08/16/2012 11:17 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Lianne La Havas Strikes All the Right Chords


Growing up, Lianne La Havas' parents introduced her to a variety of artists who would play a prominent role in her blossoming as a musician, including Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Jill Scott and Mary J. Blige. She wrote her first song at age 11 and began playing the guitar at 18. Now 22, the English folk-soul singer of Jamaican and Greek descent calls a converted church in East London her home, but is commanding the attention of audiences around the world with her telling, vibrato-rich voice.

You might not be familiar with La Havas yet, but you will be soon. Her signature look includes a side-swept poof of hair, pleated skirt and combat boots.

Her speaking voice has a strikingly calm and modest pitch to it, which is quite different from the rawness exuded in many of her songs. La Havas' sound is sure to be compared to a range of singers, including Adele, Sade, and even Lauryn Hill. Her lyrics are reminiscent of a younger Fiona Apple, unapologetically bruised and even bewildered at times by the gravity of love.

Despite the similarities between Lianne and her counterparts, however, there is still something uniquely particular about the young singer. You can hear it in her voice as she coyly belts out the song "Age" during the Black Cab Sessions, in her seemingly quiet onstage presence on Later ...with Jools Holland that catapulted her buzz onto the American scene, and in lyrics like "You broke me and taught me to truly hate myself unfold me and teach me how to be like somebody else," it is clear that La Havas is more than just a kitschy, overproduced, pop charts singer. She is giving us a piece of herself, with every melody.

Her debut album's title, Is Your Love Big Enough? -- suggests much of what she is seeking in the album: love in spite of age, distance, and even disappointment. I chatted with the singer about her passion for music, her jam session with a legend and what she hopes to accomplish in the years to come.
What sparked your love of music?

I guess music itself -- being exposed to it from a young age and just having the opportunity to discover the world of playing instruments, singing and actually being involved in music made me realize it was one of my favorite things to do. Once I realized that, the love was nonstop from there.

How do you approach creating a song?

There are many ways I approach a song. Maybe I'll start on the guitar with a couple of chords and find a rhythm that I like playing, then add lyrics to that, or, my producer will be on the piano, and we'll collaborate that way. Sometimes I have the lyrics from a story in my life, but not necessarily a melody or any chords, so I'll add on something and put the lyrics or chord progression to it.

Your songs are so personal, and you do not shy away from the theme of unrequited love. What does being vulnerable in your songs provide you with as an artist?

It's very cathartic. It makes me feel really, really good. Singing for me is like having a hobby, but, it's not just any old hobby, it's your favorite thing, ever. It is really the only thing that makes me truly happy. So yes, in many ways, it's cathartic, fun, and telling of an experience, even a very painful one. There are so many ways that you can use music to help you just get things out.

You are currently touring in the U.S. Have you noted any differences in how American audiences receive your music vs. your British fans?

I find that American audiences are a bit more vocal about how they feel about you (giggles). During the song they are very encouraging, but British people have a bit more reserve during the song and then they erupt at the end. It's not a particular criticism at all of either group. I'm looking forward to learning more about the American audience on my upcoming tour. I'm also going on a UK tour in October, and that will be the biggest one to date.

Which artist would you love to collaborate with?

Erykah Badu. She's just so amazing. I'd love to sing with her, or I'd play guitar and she could sing. That would be really lovely.

I read that you had a jam session with the almighty Prince himself. What was that like?

It was really surreal. It was amazing, but I had to get over the fact that it was Prince. It took me about an hour to get used to the idea that it was really him. He was absolutely lovely, really funny and just so cool. We talked at length about all kinds of things, but mainly how we felt about music, the writing the process, and artists that we like. Then we played guitar together for hours. I was really honored. He just said just keep doing what you are doing and be yourself-- sort of like an honesty is the best policy kind of thing. He was very, very encouraging and complimentary. I couldn't have asked for a better experience.

Ten years from now, what do you hope your music has done for the world?

I hope that I'm still doing this, and that I'm still moving people 10, 20, and 30 years from now. I'd love to just keep singing and writing music for the rest of my life. If I could be a music producer and help someone who is in my position now, to promote his or her sounds and incorporate music in an interesting way for an album, that would be nice. I'd also like to win a Grammy, of course.

I assured Lianne that her last hope is not that far-fetched, to which she humbly replied, "Oh gosh, I do hope so."

Her album is available now, on iTunes
Find dates for her tour with John Legend here: