August 6, 2015


The Long Talk: Lianne La Havas on 'Blood,' Prince's Long Shadow & Jamaica

John Paul Pietrus
John Paul Pietrus

We waited three years for Lianne La Havas to follow up her iridescent debut, Is Your Love Big Enough?, and our patience has been rewarded something like a million times over. Blood is powerful in its songwriting and production, perfect in its conveyance of everything that makes Lianne La Havas a total original. The 25-year-old Brit spoke to Fuse about getting her parents to dance to Blood, why the title isn't a horror thing, her Alabama Shakes adoration and the aftermath of becoming buddies with Prince. Here's our complete conversation; you can watch video clips here and below.

Does it seem like ages between Is Your Love Big Enough? and this one?

To me, it doesn't really feel like a long time, because I've been so busy touring. But I'm aware it has been three years [laughs] since the first album came out.

A lot of times there's a pressure to get the second one out right away, and it ends up sounding like Album 1.5. But Blood feels like you were looking at the bigger picture and spending time making a completely different piece of work.

Yeah, the process was completely different with making it. Whereas with the first album, I spent a lot of time on my own and just kind of playing guitar to myself until I was ready to share it with my producer, and then we'd make songs together but it was never really more than, you know, me and him. The second album, we did a lot of...well, I did a lot of exploration, I met lots of producers, and it was very lovely to work with the ones that I did work with, because they're amazing, and I've been a fan of a lot of their work growing up. For example, Mark Batson, I worked with, and he notably did India.Arie's first album, which I loved. And I worked with Paul Epworth, you probably know loads of stuff that he's done.

And you went to Jamaica.

That was kind of a big portion of the album becoming what it was, my trip to Jamaica with my mother, who is of Jamaican descent. My father is Greek, so I went to Greece as a child. So I went with my mom to Jamaica and met a producer while we we there. I thought it would be a great opportunity to make music in Jamaica; his name's Stephen McGregor, and his dad's called Freddie McGregor, who's a reggae artist. But I was just immersed in music, and basically every experience after that, it felt like I knew what I wanted from it and how to get what I wanted and how to recognize the feeling that I wanted the music to give me when I was making it. So it turned it up to just a completely different entity.

How long after that trip did you turn in the record?

Um, it was about a year from the beginning of the process. I finally delivered it a couple months ago.

Do you have a sense of what your family in Jamaica and what your mom felt about you being so inspired by the trip and making music there? "Green & Gold" is pretty nakedly about Jamaica.

Funnily enough with "Green & Gold," though, it was written here in New York, off the back of a second trip to Jamaica. But it was a huge...that kind of connection with my heritage and discovery of long-lost relatives was a huge portion of why I called the album Blood. So it's not violent. My mother and I didn't really know how moving it would all be when we went on the trip, and when we came back we were closer than we've ever been. It got me thinking not only about my Jamaican family but then equally about my Greek family, and also just growing up in London and being neither of those things but only those things. So, I dunno, I just thought loads and loads about it. My cousin had a baby, so I was thinking about that. I'm also at an age where my grandparents are getting older; you can see that they're like old people now. Everything suddenly had new importance when I got home from Jamaica. But regarding the song "Green & Gold," my mom and dad have heard it, and basically I just wanted them to like it, because it is about them, and they're very proud and they totally get it, which is great.

Were you nervous to show them?

No, I was excited. I was, mom is quite a tough critic [laughs], whereas my dad's quite like, "Yeah, I love this, it's so good, it's so good." He still has very specific taste, but with my mom it's even more specific in a way, so I thought if she liked it, everything would be fine, and if my dad can dance to it, everything is fine. Both things happened.

"Unstoppable" is this layered, big album-opener sort of song; I'd never expect it as the single, but it actually does that job so well.

"Unstoppable" was actually one of the later songs I wrote for the album, and so it still kind of feels new to me. I'm absolutely thrilled that it's the first single, and I love the song—there's not one that I don't love, and if there was, it wouldn't be on the album. "Unstoppable" shows a different side of what I do, and it shows a side that I didn't know I had until I recorded it. That was with Paul Epworth, and it was a real experience to work with him, he's such an amazing guy that...I dunno, it didn't real feel like we were working. But then this song suddenly existed.

Did it happen often, making this, that you made something you had no idea would be on a Lianne La Havas record beforehand?

The whole album, basically, I didn't expect to be like it was—but I actually can't imagine it being any other way now. It's was there, it was there somewhere, it just needed to come out, so it now has. It makes me excited now for the third album, like what in the hell I'm gonna do.

