Album Review | Laura Mvula’s defiant return

With her third studio album, British vocalist Laura Mvula defies the critics who said her music wasn’t mainstream enough and rewards fans with her boldest album to date.

At exactly the time it should’ve taken off, Laura Mvula’s life as a musician came to an abrupt halt. Almost a year had passed since the release of her highly anticipated sophomore album, The Dreaming Room, in 2016. The expectations were generated partly by her critically acclaimed 2013 debut album, Sing to the Moon; Mvula had proven herself a new vocal force.

Her vocal prowess and unconventional use of orchestral elements were stunning, but still not enough to put the ball in the park for her label. Yes, she was a talented, classically trained musician. But with her unconventional approach, could she pull off the same feat twice? She did.

Like her debut, Mvula’s deeply personal second album was released to acclaim, with critics praising the artist for her vulnerability and ability to intersect the personal with the political. The Dreaming Room was the vocalist’s version of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which became the global soundtrack of communities reeling from racial injustice.  

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Like Lamar’s album, Mvula’s found resonance with the mental healthcare movement. Even more so because Mvula had begun speaking publicly about her own struggles with mental health issues, detailing her anxiety in an impassioned interview with The Guardian newspaper. In that moment, Mvula also fully embraced her role as a chronicler of the blues of a millennial generation trying to make sense of late capitalism’s conflict with principles of freedom, if not life itself. 

But despite the album’s reception, Mvula found out in a seven-line email that Sony subsidiary RCA Victor had dropped her from their five-album contract, a process she described as “cold and cruel”. 

Mvula’s treatment by her former label would’ve plunged any artist into a crisis, and that’s exactly what happened. It would take nearly a year before she returned to the stage, as a headline act at the 2017 Cape Town International Jazz Festival. It was a process Mvula has described as something of a pilgrimage.

Learning over triumph

It is against this backdrop of perceived failure and being misunderstood that Mvula returns with her third studio album, Pink Noise. It is a 1980s synth pop-inspired album that sees Mvula forgoing some of the perceived limitations of her previous albums and appearing to adjust her sound for broader audience appeal. 

Pink Noise is less an album about triumph – although that part matters, too – and more about learning. “Another blow to ego,” Mvula sings on the album’s second track, Conditional, perhaps reckoning with the vanities and expectations of superstardom. What to do when an industry suggests you’ve hit the ceiling or your sound is too ambitious? Reinvent. And who’s arguably the most inventive artist of her generation? Laura Mvula (sorry Kanye).

Mvula has relied heavily on her training as a classical artist. Some critics have said that while classical training has enriched her sound, it has also made her a pariah in the mainstream. With a combination of drums (Troy Miller), synthesisers, bass guitar (Karl Rasheed-Abel) and electric guitar (Daniel Hutchinson and Dann Hume), Pink Noise is a departure from that resolute classical training. However, Mvula embraces a more expanded sound without negating the one that won her acclaim.

10 September 2017: Laura Mvula performs at Festival N°6 in Portmeirion, Wales. (Photograph by Katja Ogrin/ Redferns)

The album opens with Safe Passage, a song Mvula describes as part nostalgia and part longing, but is perhaps more appropriately a chorus of affirmation. Mvula is appreciating something that has eluded her for much of her career: stability, from the end of her marriage to losing a coveted recording deal.

“Never imagined I would ever be free, from your story. Staring in the face of it, I finally see, I’m everything I need,” she sings.

But it is the album’s lead track, Church Girl, released in March this year in the lead-up to the album’s release, that best captures the overall theme of Mvula’s new album.

“Who do you think you are? You don’t write the story, baby,” Mvula sings.

A genuine connection

It’s a celebration of all that she has achieved, despite having had her back against the wall so many times. Mvula is no longer “dancing with the devil on her back” or defining herself by her tragedies – she’s embracing her scars, all the while recognising her victories. This is a theme she maintains through the songs Remedy, Got Me, Before Dawn and the title track Pink Noise, a song Mvula describes as literally a “bop”.   

Golden Ashes sees Mvula returning to a subject that has endeared her to so many people: mental health, but with more colour. It is a song Mvula describes as a cry for help on behalf of anyone who feels they’ve lost their voice. She is hoping this approach will encourage more honest conversations.  

Scottish vocalist and guitarist Simon Neil is the only main featured artist in the song What Matters, which Mvula describes as a lullaby anthem. But a plethora of artists such as saxophonist James Gardiner-Bateman and violist Clifton Harrison have contributed to advancing her sound and making Pink Noise a possibility, while Dan Hume and Troy Miller oversee the rest of the production as executive producers. The absence of members of the London Symphony Orchestra is notable on Pink Noise, having contributed to shaping the sound of Mvula’s two previous albums.  

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Mvula is one of the few artists of her generation to have caught Prince’s attention. She supported the legendary pop star on his Purple Rain Tour in 2014, when they developed what she describes as a genuine connection.

It is not surprising then that Pink Noise evokes the sounds of a 1980s pop era that undoubtedly belonged to Prince. His influence is apparent, and Mvula embodies that colourful influence completely.

In the song Magical, Mvula sings of “throwing kisses in the purple rain”, a reference to Prince’s 1984 anthem Purple Rain. She has often spoken of Prince’s interest in her music as being genuine, and nowhere was that more apparent than when she was going through her most trying time as an artist, after her former label dropped her. Prince was one of the few people at her side, encouraging her to keep going. 

Mvula’s willingness to approach her sound differently sets her apart from her peers, but it has meant reckoning with the possibility of failure as well as being misunderstood more than she’d like. After all, she owes much of what has gone wrong in her previous projects to misunderstandings.But by continually expanding her sound, Mvula has liberated herself from the strictures of mainstream conventions and found herself with more room to explore possibilities. One would have expected Mvula to be a little more direct when addressing the industry’s treatment of her, but perhaps some things are best left alone. Whatever its commercial fate, Pink Noise is a triumph.

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