Interview: Lianne La Havas

Interview with Lianne La Havas

Lianne La Havas


Thanks to a BBC Sound of 2012 nomination and support slots with Bon Iver and Bombay Bicycle Club, Lianne La Havas is one of the most hotly-tipped singer-songwriters in the UK. We spoke to her about writing with Willy Mason, hanging out with Prince and the inspirations behind her debut album, Is Your Love Big Enough?

Questions and answers

How are you feeling about the release of the album: nervous or excited?

I’m extremely excited. I saw physical copies of the album yesterday, for the first time, and it fills me with a lot of joy. So, yeah, I’m only excited. (Laughs)

It must be the culmination of many years’ work for you…

Absolutely. It took about three years to write and record the album, because at the beginning of that period I didn’t know that it was gonna become “the album”. At the time I was just writing songs to increase my repertoire. But then gradually it became a collection of songs, and then a collection of songs with a theme. It needed to take that long so we could discover what it was that I wanted to sound like.

Stylistically, it’s very eclectic. Is that a reflection of the fact it was recorded over a long period of time, or is it more a reflection of your personal musical tastes?

I’d say the latter, probably. I think it has come out quite eclectic, but there are things that tie it together, like the guitar style and the voice. But I’m into lots of different types of music so, yeah, I wanted to inject that into the record as well.

There are lots and lots of artists that inspire me, from all different genres. But the first one that made me want to sing was probably Lauryn Hill. My mum would listen to her CDs when I was younger. I really responded to her voice so would try and copy her. And then singers like Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald and Erykah Badu.

Did you always intend to become a musician?

No, I wanted to be an art teacher before that. But at the same time [that] I was studying to go to university, I had started to learn to play guitar and was writing songs, gigging and meeting a lot of musicians that I found inspiring. So it took up most of my time and I decided to leave art college.

So, would you say there’s a consistent theme tying the album together?

Yes, probably love. (Laughs) I talk a lot about that, but I like to think I’ve looked at it from many different perspectives.

Are your lyrics autobiographical? Or are you writing in character?

Oh no, it’s very much autobiographical and personal to me. Some of [the lyrics] are more literal and some are a bit more ambiguous, and then I’ll connect with them after I’ve written them, sometimes. But it all comes from a place to do with everything that’s going on in my life at that time. It’s very therapeutic and I just really enjoy doing it. It’s a nice way for me to express myself.

How do you find it performing songs like ‘Lost and Found’ – which are so intimate, thematically – to large audiences?

Well I hope that they like it. (Laughs) I really enjoy performing and I think if people can find a connection with the words then that’s great. Otherwise they’ll hopefully just like listening to the music.

But you don’t find it uncomfortable bearing your soul onstage?

No, no. I want the audience to know me; I want to share a story with them. And also, once the song’s been written it stays as it was but I move on. So to sing the songs now is better than living the way it was when I was writing, y’know?

Why’s the album called Is Your Love Big Enough?

Well it’s named after the title track, and that’s about me having a really good time in New York City, where the song was written.

I went there last July, specifically to write songs with Matt Hales, but I ended up also writing with Willy Mason. And he, Matt and I came up with that title, because we wanted to talk about the feeling of being happy and making friends, and kinda connecting with yourself and becoming inspired again. So it’s basically about self-love but on a metaphorical level. And about embracing the future.

What prompted you to work with Matt Hales?

I was introduced to him by a music publisher about three years ago, just because I was open to exploring my sound. So I went to meet him at a studio he had in Bermondsey, and the first day I met him we wrote a song together.

He was the first person I’d ever co-written with and it felt amazing. He completely understood what I was getting at, and it felt strangely ok to share personal lyrics with him. I was a really big fan of his before I met him, and he was everything I hoped he would be, if not more. So, basically, after that first session, we ended up just working together more and more. At that time I was singing with Paloma Faith but in my spare time I would work with Matt, and that’s how we started the bulk of material that became the album.

