Lianne La Havas (©Alex Lake)
The London-born singer-songwriter forges her 'guitar & B' style for soul and folk roots
By Danielle Cheesman
Special to MSN Music
Lianne La Havas is either hoarse or equipped with one hell of a sultry speaking voice, too. (Her singing voice, after all, is not up for discussion.) It's one day after our scheduled call -- the first canceled due to La Havas not feeling well having had New York take "a lot out of her" -- and since I'd actually been in attendance at the aforementioned city show at Webster Hall, and because she was quite giggly and forthcoming once we finally did speak, all was forgiven and no offense was taken. Besides, the 23-year-old London-born soul-folk singer was a long way from home and nearing the end of her tour around the U.S., so why not cut her some much-deserved slack?
Born to a Greek father and Jamaican mother (now separated), La Havas has her own parents to thank for her varied taste in music. Her dad, a bus driver and experienced instrumentalist, taught her the basics of guitar and piano, while her mother (who owned the first album that La Havas "fell in love" with, Jill Scott's debut) introduced her to more-modern R&B. So it's perhaps unsurprising that, despite an honest attempt to complete school -- La Havas studied art at the Norbury Manor Business and Enterprise College for Girls -- she dropped out to pursue a career in music. The decision first led to her singing backup for fellow artist Paloma Faith (where she would soon meet the band's pianist 14 years her senior who would later become her boyfriend, then her ex, and the inspiration for her song "Age") and then ultimately to her very own record deal with Warner Bros., on which she released her own debut, "Is Your Love Big Enough?" It was notably awarded the iTunes Album of the Year in 2012.
Nowadays, Stevie Wonder is showing up at La Havas' gigs, Prince is calling her cell, and she's recovering from serious kidney infections (well, just one) after admittedly "drinking too much because I always found a reason to celebrate" -- you know, real everyday rock 'n' roll type stuff. Though she's given up the latter (in exchange for a healthier lifestyle, yea!), there are no signs of the former -- call it the ever-increasing accrual of fans -- slowing down anytime soon.
MSN Music: What has been the biggest difference between U.S. and U.K. audiences?
Lianne La Havas: It'd be very general to say that all U.S. audiences are loud, but generally they're more vocal about their appreciation of ad-libs and that kind of thing, which I really, really like because I find it very encouraging. In the U.K., I find they're a bit more reserved, basically, so if they are enjoying it, then you can feel that, but they're just more reserved about showing it.
What's one of the weirdest things you've experienced at your U.S. shows?
It's almost the end of the tour, and we've had a really, really amazing journey, but gosh -- probably -- wait, lemme ask someone. [Away from phone: Did anything weird happen on this tour? What's the weirdest thing?] Oh! [laughs] We went to hang out with Prince at Paisley Park. That was pretty weird. I honestly don't know how I could forget that. I'll never forget it again. Never ever.
Bing: Is Prince working with Lianne La Havas?
What was your first musical memory?
Singing hymns with my great-grandma when I was about 5 or 6 in South London. She used to teach me them and we used to sing them together because she knew I liked it.
I've also read that your grandmother used to cook for you a lot and that you're a bit of a foodie yourself, so are there any foods you can get here that you can't in the U.K.?
Yes! You can't get Philly cheesesteaks in London, which I really actually do quite like -- I really enjoyed Philadelphia; wish I could've stayed longer than a day. I'm just looking in the fridge to see. Oh! I went to Katz's Delicatessen. There's nothing like Katz's in the U.K., really, or that comes close to how good Katz's is.
It's been said that you blend R&B, folk, soul, etc. Are you comfortable with that consensus?
I am! I'm comfortable. I'm calling it, at the moment, "guitar & B." I can't remember for the life of me who thought of that name, but somebody said it to me and I thought, 'Actually, yeah! That's pretty much exactly what I'm going for.' It encompasses all of the types of music that I like in some way, but it leaves me somewhere to go for my next album, which I think could probably go anywhere.
Are you recording for that already?
