Describing herself as “hard as balls with a gentle spirit”, Laura Mvula is quite possibly the most sincere celebrity we’ve ever met. Stylist talks heart-to-heart with the singer about finding strength in music
Photography: Julian Broad
I’m crying in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in London while Laura Mvula looks on, gently telling me not to worry. A few minutes later, she’s getting teary too. It’s all rather surprising – for me, at least. I’ve never cried in an interview before. Because really it wasn’t meant to be like this. The plan was: go to the RA, look at some art, talk about her new album, go back to the office. But the best laid plans aren’t as candid as Laura Mvula; they don’t lay their soul bare on their daily struggles with anxiety and depression, the ex that broke their heart, their divorce, the power of music to heal and what she owes her family – and it’s that bit that got me. Got us both.
It’s fair to say that interviewing Mvula is akin to going on a journey. She talks openly, wildly so, long monologues full of reflection and smart observations. She shows me WhatsApp messages from her family, sent to her in her darkest times. Pictures of her new kitten. She’s an absolute badass, but there’s also something incredibly vulnerable about her. When our coffees and muffins arrive, she asks if she can have mine instead. And while her voice – with its soft Birmingham accent acquired growing up in Kings Heath – is mostly crisp and clear, at times I strain to hear her as she becomes introspective.
Visually, Mvula is undeniably striking. It’s blindingly obvious, even though she doesn’t take off her giant Versace sunglasses, not even when we move inside. I can’t help thinking they act as some kind of protective superhero visor, but they also help cover her tiredness. “I’m struggling at the moment because I’m not sleeping,” she explains. An inability to sleep is something she has often struggled with – linked, I think, in part to the anxiety and depression she has suffered for several, if not more, years. Her hair is cropped incredibly close to her head, her make-up impeccable and I’m coveting her tropical-print Adidas slides. In the classical enclave of the Royal Academy, Mvula is something of an enigma. And she is utterly at ease, barely noticing anyone around her, focusing entirely on our conversation.
Recently 30, Mvula is now three years on from her debut album, Sing To The Moon, which was a life-changing album in every sense. It took her from a music supply teacher – Mvula studied composition at Birmingham Conservatoire – to a Mercury-nominated artist (2013) in the blink of an eye. Suddenly Mvula was heralded as one to watch, starring in M&S ads, appearing on chat shows and lauded by the likes of Prince. But she was also experiencing panic attacks that had plagued her since her parents divorced in her mid-20s. Her relationship with her father Elford faltered, but she stayed close to her mum Paula, her brother James and sister Dionne – who now both work with her. Then two years ago, Mvula herself went through a divorce from husband Themba, who she met as a student.
And now it’s 2016, and here we are, two women getting emotional, talking about Mvula’s latest work The Dreaming Room. It’s an honest behemoth of an album that veers between heart-wrenching (Show Me Love) to racially politicised (People) to anthemic (Phenomenal Woman). All strung together with Mvula’s heaven-sent vocals. It’s taken a lot to make this album but it was a battle worth fighting…
You’re an art fan [Mvula suggested that we meet at the RA]. What’s the last piece of art you saw that really moved you?
The last time I was here I was drawn to one piece which was a short film with this girl basically doing nothing. It would cut to these random places where she was doing random stuff. I was entranced just watching this girl sit in the park.
Why did you enjoy it so much?
I think it’s because my life feels everything but mundane. I have found with a little bit of exposure, you become almost taken up with that. You start considering your public profile more than mundane sh*t, which is a bit scary. I think that piece made me realise how little I’m living in the moment.
Does that make you sad?
Yeah! Which is why I recently rented a new flat in Shoreditch. I was living with my assistant, which was super intense for both of us. So between my family and my management we made a decision that I would try to take steps towards independence and get my own space. I still get help though. There’s a lady from a carers’ agency who stays with me [Mvula’s panic attacks mean she is often terrified to be by herself – the carer is there to be a support and look after her in that sense].
She stays every day but it’s temporary. Hopefully for a few months while I get on my feet. It’s baby steps. Having my own space has brought some of that mundaneness back to my everyday life. There’s some normality, it’s really precious. I got a kitten three weeks ago and caring for another living thing and something else being dependant on me has really helped shape my focus. It has really made things feel like there’s less of a magnifying glass over my head.
