Interview: Rising British Songwriter Lianne La Havas on Her New Album, Her Stay in Brooklyn and Her Budding Friendship with Prince

06/25/2012 10:47 AM |


In the dimly lit Mad-Men style Darby lounge, Lianne La Havas emerged from the bathroom in a porcelain white dress, black belt, and pumps, as Frank by Amy Winehouse played from her manager’s iPod. “Hair up or down?” she asked her entourage. “Up and then down during ‘Forget”” her manager joked. “You match your guitar,” another pointed out. It was apparent that Lianne was still adjusting to the attention, balancing new found fame with a lovely sweetness that seemed to pour from her. In our chat before her private invite-only performance, Lianne opened up about her songwriting process, love of Williamsburg, praise for Little Dragon, and a potential EP with Prince (we hope).

The first time I heard your music was via your La Blogotheque Take Away Show, and it was just incredible. How was that experience for you as a rising artist?

Well, It was filmed in September. It felt strangely appropriate to sing that song walking through Paris, I don’t know. It made me have a different connection with that song—the album version is actually a duet with Willy Mason, so that was the first time I played it solo in fact. It was just an amazing day we had in Paris, and consequently now I’m very good friends with the directors and the producers, and actually they did my video for the single “Lost & Found” which is a sort of one-shot thing, so I’m thrilled to know them.

Since signing to Warner Bros, do you think that your songwriting process has changed at all?
No, no, it was always different every time I wrote a song. And I don’t know, being signed to a label made me more determined to write songs that I really liked and believed in—and not to let the better ones slip through the net. In a way, it made me know more what I liked and what I didn’t like, and to have a stronger sense of identity. If you’re signed to a label, and if you’re not sure of what you want to do, they might try and sway you in a different direction – but I think it made me identify more with what I was doing, and to find my path, I suppose.

I listened to the record yesterday and it has a much bigger sound than your previous EPs. Is that how you always imagined the songs would sound, especially the single “Is Your Love Big Enough”?
Well, it just kind of depended on the sentiment of each song really, and I wanted the production to reflect that. So there are some very intimate melancholic moments, and as with “Is Your Love Big Enough” it’s just sort of an extravaganza—kind of really fun, wonky sounding production. And with everything that’s on there, it just had to be just the right amount so as not to overcrowd the lyrics and the melody and the guitar (or piano). I just wanted everything to be in its right place, and to have each instrument play a part.

I know you’ve collaborated a lot with other artists – like Willy Mason, and Aqualung.
Yes, Aqualung produced the album! His real name is Matt Hales and he lives in Los Angeles, but I met him when he lived in London. And then he went to LA, and I followed him back and forth.

Did you stay with him?
Yeah sometimes, or I stayed with a friend because he has kids you know. But I’ve become very close with his entire family, and I see him as one of my closest friends. And part of the album was recorded here in New York —the Willy Mason track “No Room For Doubt” was recorded in Brooklyn in an apartment, as was “Is Your Love Big Enough?” And a song called “Everything Everything,” so it’s kind of geographical. But yeah, Matt Hales… I was a big fan, so I was really pleased to be working with him.

Yeah it seems like a great match. I also heard a rumor that you’re working with Prince?
Oh (laughs), I didn’t work with him. But it is true, I have met him and I am in touch with him. He called me one day… and he just wanted to say that he really liked my stuff, basically, so I said I really like your stuff too. He was really friendly and invited me to meet him in Minneapolis at Paisley Park Studios, and he showed me around. It was after my gig here a few months ago at Mercury Lounge. The day after, I flew to Minneapolis and met him that evening and it was so surreal.

Did you spend the day with him?
Well, we spent the evening together. I was pretty tired though, but I didn’t want to say that! We were playing guitar together and talking about music, and our songwriting processes. He seemed very interested in that. And yeah, if a collaboration is in the cards then I am not opposed to that.

I’m also a big fan of Marques Toliver – how was touring with him?
He’s my good friend! It was absolutely hilarious. He’s just a top guy. I love him, and yeah he supported me on two of my tours, and he’s just absolutely hilarious, just so charismatic. He’s the only person I know who can play the violin and sing – really really well. His voice is like something else, so yeah I met him in November 2010 and I was supporting him. We met that evening, and we spent a lot of time together, and I find him very inspiring.

Did you have a chance to collaborate on anything with him?
Yeah we’ve tried writing together. We started a few bits – but then we just got too busy. He was writing an album, he’s finished it now. He was also touring and then I was touring – so if we could find some time together, that guy is always singing. We’ll be doing something, and he’ll be singing what we’re doing. He just can’t not sing! So I’m sure we’ll find a time to make some music together.

So The L Magazine is based in Brooklyn, and I know you’ve recorded in Brooklyn before. Do you have any favorite spots or places you like to visit when you’re here?
Yes, well I’ve stayed in Carroll Gardens when I was recording. It was very pretty around there, the brownstone buildings, those houses with the steps that go up! If I were to move here, I would move somewhere like that. There were some lovely places. I like Williamsburg a lot. I have a friend who lives there, and there’s an amazing restaurant called Café Colette. I don’t get to come that often, but somehow all the staff know us.

I am curious to hear if there are any current bands you’re particularly excited about now?
Well, yes, there’s a band called the Invisible. They’re on their second album now, I believe. They’re a British band. They’re so creative and musical, cleve, but they don’t alienate anyone, it’s just beautiful. The singer is this 6-foot massive black guy and his guitar playing is unbelievable. They’re a three piece, all fabulous musicians, with an underlying soul quality to it. So I love the Invisible. And I like this guy called Two Inch Punch. He’s a West London based producer, but he does remixes and solo stuff, and his sound is slow groove, interesting beats, makes you feel like you’re high or something. So that’s Two-Inch Punch. And I’m generally always finding that I love Little Dragon.

Little Dragon is so amazing. Yukimi is incredible.
She is, she’s just a super star. I’ve seen them live twice, I’ve got all of their albums and I’ve followed them since their first album.

“Twice” is my favorite one.
Yeah, yeah! Isn’t it amazing? So yeah, I think when anyone asks what I’m listening to at the moment, it’s always Little Dragon – I never get tired of them.

And lastly, if you had to pick who is your biggest musical inspiration?
There’s loads, but I’d say probably either Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu.

Great choices.
(laughs), Well I like a woman that knows who she is and what she wants.

Look for Lianne’s debut LP Is Your Love Big Enough, out July 9 via Nonesuch Records.