She might be shy but Laura Mvula is taking over the world - not bad for a receptionist from Birmingham, writes Elizabeth Joyce.
Of all the cool things that could happen to a person, being sent a bouquet of flowers by Prince surely takes the top spot.
Actually, scratch that, supporting Prince on tour and then being sent an extravagant bunch of roses by the itsy icon is number one.
Well, this happened to Laura Mvula. Actually happened in real life.
“It was completely surreal,” Laura almost whispers in her quiet, calming voice. “It didn’t feel real – like something you would dream or fantasise about.
“I’ve always been a daydreamer so it was strange to have one of my dreams come true. It’s absolutely amazing to have the support of such an icon, I just felt incredibly privileged and lucky. When someone that big believes in you, it makes you think the sky’s the limit.”
Laura fully admits to being starstruck by Prince while gigging with him in Sweden – even more so when he invited her and her mother to watch his entire set from a sofa perched at the edge of the stage.
But it’s not just being starstruck the 27-year-old confesses to, she also says she’s shy, nervous and a terrible flyer – not an ideal combination when you’re an international music star.
“I’ve always been quite shy and there was a time when I thought ‘maybe I’m not going to be able to do this, maybe I’m too frightened’.
“Y’know the songs I write are very personal, when I’m creating the music I’m feeling very specific things – it’s a version of myself I’m expressing to the world – so it is nerve-wracking to present that to everyone.
“I do get nervous when I go on stage and I do get nervous when I have to talk about myself but it’s a challenge and I think my confidence grows a little bit each time I do it.
“Also, when people have a connection with my music, that feels like it’s encouraging me to keep going. That’s gives me more confidence. But there’s no getting away from it, I’ve always been shy.”
So how will the Birmingham songstress cope when the eyes of the music world are on her at the Mercury Prize later this month?
“Mmm, that doesn’t feel real yet,” squirms Mvula, whose Sing to the Moon album is up against David Bowie, Arctic Monkeys and Jake Bugg. No pressure then.
“Maybe when I’m there on the night, surrounded by everyone and watching the performances, it will feel real but until then I’m not thinking about it.
“The thing is, I feel like I haven’t stopped moving and gigging for the past year so none of this feels like it’s sunk in yet. Maybe when I get a moment to myself, I will really stop to enjoy it.”
Born and raised in Selly Oak and Kings Heath, Laura says music was a huge part of her childhood, singing in the church choir and studying violin and piano. But she’s managed to bring the most important part of her childhood along for this new ride as her older brother and sister James and Dionne are now in her band.
“It was a very musical house growing up. We were always making music together, always performing, so it’s nice to have them with me now. I feel very fortunate to have them, they’re exceptionally talented and they do look after me if I’m feeling nervous. It’s a comfort to have them there.”
After a three-year music composition degree at Birmingham Conservatoire, which is where she performed solo for the very time, Laura worked as a supply teacher in Birmingham schools and then as receptionist for CBSO. It was during this time that she began to write the songs that would eventually form Sing to the Moon.
“It was wonderful to be working at the CBSO because I really didn’t know anything about what it meant to be in an orchestra, their schedule or their working environment.
“Even though I was just front-of-house on the reception it was an amazing opportunity and I felt privileged to work there.
“I was just answering the phone and stuff and then I eventually ended up feeling like I wanted to be doing something more. So I started writing songs. I probably wasn’t being the greatest receptionist at this point because I’d be putting my ideas down all the time. I’d be writing the songs in between answering the phone. I was just alive with ideas, I had a renewed enthusiasm. It was difficult to stay still.”
It was at this time that she met composer Steve Brown, who went on to produce the album.
“It was wonderful to meet someone who felt so passionately about my work. Very quickly, he was very interested in what I was doing, maybe even more than me. I’d travel down to London on a weekend to record with him and he’d give me encouragement and confidence. That was how it all started. And when we had enough songs for an album, we stopped. It was as simple as that.”
The album has now sold more than one million copies and taken Laura, who is married to classical singer and lead for Lichfield Gospel Choir Themba Mvula, around the world.
“I never thought about all this. I never thought this would happen,” she explains. “There was no set plan. I knew I wanted to write more songs but I never thought I’d be travelling the world and attending award shows. My main aim was just to connect to people.”
But what about that dreaded fear of flying? In the past few weeks, she’s been in Singapore, New York and Sweden. How is she coping?
“Some days it’s hard, very hard. It doesn’t really get easier if I’m honest. But it’s becoming more familiar and I’m working out ways to cope with the nerves. I love the places when I’m there – it’s just getting there.
“But the tour was really good and I do like being in different locations, I think I’ve travelled more in this last year than the rest of my life put together. It’s just exciting to be touring this album and I’m very excited to finally be back home.”
Her UK tour started this week – we’re talking to her as she prepares for her first show in Edinburgh – and she’ll be in Birmingham on Tuesday.
“I can’t wait to come back to Birmingham. It will always be home for me and, in fact, it’s just nice to hear your accent now. I’ve missed it. Sometimes it can be nerve-wracking because you know so many people in the audience but it’s always fun to be home.”
Another thing she misses about the Midlands is the Lichfield choir, of which she was musical director. The choir grew from a one-off concert organised by Birmingham-based Black Voices, which Laura used to write for.
“I think about the choir a lot. It’s very emotional for me. In fact, I often get a little teary when I think about them. I hope they know they’re in my heart. I’m so proud of them.”
Our time is almost up. Laura will be on stage soon and her band are already starting to mill around.
Before we go, one last question: What’s it like to join the ranks of Twiggy, Ellie Goulding, Tracey Emin and Erin O’Connor and become a Marks & Spencer poster girl?
“Argh! I haven’t even seen one of those billboards yet,” she giggles. “Again, that’s another thing that doesn’t seem real. People keeping sending me pictures of the posters on my phone and I’m like ‘is that me?’. I don’t know what I’ll do the next time I’m in M&S and I see one of them – probably just run away and hide.”
* Laura will be performing at The Institute in Birmingham on October 8. Her debut album Sing To The Moon is out now.