No, not at the moment; I haven't had any time. Some people can write when they're on the road. I personally find it better to be somewhere in a space -- just a nice space -- that you enjoy being in and be there for a number of days and weeks and just be still and be able to dive [in]. I can't really do that when I'm on the road, I find, because I'm just too busy. So in May I don't have any touring, so I'm going to the studio and I'm gonna see what happens. I'm very excited.
Any new sounds you're planning on experimenting with?
There's lots of new guitar ideas that I have, as well as vocal harmonies, and so it's doing more rhythmic-based things, just beats, and seeing where that takes me. Lots and lots of things I've got stored up in my mind that I want to try.
Is there any one genre, musical trend or song you'd like to see go away?
[Laughs] Yeah! When people in pop songs, they do that thing where they bend the voice, that weird computerized -- I don't know what it's called.
Is it that? It's in basically every pop song that I hear on the radio. They sing something and then it bends it computerize-ly [laughs]. And then I started hearing it on people's voices that I thought were actually good singers and I thought, 'Why'd she need that?' Yeah, I don't like that.
What artists or music would fans be surprised to know you listen to?
I'm trying to think of all the music I like now. I do have a kind of a soft spot for Rihanna. Some of her songs are just brilliant. [When] my friend and I are sad, we just watch some of her videos on YouTube. We just find it very uplifting, that song "Only Girl in the World." It is quite good.
Which songs on your album were most difficult to write?
They all came in different ways and at different times, so I think, depending on the time of the song, that dictates the difficulty of it. None of them felt hard. They all took a few days in total or a few months, but I guess, sharing-wise, the most personal song is probably either "Lost and Found" or "No Room for Doubt" for me. But in making those songs, it helped me to feel better about whichever situation I was writing about it. It just felt like to hear some music that I thought was nice because then it takes it away from your brain.
Speaking of "No Room for Doubt," we got to hear Willy Mason on that. Are there any other artists you'd like to collaborate with?
Yes! Apart from Prince, who I'd love to do something with, I'd love to sing with [inaudible] one day because I love their voice and I love their style.
[Laughs] No, Little Dragon! As much as I used to love Nickelback! And probably, if I could ever work with someone, Dr. Dre, who's amazing, because I love him. Or Missy Elliott; [I'm a] big fan.
How are your parents handling your success?
They're very proud, very, very proud and very supportive. My dad comes to my shows with my mom these days, which is amazing. My mom's always looking at my social networking sites to see what I'm up to. She always knows stuff before I know what I'm doing, so it's really, really cute to see my parents reacting in this way. They're very proud. They just tell me to look after myself and have a good time.
Frank Ocean, Miguel and the Weeknd had such big years. Are you satisfied with the state of R&B for female artists?
It's very interesting because a lot of the stuff you would call R&B, I don't really know if you can call it that -- it feels more pop-oriented. The ones you mentioned did really well. They're very credible; I think it needs to remain credible and interesting. I'm trying to think on how to elaborate. We can come back to it.
OK, what's your theme song?
[Laughs] That's such a good question, as well. Oh God, what is my theme song? Something like "Brown Skin" by India.Arie. I just love that song so much, it's amazing.
India.Arie! So, she falls into the category we were just discussing of female R --
"Guitar & B"! [Laughs] She was the first person I saw playing guitar but also singing like that, you know, and having these incredible soulful songs but also being badass at the same time, which I really like.
What about Beyoncé?
I think Destiny's Child was probably R&B and now she's still R&B, I suppose, to an extent, but it's so very just popular music -- you hear a lot of the chords you hear in a lot of popular music, so it's definitely transformed. But I'd say India.Arie is still part of that, Jill Scott is still a part of that, but I can't think of anyone new and female who's in that world for me.
That's where you come in
Last question. What's your guilty pleasure?
[Laughs] Like in music or in food?
Oh! My absolute guilty pleasure is the Food Network, watching it for hours. It's so difficult to change the station.
That's a healthy guilty pleasure, nothing immoral.
Oh no! I've worked all those out in my life. Nothing immoral for me, thank you!