Pro-fashion, anti-ex-boyfriends and ready to become the next big thing, folk and soul singer Lianne La Havas just can’t stop sharing her innermost thoughts with the world. It’s a formula that has carried her to the brink of major league success. She tells Roe McDermott about her high-heeled journey towards the top.
“It’s nice to meet youuuuuuuu!” Lianne La Havas yodels as she nearly takes a tumble down the stairs of the Sugar Club. And no wonder. The pint-sized chanteuse is teetering on five-inch wedges. “I have to wear them – I’m only 5’2”, without them the people in the back wouldn’t be able to see me!” she laughs. “I have my trusty Doc Martins too, out of necessity – Ireland and your cobblestones!”
Whether she’ll be able to find them is another story, as her phone, stage outfit – and, slightly more importantly, band and crew – have all disappeared. “Where is everyone?!” the 22-year-old wails, wandering around the backstage area in mock despair.
“I feel left out!” It appears the lads have all fecked off next door for a couple of sneaky pints before her sold-out gig kicks off later that night. “Oh, I can’t go back. I was in there earlier – fans were already waiting and were chatting to us, it was lovely! But I had a Guinness and if I have another I’ll actually be drunk. I think someone has my phone, unless it’s hiding around here somewhere.”
Still searching, La Havas opens a suitcase to reveal what I can only describe as Hipster Barbie Princess’ dream dress-up box. Pulling out micro-shorts, flirty underskirts and whimsically printed blouses, she muses over what to don for this evening’s show, asking my opinion on a flouncy burnt orange mini-skirt.
With my assurance that it’s adorable, she decides to wear it later, and instantly seems less antsy. “See, this is the problem with touring with boys – you ask them an opinion and they either stare at you blankly or all give completely different answers. I need more oestrogen around here!”
Not that her fashion is suffering. Currently the epitome of London chic in tiny shorts, a leather jacket and gorgeous, bouncy curls, the singer’s quirky vintage/high street stage ensembles have already made her a bit of a style icon.
“I love vintage!” she enthuses. “And luckily London does that well. Any outfit that shows off that womanly shape and I’m there – nipped-in waists, ‘50s skirts, I love it all!”
While her style may have young girls rummaging around in their mother’s wardrobes, it’s her voice that has fans glued to the radio. Smart, sassy and soulful, her singing style – a mix of Erykah Badu and Yukimi Nagano – and wonderfully honest lyrics have taken the music industry by storm. She was recently nominated for BBC’s ‘Sound of 2012’ poll, while her enchanting performance on BBC’s Later... With Jools Holland – “possibly the happiest day of my life, completely magical” – outshone her fellow guests, earned her personal shout-outs form Gary Barlow and Fearne Cotton and led Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon to ask her to support them on their North American tour. It was a victory that was a long time coming for La Havas.
“I started singing when I was about seven,” she says, “which may have been inevitable in my house. My dad was a musician, he plays everything. He loves jazz, and he’ll find an instrument and force himself to be able to play it. So I guess I got that from him. Playing piano felt very natural to me, I used to work out melodies that I’d heard on the keyboard. And then I sang because it felt good. But I did it in secret and it wasn’t until I was 13 and joined a choir that I sang in front of anyone. When I auditioned, I sang an MJ Cole song and my choir mistress stopped me mid-song and asked me, ‘Where have you been hiding?!’”
But it was when she was in her late teens that she met a musical group of friends that inspired her to take up the guitar. Taking art “as a back-up plan”, her new posse “introduced me to all this electronic music I’d never heard, and I started playing guitar and it was enticing. I felt the guitar more than the piano. I started writing more personal things, because I was inspired. And I made a lot of friends – and enemies,” she adds.
Oh, do tell?
“Well, basically a lot of my songs are about someone I was with at that time. He was actually my drummer for a short period of time, and ‘Forget’ is about him.”
Does he know?
“Oh, he knows! But he’s very forthcoming in admitting that he treated me badly and respects my need to express myself through music.”
Your lyrics say, “Spend all your time writing love songs/but you don’t love me.” He must have written songs for you too then?
“Well, he says he did, but I think that they were about a few girls!”
We’re glad you’re shot of him, so.
“So am I!”
However he did do one thing right, as it was this bad boy that helped La Havas record some demos and put them on MySpace, where she was discovered at 19. And after working as a backing singer for Paloma Faith for 18 months, she was finally signed as a solo artist by Warner Bros. But – perhaps having learned from her experience with pushy men – La Havas wasn’t intimidated by the label, and fought them when they wanted to change her style.
“With ‘Forget’, I first recorded it with David Sitek from TV On The Radio and we did a version that had a lot of his sound on it. Because I was on a development deal with the American Warner Bros., it seemed like it wasn’t what they thought I should sound like. I refused not to play it, and would always play it live. And the version that’s going to be on the album is one that me and my producer Matt Hales [from Aqualung] worked on, taking the vocal takes of Dave’s version and creating a version that shows how my sound has developed. And I’m so proud of it, because the sentiment of the song is important to me. I’m glad I dug my heels in!”
Lianne admits that Warner Bros.’ less than enthusiastic response rattled her.
“I was thrown, because I was excited about it and their reaction wasn’t great. So I got very down, I was writing a lot of stuff I wasn’t happy with, wasn’t playing the guitar, and I think I was also too comfortable in my relationship. I don’t think artists always have to be in pain to write good music, but you do need to feel whatever you’re feeling strongly – happiness, hurt, whatever. You need to have passion and I didn’t.”
But one sure-fire way to get out of a funk? Have Californian lo-fi beat junkie Shlohmo remix some of your songs.
“I love the ‘Forget’ remix! It’s so cool seeing him put his spin on it, it’s all edgy and ethereal. It’s a pity I haven’t met him, I’d thank him! It’s great that people are blogging about it and bringing my stuff to a new audience, so I’m well happy with that.”
More than Schlohmo though, La Havas credits Matt Hales for her success, likening their first encounter to (musical) love at first sight.
“The process of finding a producer and songwriting partner is bizarre, it’s like being on a blind date where you’re hoping to have a baby with them!” she laughs. “I met Matt three years ago and he was the first person I ever wrote with. It was the most fulfilling experience, and we’re now great friends because of it. Which I think has to be the case. Because it’s such a personal thing – for me, anyway - to write a song, to say what’s deep in your heart. So I think we were so lucky to have met each other that day and I’m so proud of our baby, the album!”
So tell us about this baby then.
“Well, of course there are a lot of love songs about my current boyfriend, who I’ve been with for over three years and is beautiful. Then there are a couple of hate songs! And then there’s a lot of songs about self-love, about me trying to figure out myself, ones directed at the past and the present. Identity is huge for me. My whole problem in the first place, when I was 19 and writing all these songs was that I didn’t know myself. Like, I used to change my handwriting all the time, it’s bizarre! My mother used to do it too, it’s some bizarre genetic quest for perfection! But I feel like through my songwriting, I’ve discovered who I am – or at least am close to finding it, to tasting true happiness and being at ease with myself.”
And as for who she will be in the future, La Havas has big plans.
“I aspire to be like confident women who know themselves – Ella Fitzgerald, Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, Nina Simone. Their voices made me want to sing, to want to be able to sound exciting. They gave me the need to sing. I’d like to give that gift to someone.”
Lianne La Havas’ debut album Is Your Love Big Enough? will be released in July. She’s back in Dublin for an Academy show on May 9
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