For so many reasons, musical and extra-musical, 2016 has seen Laura Mvula’s art both soar to the top of popular charts whilst simultaneously penetrating further into the alternative sphere. Impulsively creative, if she has not been singing for the Queen on Remembrance Sunday, she has been covering David Bowie’s risqué ‘Girl Loves Me’ in front of a packed Royal Albert Hall. After a few years of well-documented turbulence in her private life, Laura Mvula seems to have found her groove.
Tonight one thing is clear; Mvula has not given in to the temptations and indulgences of pop stardom. Though she may be the voice of House of Fraser’s Christmas advert, and a recent sensation on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, this evening does not imply the realm of such dizzying heights of public recognition. There is no merchandise on sale, no expensive meet & greets, and no promotion or sign of her newly repackaged (just in time for Christmas) album, ‘The Dreaming Room Special Edition’.
Onstage this is even more pronounced—throughout the set there are no frills, no ocular fireworks, and new single, ‘Ready Or Not’, is not even mentioned, let alone performed. Visually, Mvula commands the stage, with her band in an ornithological v-formation behind. For almost ninety minutes there is simply music making, a lean towards simplicity which never makes for boring performance. This is music full of left turns. It may be (very successful) pop music, but Mvula’s classical background is evident. Chord progressions twist and turn in unruly directions, while melodies snake everywhere they are not expected to. It is though her magnificently trained and perfectly formed voice that grips the attention of all present.
In ‘Bread’ she invites the audience into a more melodically complex than normal sing-a-long of refrain “lay the breadcrumbs down, down”. It takes a few repeats before she is confident enough to leave the audience singing along, but so hushed is the room at this point the line becomes a sort of eerie, hummed requiem. Otherwise the set is largely buoyant and full of danceable grooves and hooks, but there are many moments of restraint and subtlety. The centre of the set sees Mvula sit behind a piano. Alone with her voice she is more personal and off-guard, so much so that by the end of ‘Show Me Love’ tears are running down her cheeks. If 2016 has been the year of ‘post-truthism’, then tonight is possibly one rare exception when you can believe every single word that is said.
Her backing band includes two younger siblings, and she talks at length of her family, background, and upbringing throughout. Her soft afro-futurist aesthetic references everyone from Nina Simone to Sun Ra, and her refusal to bow to anything but her own inclinations may have provoked criticism for a lack of adventure from some, but this is ultimately an endearing feature, and key in explaining why her appeal has grown so broad this year.
The Nina Simone comparisons are perhaps too easy, and have oversaturated many a review and comment of her music. However, obvious similarities aside, it is the confidence, the originality, the political edge, and the immense and unique power that propels this music, even in its softest and most vulnerable moments, that conjures images of the great Eunice. It is empowering to watch, and deeply moving. Never has one seen someone so incredibly happy to be on stage.
Ultimately, her emotion and message may be preaching to the converted, but if that does nothing more than strengthen the resolve and community within the individuals that comprise her audience, then she stands to only fuel the potential for 2016’s dreaming to build 2017’s reality. What a narrative to take to the world stage.
Words by William Crosby