It’s late on a Friday evening, and in less than twenty-four hours, 25-year-old singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas will be playing music from her imminent second album, ‘Blood’, at Latitude Festival’s Obelisk Arena - one of the biggest platforms around. It seems like a bad time, but she couldn’t seem more ready to show her hand.
‘Blood’ sees her exploring her Jamaican roots after her first ever visit to the country in late 2013. During this period she met long-lost relatives, collaborated with everyone from Paul Epworth to Stephen McGregor, and although the result isn’t necessarily what you’d expect, there’s a palpable growth here that she says couldn’t have been possible without the trip.
“It would have been very different had I stayed in London the entire time,” she says. “I learnt a thing or two about rhythm and the importance of feeling; how to harness that good feeling and push the boundaries of sound.” This is still recognisably the Lianne of ‘Is Your Love Big Enough?’ but there’s a greater confidence and a summery kick to this richly produced album – already showcased in slinky singles ‘Unstoppable’ and ‘What You Don’t Do’ – that couldn’t have been achieved under the grey skies of her home in London, where her career began.
Born Lianne Barnes to a Jamaican mother and a Greek father who split when she was two, she lived with her grandparents in South London until she was 17. Her musical education began at seven, when her multi-instrumentalist dad gave her a keyboard. Around the same time, she was big into Sister Act 2 – “wasn’t everybody?” – and with a newfound love of singing she joined the school choir. After a brief stint at art college, her career in music officially started when she became a backing singer for her friend, Rox, and through her, Paloma Faith. “They were talking on MySpace or something,” she says, vaguely.
But although the revelatory moment for her as an artist came during this period, she says it wasn’t from being a backing singer. It was when she started playing the guitar. “I had to start doing my own thing,” she explains. “The need to express myself became far too great. And I got a huge satisfaction from it.
“This feels nice,” she thought, aged 18, when she wrote her first song, ‘Old Flame’. You will no longer find it online, nor much evidence of her subsequent project Paris Parade, a duo with Christian Pinchbeck. The pair produced “an album’s worth of material” which “sounded really nice” but before long, at 19, she had been spotted and signed to a development deal with Warner.
This kind of deal is a rarity these days – and it’s a huge compliment to receive one – but as always, Lianne took it in her stride. “I didn't really feel pressured. I knew that it was unusual. In retrospect, all I actually wanted to do was develop a bit.” And that’s not a chance many artists receive: “to get to know themselves before they're pulled in so many directions by going full throttle into the whole music personality, celebrity part of it. The strength needs to be in the musical side.”
It always has been for her. Before long she had been paired in a songwriting partnership with Aqualung’s Matt Hales. It was a proposition she was initially hesitant about as a songwriter in her own right – “It’s almost like you've got this precious thing that you don't want to spoil” – but the two hit it off and she is now an enthusiastic advocate for the valuable mix of perspectives collaborating provides.
"I had Weetabix, Howard [Lawrence] had Cheerios and Matt [Hales] had a mixture of Cheerios and Crunchy Nut Cornflakes."
— Lianne La Havas
Hales co-wrote the majority of her Mercury-nominated debut album, ‘Is Your Love Big Enough?’ It was a formidable, bold showcase that pinged between genres, and it’s unified by Lianne’s unique voice, whose effortlessly undulating vibrato must show up on audio monitors as a perfect sine wave.
The story of how she met her other ‘Is Your Love…’ collaborator, Willy Mason, is far more random. By chance she ran into him and their mutual friend Dan Carey in London, on the Tube. When she caught sight of Mason, she said hello and “just sort of tagged along on the end of their evening and had this impromptu amazing night.”
She headed to New York to write ‘Is Your Love…' with Hales and Mason, both of whom she now counts among her friends. Hales has remained a collaborator for new album ‘Blood’ – “We're such close friends now, me and the whole family actually,” she says. “It has always felt easy with Matt, never unnatural.”
In truth, she’s never appeared to be afraid of stepping up to a challenge, whether that’s crafting her inimitable 2011 cover of Everything Everything’s ‘Final Form’ – a process that was “like writing, but in a different way” – or breaking new ground with her knockout new song ‘Midnight’, which she says is a combination of “all the stuff I’ve always wanted to do in songs – all in one song.”
There’s its funky beat, its tricky, harmonics-infused guitar part, its pulsing piano, its cheery trumpets – and all but blowing the above into oblivion, there’s her voice, as we’ve never heard it before. One moment she’s cooing “people think I’m crazy,” the next she’s hitting the highest note we’ve ever heard from her, making her demand – “Don’t miss this train!” – utterly irrefutable.
Written in Jamaica with Stephen McGregor (aka Di Genius) the song has a special meaning for Lianne. “For me that song represents freedom. I felt really free in Jamaica. Stephen and I hadn't met before and it seemed I could do anything I wanted. It was kind of a boundary-pushing one for me because I didn't know I could sing those notes or write that kind of melody.”
It was a “serendipitous” creation – McGregor was playing a beat, Lianne came into the room and offered up a guitar part to match it. Within a few hours they had all the melody done. “It just built really organically,” she says. “People were coming into the room and enjoying the song as we were writing it. I always look on that song fondly now because of how it was made.
It’s quite a different scene from the composition of ‘Wonderful’ in West London, with Disclosure’s Howard Lawrence and frequent collaborator Matt Hales. It might be surprising, but the atmospheric heartbreak ballad at the centre of ‘Blood’ may owe its origins to breakfast cereal.
“It was a really nice, equal collaboration,” she says. “We were all finding melodies and we ate some cereal all together.” She laughs. “I had Weetabix, Howard had Cheerios and Matt had a mixture of Cheerios and Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. We bought one of those eight packs.”
It’s the kind of low-key, convivial scene she’ll doubtless be sharing with the new members of her expanded band, what with her upcoming tour of Europe and the US lasting right through until mid-December. “We’re going to be getting to know each other in a different way all over again,” she says. Alongside her original drummer and keyboard player, she has a new bass player, a new guitarist, and even her own backing singer, to whom she feels “like a bigger sister.”
Despite the number of dates ahead of her, she feels confident about the “solid” schedule, after how a shock hospitalisation mid-tour affected her in 2012. “I’m different,” she says, “I’m older now, a bit more mature, looking after myself a bit better these days. It’s going to be a different experience. “I’m raring to go.”
Lianne La Havas' 'Blood' is released 31st July via Warner Music.