Release Date: Jun 17, 2016
Record label: RCA
Laura Mvula's second album, The Dreaming Room, is infinitely more experimental than the soul-gospel of 2013's Sing to the Moon. Its aim to disorient, overwhelm and keep listeners off-kilter (and not knowing what comes next) is intentional; like a dream, it feels like a subconscious succession of visuals, emotions and ideas — sometimes abstract, sometimes allegorical, but always dredging up something for the conscious mind to ponder. The Dreaming Room is this and more.Mvula's struggles with anxiety and panic attacks have been documented, and this album confronts them forthrightly.
Laura Mvula has a way with communicating matters that relate to the self. "If all I am is wrong/ And I have is gone/ And all I have is gone / Then how am I to live? / I can only be who am I”, she reflects as a blanket of starry sonics and whimsical xylophones nuzzles her words. It’s the first thought that comes out of the Birmingham singer-songwriter’s latest offering, The Dreaming Room, an apropos way of describing a celestial moment that is otherwise mired in uncertainly.
Ever since the days of Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick, there’s never been a shortage of big voiced soul divas jostling for attention, but every once in a while a new artist emerges who is lazily bracketed in that category when they’re actually doing something quite different to anyone else. Midlands singer/songwriter Laura Mvula is a great example of this. While she certainly has a soul/gospel background – her CV includes a spell as Director of the Lichfield Community Gospel Choir – and a wonderfully rich, expressive voice, she also boasts a degree in composition from the Birmingham Conservatoire which is at least as big an influence upon her bold, ambitious music.
In the best possible way, the rise of Laura Mvula seemed like a case of the public being sold goods under false pretences. Before her debut album, Sing to the Moon, arrived in 2013, she was touted as the latest in a profitable line of MOR singer-songwriters with a retro-soul twist, who’d been brought to attention via the BBC’s Sound of poll and the Brits critics’ choice award. A certain kind of audience was primed to expect something comfortingly familiar: articles in women’s magazines compared her voice to Nina Simone’s; the legendary home of incisive music criticism that is Hello! magazine pronounced her “the new Adele”.
Laura Mvula, the soul singer from Birmingham, England, doesn’t really sound like anyone but herself. She’s often compared to other neo-soul artists, both those who shared her classical training, like Amy Winehouse, and those who don’t, like Jill Scott. The shoe that fits best doesn’t quite fit anyone: Mvula shares considerable DNA with Nina Simone, most obviously in her unyielding charisma, her musical virtuosity, and her profoundly central blackness.
Laura Mvula 'The Dreaming Room' (RCA Records)Written in her producer’s garden shed rather than the confines of a studio, Laura Mvula sounds confident and free throughout her second album. She enlists Nile Rodgers’ funky basslines on lead single ‘Overcome’, while ‘People’, a collaboration with Wretch 32, is inspired by “the crisis of black identity in the west”. Elsewhere, the hymn-like ‘Show Me Love’ reveals Mvula’s captivating vocal like a peacock showing its feathers before grand instruments add a cinematic touch, and ‘Kiss My Feet’ is a mass of disjointed beats, SBTRKT-like synths and stark lyrics about loss.
Laura Mvula’s sound has skyward tendencies: choral harmonies, rounds and repetitions, overdubs, reverbs, chimes pull it high; the rhythm section (when there is one) tends subtle and sparse. On her second album, the Birmingham, England native builds out what her 2013 debut, “Sing to the Moon,” anticipated, with musicians including guitarist John Scofield, bassist Michael Olatuja, and a large ensemble from the London Symphony Orchestra. Mvula runs the show — she’s a church-forged singer, a conservatory-trained composer, and a sensitive lyricist; her songs have the sophistication and idiosyncracy of a singular talent.
The English singer Laura Mvula’s exceptional second album seems a feat of self-actualization, full of lyrics about managing psycho-spiritual highs and lows, often both at once: “I feel lost and found/at the same damn time,” she sings in “Kiss My Feet.” That is the sort of thing that has become nearly necessary for entry into the pop-music sphere. (She has recently given interviews about turmoil in her life that is not identified per se in the songs: panic attacks and a marriage breakup.) But the album is also a broad feat of traditional and technical musicality, which isn’t so necessary for that sphere, and which sets her slightly apart from pop. She plans out her own space and commands it.