Laura Mvula is in the midst of honing her craft. Fronting orchestras around the globe, she delivers an entirely new take on George Gershwin’s most treasured compositions alongside longtime friend, conductor and the show’s creator, Troy Miller. Pegged as the Nina Simone of her generation, Mvula is diving deep into unfamiliar territory and taking every lesson the experience has to offer. Ahead of the Australian premiere of Gershwin Reimagined alongside Miller, fellow voice prodigy Jose James and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra (WASO) at Perth Concert Hall on Friday, June 7, Mvula spoke to CAITLIN NORRIS about the importance of being present, the challenges of Gershwin, and how she has also reimagined herself.

How did you first become involved with Gershwin Reimagined?

Troy Miller – our friendship is probably 10 years deep now – I worked with him on my first record and I didn’t know who he was. The guy that was producing my first album kept raving about this drummer, and when he came over to play there was this instant connection with my approach and his playing and we talked for hours and since that day we’ve been the best of friends. He produced my last album, and we developed this kind of orchestral sound together within the record. We did two shows with the LSO (London Symphony Orchestra) and went from strength to strength and realised that the orchestral thing was another colour that we both loved, and we’ve been inseparable since. It was a couple of years ago that he said he was doing this Gershwin project and asked if I would like to sing on it, and I was like “yeah, of course”.

At the time, I didn’t know what to expect because we all know the very famous Gershwin songs and in my mind I probably would have been a little bit apprehensive in the beginning because anything that feels straight to me is scary. If I’m doing any kind of cover I get nervous because I think I’m gonna have to make it my own and there’s been so many amazing versions of the same song. Then when I heard Troy’s arrangement I was like, “okay this is a whole different thing, this really is reimagining”. To be quite honest with you, I don’t think there’s been anything that’s challenged me vocally as much as his work. It’s been a pleasure and a massive challenge to get stuck into a repertoire that feels outside of my comfort zone.

What is it about this project that makes it so daunting? Is it purely because it’s somebody else’s work and you’re trying to put your own spin on it – is it just trying to do it justice?

It’s all of that pressure. I grew up listening to a lot of Gershwin – I used to fantasise about being a concert pianist when I was really young and I knew nothing about what that meant. I remember as a younger musician that was the most expansive, romantic, fun music to me. So to actually do it today is a dream and kind of a weird pressure. Because Troy and I worked so closely together in so many different spheres and this is his baby, of course I wanna do it justice and I want him to be proud. He’s all consumed with this thing, all of the pieces in themselves are massive symphonic works and they deserve all my attention, all my craft, all my time.

What’s brilliant is that we’ve done a fair few performances and we’re still like, “gosh, don’t know how the next one’s gonna go”.  Sometimes you can get so comfortable. I know for me that sometimes with my own material there’s a default – don’t get me wrong, that can still work – but it’s not as exciting and it doesn’t demand me being present in the same way. This project is really, really good for me. There’s such a difference between singing in front of an orchestra and singing in front of my band, they’re two different engines. Almost at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Both equally as fun, but it always takes me a minute every time I get into a rehearsal with an orchestra to adjust to singing with however many people, whether it’s 60+ or 90+. That’s a different art form, I think. This is the stuff that really matters to me as a musician, to keep growing and for it to be real and honest.

What’s the rehearsal process been like? 

When I’ve done my own stuff with orchestras, no one’s done it before. No one is saying the standard is “up here”, so it’s really easy to fall into something that’s just completely myself. The very first rehearsal for Gershwin, I realised that I don’t really sing past a certain tempo with my own stuff, whereas most of the songs I’m singing on the Gershwin project are requiring me to sing fast and I just haven’t done that. Phrases close together, figuring out when to breathe, intonation, tuning – is massively important. It’s not like there’s space to do what I might do with my own stuff which is take long pauses between phrases and figure it out the next time around – when it’s gone it’s gone.

And as you know with orchestras, it’s expensive stuff. Rehearsing is not something you can take lightly because you might get two go arounds if you’re lucky. So it really means that each time you do something you have to be totally alert, almost over prepared. I love it. I love the roller coaster feeling of it. Even when it doesn’t work and it feels chaotic, then we’ve all got a problem and we’ve all gotta figure it out and it’s a massive team effort. The orchestra is such an intricate beast. You can’t just lift the baton and hope for the best. A lot of the more complex rhythmic passages have got to work otherwise they can just literally fall apart. You’ve got to come with a positive attitude, you’ve gotta give great energy. It’s like dating 60 people really intensely for the first time. You’ve gotta be amazing.

Have you had any days where you’ve just been like, “I’m not on it, I can’t do this”? 

[Laughs] The last gig we did I came off stage and collapsed in a heap of tears. I think the weight of it had gotten to me and I felt like I’d gotten through it by the skin of my teeth. I don’t drive, but I can imagine those first few lessons being awful and daunting. It’s so alien and you’re expected to do so many things at once. There have been times where I’ve had to take many deep breaths and not take myself too seriously. I think there’s the danger of getting caught up in the stereotypical, uptight vibe with this kind of thing, and I’ve found if I give in to that I psych myself out. It’s unrealistic to expect that you’re performing with 60+ people that are in love with you. And that’s fine. Everyone’s different, everyone’s approach is going to be different. Hopefully I’ve grown a little bit. I’m very excited because I think Jose James is a great choice. We’re both equally unique in what we bring as vocalists so it will be truly something different. It’s gonna be way more sophisticated and have depth, meaning and colour.

You mentioned taking a lot of deep breaths earlier. How does your pre-show routine differ to a gig with your band?

It’s something that I actually want to keep developing because it feels way more solo. I’m not with the lads who are in and out of my dressing room and making too much noise. There’s not the comfort of that. It’s me in the quiet. I try to do things that I never normally do like warm up which is a pat on the back for me. I try and do everything I can to give my voice the best chance of getting it all out. I don’t get so nervous with my own stuff because it’s coming from a different place but I get so nervous with existing songs. I’m working on that in the moment and not letting that be the driving force. It’s like getting your muscles to behave the way you need them to when the moment counts. I’m quite zen before, whereas with my own shows everybody gets more pumped.

You’re going to be in Australia very soon, and have never played in Perth before. Are you excited to be introducing yourself to our audiences?

This is the second time! I was in Australia two years ago for Byron Bay Festival (Bluesfest) and a couple of shows but it was kind of in and out. Honestly, I can’t wait. I’ve been stuck here for a while trying to write which has been really soul searching and all that, but I’m a traveller. I need to be on the road doing stuff, meeting new people and on the stage. That’s where I feel most alive.

After hearing you speak about Gershwin Reimagined, would I be correct in saying this project has changed you as a person?

Absolutely. The highs are the highest highs and the lows are the lowest lows. It’s really stripped me bare. With my own album cycles and being surrounded by the whole ‘industry’ atmosphere and the label talk about branding etc, sometimes doing shows can become this thing that’s not necessarily about being in the moment. There’s a shallowness that creeps in, which is an alarm bell for me. The music comes from a place where it’s important that I’m always present, so when Gershwin came along, all of a sudden I was learning new skills and having to stretch my voice. It has changed me as a person because I’ve had to become more intense as a performer and live a bit lighter all at the same time which is turbulent, but I don’t think I would have it any other way.

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