Laura Mvula might be about to play Glastonbury but she's never been to a festival before

A year ago, Laura Mvula was working as a receptionist. Now she's playing Glastonbury and Latitude. It's been quite a journey, she tells Gillian Orr

When Laura Mvula hits the festival circuit this summer – she's booked to play Glastonbury, Latitude and V – it will certainly be an interesting experience for the 25-year-old from Birmingham; she's never been to a festival before.

“I suppose it's kind of weird for the first time I ever go to one to be playing it. But I reckon it will be fun. Everybody's always saying how amazing they are,” she says, sipping a cup of tea in her manager's office in Camden.

This year has already been one of many firsts for the singer. Signed only last year, Mvula and her impressive voice have drawn comparisons with everyone from Billie Holiday to Amy Winehouse (although, in truth, she refuses to be neatly pigeonholed). Her strikingly original compositions that take in classical, jazz, gospel and soul, quickly built her an ardent following among critics and music fans. Coming fourth in the BBC Sound of 2013 poll at the beginning of the year, she was then shortlisted for the Brits Critics' Choice Award, which meant she found herself on the red carpet for the first time in February.

“I didn't want to get out of the car because I thought I was going to look like an idiot. I'm not very ladylike,” she laughs. “My face on the red carpet was so stupid though. I mean what can prepare you for that? I thought people were going to be like, 'Who are you?' but actually everyone was really nice. It was surreal to be there; the year before I was watching it on the sofa with my mum.”

March saw the release of her debut album, Sing to the Moon, which garnered rave reviews and debuted in the top 10. Despite proclamations of greatness from much of the music media, Mvula found it difficult to read the reviews.

“I had to do it with one eye closed,” she recalls. “I'm really sensitive, which is probably not a great thing, but then I kind of need that for my songs. It's an interesting learning time for me. I love the connection you have to fans through Twitter, who will tell you that they're listening and about a lyric they like. But the review side of things is interesting because it's so permanent. I try not to let it get too into my mind because otherwise it becomes destructive.”

Unusually, this year has also seen Mvula perform her first full headline shows. Often artists are forced to play their material for years until someone takes note, but Mvula did things the other way around, recording the songs and then wondering how to reproduce the lush orchestrations and harmonies in a live setting.

“I remember when I first started doing the record and we were talking to publishers, the main question would always be, 'How are you going to do this live?'” she says. “At that point I was going around singing with a keyboard and I'd try to use positive language, saying things like, 'Oh yes it's going to be an interesting challenge.' Very quickly we understood that everyone who was going to play in the band would need to be able to sing as well. This feels like quite a specific project.”

Her band includes her two siblings – her sister Dionne plays violin and her brother James, the cello (both contribute vocals too). They're joined on the road by a double bassist, a harpist and someone who plays keys and trumpet. “It's a mishmash of talent and it's quite eclectic,” she says proudly. “It's kind of an experiment and we have to find a way to make it work. But everyone is so integral, which I think gives us a different energy.”

She talks enthusiastically about her band – “I'm just in love with them all at the moment!” – which is a good thing given that she'll be spending the best part of the year with them. After some upcoming US shows, she tours the UK at the end of this month before supporting Paloma Faith on her arena tour in June. Then there are the many international festival commitments and another headline tour in September, which includes one night at Shepherd's Bush Empire.

It's quite a leap forward for Mvula to be playing the 2,000-capacity venue when a year ago, no one had heard of her. After studying composition at Birmingham Conservatoire, she flirted with music teaching but knew she had to at least try to make it as a singer. She was working as a receptionist for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra when she got an email from producer Steve Brown (known for his work with Rumer) who had listened to her 90-second home demos of “Green Gardens” and “She”, and said he was interested in working with her. That was just over 18 months ago.

“I'd emailed a number of people but I wasn't really expecting to get anything back. But Steve told me to keep writing and that I was onto something. It's amazing. I think if nothing else, his kindness proved to me there are still people out there who really care and listen, and who are on the lookout for things that excite them.”

Growing up in Kings Heath, Birmingham, Mvula took up the piano and violin when she was at primary school, and began singing with her aunt's a cappella gospel group, Black Voices, as a teenager. She is not sure why she and her siblings were encouraged to play instruments (her mother is a teacher, her father is in social work, and although fond of music, niether is particularly musical). They wound up playing at weddings and conferences around Birmingham as the Douglas String Trio (Douglas is Mvula's maiden name. She married her musician husband three years ago after meeting him at university).

Mvula also talks fondly of her days playing in the Birmingham Schools' String Sinfonia. “We used to rehearse every Saturday morning in a school hall; it was all wood so it had the most amazing acoustic. The sound was so intense and lush, and it was a great way of learning about the orchestra. That's when my love of harmony developed too. I think a lot of songs on the album are me recreating that; it's the nostalgia I have for those sounds, the orchestra and the gospel”, she says wistfully. “I think in terms of my music, the material was part of a determination to celebrate the music of my childhood.”

As for the future, Mvula cites the influence of artists such as Lizz Wright and Esperanza Spalding who make “incredible” music and are about more than just the records they put out. “Lizz Wright is so interesting, she has this thing about gardening and cooking – that's a big part of her too. Esperanza Spalding teaches and gives lectures. I've always been passionate about teaching and for me that's very familiar.”

She would also like to use her position to encourage the next generation. “If this lasts for me and I manage to sustain a career I'd like to see myself as somebody who will be looking at what is coming up and helping people out, like Steve did with me. To pass it on.”

As for 2013, she's just trying to catch her breath. “I don't get much time at the moment to let things sink in. Maybe that's a good thing because I might collapse. From the time the Sound poll and the Brits Critics' Choice came in, things just went bonkers. But I can't articulate how important it's been having my family alongside me at this point.”

She's also slowly getting used to being a bit famous. “People have started asking me for my autograph, which is funny. The first one I did I forgot to put my name, I just wrote 'Much Love' and walked off. How embarrassing!” It really has been a year of firsts.

Laura Mvula's debut album, 'Sing to the Moon', is out now. Her UK tour begins at the end of April and she plays Latitude Festival on 18 - 21 July. lauramvula.com; latitudefestival.com

*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar magazine

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions