As she gears up to release her new album The Dreaming Room in June, British singer-songwriter Laura Mvula talks to Patrick Kelleher about trying to find inspiration for the new album and finding new influences.
Second album syndrome is a terrifying concept for musicians. They release a critically acclaimed debut – and then the second album comes. Dry, boring and turgid, fans are left disappointed, and critics are left asking ‘what happened?’ Luckily, this hasn’t happened to British singer-songwriter Laura Mvula, although she did spend a considerable amount of time fearing slipping into its grip. It is now over three years since she released her acclaimed debut, Sing to the Moon; in the intervening years, she’s been mostly trying to find out what she wants to say on a new album. That question has finally been answered. The Dreaming Room is set to be released in June, and despite all the soul-searching, Mvula is pretty happy with the result.
“I started writing The Dreaming Room about a year and a half ago,” she says. “When I say writing, I mean I literally sketched out about thirty seconds of music, because I struggled so much at the beginning to settle down and focus… I was so terrified – the air of anticipation around me, the thing in myself of wanting to do something exciting and new, but not being sure where it was gonna come from and how it was gonna happen. Feeling like I was in that place for too long, because it feels like there’s a timeline on everything in the music industry. Everything has to happen now, and I wasn’t used to that. I was ready to take my holiday in the Caribbean after Sing To The Moon!”
Her debut skyrocketed upon its release in 2013, something that came as a surprise to the singer. She concedes that nobody expected it to do what it did, but eventually, she accepted its success. “I thought I’d made enough of a mark to kind of bow out for a bit.” This wasn’t entirely true, however – because almost immediately, the second album question cropped up.
“I remember doing a Graham Norton radio show – I swear it was in the same sort of year as Sing To The Moon had been out – and he was like ‘so where’s album two?’ and I remember thinking ‘what? what is this?’ And sure enough, those same questions came pretty much one after another after that,” she says. “So I just took two or three trips – random trips – with the aim of writing. I went to Italy for a couple of weeks, I went to New York – two different trips – and all of them were, depending on how you look at it, unsuccessful if you look at it in the sense that I didn’t come away with an album of songs.”
After trying to replicate the momentum behind the writing of Sing to the Moon for months, it eventually came to her in New York. “It was only on the third trip to New York that I came away with these five sort of sketches. I really had to search – it was the kind of clichéd looking out the window, watching the snow fall – it was that bad. But I have to say, when it came, it was like mustard seeds. They were tiny, but they were beastly in their richness. And I had a sense of that long before they blossomed into the pieces that they are today. But I have to say, it was such a long process for me, I don’t just mean in terms of literal time, but what it felt like. You know when it’s like you’re in school and it’s February and you start thinking about the six weeks in summer? Like it’s so far away and so distant, you almost don’t believe it’s ever going to come – that’s how it felt.”
“I’ve enjoyed re-exposing myself and putting myself in positions where I am free to move basically, and the music has been a stimulus behind that idea.”
Once the magic started, it didn’t stop – and all the while, New York remained central for Mvula. “Troy Miller, who produced the record with me, asked me where in the world do I want to be making this record, and I said New York, because by that time I had developed such an affinity with the place.” Once they started working on the album, things continued to grow. “I feel like this time, we went in on the detail so much more, because we were creating a whole sound world now – not just presenting songs, which is of course a beautiful art form – but this felt like an entirely different adventure, through using synthesizers – old synthesizers – and distorted guitar, which were alien to me… Those things were new to me before The Dreaming Room.” The process was experimental for everyone involved. “We were honing in on details and also learning how to look at the whole picture.”
What is obvious is that Mvula had to adapt hugely in order to create this album. In order to make something entirely different from what she had previously done, she had to look at what she was trying to convey. The result is that one of the major feelings coming from The Dreaming Room is one of freedom.
“I think it’s quite sexy in the true sense of the word,” she explains. “To me, sexy means extremely at home in one’s skin.” It is this sexiness – this desire to make something truly hers, that forms the core of the album. “I had always said that I wanted to make songs that I could dance to, because I think somewhere along the line as a kid – I used to dance very much as a kid – I guess with growing a bit older, you get a bit body conscious. Suddenly you forget how to move, or you feel too aware of your movements. And I’ve enjoyed re-exposing myself and putting myself in positions where I am free to move basically, and the music has been a stimulus behind that idea.”
The Dreaming Room isn’t entirely removed from Sing to the Moon, however. “It’s still fragile, it’s still got the vulnerability of Sing To The Moon, because after all, I think that’s my DNA, as it were,” she says. “The thing that draws people in mostly is that so far, I’ve always written music that is to do with matters of the heart, and about the things that we’re quite clever at masking within our reserved culture. So I’ve been happy to have my music play, have that function of encouraging people to express themselves, or to be moved, or to sort of become comfortable with expressing emotion, whatever it is. That’s definitely all still in The Dreaming Room.” Perhaps it is that sense of “whatever it is” about Mvula’s music that makes it so triumphant and beautiful. Whatever that feeling is, it’s sure to make as much of an impact as Sing to the Moon did – or perhaps much more.
The Dreaming Room will be released on 17th June.