A chat with Grammy nominee Lianne La Havas before her concerts at the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix this weekend
Listening to Lianne La Havas' sophomore album makes you feel things. Unstoppable, for one, and wonderful — two expressions which also happen to be the titles of two tracks from Blood, released in 2015. The former's a confident lead single, co-written and produced by Paul Epworth (the man who's also responsible for stuff from Adele and Primal Scream) while the latter's a honeyed showcase of the Londoner's lilting vocals.
While the 2016 Grammy-nominated Blood serves as a stellar introduction into all things La Havas, her 2012 Mercury Prize-nominated debut, Is Your Love Big Enough?, will give you an early taste of her emotive prowess. So will Alt-J's 2014 track 'Warm Foothills', where La Havas' warmth is poised against lead vocalist Joe Newman. The 28-year-old has also opened for Coldplay. The most random fact? She was once Paloma Faith's backing singer. "Couple of years into that [working on backing vocals], then I started being Lianne La Havas," summed up the singer-songwriter on the phone from her hotel room, hours before her performance at the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix. "And I never looked back!"
She very well shouldn't. With Mercury Prize and Grammy nods under her belt, the half Jamaican, half Greek singer (who got her "La Havas" moniker after removing the "V" from "Vlahavas", her father's last name) is currently writing material for her third album. Arriving straight from London, her whistle-stop tour of Asia includes performances in Hong Kong and Japan as well.
When was the last time you discovered something about yourself in the mirror? It's a question I lifted off the lyrics from 'Green & Gold', of course. I discover something all the time. It feels like my face is changing constantly, I don't know man. Maybe it's because I'm 28 now.
Older and wiser right? Well yeah, I guess so. That's what they say...
So Blood saw inspirations and influences from diverse themes: Of your Jamaican childhood and upbringing in 'Green & Gold', a past relationship in 'Unstoppable', while 'Tokyo' was inspired by the movie Lost In Translation. What sort of themes or stories can we expect from your upcoming album? Stuff that's been happening, I don't know. Whatever I feel like talking about that day is what I write about. Sometimes I think, 'Oh, I really want to write a song about something', and then I'll make a bunch of music. Certain tracks will tell me what subject to allocate to each track. That's been happening lately — where I just follow the way it sounds and decide what it's going to be about later.
What did you learn about yourself while making Blood? I learned to believe in myself more. It's a very interesting process making that album, because I worked with lots of different people — which is not a bad thing — but I realised to trust myself and to trust my instincts more. And that's a very valuable thing, if you can trust your instinct. Because if it's your music, chances are, you will have the right idea about it. I also got more confidence. Every album I do, I get more confident about making music for the future.
Will these lessons propel you into the making of the next album? I hope so. It seems to be feeling really good and I'm discovering things about myself along the way with this one now, like how I like to work and discovering loads of amazing music and how it's affecting me.
You've spoken out about what a huge fan of Erykah Bady you are, but what stuff are you currently listening a lot to now? I still love a lot of jazz, but I love different types of jazz. I love Brazilian music. I love bossa nova and artists like Gilberto Gil, Elza Soares and Milton Nascimento. I love the sound, it's the most soothing, perfectly-formed jazz... I just love it.
You've also shared about how your father's love of jazz has influenced you, and how a holiday with your mother has inspired Blood as well. How big of an influence are your parents in your music now? They are very interested in what I do now (laughs). Before, they were interested but it's like they didn't think I was serious and would make a career out of it. My mom now very sweetly and innocently asks me how everything is at the label. So it's really cute. I have better conversations now about actual music with my mom and dad, and I play them things. It's definitely more of a deep conversation that we can have now which I find very healthy.
You don't particularly like your music to be described by genres and often found that most people have lazily labeled your music as "soul" based on the colour of your skin. How would you, then, describe your music in an ideal, genre-less world? I'd say it's melodic music that's played on mostly an electric guitar, with a clean tone. I focus on finger picking rhythms, and very differed rhythms influenced by music from all over the world (laughs)... something like that.
How do you feel about writing on very personal things for the world to listen to? I don't mind about anyone else, but if it's about a boy or any relationship stuff — that's when I get the most nervous. Like if it's about another boyfriend and you're singing it in front of your current boyfriend (laughs), I get a bit weird but it's fine. It's moments in time that you've captured. But I do worry if I write about my current boyfriend, how he would react to those songs. But at the same time I'm excited.
Lastly, what makes you unstoppable? Oh...well I don't know. Am I unstoppable? Sometimes I don't feel unstoppable. Other days I do. When I feel completely ready for stuff, when I've done my hair, did my makeup, nails, outfit on point and I've practised, I've exercised and I've had a good lunch, had a coffee...that's when I'm unstoppable.
How do you take your coffee? I wish I could say that line from the film Airplane!, where she goes, "I take it black, like my men". But I actually enjoy just a splash of any non-dairy milk.
Like your men? Like my men before... (laughs) you know I never really had a preference. But with coffee, yes, I do have a preference.
Lianne La Havas will perform at the F1 Singapore Grand Prix concert at the Padang Stage on Friday, 15 September and Village Stage on Saturday, 16 September. Book tickets.