In the age of the bedroom producer, Laura Mvula operates with the sensibility of a Sixties pop composer, using the whole weight of an orchestra to create unusually delicate tracks. "Everybody's trying to make music to get to Number One or be the hippest thing – it's a trendsetting culture," she tells Rolling Stone. "I consider it my curse that I neither care about that, nor am I able to do it."
But there's a blessing there too: Mvula's 2013 debut, Sing to the Moon, earned her a slew of award nominations and attracted a public endorsement from Prince. "She was something different than everybody out there," veteran guitarist Nile Rodgers, who appears on Mvula's new sophomore album, explained to Rolling Stone. "Even though we're all governed by similar rules in Western music, she was treating things differently, blending her voice with orchestral instruments to come up with timbres that you normally don't hear."
The Dreaming Room, out now, maintains the idiosyncrasies of Mvula's debut while also daring to incorporate the strut of more conventional pop forms like disco. Though the album is incisive and graceful, it did not come easily. Following the release of Sing to the Moon, Mvula found herself creatively spent. "I really had no idea how I was gonna write any more music," she tells Rolling Stone. "Anything I tried, it didn't work."
This artistic obstruction was exacerbated by personal crises. Mvula was experiencing debilitating panic attacks stemming from anxiety. "It can be such an isolating illness," she says. "You're often convinced that it's yourself against the rest of the world." "My marriage was now publicly over," she adds. "Before The Dreaming Room, I went to my lowest place. It was like I had to face everything that I'd been running from for many years. Now all of a sudden I couldn't run, and I had an album to write."
"I really had no idea how I was gonna write any more music."
A trip to New York City helped end the stalemate. "Maybe it was the winter of New York that was so harsh?" she muses. "We were indoors for so long. You have to keep yourself entertained." "To change it up, I started to make little videos on my phone," she continues. "They were just me filming a falling leaf, or turning the pages of a book, and I would put music to it. It was refreshing to do it that way rather than just sit at the piano and wait for something to fall out of the sky. Writing 20 or 30 seconds of music didn't seem as taxing."
Though Mvula's debut was dense with instrumentation, it was rarely forceful; this time, she hoped to add some zing. "I knew when I was doing the demos – rhythmically, sonically, I wanted the power and the range the guitar brings." On The Dreaming Room, that instrument appears in the hands of formidable players: Lionel Loueke, a virtuoso from Benin, John Scofield, who contributed to several Miles Davis records, and Rodgers, whose licks have ignited dance floors for nearly four decades. (Co-producer Troy Miller is no slouch at the instrument either – he does an impressive Rodgers impersonation on "Phenomenal Woman.")
Mvula still sounds somewhat surprised to have these names on her record. "I figured we would just get session guitarists," she recalls. When Scofield came to the studio, Mvula claims she was so star-struck that she was unable to speak. "Troy kept on kicking my leg," she remembers, "like, 'Laura, you should say something!'"
"This is the blessing of Sing to the Moon," she decides. "It may not have been this astronomical mainstream success, like a lot of people strive for today. I don't get the contemporary megastars calling me up saying, 'Hey, Laura, I love what you're doing.' However, I do seem to attract the legends." When Prince heard "Overcome," he asked to record his own mix of the track, even though Rodgers' guitar was already in place. (The mix remains unreleased, but Mvula deems it "killer.") And Rodgers hopes to work with Mvula again. "I always say the more complicated the artist, the happier I am," he remarks. "And Laura makes me happy."
Though legends came to Mvula's aid, The Dreaming Room is never anything but her record. Her vocals and sumptuous symphonic arrangement still reign supreme, even when songs approach traditional pop structures, as if Mvula had hijacked an Isaac Hayes recording session in 1969. Few other artists would recruit Rodgers for "Overcome" and keep his guitar submerged beneath a stream of multi-tracked vocals that unspool at odd angles. Around the song's two minute mark, the riffs disappear entirely, and the tune transforms into a choral round. "Let Me Fall" is grounded by a rattling percussion and a gurgling synthesizer, but the track's muscle stems from the swells of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Mvula's lyrics frequently return to resilience. On "Let Me Fall:" "No looking back when hope is pushing forward." On "Nan," a short, touching conversation between Mvula and her 90-year-old grandmother: "Keep on keeping on." This leads into "Phenomenal Woman," which bears the same title as a Maya Angelou poem that Mvula listened to on YouTube over and over before recording. "I loved the feeling it gave me every time," she says. The resulting song, which closes the record, is her most direct, a chirpy disco cut that earned the approval of one of disco's premier names: "When Nile heard it, he was like, 'Man, this is the one I want!'"
Ending with groove and a statement of superlative strength is no accident. "Trying to make sense of what was happening through music was the best therapy," Mvula says. "I can hear in how I arrange and how I write and even how I sing – I can hear the growth, the pain, the yearning for something more, the yearning to be heard."
"I didn't want anyone to know that I was struggling," she continues. "Then I realized I kind of do that – that's what the music is. So I may as well be liberated."
Like Sing to the Moon, The Dreaming Room exists in its own world, apart from the rest of modern pop. Mvula is of two minds about her position: "Sometimes [I handle it] with ease, like a naughty child," she notes. "Sometimes I feel like the kid that gets left out."
But she's unwavering in her commitment to sounds that many popular artists left behind decades ago: "There's a huge plethora of resources available. Whether it's instruments, whether it's musicians, whether it's environments – there are no limits."