Static pours from the speakers on the final night of the Edinburgh international festival. If not for the rolling waves of warmth, rustling like autumn leaves, it could be a soundcheck gone awry. Laura Mvula’s third album Pink Noise is named after precisely this kind of comforting static and as it builds to a crescendo, a waterfall of sound, Mvula steps out into a brief, awed silence.
This moment has been years in the making. If you Google the Birmingham singer, “What happened to Laura Mvula?” is a suggested search. Her 2013 debut Sing to the Moon was a Mobo-winning, Mercury-nominated triumph, combining her church choir background with a crisp, striking sound. It had legends including Prince, Nile Rodgers and David Byrne clamouring to work with her. In 2017 she won the prestigious Ivor Novello album award for her rich second record The Dreaming Room. But despite the acclaim, Mvula was dropped from her Sony record deal – via a forwarded email, no less. She’s spoken frankly about the crisis of confidence that followed, in herself as an artist as well as in the thought of a future in a plainly exploitative pop industry.
So when the booming 80s synths of Safe Passage, her first single in five years, shatter that silence, you can feel emotion radiating from her. Redefining power-dressing with a gigantic hot-pink keytar strapped over a mint-green blazer, Mvula stands statuesque in sherbet dry ice, beaming at the song’s staccato lyrics: “No need to make it any harder than it already is.” On record, the soaring arrangements and heartbeat Phil Collins drums feel softly triumphant. On stage, it is a total victory.
Laura Mvula. Photograph: Jessica Shurte/Images Copyright to Jess Shurte & Jess Shurte Photography
What follows is a masterclass in composure, delivered by an artist visibly stepping into their full power. Conditional has a bassline so heavy it could break bones. Recent single Church Girl is a joyful exorcism. “How can you dance with the devil on your back?” she sings, offering a sympathetic shrug.
Early singles Sing to the Moon and Green Garden both feel fattened up to fit Mvula’s new era of lush, almost overwhelmingly full soundscapes. It shows how her magnificent voice was once framed by her songwriting but now has become the whole engine, driving forward in every single second.
The songs on Pink Noise don’t build – they start big and stay that way. Remedy drips with power, a funky, frustrated shuffle underpinning the urgency of its call for racial justice. Golden Ashes speaks to her experience with anxiety, as well as the sensation of her career falling out from underneath her. “Thought I could walk on water,” she smiles, before her face falls. “Don’t let me drown again.”
Then she pauses. “Thank you for waiting 500 years for me. Now it’s party time.” Visibly looser, stalking the stage in angular movements, she’s feeling every second of the flirty, teasing songs in this second act. Whether from the title track’s come-hither “take all of me” to the dreamy, John Hughes nostalgia of Magical, her five-piece band grin at the sight of Mvula letting loose.
She entices the crowd to overcome the awkwardness of the socially distanced seating, coaxing: “You think I worked this hard, forgot my trousers …” she gestures to her impeccably tiny dress, “and painted a keytar pink for you not to dance? Come on. We’ve been through too much.” She’s right, and she barely pretends to leave the stage before bounding back for an encore in the swelling positivity of Before the Dawn. “Don’t doubt for too long,” the song pleads, “it’s the darkest before the dawn.” Behind her, the stage floods with golden morning light.