Laura Mvula Is Flying The Freedom Flag In Pink Noise

The British singer’s third studio album seems like a radical shift after a five-year hiatus, yet the Mvula the world got to know Sing to the moon eight years ago shines through.

by Eric Otieno Sumba - Published on 23/09/2021
Laura Mvula, Pink Noise

By default, music writing emphasizes newness even when it is evident that there can be nothing absolutely new in music. While the same sounds and tones can be rearranged infinitely, the basic pool from which they are drawn is limited. All ‘new’ music has probably already existed in some form: in another decade, or another part of the world. Sometimes, iterations of what sound like ‘new’ music to our contemporary, impatient ears even exist in an artist’s own previous work.

By overemphasizing the new, context and growth are overlooked. Writers and listeners alike do musicians a grave injustice by judging their work without engaging thoroughly with their influences, previous work and, importantly, biographies. Music never emerges in a vacuum. Mvula has spoken openly about her issues with severe anxiety. She has faced panic attacks on stages that many performers dream of, such as Glastonbury. Following her successful albums Sing to the Moon (2013) and the Dreaming Room (2015), she struggled with loneliness and bouts of depression. She took a five year break to regroup: we swiftly moved on.

Then came the monumental upheaval of worldwide lockdowns, loss, isolation and sickness, in whose wake Mvula released a celebratory,  savvy album. She is not doing anybody favours with Pink Noise. This is not the mood booster, the phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes story we so desperately want it to be. If anything, Mvula can only be understood on the scale of her own time, on the terms of her own journey. There is the urge to grasp on to the idea that ‘Moon’ and ‘Dream’, the guiding references of Mvula’s previous albums, are replaced by the ‘Noise’ of the current album’s title for a reason.

Yet, a deep listen to the album reveals that alongside a few clear breaks,  there is still more than enough room to dream in Pink Noise. What Matters, a stunning duet with scottish rock band Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neil is arguably the dreamiest offering yet, replete with a mushy 80’s-infused duet performance setting for the video. I’m never alone she sings, and it hits different: it must, because this the Laura Mvula, her words a worthy tribute to her many musical influences, including Prince.

Her lyrics and her edge are as authentic as they have ever been. Mvula stands in glowing light – still reflecting her distinctive signature sound but showing the progression of an artist who has come into her own. It’s an album borne out of intense struggles and the  reaffirmation that comes when one emerges reborn on the other side. Lyrically it touches on ideas around break-ups—both personal and professional—but also a hard-won appreciation. The lead single, ‘Church Girl’, signifies the homage to her former self that runs through the whole album: “For some reason when I made Sing to The Moon that sound became permanently attached to me in people’s heads. Like having the same hairstyle for the rest of your life, which for me is unthinkable. So this album was such a release,” she says.

Pink Noise is the album she always wanted to make. One where, she says, “Every corner is made warm with sunset tones of the 80s. I was born in 1986. I came out of the womb wearing shoulder pads,” Mvula jokes. Even so, the process itself was daunting “Making Pink Noise felt like the most violent of emotional wrestling matches. It took three years of waiting and waiting and fighting and dying and nothingness and then finally an explosion of sound. As if it was always here this record is my most honest and unapologetic flying of the freedom flag.” Dripping with lyricism and infectious synth pop, Pink Noise is right on time.

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I am a decolonial scholar working at the intersections of social justice, politics, the economy, art & culture. I enjoy reading, dancing, cycling, and cappuccinos without sugar.