Laura Mvula’s teenage obsessions: ‘I thought a briefcase was the most buff thing ever’

The singer-songwriter recalls the life-changing joy of playing in an orchestra, the beauty of her first braids and being empowered by Eternal

Saturday youth orchestra

The first orchestra I played in was Birmingham School, a concert orchestra. The first time I played in a symphony orchestra was this powerful, life-changing experience, like the first time I took a plane – you know, when the engine kicks in and you’re about to take off? Playing with the brass section behind us and full woodwind, I was blown away by the magnitude of the sound.

We would play Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, which is always cool because you end up knowing the soundtrack by heart. A lot of Harry Potter – the violin line that sounds like someone’s flying was one of the hardest things to learn as a fiddle player. I remember when we eventually got it together: it just felt like the most incredible, unifying experience to play with young people.

I enjoyed the experience of making such a big sound together, and of course you have that zest of youth. We would give 150% all the time. The bigger the challenge, the bigger our egos, the more we would put into making it happen.

Extension braids and the hot comb

It’s not unusual for a young Black girl of the 90s that what I understood as the beautifying process was finding ways to straighten or lengthen my hair. First, I got braids at 13 or 14 and I spent forever flicking them from side to side over my shoulder. We used to watch Gladiators every Saturday; Jet’s video shot pose was the hair flick, so we used to do that with braids. That was the stamp of: now we’re beautiful.

The next stage, the hot comb, was the necessary evil if I wanted that slicked back, straight, straight look. My mum was so not into the idea. I was allowed it for church and special occasions. It’s funny thinking back, the idea of someone coming with a hot iron to my head is outrageous. I could never do it now, but back then it was just normal. If you got burned, you got burned.


They captivated me from the very beginning. A friend of mine gave me the videotape version of their first album, Always & Forever. Boy, did I rinse that video to the point where I inhaled everything: not only the dance moves but I got obsessed with wearing baggy jeans, oversized waistcoats, CAT boots. That style was the baddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life and it was something that I could embody because I was young, Black and female.

There’s a part in the video where they’re singing Amazing Grace a cappella and I remember being like – “I recognise that!” – because of my auntie’s female a cappella group Black Voices, whom I watched make incredible music all over the globe. As much as the Spice Girls were the thing, Eternal were my everything. That’s why I was so obsessed with being a part of a group; why female empowerment has been in my blood since when I can remember.

The Jacksons: An American Dream.
The Jacksons: An American Dream. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

The Jacksons: An American Dream

Very important viewing. There’s Angela Bassett’s flawless performance of Katherine Jackson. And Terrence Howard, who is one of the first men I ever fell in love with. There’s something about that guy: to the present day, if he was in the same room as me, I would have problems speaking.

This was family viewing time. On a Saturday, once we had watched Blind Date, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Gladiators, if we were in the mood for sitting in front of the TV more, we would put on American Dream. My youngest siblings and I would sit glued to the screen and we learned some of the Jacksons’ material through that series.

Not only did we learn the routines and the songs, we learned the script. My youngest sister and brother are my closest friends on the planet and that script was like our code. There’s part of the story where Michael turns to the rest of the family and says: “We need new material, and I’m sick of singing doo-wop.” So we started saying that to one another. It was in reference to being confident and free in your creative path. That’s important to me. I’m always looking for ways to evolve and challenge myself and become comfortable outside of my comfort zone.

How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan

I came across the book first, possibly because there was a Black woman on the cover. I remember thinking: “If my parents knew what the story was, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to read it.” But they didn’t find out so I just enjoyed this story about this Black woman having her adventure with this beautiful Jamaican man.

I don’t know about the movie. I mean, I can endure it because it’s the great Angela Bassett and Whoopi Goldberg, but Taye Diggs trying to speak patois is just not the thing. He’s in the role because he’s beautiful to look at and that smile is everything, but I remember thinking: “That is not how my people sound.”

Jamaica is my heritage, so there was a familiarity although I hadn’t yet travelled there. It was a way of seeing the island through her eyes. What she sees sounds like it’s made up, but having since been to Jamaica, I know that it is not made up; it is paradise.

Trouser suits and briefcases

In the 90s, I went through this phase of wearing Marks & Spencer or C&A trouser suits. It’s probably linked to power dressing. It was easier for me to dress in trouser suits because I was conscious of my body shape when I was a teenager.

That developed into also carrying around briefcases. I became obsessed with the briefcase. I thought the briefcase was for sure the most buff thing ever. I don’t know what I was carrying around in them, maybe just manuscript paper.

I have always been obsessed with experimenting with clothes, and I love playing dress-up, but I’ve always chosen comfort over style or where possible, embracing both. With the new record I’ve been doing the whole shoulder pad thing and that’s something that is weirdly normal for me. I’ve enjoyed staying true to whatever it is I feel with clothes, not being dictated to.

• Laura Mvula’s new album Pink Noise is released 2 July on Atlantic


As told to Stephanie Phillips

The GuardianTramp

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