Two years ago Laura Mvula spent her days clock-watching as a receptionist for the UK’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Last October her debut album Sing To The Moon was one of the Mercury Music Prize 2013’s albums of the year alongside David Bowie and Arctic Monkeys. This meteoric rise is well deserved. The native Brummie studied composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire in 2008 and then started using her free time to upload sound sketches to social media. One of these, the haunting, melancholic She, caught the ear of veteran producer Steve Brown and in November 2012, it was released as Mvula’s first single on RCA. It earned her a Critics’ Choice Brit Award nomination and fourth place in the BBC’s Sounds of 2013 poll. Singing To The Moon came out in March 2013 and its mix of pop, soul and jazz went into the UK Top 10. She’s since toured the globe, won two MOBOs, had a song included on the 12 Years A Slave soundtrack and been nominated for a NAACP Image Award. Here the self-effacing singer talks about love, family and Christmas parties.
Are you from a musical family?
I grew up in the black church in a strong gospel tradition. My aunt Carol Pemberton sings with the [renowned a cappella group] Black Voices. When I was 15 she let me come along to the rehearsals. From there, my fascination with how music is put together grew and I arranged small pieces for the group. I also learned the violin and piano when I was younger. I knew I was never quite good enough to make it with an instrument but I grew up playing in a string band with my brother and sister.
Were there many black students on your degree course?
No, not really. I married the only other one! I saw this Zambian guy from across the room singing his own choral works – he was a classical baritone and for me that was such a treat. We became friends, when to concerts and got married after finishing the course.
You’ve been critically acclaimed and compared to Adele and Amy Winehouse. Are you feeling the pressure?
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t. But I am so fortunate to have good people around me who all tell me to just be myself. Those comparisons are very flattering but I do feel like it’s a bit ridiculous because I don’t see myself as a real singer. I’m more about the process of making music and the arrangement. It’s not that my voice isn’t good enough, just that it comes second.
How would you describe your album’s sound?
I call it orchestral soul and I say that because it’s deliberately vague, not because it’s some arrogant nonsense. It could be considered a pop album but I bring in unexpected elements such as tubular bells and harp. It’s me expressing myself in lots of different ways.
Is there anyone whose career you would like to emulate?
The jazz singer Lizz Wright. There is something about her; it’s the vibe and the way she moves. She’s had a long career and seems to be genuinely enjoying this journey.
Your family is from St Kitts and Jamaica, how does this influence you?
I am in love with my culture. My grandma is an incredible woman, she came over to the UK, had 10 children and all of them have gone on to do good things. This has created such a legacy for me to treasure. I am a product of my family’s hard work.
And have you been to Zambia?
Not yet. My husband is from Lusaka and I want to go there as soon as possible. I feel very privileged to have his Zambian surname and share his heritage. Christmas is always fun, when the Mvulas and the Douglases – my family – all come together it’s a loud party!