Boston Globe, May 16, 2013
Laura Mvula is only just catching up to what she’s done.
Twelve months ago the 26-year-old singer was basically unknown, except in a few corners of the Birmingham, England, music world: the gospel a cappella group with whom she first performed, the conservatory where she studied composition, and, if you stretch it, the local symphony orchestra, at whose offices she worked as a receptionist.
Now, Mvula is an anointed sensation, with a brand-new debut album, “Sing to the Moon,” that’s earning lavish acclaim, a rush of television appearances, and the sudden onset of an international touring schedule, which brings her to the Sinclair on May 21.
She’s barely had time to rehearse her band on all the songs on her album.
That’s because her music is indeed complicated, though glorious to the ear.
Mvula may be the latest in what seems like a perennial parade of British pop stars who appear fully formed and ascend to international fame on the wings of an avid media machine. But there’s nothing easy or obvious here: no retro-soul simulacrum, no overt sexuality, no crazy behavior, no Svengali figure, no add-water-and-stir.
Most of the songs on “Sing to the Moon” don’t even have a recognizable verse-chorus-verse structure. Rather, they grow through phases and movements, adding and peeling back layers of intricate orchestration, collaging complex vocal parts, splicing in harps and bells. It’s elegant, often elegiac, ringing with familiar but unplaceable echoes, exalted and — in a nonconfrontational, relaxed way — weird.
One gets the sense that Mvula had to give herself permission to make the music she was hearing in her mind, hewing to no template.
“Yes, I guess so,” she says. “When I sat down to write the first of these songs, which was ‘She,’ I wasn’t intentionally writing an album. It was a personal experiment, to put my emotions as clearly as I could into musical language. And it was liberating to feel that for the first time I had no boundaries placed on me, whether by university, or musical relationships, or the need or want to please people.”
She recalls the sequence: next off her sketchbook came “Green Garden,” the album’s upbeat track, all bells and claps and snaky vocal harmonies; then “Diamonds,” the solemn, string-inflected closer; then “Father, Father,” where a piano vamp and almost nursery-rhyme melody grow into something brooding, bitter and healing; and so on.
Along the way, she connected with producer Steve Brown, who told her to stay with her instincts: “It was the most simple advice but it gave me such clarity and freedom. Whether the songs were good or not wasn’t the goal. It was whether they were me or not, whether they were authentic.”
It helps that Mvula is a gifted composer, with a degree from the Birmingham Conservatoire and a strong interest in classical music, including 20th-century masters like Olivier Messiaen. The lyrics are hers too, though she insists — not very convincingly — that she’s a poor writer. “I don’t use lots of words, and I’m aware that I keep saying the same things,” she says.
She now performs with a six-person band that includes her siblings James, on cello, and Dionne, on violin. “Everybody sings, because they have to,” she says with a laugh. “There are so many vocal parts on the record.”
It’s these vocal parts — starting with Mvula’s voice, which shows its considerable power through hints rather than blunt blows — that clearly manifest the gospel and soul presence that anchors the record, for all its cinematic textures and eclectic arrangements.
Mvula’s aunt was music director of the Black Voices gospel a cappella group, which Mvula joined in her teens. “That was my first platform,” Mvula says, “for singing, for touring, and also composing.” She remains involved in gospel choirs, even if her own spiritual identity has always been more of “a heart and soul that questioned,” she says.
Mvula’s voice brightens the moment Birmingham, her gritty, industrial home city in England’s Midlands, is brought up.
“Everything!” she says, about the city’s influence on her work. She cites her family of working-class Caribbeans, her aunt’s group, the music programs in the city’s public schools, the Conservatoire. “Loads of people wanted to leave Birmingham,” she says. “I wanted to stay at home. That could have been seen as negative, but I had so many strong, fortunate, fruitful connections in Birmingham that it’s been imperative for me.”
One gets the feeling there is little to no chance that she’ll lose touch with these roots, even as she finds herself catapulted between airports, hotels, interviews, and concert and festival stages.
“It’s been a real whirlwind,” she says. “I spent quite a bit of time in music, but in an amateur sense. Now it’s so exciting to put out something that I’m proud of. And coming from the background I come from, it’s overwhelming.”