The English songwriter Laura Mvula changed nearly everything as she made her third album. She changed her sound, her songwriting method, her collaborators and (involuntarily) her label. After two award-winning, brilliantly idiosyncratic albums of time-warped orchestral pop, Mvula’s latest, “Pink Noise,” swerves in an entirely different direction: toward the brash, glossy, synthesizer-driven R&B-pop of the 1980s.
“I need to be able to go — wherever,” Mvula, 35, said in a video chat from her living room in London. “There’s the feeling of risk, of not quite knowing what I’m doing. This was always going to be an album of liberation and championing myself. It’s channeling everything I want to channel without holding back.”
Behind her, with its strings and hammers exposed, was the battered upright piano she learned to play as a child. Every so often, her cat, Marley, wandered by.
Mvula was born Laura Douglas; her parents are from St. Kitts and Jamaica. She grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, England, feeling like an outsider: a Black girl in a “predominantly white middle-class neighborhood,” she recalled. “I was never quite sure of where to place myself.”
Her family was devoutly Christian, and Mvula’s songs often invoke prayer. (One new song, “Church Girl,” juxtaposes her naïve youthful expectations with the disillusionments of adult life, wondering, “How can you dance with the devil on your back?”) She sang regularly in church and also studied classical music, playing violin.
She earned a degree in composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire. She also sang in Black Voices, an a cappella group directed by her aunt; wrote songs for her neo-soul/fusion jazz group, Judyshouse; and led school choruses and gospel choirs before concentrating on her own performing career. By then she had married a fellow conservatory student, Themba Mvula, an opera singer who was born in Zambia.
Mvula’s 2013 debut album, “Sing to the Moon,” willfully and elegantly ignored most 21st-century sounds. In songs about idealism and self-affirmation, Mvula drew on conservatory skills to bolster the raw soul passion in her voice. She reached back to the studio pop of the 1950s and 1960s, writing plush harmonies backed by orchestral arrangements, dramatic choirs and jazz-tinged rhythm sections. The album earned comparisons to vintage Nina Simone, and was nominated for the Brit Awards and the Mercury Prize; it won her two MOBO awards, which recognize British “Music of Black Origin.” Mvula sang at the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize concert.
Mvula’s 2016 album, “The Dreaming Room,” grappled with, among other things, the end of her marriage and her bouts of depression and panic attacks; she suffered from monophobia, fear of being alone. As she sang about despair and exaltation, her music deepened the orchestrations while occasionally adding some funk. Mvula also went public with her mental-health struggles, appearing on the BBC program “Generation Anxiety.” (She has improved lately with therapy, she said.)
Although “Sing to the Moon” reached the Top 10 in Britain, and one of its singles, “Green Garden,” entered the British Top 40, accolades and awards didn’t equal more hits. Months before “The Dreaming Room” won the Ivor Novello award, a top British award chosen by songwriters, Sony Music informed Mvula in a brief email that she was being dropped from the roster. “I was not used to the reality of the commercial music industry,” she said. “It was just so curt. It was, like, ‘Here endeth your value to us.’”
Mvula was already reassessing her songwriting. “There was this pressure put on me, and that I put on myself, to make something new,” she said. “I had all these tags in my head. You know, ‘Created her own genre of music, created her own lane.’ But then I found myself like, ‘So what does this mean? Where do I go next?’”
Between recording contracts, Mvula toured as the opening act for David Byrne in Britain. Her stripped-down shows sparked new attention from Briony Turner of Atlantic Records U.K., who is now the company’s co-president. Turner had wanted to sign Mvula before her Sony deal. Now, Turner said from London, “She had moved into this unexpected new realm, and I was blown away. I signed her because I think she’s a genius. I love what she stands for culturally and musically.”
Mvula told Turner she had been thinking about 1980s R&B and that she wanted to experiment with collaborators. Her ideas, she now admits, were nebulous. “I had been boasting about making a record that I wanted to dance to, but that was an outright lie,” Mvula said. “I had no real plans. I had no sketches, I had nothing. I was just trying to magic it into reality.”
With Atlantic’s help, Mvula tried songwriting sessions that were “like speed dating,” she said. None panned out until Turner suggested Dann Hume, a producer from New Zealand who ended up co-writing and co-producing the entire album with Mvula. “Little did I know my life was going to change,” Hume said by phone from southern Wales.
