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Laura Mvula talks Prince, Nile Rodgers and phenomenal women

Del Cowie

For those who are unfamiliar with her, Laura Mvula’s music has been described as "Nina Simone sings the Beach Boys." When attributed to the U.K. singer’s debut album, 2013’s critically acclaimed Sing to the Moon, this elevator pitch is an apt descriptor.

Mvula’s rich, multi-layered voice with its seemingly effortless range caressed baroque pop arrangements, yielding songs like the delicate and lullaby-laden “Green Garden,” and the deliciously subversive cultural deconstruction of beauty standards, “That’s Alright.”

On her new album, The Dreaming Room, Mvula’s affinity for string-garnished songs remains, but the singer’s sonic and thematic scope has noticeably widened. It's something she notes, chatting with me fresh out of a listening session for the album, with the conversational buzz of those who attended figuring loudly in the background.

“So far, I feel like people have a lot of questions, if I'm honest,” says Mvula amid the din, reflecting on the direct feedback she’s received on the album's decidedly more personal bent. “I think with Sing to the Moon because it was the first thing people heard from me it was like receiving something you haven’t heard before. So I think this time around it’s going to be a longer process for people to digest. It’s kind of making sense of [Sing to the Moon] now with something else in a different room.”

Despite the fact that her album is called The Dreaming Room, Mvula’s reference to a room comes off as entirely innocuous given her relaxed and unrehearsed answers.

“It’s a state of mind, it’s a metaphor for when I’m most free,” says Mvula, describing the abstract concept of The Dreaming Room. “I’ve been trying to get to a place — I guess we all are in a matter of speaking — where we are able to just live in the fullness of life. I guess because I’ve had a lot of shit happen in the last three years — a lot of heavy stuff — and it’s been easy for me to kind of spiral from some of these traumas. And I’ve had to kind of figure out, 'Where is the need. How can I function? How can I get out of bed when all of this is happening?' I’m learning to savour the moment, I’m learning to be in my skin and for me, the dreaming room is that place.”

As someone who suffers from and has spoken openly about her debilitating anxiety and panic attacks, Mvula’s words ring true. She’s also recently undergone a divorce, necessitating the creative space she’s described. The dissolution of her marriage is the subject of The Dreaming Room’s pivotal track, “Show Me Love.”

Unfolding over six minutes, it gradually builds to an undeniable emotional crescendo that commands your full attention. It’s as powerful as any piece of music you will likely hear all year.

“I think that’s because it’s a journey, it’s the kind of music that plays itself. Like I have to get out of the way of it in a sense,” says Mvula. “Of course it’s mine, it’s my experience of a divorce that fuelled the emotion in the record. But I have to say there’s a power, there’s a dimension to that piece I feel is transcendent and it’s a mystery why it feels so moving to be honest.”

Playing it to the listening party crowd, Mvula tells me she positioned herself behind speakers so she wouldn’t hear the song clearly, but it still affected her.

“I have to say for me, 'Show Me Love' is like magic. By the end I’m sort of traumatized, mildly traumatized by it,” she says, laughing. “But I know it’s necessary in some weird way.”

Musically, “Show Me Love” hews closer to the blueprint Mvula fashioned on her debut album, but the first songs to emerge from The Dreaming Room indicated the singer's incorporation of more upbeat rhythms into her music, including the music of Nigerian legend Fela Kuti, whom Mvula says she was obsessed with for a period before embarking on recording for her sophomore project.

The album’s first single, “Overcome,” features legendary guitarist Nile Rodgers, of Chic fame, who has produced for David Bowie, Duran Duran and Madonna among others. Rodgers sought out Mvula for a collaboration on social media to her surprise.

"I never imagined that any kind of legend would want to associate themselves with me, so to have a genuine kindred spirit that has been doing it for decades and killing it just sort of show up and really just put himself out. It takes a lot," says Mvula. “Like, imagine, you know you’re the king and you see some peasant girl and you’re just like, ‘Yeah, let’s go on a date.’ ‘What? Are you serious?’ And he’s like, ‘I’m serious as f--k, let’s do this.’”

Another legendary artist who championed Mvula was the late Prince.

“On several times, [Prince] had my back and told the world I was the best thing ever, told the world he woke up listening to 'Green Garden,' told the world he wanted me to support him in the U.K. when he didn’t normally have [an opening artist] and just you know really genuinely gave up his time resources and his encouraging energy,” says Mvula.

Prince had actually heard most of the songs on The Dreaming Room and wanted to contribute to “Overcome,” but Rodgers had already laid down his part. Prince sent Mvula back a version with his contributions anyway. “I’m sure at some point I’ll share with the world,” says Mvula.

Unfortunately, Prince did not hear “Phenomenal Woman,” Mvula’s funk-infused, keyboard-streaked, 1980s-influenced track, which was the last song she wrote for the album.

“I don’t want to say I forgot to send him 'Phenomenal Woman,' it just didn’t occur to me until quite late in the day, like ‘Oh, shit! This is something he would really be on board with.’ It feels like my tribute to him without trying to make a tribute because I wasn’t consciously trying to do that. That’s how influential he is,” she says.

"Phenomenal Woman" is actually directly inspired by a Maya Angelou poem of the same name as well as Mvula’s own grandmother, whom Mvula lovingly impersonates on the “Nan” skit preceding the track.

“To me [my grandmother]’s the ultimate phenomenal woman who, in the early parts of 1940s and 1950s, was raising 10 children in Birmingham coming from the Caribbean with very little,” says Mvula, voicing the experience of the post-Second World War migration to the U.K. from the West Indies.

“And to consider how she made something from nothing, over and over again in all kinds of ways and even when my granddad died in the ‘90s, you know she reinvented herself and she found life through her children through the things that she enjoys. I am just elated by someone who has gone through so much change a woman who has a mobile phone, who comes from a time where such a device would be considered the devil.”

Mvula laughs. “I’m fascinated by her, my heritage and what she means to me and so I wanted to pay homage to her, she turns 90 in a few days. It was just important to celebrate her.”

The song’s video, filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, is a strikingly vibrant and irresistible celebration of cultural pride featuring Mvula in a choreographed routine with dancers.

“Somewhere along the line as a child or maybe as a teenager I always loved to dance and I loved embracing who I was as a young girl with all that freedom in dance,” says Mvula. “Music and dance are synonymous and one didn’t exist without the other when I was younger. I think as I grew up and became conscious of my body, the insecurities sort of reared their ugly heads and I became conscious of and sort of stifled in dance. And so I made a decision about a year ago that whatever happens there’s gonna be an influence in my music because I need to dance and I need to find that.”

So while the songs on The Dreaming Room do retain an affinity for Mvula’s versatile voice amid delicate and ornate, classically influenced arrangements, the challenging incorporation of newer sonic wrinkles mirrors her approach to personal change and growth.

“I’m trying,” Mvula says. “I’m trying to grow and embrace the things I’ve struggled with, sort of liberate myself. Without sounding like a completely artsy fartsy asshole, I’m sort of enjoying what it feels like to dance on the stage and dance in the videos. It’s all good.”