“Music business shit,” says a frowning Laura Mvula to explain her lateness to our meeting before sitting down at Albion, a chic diner near her East London apartment. Apologizing, the 30-year-old singer-songwriter removes Jackie O-size sunglasses and places her shaved head in her hands before ordering a glass of champagne. “It has been a day.”
From the outside, nothing about Mvula’s career seems like it would inspire such angst as she prepares for her highly anticipated sophomore album, The Dreaming Room, due June 17 on Columbia. Like her 2013 debut, Sing to the Moon, it takes jazz and gospel as its base, adding symphonic segues almost reminiscent of Björk. Mvula never aimed for the mainstream, but luminous 2013 single “Green Garden” was a hit in the United Kingdom and the album was rapturously received by critics.
“Listening to my songs being played on the radio next to Coldplay and Rihanna was very surreal,” she says. “People were trying to market me as the next Adele. I’m a dark-skinned chick with short hair — I was never the next Adele.”
Born and raised in Birmingham, Mvula sang in the church choir, then studied musical composition at university. Desperate to break into music but too timid to try, she worked as a substitute teacher until her husband, Zambian-born classical baritone Themba Mvula, encouraged her to post her songs on SoundCloud. A recording deal with RCA followed, and within a year she was a bona fide pop star; Prince declared himself a fan.
But success exacerbated a lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression, which contributed to the end of her marriage in 2015 and made fame difficult to negotiate. She recently moved into her own apartment, but couldn’t quite face the prospect of doing so alone. “I have a professional carer staying with me at the moment,” she says. “It’s just temporary, until I get on my feet.”
Mvula threw herself into the writing and recording of her new album, but admits she found the process torturous. “I didn’t want to sing about the breakdown of my marriage because I was living it, and I didn’t want to face my anxieties.”
Finally completing the album brought relief, she says, but then the record company requested she write at least one track that was radio-friendly, which wound up being its first single, “Phenomenal Woman.” “There is one way to put the fear of God in me and piss me off at the same time — and that was it,” she explains. “I’d spent a lot of time dreaming up the sound for this record, but then there were all these limitations imposed. It’s like I had a baby and somebody asked me to chop off its foot.”
But now she’s mired in arguments with her label about the size of her touring band: She wants bigger, the label smaller. “I spiral downward quite easily,” she says with a shrug. “Making music is liberating, especially if I get to do it the way I want to. But I was never an angelic black songstress. I’ve always been more complicated than that.”
This article originally appeared in the June 18 issue of Billboard.