As a child growing up in Birmingham, England, Caribbean-descended keyboardist Laura Mvula never understood why anyone would ever get onstage. Even singing at family get-togethers made her shiver like a Chihuahua.
Still, she entered the performing arts, first in her aunt's a cappella ensemble, later in some local choirs, mainly because there was no spotlight pressure.
"I always loved to sing in a choir or a group because you can't tell which is your voice — hopefully," she says. "I hated to be at the front because I always got super nervous."
Mvula, 27, is currently on a tour that hits San Francisco on Sunday. She's backing her gorgeous debut disc "Sing to the Moon" (featuring the gossamer-delicate, outdoorsy odes "Green Garden," "Like the Morning Dew" and the title track), produced by Steve Brown, the textural mastermind who oversees the equally evocative work of Rumer, a fellow Brit.
But she still suffers from stage fright. And it's not a condition that comes and goes.
"It's more like a permanent feeling," she says, sighing.
Her most rattling experience was a final-exam recital at the posh Birmingham Conservatoire, where she was doggedly studying composition.
"I used to have this thing where I would just go blank, and that's what I was always fearful of at recitals," she says. "And at this one recital, I remember playing Debussy's piano piece 'Pollywog's Cakewalk' in front of a professor, the parents of other students and then my own parents. And I played the first six bars and just blanked out."
But the wallflower — born Laura Douglas — met an aspiring young opera singer in class, Thembe Mvula, and they married. It was her husband who pushed her into recording her unique originals, then trilling them in public.
"I developed friendships with other artists who encouraged me and my creativity," she says. "And that changed things for me — I became more interested in the art I was making, rather than how I was coming off."
Recording and Web-posting her own hushed home demos was one thing — Mvula was her own engineer.
"But when I got into the studio to do an actual album, and my voice was exposed to Steve, that was terrifying," she says. "I found it really difficult to hear myself through high-tech speakers, blasting out to five people in the room who had come to listen to our work in progress."
Nevertheless, Mvula's main-stage set at Britain's sprawling Glastonbury Festival went swimmingly this summer, even though she didn't perfect her stage presence by studying her own reflection.
"You can't look at yourself in the mirror when you're baring your soul!" she says.IF YOU GO
Where: Yoshi's, 1330 Fillmore St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $15 to $20
Contact: (415) 655-5600, www.yoshis.com