Music Interviews
4:41 am
Sun May 19, 2013

Laura Mvula: A Soulful Voice That Once Answered Phones

Originally published on Sun May 19, 2013 1:11 pm

Less than two years ago, Laura Mvula was a receptionist honing her phone-answering skills at a music organization in Birmingham, England. Now, she's got a record deal and critical acclaim, and she's touring the U.S. with her debut album, Sing To The Moon.

She even stopped at NPR last week to record a Tiny Desk Concert.

After the show, Mvula spoke with Rachel Martin, host of Weekend Edition Sunday, about how much of a whirlwind the last couple of years have been and how she approaches her music and audience.


Interview Highlights

On her musical family:

"We were the kind of household where you couldn't have TV in your room. So, when my dad said I could have his keyboard in my bedroom, that was like, 'Whoa, this is another level.' I remember, that was the first time I wrote something and I got his ghetto blaster and I recorded it on tape. I rushed down ... and he played it in the car. I remember my [brothers] laughing, but my dad really loved it, and I think that gave me confidence."

On her favorite instrument to play:

"Well, I am by no means a pianist, I think that's safe to say, but the piano, for me ... it gave me what I needed, and gives me what I need, to write a song. I think playing or improvising on the piano is where I feel most liberated and sort of less conscious of all of my insecurities or inadequacies."

On her voice:

"When I used to think about singing, I used to think that if people sung well, [there] was a very sort of basic criteria [and] vocal gymnastic. How much power does the voice have? So I struggled a lot. If anybody asked me to sing anything, I was happy to sing in a group, but please don't ask me to sing solo. I think when I started writing songs, my voice just became another tool. It wasn't something that I was going to try desperately to try and woo a listener [with]. As long as I'm using my voice in a way that helps people understand what I'm trying to say, then I feel like I'm doing all right."

On the intimacy of doing a Tiny Desk Concert:

"I don't think I always look in people's faces. I think, especially when I'm doing my more intimate songs, that are more personal, I always think it's a bit accusing if I stare in someone's face when I'm singing quite a personal lyric. I kind of like people to feel that they have their own private space and not have me invade it with my eyes."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN HOST: Less than two years ago, Laura Mvula was a receptionist honing her phone-answering skills at a music organization in Birmingham, England. Now, she's got a record deal, a lot of critical acclaim and she's touring around the U.S., including a stop at NPR this past week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNOUNCER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Our Tiny Desk concert with Laura Mvula is about to begin, so please head on over to the southwest corner of the fourth floor. Thank you.

HOST: Which was a chance to see her up close and personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAURA MVULA: (Singing) You, you got time on in your heart...

(APPLAUSE)

HOST: I caught up with Mvula after the show, and we talked about what a whirlwind the last couple of years have been for her, and that receptionist job that doesn't even feel that far away.

MVULA: It was a job that really, I thought, at the time, might sort of bring me closer to music 'cause I didn't have many options, but actually, I was just on the front desk, but...

(LAUGHTER)

HOST: It didn't open a bunch of musical breaks for you?

MVULA: No, it didn't do what I thought it was going to do.

HOST: Did you get really good at answering the phone?

MVULA: No. Although my husband says I answer it in B flat. Apparently I sing - I think he was taking the mic out.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MVULA: (Singing) (unintelligible)

HOST: When she played at NPR, Laura Mvula had simple setup. She sang, sitting at her keyboard, and she had two other musicians on strings - her brother and sister, James and Dionne. Mvula says they were always a musical family.

MVULA: We were the kind of household where you couldn't, like, have TV in your room and all of that kind of thing. So when my dad said that I could have his keyboard in my bedroom, that was like, whoa.

(LAUGHTER)

MVULA: OK. This is another level.

(LAUGHTER)

HOST: Did he expect you then to produce some stuff?

MVULA: Yes, and to de...

HOST: To write something...

MVULA: Yeah, I...

HOST: ...do something with it?

MVULA: Yeah, absolutely. You better do something with it, Laura, and I remember that was the first time I wrote something. And I got his ghetto blaster, and I recorded on tape, and I rushed down, and we were actually on our way out, the family somewhere. So he played it in the car, and I remember James and Dionne laughing; my brother, you know, it was just ha, ha, ha, she's written this stupid song. But my dad actually really loved it, and I think that gave me confidence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MVULA: (Singing) And there she ways, looking for a savior. Someone to save her from a dying sound.

HOST: So you sing, you play the violin...

MVULA: Uh-huh.

HOST: ...you play the piano, the...

MVULA: Uh-huh.

HOST: ...keyboards, as well. Do you have a favorite? Is there one of those that you just...

MVULA: Uh-huh. Well, I'm by no means a pianist. I think that's safe to say, but the piano for me, I would say it's the enabler. It gave me what I needed and gives me what I need in order to write a song. And I think playing or improvising on the piano is where I feel most liberated and sort of less conscious of all my insecurities or inadequacies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MVULA: (Singing) Oh, she don't stop, she don't stop...

HOST: I read in a British newspaper, an interview with you, you said that you didn't think you had a very good voice.

MVULA: Yes, absolutely.

HOST: Which is stunning after I'd just listened to you in there, and I'm not just boosting your ego. You have an incredibly enchanting voice.

MVULA: Thank you.

HOST: How do you - is that just kind of normal artist insecurity, or what would you change?

MVULA: I think I look at it different now. When I used to think about singing, I used to think that if people sung well, those (unintelligible) sort of basic criteria, sort of vocal gymnastics. How much power does the voice have? So I struggled a lot. Anybody asked me to sing anything, I was always happy to sing with them in a group, but please don't ask me to sing a solo, get up front.

But I think when I started writing songs my voice just became another tool. It wasn't something that I was going to try desperately to woo a listener. As long as I'm using my voice in a way that helps people understand what I'm trying to say, then I feel like I'm doing all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MVULA: (Singing) Want to just start a way out of the blue. He's going to take her home this time. Say this time would have been the last time.

(APPLAUSE)

HOST: Laura Mvula has stage fright when she first started performing, so I asked her what it was like to play so close to her audience like she did here in such a small, intimate space.

MVULA: Today honestly felt good. I don't think I always look in people's faces, like, as - I think especially when I'm doing my more intimate songs that are quite personal, I always feel it's a bit accusing if I stare in someone's face when I singing quite a personal lyric. I kind of like people to feel that they have their own private space and not have me invade it with my eyes, you know, but maybe for, like, more upbeat things. And then it's cool to dance with people, and I think it's a bit different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MVULA: (Singing) You, you got (unintelligible)...

HOST: Laura Mvula, her debut album is called "Sing to the Moon." It is out now. She performed a Tiny Desk concert when she visited our studios recently. You can see that in a few weeks at nprmusic.org. Laura, it's been so fun to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MVULA: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MVULA: (Singing) Maybe the sky (unintelligible) in another place.

HOST: This is WEEKEND EDITION. From NPR News, I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.