Lianne la Havas Interview: Web Exclusive for Exclaim.ca
By Kevin Jones
The past couple of years in the professional life of Lianne La Havas have proven quite an exciting journey, one that included an opening spot on Bon Iver’s 2011 North American tour, an iTunes UK Album Of The Year award for her 2012 debut Is Your Love Big Enough?, and a spotlight showcase at the 4th Annual ESSENCE Black Women In Music celebration. With her sultry, sumptuous vocals, nimble guitar work, and a genre splicing sound that snatches from soul, folk, and pop, the London-based singer-songwriter has attracted the admiration of enraptured fans on both sides of the atlantic, including a few notable musical heavyweights who’ve called her up out of the blue to sing her praises. Her rapid ascent has been pretty impressive to witness, and while that’s no surprise given her incredible musical talent and richly emotional songcraft, it’s the combination of confidence and charming modesty that makes the rest feel so much more satisfying to take in.
You mentioned on your first EP that you were recording in LA with Matt Hales. How did you end up making the album in the US?
Well Matt moved to America after I met him, but we first started working together in London. He’s a singer/songwriter who had most success a few years ago under his name Aqualung, and I was introduced to him by someone like a publisher or his manager or something, and we started writing songs together. I was a big fan of his already, so it felt like I was working with one of my idols, or someone who I was very comfortable about showing him songwriting [to] and what I could do. And he seemed very accommodating and we instantly connected, but then he moved to Pasadena, which is why I would go back and forth between London and LA to work with him. And eventually, about three years later, we finished the album.
And how did the opening Bon Iver tour spot come about?
When I was releasing my first EP, I got the opportunity to be on Jools Holland, and Bon Iver were on the same bill that evening, so that’s how we met. We didn’t really speak to each other that day, though, but we heard each other’s music that day, and a few days later I was invited to support Justin on the tour.
Had you heard his album before that.
I’d heard his first album - I bought his first album, and his second came out just a few months before I met him, and I was actually listening to the opening track with Matt in the studio one day before we were writing a song. And coincidentally, a few months later I was supporting him, so it’s very crazy!
You get the impression from your videos and live performances that performing is something you’ve been doing for most of your life. Is that try?
Being serious about it, I’ve been playing guitar and singing for my own shows for about maybe three or four years now. Before that, I was in choirs in school, building my confidence, but I never really played in an instrument publicly and sang until I was about 19. But that year that I supported Bon Iver, which was the beginning of 2011, I didn’t have my record deal or anything and was kind of in limbo about finishing the record and stuff like that.
You hadn’t started it yet?
Well, I had a collection of songs, but I didn’t really have a direction at the time. So what I decided to do was just play as many shows on my own as I could find, and the shows just kept coming to me. People would have friends of friends who were putting on a night at a club or whatever, so I would just do maybe three gigs a week or something. I just made the beginning of that year all about practicing and getting comfortable at being on stage and being very self-sufficient. So, when it came to doing the Bon Iver tour, I just felt like this is who I am and felt very comfortable about that.
People seem to be most taken aback by the richness of your lyrics and the messages they convey. Is writing something you do a lot of, even apart from songwriting?
I Love it! I love poetry, and that’s kind of what started me off really, linking the two – music and poetry – because when I was at school, English was one of my favourite subjects, and I was just always fascinated with how you can make something rhyme but also have it make complete sense as well. So, it was kind of a natural progression to sort of start making melodies and songs out of it.
Apart from your full album, you’ve also recording a few songs that carry you in a different direction, Everything Everything’s “Final Form”, or the remixes you did with Shlohmo and Two Inch Punch. Are those different styles something you see yourself doing more of in the future?
It’s funny that you mention “Final Form”, because I recorded that during that time just before I got my album deal. So it’s just, you know, whatever’s available to you in the studio that you like the sound of, and whatever you wanna do, really. I tend not to like specifics, you know, I like it when you hear something and you can’t trace it back to what it sounds like, ‘cause then it’s not pure. I like the idea of creating a genre almost. Who says that you can’t just amalgamate everything you like into one piece of music, just to make it sound like a new thing you haven’t heard before? I did try to do that with the record, but particularly with “Final Form” – that was a chance for me to just really enjoy being in the studio and taking a song that isn’t my own and trying to make it my own, and even though that sounds very different to my album, I still think it sounds like me. With Two Inch Punch, funnily enough, I’m going to be working with him one-on-one, which I’m very excited about. he’s a good friend of mine and I’ve been meaning to do some music with him – I just think he’s so talented, and his vision and his sonic opinion is something that I’m really interested in fusing with my own. I’m just looking to make sounds that I haven’t heard before.
Aside from winning iTunes UK Album Of The Year, have their been any other really special surprises since the album came out and along the tour? Any phone calls from Prince or anything?
Yeah, right (laughs). That was pretty surprising! Just to be acknowledged by anyone that you are a fan of or respect, such as a living legend like that..
Wait, that actually happen?
Yeah! I thought you knew that! (smiling)
No, I didn’t know.
I thought that’s why you asked that. (Laughing again)
No, I had no idea! Well Congratulations!
(More laughter) Well, thank you! I’ve had a kind of surreal year with meeting my idols, ‘cause even before the album came out, Prince had my EP and he called me and just said that he liked it, basically. And we talked about music and whatnot, and he’s really into new music – he seems to be championing people like Esperanza Spalding, and Janelle Monae, and for him to be a fan of my music as well is amazing. So, that was pretty crazy. I also met Jill Scott, about seven weeks ago in LA. She was at the ESSENCE event honouring black women in music. So, I performed, and she was there, and she’s amazing – just everything I’d hoped and more.