I feel like he really understands me as a musician and he helped me to understand myself, picking out what my strengths were, I suppose. He really encourages me to play guitar and he comes from a singing background as well, and has this love of harmony and choirs which is inspiring. I just love his sound, and the freedom that he likes and the warmth that he gets when recording. Now we’re best friends too, so it’s never felt like work to do the records with him.

Do you plan to work with him on the next album?

I would absolutely love to. And I have asked him but he did say to me that it could be the case that I meet/have the connection with someone else. I have a hunch that he’ll definitely be involved in some way or another. And after doing this record with him, I’m so intrigued about what the next one might sound like.

If you had to pick out the track on the record you’re most proud of, which would it be and why?

Ohhh, I’m kinda proud of all of them! (Laughs) I connect with them all for different reasons. But my favourite song is probably ‘No Room For Doubt’, I’d say. It was written in New York with Willy Mason, after a period of not having written anything for a long time, which was getting me down. Because Willy’s on it, it doesn’t feel like just my own song; it’s like I listen to it in a different way. I like that it represents the beginning of the completion of the album.

So, we’ve heard a rumour that you’ve been recording with Prince! Is it true?

I didn’t record with him but I did meet him. He called me up one day and told me that he was a big fan… (Laughs) He invited me to meet him in Minneapolis and I went there a few months ago. We were just sat talking about music, basically, and we played guitar together and watched YouTube videos of musicians that we loved. He’s an absolutely amazing guy; really welcoming so it felt like talking to an old friend. I was a bit star-struck; it was completely surreal... (Laughs) So there’s no recording on the cards as yet, but watch this space…

You’ve opened for a diverse range of very successful artists. What have you learned from the experience?

Well, just that you never know who’s listening to your music. And also, just because you’re a performer of one type of music, it doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate performers of other genres. I mean, I like Bombay Bicycle Club and Erykah Badu. Music just brings people together.

Do the opinions of critics matter to you?

Um, I don’t think so. Not as much as it means to me for people to seek out the music and come to the shows. I’ve realised that it’s just one person’s opinion at the end of the day, and you realise that if they don’t like it, maybe it’s just not for them. And that’s fine, y’know, ‘cause I don’t like everything either.

I think the most important thing is that you have faith in what you do and that the people that want to listen to it enjoy it. So I’m not too stressed. (Laughs) Also, I think it’s unhealthy if you’re reading too many reviews, whether you’re getting positive feedback or negative feedback. You need to remain level-headed.

Well, we really like the album.

Oh, thank you! (Laughs) I’m not going to stop you saying that. (Laughs)

Ok, so can you tell us what the best and worst things are about your job?

Well, I can’t really think of any bad things at the moment. The only bad thing I suppose is making sure you get enough sleep. That’s all that I’m struggling with at the moment, but everything else I love.

And what’s been the highlight so far?

I’ve met some really legendary musicians that I’ve always loved, so that’s been a highlight. Like meeting Erykah and Stevie Wonder, a few weeks ago. And, of course, Prince. And just touring is always a highlight; I love going on tour, I love meeting all the different audiences and seeing where the music is getting to. Just the fact that people are coming to the shows of their own accord is a massive highpoint for me.

So is that the plan for the rest of the year, then; you’re going to be mostly touring?

Yeah, well, doing festivals over the summer and going on tour in the UK in October. And I might go to America in August or September.

Finally, can you tell us what’s been your favourite album of the past 12 months?

It’s between Laura Marling’s A Creature I Don’t Know and Little Dragon’s Ritual Union. I am obsessed with both. With Laura, I’ve just always loved her voice and her lyrics... And her guitar-playing, and her song writing, the character in her voice, her wisdom, everything! I don’t think she’s written a bad song! Her new one is just breath-taking, though: it’s a lot darker than the previous two, but I quite like that. It shows that she’s growing up with her music, which I really aspire to.

And Little Dragon are probably my favourite band. I think they’re so innovative and creative; they’ve got their own thing going on. And again, I love the singer’s voice: it’s like a combination of Róisín Murphy and Erykah Badu, or something. She’s got phenomenal stage presence and they do brilliant live shows, and their music sounds so organic but futuristic, and I really like that.