When Laura Mvula released new debut disc, "Sing to the Moon" (RCA) in 2013, she appeared full formed as a musician and yet was all but unknown. On the album, the British singer was quietly yet forcefully brilliant. Backed by an intriguing, unorthodox combo, her blend included soul, jazz, classical, Caribbean, gospel and pop music, and if it brought to mind any artist, it was Nina Simone and not one of Mvula's contemporaries.
Her musical training was evident on the album: She learned to play the violin as well as the piano as a child, performing in a local string symphony, and studied composition at the Birmingham Conservatoire. Her influences include the jazz singer Sara Colman, a Birmingham Conservatoire alumna, and the classical composers William Walton and Eric Whitacre, among others. Another influence was Take 6, the American gospel a cappella group. With her brother James, who plays cello, and sister Dionne, a violinist, Mvula formed a string trio. As a teenager, she joined Black Voices, an a cappella group and graduated to the role of their arranger, developing mixes for jazz suites and children's workshops.
The album had modest beginnings. Mvula recorded tracks at home using GarageBand, a software application for creating music, and drew on its warmest sounds—brass, celeste and harp. When she met with producer Steve Brown, he saw the wisdom in retaining the warm environment for the album. During the formal recording sessions, her experience as an arranger permitted her to pursue the sounds she wanted, including the percussion style – which on occasion deploys rigid military cadences. Her support on the album featured her piano, drums, an upright bass, violin, cello, trumpet and an electric harp. At times, her ensemble was a miniature orchestra, as in “Diamonds” and “Is There Anybody Out There?” In “That’s Alright,” it was a tidy funk machine. “Can’t Live With the World” was a delightful blend of jazz and chamber music, and “Father Father” had roots in the blues.
Voices rose in warm harmony to surround her. She told me that the sparkling vocal choir, which leapt at the listener on “Like the Morning Dew” and dazzled in “Green Garden,” made her “feel cuddled and caressed." In “She,” they added mettle to a somber tune of self-discovery.
“Sing to the Moon" was a modest hit in the U.K. before it caught on in the States. At home, it was nominated for a Mercury Prize. (She lost out to James Blake and his “Overgrown” album.) It hardly made a ripple on the Billboard charts in the U.S., but Mvula toured and developed a fan base. Earlier this year, she released her second album, “The Dreaming Room,” that contained her songs that debuted in the films “12 Years A Slave” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” She was supported by the London Symphony Orchestra on many of the album’s tracks.
With “Sing to the Moon,” Mvula created a sophisticated, highly musical recording that satisfied as it was and at the same time revealed a very promising future for a significant talent. There are precious few albums like it.