Birmingham singer songwriter Laura Mvula has been thrust into the musical limelight since quitting her job as a CBSO receptionist to pursue her dream. She talks to Alison Jones about humble beginnings and her rise to fame.
Back when she was a young girl growing up in Selly Park and Kings Heath, Laura Mvula’s greatest desire was to be a member of the shortlived R&B group Eternal.
“I was majorly into them. I think that is when I really started to pay attention to singing in a different way to the way we did in church,” she explains.
Then Laura Douglas, she would learn the dance routines, imitate the vocals, cajole her younger brother and sister, James and Dionne, to provide back up and they would put on performances for the amusement of their parents.
“They were the kind of people who had to respond very quickly when we’d say ‘we have got a dance routine to show you. Be in the front room in five minutes’.
“We’d use the garage as a dance studio and they’d put up with me directing James and Dionne in vocal harmonies in the kitchen.”
While her parents may have personally favoured jazz and traditional gospel, Laura says they encouraged these mini pop concerts because they were always happy to hear their gifted children expressing themselves.
“They loved it, as long as we were being productive and showing imagination.
“It was also our way of expressing deep love for one another, and that is probably why my brother and sister are my closest friends today.”
Laura, 25, admits she abused her position as the oldest sibling to get the others to play or sing along.
“I was a bossy boots. I think because it was music it gave me licence to boss them about.
“If James or Dionne resisted, I would just run to mum and go ‘Make James sing this harmony’ and they would have to comply.
“It was non-stop music in our house and Laura was running the show!” she laughs.
She is still running it as her singing career has suddenly taken off – her single Green Garden is getting heavy radio and TV play, there is an album due for release in March and she has been nominated for the Critic’s Choice award at the Brits.
She is also currently on tour with Jessie Ware and will be performing dates with Paloma Faith in June.
But James and Dionne are right there with her, playing in her band.
“It is a big family thing.
“It is not so great for my mum, Paula, because we are all away at the same time but, yeah, we are all very excited. I am bouncing off the walls.”
Laura is equally thrilled about the fact that her husband, Themba Mvula, is also enjoying his own moment in the spotlight.
“He is a baritone and sings with Ex Cathedra. He has a major role coming up on Good Friday in the St Matthew Passion where he is playing Jesus. It feels like things are getting exciting sort of at the same time. It means life is very busy so time together is very precious but it helps to be from similar worlds because we understand each other.
“We have had to move to central Birmingham so I can hop on the train more easily but whether we move to London or not is one of those ongoing discussions.”
The couple both attended the Birmingham Conservatoire where Laura studied composition.
Given how immersed in music she has been since a very young age (she also sang with Black Voices, the a capella group set up by her aunt, Carol Pemberton) some kind of career involving it was almost inevitable.
However, she had not settled on a definitive path – beyond her adolescent aspirations to join Louise Redknapp’s old girl group.
“I didn’t have a particular vision. If I saw it, heard it and enjoyed it I wanted to be part of it. My parents were always keen for us to study instruments and paid for piano lessons from when I was about eight.
“All of those instrumental lessons – playing in schools, youth orchestras, and as a string trio with my two siblings, which was a significant time for me because I was just becoming interested in arranging, acting as a family band and doing weddings or little events around Birmingham, coupled with singing in church and playing in church – I think all of it has come together as one massive influence.” At the Conservatoire, she was too busy working and learning to worry about what came after.
“When I finished university, it was a little bit of a shock to the system.
“Themba and I were planning to marry and so now we had to make a living.”
She got a part time job as a supply teacher, teaching music, before taking a role as a receptionist for the CBSO.