MU­SIC

Lianne La Havas is on the verge of star­dom. Jim Car­roll finds out why,

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

THERE’S NOT a scin­tilla of hes­i­ta­tion when you ask Lianne La Havas about the cra­zi­est thing she’s ex­pe­ri­enced so far as a pop singer. The 22-year-old has had a busy time of things, with gigs as a back­ing singer for the likes of Paloma Faith and a lot of song­writ­ing ses­sions, but one in­ci­dent stands out. “It would have to be the meet­ing with Rick Ru­bin at his house in Mal­ibu,” she says with a grin. “That was the first time I ever went ‘gosh, what a crazy world we live in’.” On pa­per, it must have seemed an in­con­gru­ous en­counter, the mild­man­nered, laid-back, de­mure London singer meet­ing the so­called Sven­gali and pro­ducer who worked with Johnny Cash, Slayer, the Beastie Boys and many more.

“He works with some­one who heard about me and he wanted to meet me so I went to his house and played some songs to him in his liv­in­groom,” La Havas ex­plains. “We had a three­hour chat about mu­sic. He was ab­so­lutely lovely, but it was sur­real.”

La Havas has lost count of the num­ber of times she’s walked into a room to have an un­likely-sound­ing meet­ing. Over the past cou­ple of years, as part of a de­vel­op­ment deal with her record la­bel, she’s of­ten found her­self meet­ing with song­writ­ers and pro­duc­ers she has never met be­fore to see what hap­pens and if there’s a con­nec­tion.

De­vel­op­ment deals of this ilk are among the few re­main­ing old-fash­ioned parts of the record busi­ness which can still work, al­low­ing new­bies such as Le Havas to en­gage with peo­ple who’ve al­ready proven their worth in terms of pen­ning and pro­duc­ing hit tunes.

“At the be­gin­ning when I went solo, I just played gui­tar and sang my songs,” she ex­plains. “It was in­ter­est­ing to me that there was this other side to the busi­ness, that wants you to col­lab­o­rate with pro­fes­sional song­writ­ers in or­der to have some spark you’re go­ing to record. I don’t know how to use record­ing equip­ment so I used it as an op­por­tu­nity to find some­one I wanted to record my songs with.”

Those she has worked with whom she re­mem­bers fondly in­clude David Sitek from TV On the Ra­dio (“I wrote For­get at his stu­dio”), Mike El­i­zondo, who worked with Gwen Ste­fani and Eve, and Dan Carey (who had pre­vi­ously worked with Kylie Minogue and The Kills).

“I met many song­writ­ers, but I didn’t click with all of them,” La Havas says. “Ini­tially, it was quite daunt­ing be­cause it’s like go­ing on a blind date and hav­ing a baby, be­cause you’re there to write a song. Some­times you have this amaz­ing chem­istry and other times, there’s noth­ing there. As soon as you work with some­one, you ei­ther click or you don’t.

“It’s so per­sonal, it’s so much down to you and them, it has to feel real.

“I’m very much led by my heart and gut so if it wasn’t go­ing right, it would make me feel sad. It was noth­ing against the per­son I was work­ing with, but I wanted to do stuff that made me feel good and not just stuff that might sound like it could sell records.”

La Havas had a sig­nif­i­cant “eureka” mo­ment when she met pro­ducer and song­writer Matt Hales (whom some will know from his ex­cel­lent band Aqualung). “It was im­me­di­ate. When I met Matt, I had some lyrics that rhymed and a sub­ject and some chords on the gui­tar. I had no melody and no gel for those things so it was very raw. Within an hour – and bear in mind we’d never met be­fore – I knew he was go­ing to be a great col­lab­o­ra­tor and friend.”

What de­cided it for Le Havas was a sim­ple piece of ad­vice from Hales. “There was a chord I had which was ma­jor and Matt said ‘why not change that to a mi­nor?’ and sud­denly, the song clicked.

“He sug­gested some­thing that I would never have thought of on my own that took the song into a place I wanted the song to be in. It’s not about con­trol or hav­ing his stamp on it, he’s help­ing me de­velop my­self as a song­writer. It’s about trust­ing each other.

“When he asked if I wanted to work with him and I said yes, it was the best decision I ever made. He pro­duced my en­tire al­bum and we’ve writ­ten a large bulk of ma­te­rial to­gether. It’s been an amaz­ing union.” Her time with Hales has helped her to hone and de­velop her sound. What you’ll hear now from La Havas are beau­ti­fully sparse, un­der­stated soul­ful pop tunes with lovely, el­e­gant shades of folk and jazz.

La Havas has been head­ing for this ca­reer since she was a teenager, singing along to her favourite tunes in her be­d­room in south London. “I used a deodor­ant can as a mi­cro­phone and used to pre­tend I was a back­ing singer and dancer.”

There was mu­sic all around her at home, but she was the first one to turn pro. When she ap­peared on Later With Jools last year (“that’s been the high point so far – it felt like I was com­ing out as a singer and per­former”), that decision seemed to­tally jus­ti­fied.

It all comes back to the voice and the acts La Havas loved al­ways had a dis­tinc­tive voice. “I re­ally re­sponded to voices like Ella Fitzger­ald, that’s what made me want to sing. When I sing, it feels re­ally nice in my body, I re­ally en­joy it. Mu­sic is emo­tive so I respond to it in that way.

“When it feels right to me, if the song and the way it has been writ­ten and re­fined feels right, it’s not an ef­fort to sing it. I don’t want to sing songs that I don’t en­joy singing or haven’t en­joyed writ­ing.”

These days, it’s soul singer Erykah Badu who comes to mind when she thinks about acts she’d like to em­u­late. “She’s one of my favourite singers and per­form­ers, I re­ally look up to her. She’s a god­dess, a woman who re­ally knows her­self and is proud to be a woman and not afraid to be who she ac­tu­ally is. Strong women re­ally in­flu­ence me, peo­ple who know them­selves.”

La Havas also cred­its Badu with in­ad­ver­tently help­ing to turn around her ca­reer. “I went to see her in Brix­ton Academy last July. It was dur­ing a time of great un­cer­tainty for me in my per­sonal life and it was the be­gin­ning of my deal with Warner. I had half of the al­bum writ­ten by then but there was some di­rec­tion I felt I needed to be go­ing in and I didn’t know what that was.

“I went to her show and it com­pletely changed my life. The next day, I went to New York. I hap­pened to write with Willy Ma­son. I wrote my sin­gle and that lead to two other songs which are an in­te­gral part of the al­bum. Ev­ery­thing seemed to hap­pened af­ter that show.

“Af­ter go­ing through months of con­fu­sion and not be­ing able to write, where I ended up was quite amaz­ing and I credit her play­ing that show with that. She’s hugely in­spir­ing. I hope in time I can be like that to new singers too – that would be amaz­ing.”

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