Is the dream to live alone one day?
Ironically, I don’t want that forever; I just want to know that I can.
And you don’t feel like you’re strong enough for that yet?
Not yet, although I’m much closer than I ever was. The carer thing is an enabling process, so I’m not smothered, it’s my space.
What do you think has helped you with that move forwards?
I think it was talking about my marriage and that I felt ashamed that I had failed. Then also speaking out more frankly about my anxiety and making an album that I’m endlessly proud of. Also, I experienced very real heartbreak. I split up with my husband a couple of years ago, then I had a relationship I thought was the most real thing I had ever experienced and it turned out not to be. That was actually my first real heart mash- up. I had never experienced anything like that.
How did you stop that break-up consuming you?
By realising that I’m a phenomenal woman. And now I can say that with a sense of truth. Knowing that I’m not defined by these amazing or terrifying experiences. Sh*t really does happen, whether it’s amazing or leaves you on the floor. I’m still me and I’m excited for the future now.
Is that a new feeling for you?
Oh yeah. Everyone knows I struggle with depression, I was great at spiralling, having an ‘Oh no, I’m not getting up today’ tantrum. I think the album helped me a lot. Music is so life-giving to me personally. I’m fuelled by it.
Is there anyone from the world of music who has particularly supported you?
Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child constantly checks in. She is someone who has spoken openly about struggling with depression. When she was in the UK recently she had asked to meet up with me – gosh, I’m getting teary – and I was having one of those mornings where I couldn’t get out of bed. Imagine, this is a woman I haven’t met yet, we have just spoken a lot over the last two years and she says, “I’m here. Let’s meet up”, and I can’t get out of bed. But she was like, “I totally understand where you’re at. Even if you’re in your pyjamas, I can come to you, you can come with me to church.” She was so gracious and so kind. It made me feel understood.
Can you verbalise what you were feeling; how something was stopping you do the thing you most desperately wanted to do?
It’s like I get to a point where I am numb to everything around me. I have no feeling. I have no motivation to get out of bed. It’s not physical tiredness but mental tiredness, I just give up. My mum – and again, I’m getting emotional – doesn’t get to see me often and sometimes I will watch my phone ring three times and she can’t get me. I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to pick up the phone. I’ll see someone on WhatsApp say ‘can someone check on Laura’. I should mention a really important new friend of mine who sings with me in my band – she’s called Baby Sol. She has this gift that I’m fascinated by; she’s someone who can be so consistently and not annoyingly full of life. In my childhood somewhere, that got crushed.
Is that something you want to find again? How can you do that?
Yeah, as much as I think my ex-boyfriend was a b*****d, he would say, “Baby, get out your head”, and he was right. Planning is huge, to stop feeling like my life is dictated by this schedule I have no control over. Knowing I’m going to be working out, not eating sh*t on the tour bus. Things like that all make a difference.
Are you good at recognising your triggers?
Yes. When I see romantic love around me and I think ‘Oh sh*t, I’m 30’ or I see a newborn. I know that I’m making music and it’s great, but as my mum’s oldest child… it’s a big trigger for me and I have to watch out for it.
Where did the title of the album The Dreaming Room come from?
I need to credit it to my therapist. She talked about this place I could exist in in my mind where I am authentically myself, where I’m not making anything mean anything. Things just are. It’s where I am most free. I realised the music I was making at the time made me feel like that.
Was it hard for you to go to therapy?
[Laughs] I’m too self-indulgent, I just love talking about myself. I also grew up in church and in some church communities, it’s normal to speak to someone regularly about yourself and your relationship with God.
How does living with anxiety work with being a creative in the public eye?
I think it’s partly what fuels it. My therapist says try not to judge your anxiety because it’s part of you, it’s because you feel things so deeply. It’s your body’s way of trying to cope with all that wonderful experience, because it has been a literal mindf**k. Entering music college, I thought I had arrived. Then my parents divorcing – that was hugely life-changing. That was a different kind of trauma, it was a rebirth but I woke the f**k up. I then got married myself, my music journey started, I was putting albums out, and then I divorced. It has just been a lot, but all of those things are a part of who I am.
Do you feel like you’re quite resilient now?
Yeah, hard as balls. Hopefully with a gentle spirit. I’ve had to grow up quickly. It was either sink or swim, and this industry is no joke.
Have there been times you wanted to walk away from it all?
All the time [laughs] – yesterday. It’s really up and down.
How do you get through those moments?
I try and live in an atmosphere of creativity – whether it’s listening to my songs or other peoples’. I have found savouring moments and learning to be your own navigator helps; you are the master of your own destiny. It’s hard for people-pleasers like me to say no or yes because I’m constantly thinking, ‘How is this going to make them not like me?’ I try to express myself as freely and as regularly as possible. And to have people around you who can deal with that and say “Hey Lau, do you want to meet for a coffee?”
Are you able to be open with your family?
My family are the main reason I can still function. I’d made a choice not to tell my mum certain things because I’m aware of how she worries but recently things became very stressful for me; I knew that I needed her. It makes me very emotional [to talk about]. I knew I needed to lean on my family, but it felt like a risk. We have a family WhatsApp group and I copied loads of emails into it and said, “I don’t know how to deal with all of this.” My mum just said, “Know that you’re loved, it’s going to be OK.” I realised I can’t do it on my own. As much as I’m growing up and becoming singularly strong, I needed to tear down that wall of protection and let them hold me, let them carry me.
Does talking about difficult times help?
It gives me back my humanity, it makes me breathe. I’ve always been overly analytical. I need to give myself mental space to cope.
What do you owe your family?
I’m going to get emotional again, I think it’s because I know that not everybody has it where [their family] would just do anything for [them]. They make me feel protected and loved unconditionally. Essentially my life has gone in the opposite direction to the way I was raised. It was extremely difficult for my mum to face my divorce, let alone her own. It has been f**king hard but she will still say exactly what she thinks and feels. It’s this thing we have within our family, this way of communicating so honestly.
What about your dad? You’ve had a complex relationship with him [Father, Father on her debut album was about their estrangement]. Have you been able to rebuild that at all?
It’s still really complicated. We don’t talk very much but we have made steps towards each other so I still have a lot of hope. I was sad when he didn’t make an effort to spend time with me on my 30th birthday recently. I found that really rough because it felt like such a nice day for me.
How did you celebrate that occasion?
I had a surprise birthday party which was immense. Everyone was there, it was just really special. It helped stop me sometimes thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got no friends.’ I often felt like I don’t have a normal close-knit friendship circle like I used to. I have really changed my attitude when it comes to friendships and I have really made a lot of effort with friendship groups.
Your single Phenomenal Woman is inspired by a Maya Angelou poem of the same name which includes the line, “I’m a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me.” Can you tell me more about that?
People who experience depression will know there’s a window of time which feels very small but it’s the choice period: I could wash, I could make breakfast, I could go to work or I could just stay in bed and not move. One morning I managed to get up and made myself work out. I was about to shower and thought, ‘I need Maya Angelou. I need to hear her voice.’ I remember standing in front of the mirror [listening to the poem on YouTube] and being like, ‘This time, this stuff, the essence of what she says has to literally enter my being, this has to become real.’
There’s also a song called Kiss My Feet, which is such a great name…
Do you know the story with that? I thought I was in love – maybe I should just say I was – and I named the song after him. He broke up with me a few days before the album was finalised. It nearly went into production with the original title and it’s only because of my Jedi PA who sent a thousand emails that we got it changed at the very last moment.
You speak so honestly about your own struggles and the industry. Do you see yourself as a role model at all?
I see myself as the part of western society that western society won’t face. I am here, in the same way that you are here. It’s so bizarre when black women say to me, “You’re so revolutionary for your natural hair.” It’s 2016. As much as I want to be like, “Right on, sister. I’m there for you”, why is that a thing today? It’s a very bizarre time, but also very exciting. From where I’m standing, it feels like there’s a rumble in the atmosphere.
So, after everything you’ve been through, what does this album mean to you?
I have never worked so hard on anything in my life. For a while I wasn’t even sure I could do anything, so to do something that I’m beyond proud of, it’s like, how did that even happen? I’m getting to experience something that’s not just outside of myself, it’s tangibly a part of who I am. I get to revel in it. And even the painful aspects of it are somewhat pleasurable because I can see how far I have come.
The Dreaming Room by Laura Mvula is out 17 June