Crows. Doves. Fashion photographs of black-and-white feathers swirled into dresses and hats. Laura Mvula is running her fingers over the images she has pasted into the “visual essay” she made to accompany her new album, The Dreaming Room. Her chunky gold rings echo the gold paint she has spattered across the pages as she reads out the handwritten themes – “anxiety, fear, hope…” – then gives a big throaty laugh. “It’s all there, isn’t it!”
We look back at the dove and remember Prince (When Doves Cry was his first No 1 single in 1984). Mvula supported him last year on what would be his final British tour. He was a huge fan of the lavishly layered vocals and space-shifting arrangements on Mvula’s distinctive, jazz-soul-folk-inflected debut album, Sing to the Moon (2013), which he claimed he listened to both before and after his own gigs. It seems likely that the superstar – who always said his childhood “got hairy” after his father left when he was seven – would have connected with Mvula’s tortured song Father, on which she addressed her own dad’s sudden departure from the family home in 2007.
She says that Prince smelt of vanilla. “Well not quite. I say that because vanilla’s the closest thing I can think of to that intense, heavenly smell.”
They first met at the 2014 Brit Awards when she was nominated for the Best British Female award, which he was presenting. She didn’t win the statuette, but he gave her something far cooler: an invitation to his party, where he asked how she felt about losing, and she made him laugh by confessing that she was “disappointed that I’m disappointed”.
“I haven’t really processed his death yet,” she says as we sip tea among the hipsters of a private members’ club in east London. “He was so unapologetic about himself and his instinct to make music. I am incredibly grateful for the way he celebrated female artists, particularly those of us who might otherwise have gone unheard. He simplified things for me. He inspired me to just get on with it: to be extraordinary and not allow myself to be discouraged or distracted.”
Now 30, Mvula has always struggled with self-doubt, some of which may stem from the racism she experienced growing up in the suburbs of Birmingham.
“Her skin was a terrible thing to live in,” she sings on a new track called People. Last month she told an interviewer that the line was about how “kids in infant school wouldn’t hold my hand. You know when they line up the kids and say, 'Get a partner, hold hands’? They would say, 'No, I’m not holding her hand because I’m scared the brown’s going to rub off.’ ”
But her mother Paula (a teacher) and father Elford (who worked for the council) encouraged her to find “freedom in music and I think that translated into other parts of my childhood. I used to force my younger brother and sister to sing my arrangements and perform with me,” she says. “They’re in my band so I guess nothing’s changed – I just have to pay them now!”
While she nurtured pop aspirations, Mvula studied classical piano and violin, “ploughing through the grades, one to eight”. The music of her youth was closely tied to the local Pentecostal church, where her father was a Worship Leader. In the choir she preferred to “hide with the altos” and was so frightened by the applause that followed her first solo (aged 10) that she burst into tears.
Mvula experienced a more distressing performance a decade later, while she was studying for a degree in composition at Birmingham Conservatoire. “I was touring the UK with a Christian theatre piece. Towards the end of this piece – at the most poignant moment after the pastor had delivered his sermon – we all sang Amazing Grace. We had arranged it so that I sang a low, harmony part. I would always say: don’t make me sing above a G! It’s a song everybody knows. There’s nowhere to hide.
“So one day I started to sing. And nobody else came in with me. I was singing on my own and although I was thinking, 'Just jump to the melody, Laura!’ I was so racked with fear that I couldn’t. I was stuck to the harmony part. And I couldn’t stop. Nobody would look at me. And so on I went. On and on. It’s a long song, too, when you sing the whole thing. It was so humiliating.”
As Mvula relives the embarrassment, her extravagant false lashes flip down like laptop lids. Then they spring back to reveal eyes that are sparkling. She explains that she’s “a bit high” after delivering triumphant covers of Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever at the Bond-themed Duke of Edinburgh Gala Dinner the previous night.
“That gig should have been my worst nightmare,” she says. “It was a room full of celebrities. The Royals were there. I was on a podium in the middle, singing songs everybody knows to people expecting the highest quality. We’d decided to strip things right back to vocal and piano… It was the performer’s equivalent of the dream where you go to school with no clothes on. But, for the first time, I really enjoyed it. I think this is me stepping into the season of The Dreaming Room and becoming a more grown-up Laura. Yes!”
