Musician Laura Mvula has overcome racism, divorce and panic attacks to become one of the UK’s most intriguing artists. Mvula talks about her new album, mourning her mentor Prince and the politics of black beauty
You know a person is alright when the first thing they request, after a long day of shooting, is a curry and a glass of red wine. Starving or not, Laura Mvula is too polite to eat, drink and be interviewed at the same time, so the curry and quarter bottle of wine remain untouched, despite all entreaties that she tuck in.
It takes a strong woman to resist the aromatic temptations of booze and balti, but Mvula, 30, is
as strong as they come. Which might be a strange assertion, given that she recently admitted to suffering crippling panic attacks and wears her self-doubt on her sleeve. But, it takes more strength to admit your fears and master them than it does to pretend your life is a bed of roses.
Convention would dictate that I kick off by asking the Mobo-winning, Brit- and Mercury- nominated Mvula (whose voice has been compared to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone) about herself. But, Prince died shortly before we meet and, as she knew him – they met at a festival in Stockholm three years ago – talk turns to Prince. ‘He was one of the biggest champions of my work,’ she says, welling up but smiling. ‘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. And I just remember he smelt so divine, that’s the thing.’
‘WHAT DID HE SMELL OF? WHAT?’ I almost scream, yet another Number One Fan in the litany of Number One Fans left depressed by his passing. ‘I can’t describe it! Kind of like vanilla, kind of like heaven,’ she says.
It seemed very much as though what you saw with Prince was what you got, I suggest, with no bullshit.‘Yes, that’s it – there’s no bullshit. And that’s rare. In our culture, we’re encouraged to… We like the fantasy. We’re obsessed with what’s not real, so sometimes it’s easier for people to play
up to things. He did not, ever. And he was fearless. I realise more and more that fearlessness is probably one of the most important things. If you’re going to succeed in the truest sense of the word, and let your music have as far a reach as possible without diluting it, without compromising, you have to be fearless. And that’s hard as hell.’
She recalls the 2014 Brit Awards – she had been nominated and Prince was presenting, but she didn’t win – and him inviting her to an after-party. ‘Well, by “party” I mean ten people,’ she qualifies. ‘He sat down and he just said, “How do you feel?” And I was like, “You know what? I’m disappointed that I’m disappointed.” And he said, “I understand.” He laughed, and I thought, “Oh my, I made Prince laugh!” And he talked with me for forty minutes about how he’d tirelessly worked
to create and own his music. He was the most relaxed, angelic presence. It’s not a façade; his coolness is genuine. To the core,’ she says, slipping into the present tense.
Mvula recalls that she and her friend, singer Lianne La Havas, ‘were down, because we both felt like, “Why aren’t we the cool kids in the charts? And then we realised … we’re the ones at Prince’s party! We might not have got the Brit, but we are here!” ’
Mvula was brought up with two siblings in a musical, church-going household in a suburb of Birmingham. At 18, she enrolled at the Birmingham Conservatoire to study composition, promptly meeting and falling in love with Themba Mvula, a fellow student. They married when she was 23, but divorced last year. She doesn’t want to talk about the divorce, but speaks of him kindly, saying that he’s always been supportive. Her new album The Dreaming Room is clearly a kind of catharsis, both melancholic and uplifting. She says it was harder to complete than her debut album, the bewitching Sing to the Moon. ‘First time around, there were fewer elements, fewer musicians … a case of ignorance is bliss. This time around it was an uphill, glorious struggle. Maybe I feel closer to it for that reason.’
In ‘People’, she sings, ‘Her skin was a terrible thing to live in.’ I ask about a possible double meaning here. ‘Yes, definitely. When I sing that line, I always think about the literal experience I had when I was young, where kids in infant school wouldn’t hold my hand. You know when they line up the kids and say, “Get a partner, hold hands”? They would say, “No, I’m not holding her hand because I’m scared the brown’s going to rub off.” At that point in my life, being a five- or six-year-old, being taught subconsciously that there’s something not quite right with my skin led me on a very difficult and distorted path in terms of my identity, self-worth and self-esteem. There have been a lot of obstacles. And, of course, weare talking about this [subject] a lot now. Everybody’s talking about the Beyoncé video, which I haven’t even seen. But, I feel glad that at least there is a dialogue now. As people, we need to face things, and not live in denial.’
Looking at Mvula, it’s hard to reconcile the successful, super-intelligent woman with the bleached blonde buzz-cut hair (she cut off her Afro six years ago after being inspired by her shorn-headed
cousin) with the kid nobody wanted to hold hands with. No child is born racist: that any five-year-old should acquire such abhorrent prejudice comes courtesy of the adults who surround it. We talk about role models, and the paucity of black women in film and fashion magazines. ‘I think it’s abominable,’ she says. ‘I spoke out about the Brit Awards, too.’ [Mvula didn’t attend this year’s awards, telling Andrew Marr in February that ‘The problem for me is knowing there are young black kids growing up feeling that they’re not acknowledged in society, in media and in mainstream music.’]
She says that, since turning 30, she’s been thinking about black identity more and more. ‘It’s like when black women come up to me and go, “Sister, your natural hair, man, I love that, it’s amazing. And I’m like, “It’s just my natural hair – why is that revolutionary in 2016?” There’s a huge alarm bell there. We have so far to go. It’s a difficult one. Where, on the one hand, someone says, “Oh, you’re so unique, Laura – I love what you do because you’re so unique,” I want to be like, “Thank you, that makes me feel great.” But, in another sense, I think, “What you think is unique about me isn’t that unique.” If we were really to assess the creative potential – say, in schools – of how kids can make music, you’d find all kinds of incredible talent and I don’t mean someone who is singing a Rihanna song down a microphone. I mean things that we probably aren’t able to imagine because that’s the point –that’s what creativity is. But, we just don’t – we only shed light on one thing.’
What’s the one thing? ‘The one thing is beige. And I don’t just mean that literally – I mean metaphorically. We live in the Donald Trump times of music and in the entertainment industry, we create McDonald’s produce. We’re kind of a bit lost. It scares me.’
She partnered with beauty brand Kiehl’s as part of her role as an ambassador for MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation (which funds HIV education campaigns in Ghana, Rwanda and India). She is designing a label for a limited-edition version of its Ultra Facial Cream, which will go on sale soon. I ask whether she has ever had to experience any pressure to change her appearance? ‘Not directly. I’m sure lots of people have asked questions, but nobody has had the balls to say it to my face. The thing about being me and my musical brand, or whatever you want to call it, is that it’s great because what I’m doing has put me in my own lane. But, the hard thing is that it’s very difficult for the people around it to go, “What should we be doing with it?” Because there’s no formula.’
Whether because of the mention of McDonald’s (most probably not) or some other reason, Mvula remembers her curry, quickly sharing details of her favourite Indian restaurant (Dishoom) and drinking den (Shoreditch House – she recently moved to Shoreditch) before going off to her next meeting, curry and red wine in tow. I hope she got a chance to have them. She deserves to enjoy them. She deserves to enjoy everything.