Laura Mvula knows she has played Glastonbury before – it was three years ago and she’s seen photographs and footage of being on stage – but “I don’t remember it as an event that happened,” she says. “It was more like a weird dream.”
Mvula meets RT in a private member’s club near her east London home. It is one week before the release of her new album, The Dreaming Room, and she is preparing for a string of live dates ahead of Glastonbury.
The last time she appeared at Worthy Farm – which was the first festival she had ever played – was when the singer was being fêted as the next big thing. She had just released Sing to the Moon, a jazz-tinged debut with complex orchestral arrangements and layered vocals over string and brass, which was nominated for three Brits, the Mercury Prize and an Ivor Novello. It would go on to win two Mobo awards, including best female act. “People were calling me the voice of 2013,” she recalls. “It was all kinds of madness.”
Pop stardom was never the plan. Laura Douglas (Mvula is her ex-husband’s surname) grew up in Birmingham, the daughter of a teacher and council worker. She and her siblings all played classical instruments and sang in church choirs and Laura was classically trained at Birmingham Conservatoire. “I used to have a Discman and I would sit in Starbucks with my novel listening to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and imagine playing it in some amazing symphony hall,” she says.
Mvula studied composition at university then drifted into teaching. Her former husband suggested she record her own music, which she posted on a music-streaming website and that ultimately led to a recording contract. She didn’t attend music festivals when she was young. In her mind Glastonbury was associated with “white rock music, so the first time I paid attention to it was when Beyoncé played because it felt weird to me, in a good way.”
Last year Florence Welch, a last-minute replacement for Foo Fighters, became the first female British headliner at Glastonbury this century. “I think that’s sad and surprising and it highlights we have so far to go, so much to do,” says the 30-year-old. She attributes this lack of equality to the public having “become brainwashed into just experiencing what mainstream media thrusts into our faces”. She pauses and then declares: “These are the Donald Trump times of music.”
The words may sound strident, but in person Mvula often accompanies such statements with grins and laughter. She is engagingly unafraid to say what she thinks, yet when asked if she considers herself a feminist, Mvula pauses. “I’m not confident enough to say I am a feminist,” she says. “It makes me nervous, but when I know what my experience has been as a woman in this industry…” And how has that experience been? “I mostly work with males, whether in the boardroom, in the studio to produce an album, or in the stage production – it seems to be the way that it is. Sometimes I feel isolated and misunderstood: being a woman in this industry, if you say anything with assertiveness or authority, you are often quickly labelled a diva.”
So is the music industry sexist? “The music industry is sexist, it is racist, it is a lot of ‘ists’. Take your pick,” she replies. She then refers to a recent interview with legendary producer Niles Rodgers – who has worked with Mvula – where he wondered out loud why Mvula was not a superstar in this country. “That is a question I ask myself every day,” Mvula reveals. “And I struggle with the fact that I ask myself that.”
She seems to be implying that the reason she is not a superstar has something to do with her skin colour, which could either be something to do with her not being sufficiently self-critical, or a legacy of her childhood. “We were brought up in a predominantly white environment,” she says. “I went to a school where, if I had to hold hands with a white boy or girl, they would complain because they thought it was going to rub off on them.”
So is the music industry racist? “It’s like the Loch Ness monster, man,” she says. “Everyone’s like, ‘Is it there?’ It’s there but it is, like, so sub- liminal and so hidden, there is a lot of prejudice and it doesn’t come down to one thing. It all moulds together to create one ugly monster that just says, ‘Nah, not interested.’
“When I lost the Brit award for best female to Ellie Goulding in 2014 and the Mercury Prize to James Blake, the Mercury Prize hurt the most. What is difficult is there is no cause and effect, it isn’t that black and white, but there are all kinds of issues and prejudices. I don’t think my chocolate skin helps in this context.”
There is, of course, another possibility: that the reason Mvula didn’t win was because of her music, which she freely admits is not easy to categorise. “I get penalised for making music that is too complex, that you cannot put into a box. When I was signed I thought I was going to be a niche, slightly jazz artist, so when it took off it was totally unexpected.”
Prince championed her music and gave her advice on how to be an artist. “The best mentors are those that lead by example and what I take from Prince’s legacy is that it is worth it – to have two albums is miraculous to me and it shows me that music is bigger than my insecurities.”
One of the best songs on her new album (out 17 June) is called Phenomenal Woman, inspired by the writing of Maya Angelou. The sound is bigger and funkier than her debut, so it should transfer well to a festival setting.
“There is a lot at stake,” she says. “My prayer is that Glastonbury will be as miraculous as it was the first time.” And this time, hopefully, she won’t need to rely on photographs to know it wasn’t all a dream.