Blood lines and Jamaican roots: Lianne La Havas’s latest journeys
Lianne La Havas was raised in London, but a trip to her family’s home in Jamaica with her mum opened up a whole new world of influences
Singer Lianne La Havas: “I absolutely love doing what I do, but if you forget you love it, then it can be a very miserable job.” Photograph: Paul Bergen/AFP/GettyImages
Not for the first time has Londoner Lianne La Havas stepped up to the start line and wondered will she finish the race, let alone pip everyone else to the post.
She admits that she exceeded her own expectations in 2012, when her debut album, Is Your Love Big Enough, earned Ivor Novello and Mercury Music Prize nominations.
Second time around, however – her follow-up album, Blood, is released today – and La Havas is confident enough that she is in the right creative space to gain even further ground.
“With Blood, I feel that the songs are more mature and are written in a new way. I’m able to engage more seriously with the studio environment, being a producer, and other areas. That has all come with time and experience, I suppose, and it makes me look forward in a different way to making the third album.”
Born in 1989, Lianne Barnes (she took her stage name from her Greek father, Vlahavas) was raised by her Jamaican grandparents, and grew up surrounded by jazz, reggae, soul, urban pop, and Tamla Motown. Although her parents had separated, her music-loving father, she points out, was the sole reason for her wanting to be a songwriter.
“He offered it to me,” is La Havas’s lovely description of her entry into music. “When I was seven years old he bought me a toy-like keyboard, one of those Yamahas, and while he didn’t necessarily show me how to play anything on it, he could see that I was very interested in learning how to.
“And so I began to play it for myself, quite naturally, and I soon discovered that I got immense pleasure from, initially, just dabbling, and then more seriously.
“So, my father nudged me towards music, but it was always with encouragement for doing it because it made you feel good. That pleasure principle is something I’ve always managed to maintain.”
Ambitions in her teenage years were, she remembers, “hazy – I wanted to try my hand at as many things as possible. Doesn’t every 18-year-old want to do that?”
Now, she remarks, “my aims are more realistic and clear, and my goals are much more attainable”.
She says that even being in a position to make a debut album was a game changer for her. “It came at a point where I reckoned that if I stuck at what I was doing, and aimed to get better at it, then maybe I could actually do music as a lifestyle choice. A job, if you want to put it that way.”
Between two albums, hundreds of gigs, being on speaking terms with the likes of Prince (who she first met in 2012 and who has now endorsed her as a name, voice and songwriter to be reckoned with) she says she always looks at the positives of the work.
“I absolutely love doing what I do, but if you forget you love it, then it can be a very miserable job. It’s easy to forget the good things about it because, as we know, there is so much other stuff that comes with it.
“I believe you should do things that feel good, and all the rest, the peripheral areas, you can take in your stride.”
Making an album about her multi-cultural roots was something that had been on her mind for some years; while her debut focused on matters of the heart, Blood addresses heritage.
La Havas says she didn’t want to make any “profound statements”; it nonetheless seemed fitting that she voiced her feelings about her mixed-race background and upbringing.
“Around the time I was writing songs for the album last year I first went to Jamaica with my mum. That’s where her family is from, and it was the first time I’d been. It was a very significant visit that had a huge effect on me. From a songwriting point of view, for the first time my love life wasn’t at the forefront of my mind, but rather my family, and what had been going on with them.
“Also, I turned 25 last year, so it seemed like I reached an age where my parents are more dependent on me than I am on them. For whatever reasons, it felt like I had finally become an adult.”
La Havas says that those issues filtered into the songwriting process and, more than a year later, the reverberations are still being felt. What connected with her so strongly? “It felt crazy to be brought up by Jamaican people in London,” she says, “to be totally immersed in Jamaican culture, yet at the same time to be also living a completely English, London life.
“So when I went to Jamaica it felt strangely familiar – so much was recognisable, I understood the accent, I’d been taught about the island so much all of my life, from the music to the food. To see it all in situ, though, had a huge effect on me. It was just fascinating, an incredible experience.”
Has she filtered all of those experiences down into her music? Not yet, she replies. More songs will come along, “when I’ve lived, learned and processed it even further”.
La Havas on Prince: ‘He’s such an enigma’
“I understand why Prince can be so amazing to so many people because he’s something of a mystery. But you know, he’s a real person,” says La Havas.
“It’s interesting how he has managed to maintain his mystique so well over the decades that everyone is still fascinated by him.”
She has performed with him on Saturday Night Live and when he came to London last year, he took over her home for a press conference.
“He is the king of having a wide audience – everyone seems to love him – and what fascinates me is how he does it. He’s wonderful to learn from, and just a great guy. Even when you do know him he’s such an enigma.
“What inspires me the most about him is his live shows – I think he’s still one of the unbeaten, best live performers I’ve ever seen, and there are no signs of that changing.
“I love the longevity of his career, too, and the fact that his voice, after decades of use, is still sublime. And he can move on stage more ably than I can.”
Blood is out tomorrow on Warner Bros. Lianne La Havas plays Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on December 3