Whatever your stance on the annual Mercury Music Prize shortlist recrimination frenzy, no one can deny the effect that even nomination can have on an artist in terms of sales, coverage and self-confidence. So with a Mercury nod in the bag, how is the self-effacing Laura Mvula feeling as she headlines the Shepherds Bush Empire on a Friday night?
“How much did they pay you to be here?” she demands, subtly imposing centre stage in an odd combination of Virgin Mary-style headscarf and humungous spike-heels. “There’s people upstairs as well.” False modesty is a practised stage shtick, but with Mvula, a genuine from-nowhere phenomenon, it rings truer than most. The smoky charms of the following ‘Is There Anybody Out There’, with its glittering furl of harp and a sweet singalong snatch of Marley’s ‘One Love’ tacked on to the end, though, do all the chest-puffing necessary. There’s a decidedly 70s cosmic wonder to Mvula’s jazzy, psychedelic tunes, and her crack band give full-flight to her elaborate, lushly arranged songs.
Opener ‘Like The Morning Dew’ eases you into her sound-world, soothed by Mvula’s rich purr but rolling smoothly into a scintillating explosion of harmony. ‘She’ is another particular standout, with a Bjorkish jazzy twinkle that segues without falter into a more formidable, muscular soul incarnation.
Mvula herself is understated charm incarnate, wooing her already rapt crowd with an intro to ‘Flying Without You’, which she describes as “about a little girl” before conceding, “let’s not beat around the bush… it’s about me when I was 15”. The song charms no less with its tale of overcoming unrequited love couched in a curious clapping rhythm.
If there’s a downside at all, it’s that Mvula’s key parts can sometimes err on the over-twinkly-twee, but it’s the tiniest of gripes, and the bareness of the soul ballad ‘Sing To The Moon’ swings the balance back the other way with impressive heft.
Mvula is all humble thanks, leaving the stage to allow full focus on her band during her encore, ‘Make Me Lovely’, but we don’t escape tonight without a linguistic lesson.
“A lot of people say it ‘Muhvula’,” she lectures. “It’s not correct to say that. Pretend you taste something nice and say… Mmmmmmvula.”
Let the judges decide as they will come October; an organic talent like this will taste sweet on lips and ears for years to come.