With her triumphant new album Pink Noise, Laura Mvula is both shedding and stepping back into her past.
Where her previous records seemed to exist on their own timelines, anomalous among her British pop contemporaries, Pink Noise is a bold and complete declaration of love for the ‘80s – and for herself. Even working within this referential framework, Mvula remains one of our most visionary homegrown artists. The daring melodic diversions and generously layered arrangements that have become her calling card are intact, and often hit harder in the context of the big-hearted, huge-voiced statements of intent found on Pink Noise.
Mvula is sitting in the garden of her home in Clapton when I get her on the phone. The buzz preceding the album has landed her in a whirlwind of promo and she’s feeling a bit swept up by it all. “Is there such a thing as good stress?” she asks, before brushing the question away with a laugh. “Champagne problems, honestly. It just feels really good to see this album that I’ve worked so hard on and I’m so proud of finally having its moment.”
Mvula was born in 1986, the same year that gave us Whitney Houston’s debut, Janet Jackson’s Control and Prince’s million-selling “Kiss”. A pop fan from as young as she can remember, she jokes that she “came out of the womb wearing shoulder pads” but is deadly serious about her love of pop’s most reliable staple: a well-timed key change. “I just love the way they can effortlessly lift you into another space,” she says. “It’s like suddenly starting to paint in an entirely different colour.”
Although she was born into a musical family, it was church vocal, jazz and classical music rather than pop that was most listened to around the house. Mvula would get her pop fix at the weekends when she would often stay with her extended family. “I only had access to music videos through my older cousins, who had MTV and all the fun channels that I didn’t have at home,” she explains. “I think that made certain songs even more memorable and alive for me, because it was really a whole moment when I would discover something new and exciting in this way.”
Mvula has many cousins and makes a point throughout our conversation that she is rarely talking about the same one. But when she talks about the influence of her aunt, it’s a given that she’s speaking about Carol Pemberton, founder of the extraordinary a cappella group Black Voices, formed when Mvula was still in nappies.
“Growing up, I was semi-aware of what she was doing. Mostly I just knew that she was away a lot. As kids, we’d go to their concerts sometimes, and I remember being amazed at how they could sing in that range and in so many different styles. Later I discovered their albums and, over time, I fell in love with this otherworldly yet almost primal expression of music that has its roots in the black female experience.”
That experience lies at the heart of Mvula’s Nine Songs choices, which encompasses the rich heritage of black art and, in her choral and classical selections, the ever-evolving story of music.
“It’s fascinating to me how music just goes on growing and adapting within itself, regardless of whatever terrible things are going on in the world. The power of music is connection. Everything’s connected in some way, from Debussy to Miles Davis to Kanye West.”
“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson
“Michael Jackson’s music was such a strong part of my childhood. I must have listened to this song thousands of times, but to me it sounds just as fresh and invigorating today as it did when I first heard it in the ‘90s.
“When I think of his music, and the heritage of his music with his family, I think about music that sounds like it has always existed. In the sense that when I listen to it, I’m not aware of how it’s put together in the same way that I might be with other stuff. It’s an endless mystery to me how this iconic pop music just came to be and lives on without any end.
“I think it’s fair to say that Michael’s music is probably the music I’ve consciously referenced most in my life. Why is this song so perfect? I’m not sure I’d be able to articulate that. It just does everything it promises, you know? But I’ve heard a demo version and it’s actually pretty close to how it sounds on the finished thing. For me, that’s a sign of something being born that’s particularly special. You just can’t not dance to it. That would be inhuman.”
“To Zion” by Lauryn Hill
“I think I must have bought The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill at the same time as I got my first CD player, when I was around 13 or 14 years old. It was a big deal for me. Not just because it’s one of the most important records ever made, but also because it was my first time having the freedom to pick something out that I wanted to hear.
“It was probably one of my older cousins who introduced me to Lauryn Hill, then I saved up my pocket money and got my own copy. Listening to this album as a teenager, I really studied it. And when it went in, it went in on multiple levels. On one level, it was about identifying as a young black woman. I don’t think I’d ever heard a female rapper before Lauryn, and I’d definitely never heard a woman who could both rap and sing.
“I didn’t really understand a lot of the songs at first. Some of them are very complex, lyrically. She’s talking about really profound sociological and philosophical ideas. I didn’t know what to do with those at the time, I just knew I loved the sound and how it made me feel. There was just something about this record. Again, I don’t think about it as music, I just think about it as a part of my life, something I experienced. Does that make sense?
“This song touches on some of the struggles that I would meet later in life but had no clue about at the time. I think perhaps I subconsciously internalised her insight, like I was familiarising myself with this woman’s force. It’s weird, because I was so sheltered growing up, but for some reason everything she said, or may the way she was saying it, resonated with me. It made sense to me. The line that goes ‘Lauren, baby, use your head / but instead I chose to use my heart,’ I think that was a seed for me. I’m really crap with lyrics. I honestly couldn’t tell you half the ones on my new album. But I have always remembered this song and this story.”
“Black Skinhead” by Kanye West
“I’m obsessed with Kanye, full stop. I know we’ve just been talking about Lauryn Hill, but I didn’t fuck with hip hop properly until I was around 28, and that was only because I started going to the gym. I wasn’t really into fitness before then, but an ex-boyfriend got me into it and wanted to know what I listened to when I needed to go really hard. You know, when you can’t just pussyfoot around. I said ‘Michael Jackson’, and he said, ‘Yeah, as much as we love MJ, that’s not going to help you…’ and that’s where my education in hip hop really started, first with Nas and then Biggie, before I got curious about more current artists.
“I think we were on the way to Coachella in 2014 when my bass player put this song on and I absolutely lost my shit. Like, seriously, why had I not listened to Kanye before? I almost felt embarrassed, because obviously he was a decade into his career at that point and I was just rocking up late.
“How this song was made, in this bombastic, highly unapologetic but strangely beautiful way, is just undeniable. And, for me, undeniability is the thing that attracts me most to a piece of music. Kanye’s music is sort of synonymous with his philosophy of using shock tactics and trickery, but if you really go to the core of his catalogue, it’s just brilliant. He’s just brilliant.”
“Fantasy” by Earth, Wind & Fire
“I feel like I was raised on this song. It was my Dad who introduced me to it. I can’t remember, but I can guess that my attitude initially was off. I probably shut it out in the beginning. But maybe because I associate this song with the period of time when my parents were young, listening to it now makes me feel even closer to them. That’s something that’s really important to me and has been for my whole life. I come from a musical family – my sister and brother have played in my band – and music is alive to me in terms of connection through family.
“Earth Wind & Fire were making some of the most original music of the ‘70s. It’s just so lush and colourful. I feel like they taught me about key changes and going to another tonal centre, and it’s such a good tool. I mean, they were making this complex jazz-funk music – I hate genres but let’s use those words – and made it somehow palatable to the masses.
“I think that’s amazing, and it’s not an easy task. People get upset if I put more than five chords in a song, you know? How did they get away with it? Especially with the clothes they were wearing.”
“String Quartet in G minor Op. 10” by Debussy
“I briefly had ambitions of a career as a concert pianist. I remember when I first started to get a little bit advanced for my age, I wanted to get a pro piano teacher. I really wanted to impress them in my first lesson, which was more like a consultation, so that they would take me on as a student.
“I remember going in and playing him a Debussy piece, among others. Afterwards he said to me, ‘Okay, of all the things you’ve played today, I think you play the French impressionist music really well.’ And of course, I was more than happy to take on that label because at the time I was really into Ravel and Debussy. I was just drinking in all of the impressionist compositions from that era, before the Romantic period and the more orchestral stuff.
“Debussy’s string quartet was actually something I discovered on my own, because I had terrible insomnia as a teenager. I just couldn’t sleep, and the only way I could find any kind of rest was to listen to music – in my headphones, obviously, since I was sharing a bedroom. This piece has a lush kind of energy, in that you don’t really know where the beginning or the end of it is. It feels circular and hypnotic and dynamic. I remember I would listen to it every night and it would transport me into a state of semi-sleep, and that’s as close as I could get.”
“On & On” by Erykah Badu
“I first heard this song when my womanhood was very much blossoming, and in the process of finding myself I think she was the perfect guide.
“I was introduced to her, again, by my cousins. The first time I listened to Erykah I don’t think I really understood about the freedom of the human voice, and the fact that she had a sound that was so absolutely her own was something I grew to appreciate. I remember from the moment I heard “On & On” and those two chords – which I learned as soon as I was able to learn chords – it became part of the central palette for my creativity.
“I’ve been trying to get her attention my whole life. I’m still trying. I met her once, on the rooftop Electric Lady Studios in New York, where I was mixing Sing to the Moon. She’d liked something of mine on Twitter and she came up to me and was like, ‘Hey honey, welcome to whatever the fuck this is.’ Then she just walked off, and that was it – my one brief interaction so far with Ms. Badu.