The new confidence comes at the right time, as Mvula – in addition to an avalanche of concerts across Britain and Europe this summer – is about to play the main Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury next Sunday.
What has changed? “A lot of things,” she says. “I’ve really pushed myself out of my comfort zone in the promotion of this record.” Earlier this year Mvula spoke out about her divorce from baritone Themba Mvula, whom she met at the Conservatoire and married aged 23, and the struggle with anxiety and panic attacks that made it impossible for her to be alone. She has said that she drank too much to combat the “extreme pressure” she felt trying to write a second album. She has said she “failed” her husband. She has endured a long period of estrangement from her father, and tells me that the relationship is “complicated but I have a lot more hope than I used to”.
Her songs continue to possess a hymnlike quality, reaching out of personal pain to find hope in something greater. “When I first came into this part of the industry,” she says, “I thought it would be easier for everybody if I was guarded. I thought it would be easier for people to enjoy me singing on television if they didn’t know I was in a failing marriage and that I struggle with depression.
“But speaking out turned out to be a powerful and liberating experience. I realised that some of the closest people to me had no idea about the important things that were happening to me. I was stunned – I thought they must have picked up the vibes.”
It took time for her to admit to herself how seriously ill she had become. “I remember the first time I sat in a psychiatrist’s office and listened to him reel off… well, me. Then he diagnosed me as clinically depressed. Motherf-----!”
Yet Mvula still thinks of herself as a “lucky” woman. “Not everybody gets the chance to express themselves like this, to vomit it out. And I have to revisit the feelings over and over again. Which means I can’t run from them. I can’t pretend I’m all right. Divorce is horrendously painful. Horrendous.”
“Oh, God,” she sings on Show Me Love. “I need to belong to someone/ I miss the breath of a kiss/ I miss the wonder of a future with somebody.” Against a funereal drumbeat, organ and harp, she sounds utterly bereft until a blast of brass and strings lifts the song into a Ravel-indebted catharsis.
I ask if it feels odd for Mvula (born Laura Douglas) to keep her ex-husband’s name? She dips behind the lashes again. “I think it’s too soon to tell. At the moment it feels right. I have deep respect for Themba. I wouldn’t be talking to you today if he hadn’t bought me a laptop, set up the home studio and been the constant voice of encouragement. It’s also important to me that it’s a name of African descent. I like how it shifts people’s perceptions of me. Especially overseas, where people think I’m South African. Then it’s more beautiful when I tell people I’m of Caribbean descent and born in Birmingham. I don’t belong to anybody’s assumptions.” Another pause. “So, with tears in my eyes, I tell you I’m extremely privileged to carry the name of Mvula.”
Filmed in Cape Town, the video for her recent single Phenomenal Woman sees Mvula celebrating empowered, female African style, pulling out some fierce dance moves in a kaleidoscope of brightly printed fabric before assuming a queenly seat on a wicker throne beside a stuffed cheetah. The song was inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem of the same name, about a woman who’s “not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size” but draws in the guys “with the fire in my eyes/ And the flash of my teeth/ The swing in my waist/ And the joy in my feet”.
Mvula tells me that the song is also a tribute to her grandmother, who turns 90 this month. “She came over from St Kitts when my mother was four and she raised 10 children. She’s such a vibrant woman – serious and joyful at the same time. I see so much courage and creativity in the way she has lived.”
The Dreaming Room features a reconstruction of a phone call Mvula made to her grandmother, in which the older woman (impersonated by Mvula) tells her to “write me some ’ting that can jig me foot”.
Mvula took this instruction seriously. “I’m a dark soul, but I’m also a playful child. I didn’t want to be sat at my piano for this album. So I started having fun with old synthesizers. A Roland Paraphonic 6 became my beast in the studio. It could play mad bass and funk and manipulate sounds… like the sound of me tapping my rings together, clapping my hands onto my bottom, hitting a book with my high heels.”
The chinking sound at the end of the song Bread was made by Mvula “banging together a pair of crystal ashtrays that I’m assured belonged to Jimi Hendrix”.
When it comes to music, she makes her own rules. “Harmonically, I will always finish a phrase on a note that, within our Western tonality, isn’t normally 'home’.” She smiles and closes her picture book. “But I’m happy that I can make those more unusual places my home.”
The Dreaming Room is out now. Visit lauramvula.com for details of her live dates