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