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Birmingham singer-songwriter Laura Mvula on her rise to fame

Birmingham singer-songwriter Laura Mvula talks to Alison Jones about her rapid rise to fame.

Thomas Oxley photography
Laura Mvula has been nominated in the 2013 Mercury Music Prize

When Laura Mvula was writing She it was a rainy day in Birmingham and she was keen to see what she could conjure up in her little makeshift studio.

“All I knew that emotionally I wanted to create a soundscape that started from nothing and ended up in a different place entirely. I wanted to see what sound I could create with layering up my voice.”

The results of her experiments on her laptop in her down time after she finished her day job has helped take her to New York’s Rockerfeller Plaza where she sang She for an audience of 4.5 million viewers.

It has been less than a year since Laura was being hailed as “the voice of 2013” and the singer-songwriter who grew up in Selly Oak and Kings Heath has been more than living up to her promise.

She has been wracking up the frequent flyer miles performing across Europe and America.

She has performed on the main stage at Glastonbury, supported Prince, had a top 10 debut album with Sing to The Moon, been named as one of Britain’s Leading Ladies in a campaign by Marks and Spencer and earned four Mobo award nominations.

Now Sing To The Moon, which was hailed as “a masterpiece” by one national newspaper, has been short-listed for the Barclaycard Mercury Prize.

The 27-year-old, who is speaking from an ITV studio where she is about to record for This Morning, admits she is still reeling over how rapidly her life has changed in the course of a year.

“When I first started writing the music that eventually became the singles and the album, it wasn’t a purposeful planned route. I was kind of casually writing in my apartment, doing it because I had a burst of energy and I was excited to use whatever tools were around me.

“I was open to that being working with local musicians or writing for a cappella groups (her aunt Carol Pemberton set up the renowned a capella group Black Voices that Laura used to sing with).

“Whatever guise it was going to take I became excited. So it was a surprise that it came in album form and then got the attention of Steve Brown who produced it.”

The album and first single, Green Gardens – inspired by the lush green gardens of her old family home in King Heath – have been embraced by music critics and an appreciative general pubic alike.

The former composition student at Birmingham Conservatoire had already given up her jobs as a supply teacher and then as a receptionist for the CBSO in order to concentrate on making Sing To The Moon.

It proved to be a wise decision as her summer has been packed with travel to gigs, festivals and appearances on television and radio.

“It feels like I have been travelling more in the past year than I have in my entire life,” says Laura. “It is weird living out of suitcases.”

She has been grateful for the company of her young brother and sister James and Dionne, who have been backing her ever since she could cajole them into doing the vocal harmonies for the shows they put on for their parents, and who now play in her band.

They also help her to relax as she struggles with stage fright.

“I am generally a nervous performer all round. I will be as nervous in the studio as I will on a huge stage.

“All performances matter so much to me I can get pretty worked up.

“It helps having my family around. There is always a lot of laughter.”

Laura’s husband Themba, whom she met at the Conservatoire, is working as a vocal teacher and his job commitments mean he has been unable to always join her when touring abroad.

“His schedule is easier in the holidays. We definitely make the most of those times. He loves travelling as much as I do so we always have a lot of fun when he comes on board with us.”

It has been a big year musically for Themba as well, after he was cast as Jesus in Ex Cathedra’s staging of St Matthew’s Passion in Symphony Hall at Easter.

“I was blown away by his performance,” says Laura. “I found the whole thing to be so moving. To have him so central. It felt very special and I felt very privileged to be there.”

Laura and her brother and sister are coming home for a gig next month when they will be performing at The Institute on October 8 as part of a small UK tour.

“Birmingham remains home in my heart, though I am not physically there a lot, and it is always nice to play for a Birmingham audience.

“I always think it is the most nerve-wracking because you tend to know lots of people in the audience, but it is such a welcoming atmosphere.”

Cheering loudest will be proud mother Paula who will be watching from the wings.

“Mum likes to stay hidden while all her babies are on stage. I think she is overwhelmed by that but in a good way. She is very proud but she is not really one for the limelight so she spectates from afar.”

With all this rapid exposure Laura is still getting used to her fame, to being recognised and photographed. So far the shy songstress who has spent the summer rubbing shoulders with her musical heroes seems to be adjusting well

“I am dealing with it day by day. I take the good things and try and lose the bad.”

• Laura will be performing at The Institute in Birmingham on October 8. Her debut album, Sing To The Moon is out now. Laura Mvula will attend the Tia Maria Music Room at The Vaults, Birmingham after her performance at The Institute.

 
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