It says a lot about the music of Laura Mvula that it’s consistently awkward to categorise.
Since first emerging into the spotlight in late 2012 with her She EP — which sparked a BRIT Awards critics’ choice nomination — the thoughtful Birmingham-born singer has occupied her own leftfield space on the R&B scene, blending soul and jazz with baroque, avant-pop.
Featuring the minimalistic single Green Garden, Mvula’s 2013 debut Sing To The Moon was hailed in certain quarters as no less than the embodiment of a new musical genre — “gospel-delia” — with her understated vocal delivery drawing comparisons with Nina Simone.
After the LP hit the UK top 10, Laura boosted her profile in Scotland that summer by playing a feelgood set at T in the Park’s Transmissions Tent that included a unique reworking of the Bob Marley classic One Love.
Classically trained, she subsequently reimagined her debut album with the Metropole Orchestra, before eventually releasing follow-up proper The Dreaming Room in 2016.
Drawing on Jamaican and Caribbean influences, the lush and elaborate opus was a huge critical success and went on to win a prestigious Ivor Novello Award — but not before Mvula was unceremoniously dropped by her label Sony.
Hurt by the experience, a period of occasional live performance coupled with broadcast work followed and she admits she didn’t know where to go next artistically — even considering a return to teaching, her former profession.
“The critical acclaim wasn’t translating on paper when it came to sales,” says Laura, 35, who plays a sold-out Edinburgh Festival concert on August 29.
“That was something I just hadn’t prepared for, and I needed to have an answer — I was held accountable in public. In some ways it was difficult, but it very soon became good because I realised I had an opportunity to recharge, refocus and it was time to make some new music.”
Freshly signed to US giant Atlantic Records, 80s-inspired tracks like Safe Passage and Church Girl started emerging earlier this year, with Laura’s swaggering comeback wrongfooting listeners.
Dance and electronic elements to the fore, her resultant third Mercury-listed offering Pink Noise went to 21 in the charts last month.
Finding her place
Mass commercial success might continue to prove elusive, but you get the feeling she’s finally broken free from her own and others’ expectations to at last have fun.
“I like to think that in some kind of ways I’ve always embodied confidence, but this time around it feels way more like I’m really enjoying who I am,” she declares.
“I’m sharing music that I’ve written and spent so long crafting. It feels great to be standing strong in it and to be enjoying a different mode of expression. I love to dance so I was always going to make something that hopefully encourages people to feel good on the dancefloor.”
Nods to Michael Jackson, Grace Jones
Pink Noise takes its cue from the Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind And Fire and Diana Ross records she grew up with, and a sublime cover of the latter’s I’m Still Waiting now figures on her setlists.
There’s also a huge nod to Grace Jones — as much in Mvula’s high top fade haircut and outrageous shoulder pads as her postmodernist approach.
Co-penned and produced by Laura and New Zealander Dann Hume, the album includes What Matters, a surprise duet with “sweet-spirited” Biffy Clyro frontman Simon Neil recorded remotely after she’d heard an orchestral version of the band’s hit Space.
“I almost can’t believe that came about and worked as well as it has done,” she admits.
“I wanted a male rock voice that was fresh and relevant and that somehow would be able to blend with mine. I instinctively knew that Simon would know what to do and the first thing that he sent back was perfect. That’s what’s on the record and the rest is history.”
Looking ahead, Laura says she’s “greedy” to play live again following her self-employed exile then the pandemic.
“Let me at them, I can’t wait,” she laughs. “All I think about is doing shows. I feel embarrassed that I took doing shows for granted, just that exchange between myself and the people that really engage with the music and it becomes theirs.
“Doing it in the moment is everything. Studio’s amazing, but for me, playing live is where I really come alive.”
Laura Mvula’s Edinburgh Festival performance is currently sold out. Pink Noise is out now. For more see https://www.lauramvula.com/