist celebration “Phenomenal Woman.” Here’s 10 reasons why Laura Mvula is utterly unique.
1. Mvula sounds like no one else. Her music encompasses the kind of big, brassy movie soundtrack music popular in the ’50s and ’60s, the orchestral downtempo of bands such as the Cinematic Orchestra, the radiant, soul-inflected pop balladry akin to British singers like Estelle and Emeli Sandé, and bright choral harmonies inspired by her experience performing in gospel choirs and studying at the Birmingham Conservoire, where she earned a degree in music composition. It’s an intoxicating sound that is a bit hard to explain, as she’ll freely admit.
“I think it has to do with the way my imagination works. I’m not persistent enough as a player in any style of music, or even as a listener, to then try and regurgitate the same material that I hear. I’m always having to rely on entirely new expressions in myself when it comes to writing music,” she says.
“I grew up playing with my family –- they’re all musicians –- I was the one that was called upon to make arrangements and write music,” she adds. “I grew up with this kind of appetite, wanting to create something that I want to hear myself, that excites me, that makes me feel like, ‘I don’t know what that is.’ That’s the kind of stuff that’s important to me in music.”
2. One of her inspirations is the iconic Nina Simone. You can hear the resemblance in Mvula’s vocal intonations to the classically trained pianist, composer and activist who freely blurred jazz, soul, blues, and radio pop. Last year, she paid homage by narrating an excellent BBC documentary, Nina Simone & Me.
3. Sing to the Moon is a modern soul-pop classic. In the U.K., it was a sensation, earning a gold certification, a nomination for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, and a Top 40 hit with “Green Garden,” a shimmering slice of musical happiness, handclaps, and Mvula’s honeyed, buoyant voice.
4. Prince loved to wake up to the sound of “Green Garden.” He mentored her, and she performed as an opening act at many of his European concerts. “He was one of the biggest champions of my work,” she told the Evening Standard after the funk legend tragically died in April. “He spent time putting my name out –- I can’t tell you the amount of times I’d go places in the world and people would say, ‘I know your music because of Prince.’ There was no one like him.”
5. The Dreaming Room, Mvula’s new album, is made to be played live –- and loud. It’s an imaginative solution to a technical problem: what sounds best in a concert setting? When she toured with a small string section after the album’s release, she encountered trouble with recreating its ornate arrangements at nightclubs, theaters and open-air festivals. “This time, I needed to create an album where I knew we would be able to achieve something similar live,” she says. As a result, The Dreaming Room is more modern than its predecessor, from the synthesized elegy to her broken marriage on “Show Me Love,” to a pairing with grime rapper Wretch 32 on “People.”
6. “Overcome” features disco-funk pioneer Nile Rodgers. “We engaged in a dialogue about having a mutual hunger to write music that excites and has a balance when it comes to more complex content as well as conveying a simple message,” she says. That dichotomy is reflected in the song’s theme of spiritual perseverance. “Round the mountain all God’s children run,” she sings over Rodgers’ patented scratchy guitar hook, a sound that’s powered hits for fives decades, including Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”
7. Mvula is more than just a singer. She wrote the arrangements on The Dreaming Room with Troy Miller, a producer and composer whose credits include John Newman and Gregory Porter. “We developed a kind of relationship where we understand each other really deeply when it comes to creating a certain sound,” she says. “Everything starts with the piano for me, because that’s how I’m able to sound out my ideas.”
8. “Phenomenal Woman” honors women’s resilience. Inspired by a Maya Angelou poem, it kicks off with defiant, purposeful drums and a bass strum that pulses like a heartbeat, before breaking into a triumphant New Wave melody. “Oh my my! Oh my, she flies!” sings Mvula gaily. “You are a phenomenal woman!”
9. Mvula’s songs are like rays of sunshine. Yet underneath, they’re emotionally turbulent. Part of what makes Mvula so engaging is how her music is therapeutic. It helps her recover from the traumas in her life, whether it’s her ongoing struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, or the painful divorce that inspired much of the lyrics for The Dreaming Room. Discussing album highlight “Angel” she says, “The song is supposed to be hopeful. It’s supposed to be a journey that starts in this more difficult place because I’m talking about my failed marriage, and I’m pleading to my ex-husband, is there hope beyond this, beyond the finality of the end of this marriage? What is the meaning of what we have now? For me, to find a musical expression of that was the most joy.”
Mvula adds that her writing approach is influenced by a youth spent singing in gospel choirs. “There’s a lot of lament in church songs,” she says. “It makes sense for me to surround those sentiments with joyous music. That seems to be what nourishes me. I like to feel healed by music when I listen to it.”
10. With its mix of contemporary elements and classical tones, The Dreaming Room is a leap forward for Laura Mvula. “I use my voice differently on the record. It’s a harder sound. Some of the vocal arrangements are more intricate,” she says. “I knew I wanted it to be a progression. I love symphonies, I love string arrangements, I love jazz… I knew all of those things were going to be a part of The Dreaming Room.
“It’s another expression of Sing to the Moon. Or maybe it’s just my own language. Maybe I’m making my own palette, if that makes any sense.”
However you define it, it doesn’t sound like anyone else.