Mvula had set up a home studio in her clothes closet in London. One day, she said, “I told myself that when I went in that closet, the next thing needs to be the thing that releases me. And I stopped thinking. I decided I’m not going to say, ‘I want to create an orchestral palette with these textures.’ I’m not going to go to the keyboard and just play all the chords and the voice things that I enjoy. I’m not going to play the familiar shapes any more. I’m just going to play the first thing that comes.”
That first thing was the bass line of “Safe Passage,” the album’s opener: a celebration of moving on and sharing pleasure. “I went so rudimentary,” Mvula said. “I took my index finger and ‘dum-dum-dum,’” she said, jabbing an imaginary keyboard and singing some syncopated low notes. “And then a snare, I really wanted that to be a fiery sound. It wasn’t until I finished it that I was like, that’s kind of ’80s. This is a path to explore, a sound world.”
She brought the tracks to the studio, Hume was enthusiastic and the album took off. “I knew that she wanted to make something big and bold,” Hume said. “She made clear from the very beginning that she didn’t want to retrace any steps. I accepted that, and we never really looked back.”
For her new songs, Mvula consciously sought sparser, more open structures. “I wanted to move away from the richness of harmony — from using as many notes as I wanted, as many chord changes,” she said. “I decided that this time I was going to work with two or three elements. The harmony would be implied, and sometimes it would be obscured, completely ambiguous.
“I wanted to feel uncomfortable in my own listening mind,” she added. “I didn’t want to feel like, ‘Oh, I know what that chord will make them feel.’ I wanted to move away from that bag of tricks.”
The production of “Pink Noise” — a technical term for the whooshing sound of white noise, which mixes every frequency, but with the lows boosted — revels in the whip-crack drums, gleaming keyboard tones and spatial immersion of 1980s pop. Mvula ruled out using the instrument she wrote songs on: the piano. She also sang even more freely and forcefully than before. “On the older records, I think I was still trying to please the teacher. I’m still scared to offend, to show certain blemishes or tones or parts of my voice. But all those things — in ‘Pink Noise,’ I let go of it.”
There’s ample nostalgia in Mvula’s new music. “You hear me as my 14-year-old self listening to late-80s and early ’90s soul and R&B,” Mvula said. “My first record was ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.’ I was obsessed with Sting. I was obsessed with Michael Jackson and Prince. Now, I just stopped trying to get in the way of it all.
“And you might say a lot of the songs on this record, it’s Black music, whatever that means,” she added. “Before this, I had been disassociated with Black music because I wrote for strings and horns. So I think I was subconsciously wanting to just do away with that — like, why did I place myself in this box?”
Still, “Pink Noise” is not entirely a throwback. Mvula’s own musical instincts persist, with jagged, leaping melodic lines cantilevered over the beat, not-quite-dissonant counterpoint and unexpected blooms of vocal harmony. “That’s just Laura’s mind,” Hume said. “She’s got such great musical knowledge, but she always wants to come at it from a different angle. If she knows how to do it, she doesn’t want to do it. She only wants to do it if it’s pushing it further.”
The album is full of songs about love found (“Pink Noise,” “Safe Passage”) and lost (“Magical,” “Conditional”). But the “most important” song on the album, Mvula said, is “Remedy.” It was written during a 2020 lockdown in Britain, while Mvula watched Black Lives Matter protests and spoke with family members about generations of racism. She recalled thinking, “I’m not going to be marching on the streets, but I’m going to offer a song. I suddenly felt this overwhelming privilege to be a part of this reaching the threshold: No more.”
Over a bluntly slamming beat and a mesh of assertive, interlocking synthesizer and horn-section lines, the chorus of “Remedy” sums up many people’s experience of 2020: “How many more must die before the remedy?/Can you hear all my people cry for the remedy?”
But Mvula also, hesitantly, allows herself to have some fun on the album. “Got Me” goes skipping along on a triplet groove that harks back to Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” as Mvula invites a lover to “do what you wanna do.”
She didn’t want to put it on the album, she said. “But Dann was so passionate! He was like, ‘It’s such a good jam!’ And the label were like, ‘This is the big single that’s going to radio.’ The whole art versus commerce thing really blew up in my face again,” she said with a smile.
“And it’s cool. I have a jam,” she added. “And I eat my hat. I’m learning about the universality of music. It just goes wherever it wants to go. And I’m learning that my fears, my insecurities — they’re not going to be allowed to prevent me from walking the path I’m meant to walk.”
Source: Read Full Article