Entertainment & Arts

BBC Sound of 2013: Laura Mvula

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Media captionWatch: Laura Mvula revisits Birmingham Conservatoire

Laura Mvula has come fourth on the BBC's Sound of 2013 new music list, which showcases emerging artists for the coming 12 months.

The list was compiled using tips from more than 210 music critics, DJs and bloggers. We are revealing one artist from the top five in reverse order every day until Friday, when the winner will be announced.

"When you open the paper and read things like 'the voice of 2013', it's a little bit daunting," says Laura Mvula.

The Birmingham singer's complex music compositions and beguiling, soulful voice have drawn comparisons with the likes of Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone.

Listening to her music has been likened by The Guardian newspaper to "hearing Billie Holiday with the Beach Boys".

As well as being on the Sound of 2013 list, Mvula also made the shortlist for this year's Brits Critics' Choice award, previously won by Florence and the Machine and Emeli Sande.

It is a little dizzying for someone who burst into tears the first time she heard her voice recorded as a child because she thought it sounded so bad.

"It's all very surreal for me, it doesn't feel like it sunk in yet," she says of being tipped for great things.

Early recording

Mvula (pronounced Mm-voola) was born into a musical family in Birmingham and was influenced "subconsciously" by a cappella vocal groups and her jazz-loving father.

"I definitely had a desire but it was just nurtured as I grew up," she says, before adding: "From a young age, I knew I wasn't particularly gifted."

Image caption Mvula's debut album Sing to the Moon is due out on 4 March

This is a self critical streak that emerges frequently in conversation.

"I recorded my voice on one of those children's tape players," she explains. "We were into Disney music and I sang A Whole New World. I was about eight, singing Princess Jasmine's part and I was literally crying, collapsed in a heap on the floor.

"I couldn't believe how ghastly I sounded."

Luckily, she got over the shock and started singing with her aunt's successful female choir Black Voice while in her teens.

However, she insists again that her voice won few fans, particularly during a tour of Italy and France where her natural alto range meant she performed many of the lead vocals.

"This is a totally true story, you can ask my auntie," she starts. "The French agent for Black Voices specifically asked 'that they not bring back the girl who sang alto because it was so awful.'"

Improvisation

She was nevertheless a talented young musician, learning to play the piano and violin, going on to study composition at Birmingham Conservatoire.

While many singer-songwriters come up with the lyrics and fit them round a melody, Mvula says she tends to work in reverse, improvising at the piano.

"I was surrounded by a lot of amazing composers and students and I felt a little inferior because I couldn't understand a lot of the compositions. In one session a lecturer told us to improvise at the piano and I found it a natural thing to do," she explains.

"Then the tutor said 'that's fantastic, that's what you should do much more of.'"

She admits lyrics are "secondary to me, not because they're not important but because I feel more of a connection with the harmony and the sounds I want to use".

But Mvula gets incredibly personal with her songs - the emotional intensity of her debut single She and its beautiful layering of her own voice is matched by her haunting performance of her song Father Father, which stylistically at least, evokes the spirit of Nina Simone.

She admits spending "hours watching videos of Nina Simone on YouTube".

The comparison is gratefully accepted by Mvula though she says she tends to find comparisons "a bit silly".

But as cool as it must have been to have grown up in a house surrounded by jazz, soul and blues, she admits that she was just as big a fan of '90s girl group Eternal, who - she insists - "were the greatest girl band who ever walked the face of the earth".

Mvula is currently putting the finishing touches to her debut album with Steve Brown, who mentored singer-songwriter Rumer, and Grammy-winning Tom Elmhirst, who has worked Adele and Amy Winehouse, and who she describes as "the real deal".

She says working with seasoned producer Brown "could have easily been disastrous for somebody like me, but with Steve, from the get go, he gave me very simple advice in my writing which was to follow my instincts".

Brown's influence on Mvula extends to her more personal songs such as the aforementioned Father Father.

Her parents split when she was young and Mvula says addressing her feelings in song "was a lifeline, without trying to sound overly dramatic".

She continues: "Without the songs that enable me to express the deepest pain, I'm not sure where else I would have put it all."

Performing 'nightmare'

Singing live is still a challenge for the young artist who has performed just a handful of shows.

"They've been a bloody nightmare but at the same time the most incredible things ever, I can't explain it," she says.

"I feel like I'm going to pass out before I go on and then when I'm on stage, I'll think, 'this is going to be over in a little bit, when are we going to do the next one?'.

"It feels so new to me and sometimes I'm a bit embarrassed because I'm so new and I don't know which way the microphone should go up and I'm rubbish at talking between songs and there's so much to learn.

"But at the same time, this is music that I care so much about and to have the opportunity to perform it live with fantastic musicians, it scares me but I love it."

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