One by one each of the band members step onto the stage, and we’ve got an eclectic mix: and electric cello, a harp, and a trio of grinning backing vocalists alongside the staple bassist (who doesn’t struggle at all despite wearing sunglasses inside a darkened room), female guitarist, drummer, and an array of synthesisers. Laura Mvula then graces the stage laced with attitude and a slick hairline (as well as clutching her dazzling keytar for a mobile performance), bringing her limitless sass to Exeter Phoenix as part of a Radio 1 Live Lounge session, intermingled with the incredible Radio 1 Academy which saw events, workshops and live bands all week.
HER powerful and ranging voice glides around the room
Introduced live on Radio 1 by the vibrant Clara Amfo, who, as a firmly established radio presenter always knows the right thing to say, the Birmingham born soul singer Mvula performs her feisty feminist hit ‘Phenomenal Woman’, inspired by the Mary Angelou poem of the same name. Opening with a single snare smash, alternating bassline and mysterious trilling synth chords, the audience, unsure of how to react at a seated gig on cinema style rows of seating in the main auditorium of Exeter Phoenix, become intrigued as Mvula’s powerful and ranging voice glides around the room. The backing vocals introduce the chorus with “Oh my my,” and Mvula repeats with a sharp and fierce high pitched stab at the words, the enjoyment on her face making the performance seem effortless for her. Although occasionally the words in the verse need clearer pronunciation, Mvula has a distinct style and she sticks to it like super glue, with an intimidatingly cool presence.
The song builds with whole band blasts of their instruments as Mvula tells the crowd “You! Are! Phenomenal! Woman!” and followed in again by the bassline this time returning on the second beat of the bar (which I love), and a playful repeated riff, until the song ends abruptly to great applause from the audience, and smiles all round from Mvula.
MVULA Tells the Crowd “YOU! ARE! PHENOMENAL! WOMAN!”
Amfo introduces the next song, a cover of a cover, and lets Mvula explain how she stumbled across the song. She thanks the bass player, Carl, and goes on to mimic how her brother, the cellist, introduced her to the song “Yo Laura yeah, gotta check out Rihanna’s new album yeah its sick”, and after hearing ‘Same Ol’ Mistakes’, a cover of Tame Impala’s ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’, she “basically fell in love”. Mvula tells us this is basically a dream moment for her, so she takes off. Again with a building introduction, the band create a chilled vibe with tentative bass riff and muted drums, and get really into the performance, bobbing heads and closed eyes. Although, with a music stand in front of her, it seems from the angle where I sit that Mvula is reading the words from a sheet. Despite not being familiar with the lyrics, it’s a great cover, and really gets going in the chorus, and Mvula shows off her head voice in the quieter breakdown section of the song, really making the song their own accompanied by a beautiful harp solo (not often we hear a harp solo at Exeposé Music is it?).
Mvula is gracious for the opportunity and even stays for selfies with her fans after the performance. Later in the day I spot her listening to somebody’s demo in the foyer. What a lucky musician. And what a fabulous event to come to our little Exeter.