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Upfront: Laura Mvula

The ultimate free spirit

Words by Acclaim

Laura Mvula’s, The Dreaming Room is the antidote for the soul. “I’m free, baby” she says, in response to her recent departure from Sony. Her single ‘Overcome’ is the ultimate stress relief, and she provides nourishment with strong themes of spirituality and self throughout the album. She wants her listeners to feel something visceral with each song, and the afrocentric/psychedelic vibes, combined with the lyrical journey of identity, makes the album an otherworldly experience.

My introduction to you was through, ‘Overcome’. That song frees you from your worries and it comforts you. I know you’ve  been quite open and honest about your struggle with anxiety and I feel like, ‘Overcome’ is the answer to those feelings. How does your struggle with anxiety inform your creative process?

I need this music selfishly, almost more than the need to create it. I needed something to remind me about the innate hope, that I think resides in all of us, even when it makes no sense, because all kinds of things happen in life, that make us feel as though there’s no point in continuing. I was raised by, “there’s always beauty in suffering, there’s always something to be treasured, there’s always strength from something”. I put it in song form.

‘Nan’ was my personal favourite from the album, I like how you allow us to get so close. We get a real intimacy from the conversation between you and your nan, and I feel like what she says outlines the themes of the album – there’s family, looking after yourself, and spirituality. How much of a role do these play in your life?

I think it defines me. It defines me because I am so in touch with expressing what I’m feeling in the moment because I feel expertly trained by my mum. My mum is the ultimate nurturer, the ultimate giver, and empathiser. She’s the kind of woman who would watch things on the news and weep; like, if a child was lost, she would feel it very viscerally. I grew up with that so it makes sense that I express this in music, as fully as I possibly can.

The Dreaming Room is my most recent and successful attempt to express everything that I was feeling at that time. I was going through a divorce with my ex-husband and I was struggling with being vocal about my anxiety and journey. Lots of people say things like, “Oh you’re so courageous” but at the time, it didn’t feel like it because I was just saying what was on my mind, I was telling my story. It wasn’t until afterwards, that I realised, “Oh my goodness, I’ve just exposed myself to the world”.

Your visuals are extremely strong and striking: from your look, to your album art, and your music videos. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

When anybody says anything about visuals or styling, the first mental image I have is of two artists – Earth Wind and Fire and Micheal Jackson or The Jacksons. I literally think about things that are otherworldly. ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’ is like that psychedelic sparkliness and with Earth Wind and Fire… it’s the same kind of afrocentric/sci-fi-centric.

For videos like, ‘Overcome’ and ‘Phenomenal Woman’ – with all the colour – I had put together a visual essay before I made the album, in the hopes that it would make it clear to any future collaborators. Whether it was the record label themselves, other artists, stylists, or videographers – they could see part of my imagination and interpret it.

I was always imagining myself as a creature – half woman, half bird. In ‘Phenomenal Woman’, I wanted to be the queen that I know myself to be, but the feeling and the truth of it often slips through my fingers, so it was an opportunity for every woman that I know, and don’t know, to express that to the max through African print, afrocentric style, vibrancy, unapologetic colour, and skin. It’s such a wonderful thing for people to be proud of, even if they don’t get the music, they’ll say things like, “Your visuals are something else”.

You’re vocal about diversity in music and the importance of your own black identity. How important do you think it is for people to fully realise their cultural identity in today’s political climate?

Oh my goodness, it’s imperative today. For us, for our children, and our children’s children. I am so passionate about this, fluid concept we call identity. I think the chaos of the world, the disasters, the tragedy, the corruption, the hypocrisy, I think [a lot] of it comes from a lack of knowing who we are, and a disconnect with who other people are. I think it’s really important, even if we don’t have concrete answers, to begin the dialogue and the dialogue needs to be open.

You’re no longer with Sony, where’s your head at in terms of your next move and where you want to take your career in 2017?

I’m free, baby! I’ve just realised that I got caught up in whole major label thing, which is understandable. I was signed five years ago, but I’ve realised now that my talent is so broad. Today, I’m writing the music for The Royal Shakespeare Company, Antony and Cleopatra, which is the biggest commission that I’ve had to date as a composer. There’s no formula when it comes to figuring out what I want to do and how I want to do it, the vision is broad, and it’s really strong – you are going to see me everywhere. I’m doing what I hope will be really important things, and I have no idea yet, whether that will be with or without a label. But I am enjoying running wild.

Laura Mvula will be playing in Melbourne, Sydney, and Bluesfest Byron Bay in April. Tickets available here.

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Yemisul is a contributor for Acclaim. She’s a Louis Theroux wannabe with an unquenchable thirst for reality TV – @yemisul

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