It is four years since British singer songwriter Laura Mvula released her first album "Sing to the Moon". Since then, the award-winning jazz/neo-soul musician has embarked on a journey that has been marked by both her personal and professional evolution. Now, as she gears up for her 30th birthday in February and her first performance at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival (CTIJF) in March, she finally feels more settled in her own skin.
"In the beginning it was such a virgin experience for me and so I felt the music was reflective of that," she says describing the start of her career after graduating from Birmingham City University. "It was beautifully simplistic and raw. Then I moved to a more colourful place personally and it put me into a more complex space." That complexity included going through a divorce from husband Themba Mvula and, drawing from this experience, she found a new way of using her voice. "I was coming into a place where I wanted to scream and there were new places I wanted to take it. I was more experienced and had become more road-hardy. The blemishes [in her voice] were becoming things I wanted to embrace," she explains.
Mvula has also recently spoken publicly about her battle with crippling anxiety and depression and says that the experience has shaped her songwriting and performance. "I have been through pain and I am learning to thrive in that space. It is a liberation. Last year I thought I had all the answers to what was coming, but I'm learning to trust the process," Mvula says about the changes that she has recently gone through. She was dropped by Sony — the record label she signed with five years ago — in January and is also changing management while reducing her band size from a nine-piece to a four-piece. "It's a lot," she says laughing, but there is a determination in her voice that could only come from seeing trials from the perspective of a survivor. And it has manifested in her performances as well — especially with how she relates to her audiences. "When I first started touring, I was very nervous about how to engage an audience from beginning to end. Not the music, the bits in between — how to talk to them and take them on that performance journey with me. But now, I've noticed that being on stage is the same atmosphere as being with friends."
So it is just as well that her return to South Africa in March 2017 feels so familiar too. "I think most people know that I have shot a lot of videos in South Africa, but I am never there long enough to really explore much and I am not sure why I have never performed there," she says about her CTIJF visit. "But there is definitely a connection with the people and with the music. My mum reminded me the other day that we grew up listening to the Soweto String Quartet and now I'm sharing a line-up with them. So it really feels like I have come full circle."
With musical influences like the Soweto String Quartet, Anderson Paak, Snarky Puppy, DJ Premier and Kanye West, Mvula is tapping into a new "hunger to create" and drawing on "stylistically interesting" inspirations.
"These days when I think about making music I think about how much more there is to explore. I've been so challenged and had become a bit enslaved to there only being one way of doing things". Mvula says that part of that exploration into new ways of doing things, she is looking forward to a fresh approach in the coming months. "This year for me is a year of collaboration and I am ready to get alongside the people that inspire me," she says.