No room for doubt
Songwriting, recording, meetings with Rick Rubin – life’s been busy for 22-year-old Lianne La Havas, writes JIM CARROLL
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 mild-mannered, laid-back, demure London singer meeting the so-called 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 three-hour 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 Forgetat 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 Joolslast 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.”
* Lianne La Havas plays Dublin’s Sugar Club tomorrow. Her debut album is released in July