“Collaborate with her? Oh my gosh, don’t, my palms are sweating. I’ve had some good exposure and we have friends in a lot of the same circles of people in the States, but I feel like every time I’m within a few feet of her I’m just jumping up and down. Like, see me! Recognise me! Let me just kiss your feet! Haha. Yeah, she’s the OG. She’s the GOAT.”
“I Thank You God For Most This Amazing Day” by Eric Whitacre
“I met my ex-husband in music college, in my hometown of Birmingham. He was on the opera course, and he would take me to these chamber concerts that, in the beginning, I was just not into. I would just hope for it to be over so we could go and get drunk somewhere. But one day he played me some Eric Whitacre and the Whitacre Singers and everything seemed to stop for me at that moment. Like, I can hear it now and I can feel tears forming.
“Years after I was introduced to Eric’s music, I introduced myself to Eric in person and we started to collaborate. He became a huge source of inspiration over the time that we worked together, and I became more familiar with his music. He is so passionate about all kinds of musical expression. We share a love of close harmony. You know, not just the beauty of the human voice, but the beauty of our collective voices. My album Sing to the Moon was very much living in that space, but I hadn’t necessarily arrived there at the time. I needed a stimulus, and this song was on repeat for half a year or more.
“I wanted to walk down the aisle to this song, but his mother said it was too grand. Actually, do you know what’s crazy? I didn’t make the connection when I wrote the list for this interview, but the song I chose instead was the one we’re going to talk about next, which was a much more fitting choice in the end.”
“Baba Yetu (The Lord’s Prayer)” by Black Voices
“Like a lot of the music I am obsessed with, I feel like I inhabited this song before I even knew what it was about. It’s so beautifully arranged and incredibly sung. Singing along as kids, we would just make up the syllables from what we heard. It didn’t matter what we sang because the meaning was ever present and clear.
“Singing with Black Voices was my first experience of singing on stage, when I was 18 or 19. Before that time I took singing for granted. I was so ignorant. I had no real understanding of what it means to live inside of a song and deliver it, to present it to people and have them share in it.
“So Black Voices was like my schooling, and this song particularly was a real introduction into how to use my voice. How to listen to others when I’m singing. How to arrange and write things that sit well with the voice. How to get to the meaning of a song. Black Voices instilled all of that into me, and I think you can hear their influence in most of my material.”
“All Blues” by Miles Davis
“To this day, I can never properly articulate how much this man’s music completely took over my world. I will never forget how I discovered it. My Dad is a big Miles Davis fan, but it was actually my cousin who introduced me to him. She used to do the sweetest things, like going to the shops and bringing home anything she saw that made her think of me. One day she rocked up to my house – maybe she was getting some Saturday soup, which is a Caribbean thing – and as she was about to leave she pulled a CD out of her bag that she’d bought for me at Tesco.
“I remember I kind of yawned on the inside. I was just not that impressed. Like, ‘just get me some lip gloss or something next time’. I put the CD away somewhere, which is to say I lost it. Then when I was maybe 17 years old I found it again and put it on. Then I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the meaning of life.’
“My Dad loved to watch documentaries, particularly documentaries about black icons. I remember he recorded over one of our favourite kiddie VHS tapes with a Miles Davis programme. I felt so violated. I was so aggressively upset with him for taping over our shows with this guy who seemed to barely be able to talk. The irony of it now is that watching Miles Davis documentaries is like my highest form of pleasure. I have probably watched every Miles interview ever uploaded to YouTube.
“I think I was captivated by “All Blues” because it sounds like movement. It became the tune that I would listen to whenever I was travelling, whether I was on a bus or a train, or just walking. I would listen to this piece of music because I felt like it thrust me forward, but in the most deeply tranquil way. It could move me in a way that nothing else at that time in my life could. I mean, to this day I couldn’t tell you how long the song is – it could be two minutes, could be fifteen. That’s how hypnotic it is.
“I remember understanding for the first time, as a young person thinking about writing, the idea that less is more. Through Miles, I realised that the value of silence within a piece of music is as significant as making a sound. That opened up a whole new toolbox to work with, going forward in my own music. I value space so much. I’m obsessed with things being in places where they can be properly heard and experienced, without clutter, without needless things. And not too much of the good stuff. Just enough, you know?”