Laura Mvula: ‘I can’t make music when I’ve got a dirty kitchen’

In Music
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I grew up in a little terraced house in Selly Park, Birmingham. The rickety old piano was in the dining room. I’d usually practise while the smells of mum’s cooking – ackee and saltfish – drifted in from the kitchen. A piano and dining table are practically one and the same in my mind.

One church we attended had Caribbean evenings on Saturdays, where members of the congregation would put on performances, which would all happen around Caribbean food, with people eating while sitting on pews. The first thing me, my brother and my sister played, as a string trio, was the Jamaican folk tune Mango Tree. Some years later dad took us to meet my great-uncle in Jamaica and I tasted mangoes as they’re supposed to taste.

For a while I worked as a supply teacher, teaching music to classes of teenagers. A heinous mistake on my part – I thought I was Whoopi Goldberg playing Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act 2, that I could walk into school and turn them into a choir. They ate me alive. I used to eat a packed lunch alone in my classroom, with the door locked.

When I performed with the Metropole Orchestra at the Paradiso, a beautiful church venue in Amsterdam, I gulped down a burger just before going on stage. My music is quite intimate, and requires my vocal to be really exposed, and I was sweating terribly from thinking that I might belch in an unimaginable way at any moment.

Prince invited me to and there were great big platters of food. I can’t remember a thing that was on those platters, because I was so fixated on him. There was nobody there, really. I remember thinking “Why is there so much food when there’s just us?”.

I’m a cleaner-upper while cooking. I have to sort out any remaining mess before doing anything else. I can’t make music when I’ve got a dirty kitchen and I can’t come back to a dirty kitchen.

I love red wine and drink all the time during shows, religiously. It makes me feel calm.

My husband was very methodical preparing food and always made sure the fridge was stocked with things to make very good lunches with. But we divorced two years ago and I’m alone now. Apart from my cat Mali, I’m solo. So UberEats is my new husband.

I composed the music for the RSC’s Antony & Cleopatra [] and spent a couple of weeks attending technicals and previews, staying in a little cottage in Stratford. It was a dream, very exciting. The cottage would have been the perfect place to get down to cooking, but I was at the theatre from 10am to 10pm, so ate in the RSC’s canteen, which has fed some of the best actors on the planet and does a great curry.

Miss Lily’s in New York is my favourite place to eat because New York is my favourite place to make music. After a day in a studio going to Miss Lily’s is always a good plan, because you know you’re going to get good Caribbean food in a nice place and all the staff are Caribbean so you’ll feel at home.

Laura Mvula and the London Symphony Orchestra play the Barbican, London,
21 July;



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