Are you thinking about what your music's going to sound like five albums in, eight albums in, and how many different things you'll try? Or is that way too far ahead?

No, I think about the future a lot. I've gotten into planning lately, and I like to have everything organized. I was thinking very seriously about this as a career, obviously, but having done this second album, it's cemented the idea that I'm going to do this for the rest of my life. So I am thinking about all the things I want to say and all the sounds I want to make, and it's great having the opportunity. It's like having something to look forward to.

You were still just kind of weighing this out as a career not that long ago?

[Laughs] When I say it's what I want to do, it's just because there's loads of other stuff I feel like I wanna do, but I actually really...this is the thing that brings me the most happiness. I thought that before with the first album, but then I made the second one and it was a whole new level of happiness that it brought me, which meant I'm serious now.

Warner Music UK
Warner Music UK

What else do you do aside from music? I think I read you wanted to be an art teacher at one point?

I did used to want to be an art teacher, because I wanted to be involved in the creative industries. But I also wanted a sort of practical way of making a living as well, so I thought if I was a teacher, that would be a good job to have, and if I was an art teacher I could be really creative. I did start art college, but my life took a different turn, being a singer. I still love to paint, and I love design—clothing design, furniture design, architecture. I love cooking. I love films, and I'm interested in directing things perhaps in the future. So yeah, lots of avenues I reckon have opened up now because of this.

When the Blood stuff started to trickle out, with the "Unstoppable" video and that cover art, it was suddenly a lot clearer you're very into all the little visual details.

I really appreciate you noticing that. 

Tell me about the video. It was surprising to see you with no guitar, just dancing and singing to the camera.

Yeah [laughs], I think that was basically the point, so that I could represent myself and my song for the second album in a different way. With that song, it was recorded...even though I played guitar on it, when I listened, I never imagined me playing the guitar, you know? I only wanted to dance. So I thought, "How could I do this on screen and show that I love doing acting?" And I also think you should just do everything that you want to do. The point behind it was basically my performance, just really expressive movement to represent the kind of ecstasy in the song and what it's about.

Did you work with a choreographer? It seemed like you might've just been freestyling.

I did work with a choreographer for the first time. Turned out I really liked doing that. It was kind of half choreographed, and then half improvised. It was great to just have a space to twirl around in. 

I don't think I've seen you step away from the guitar onstage before. Do you? Will you when you're touring Blood?

Yeah, there are songs—for example there's a piano, and there are songs where I do leave the guitar on the first album. But this time I have employed a second guitarist so I can have the choice, basically. Because I realized a lot of my guitar parts, they don't dip in and out, they are just constant, so I just have to have a guitar in there all the time. However, having a second guitarist, we can interplay together, I can lose the guitar altogether, so there's just lots more options.

You can do the move where your guitar just hangs there and you sing.


I won't ask you to answer your millionth question about Prince and that working relationship and what he's like—but what I'm curious about is: What has it been like to be so consistently asked about Prince for so long? It makes me think of this time earlier this year when Björk said she's tired of always being asked about the male influences on her music and how the focus can shift so easily from a female artist's work to the guy she collaborated with. Different things, but what's your experience been like?

Of course people want to know what he's really like, and because he's maintained his mystique so well it does seem a little out of character for him to just approach some of the normal South London singers like myself [laughs]. And to be honest, it is really surreal. I understand why people might wanna ask, and that's fine, and I'm, you know, happy to say he's a great guy because he is, and I'm just honest about it as much as I can be. But yeah, I think that they can...I mean, he's got tons of albums that you can listen to [laughs]. It is interesting, though.

Can you talk about "Never Get Enough," the second-to-last song on the album? It's like half a metal song.

Yeah, kinda. It was a funny one, that one. "Never Get Enough," sonically, is one of my favorites because of the kind of...the drop that happens. I got a new nylon-string guitar, I'd never owned one before. And I got it in L.A. and I was with Mark Batson, and I brought it to the studio and I was like, "I have to record, this guitar sounds amazing." So I just started playing something and there were some chords of a song I will not name that I always loved the combination of, so I adapted them. And then we were quite happy with our verse and how it was going, and then we were quite relaxed, maybe had some wine [laughs], just having a lovely time, and then I started hearing a riff in my head, and I was like, "Mark, can you do this? Can you play this?" [Mimics riff.] He had to just go with me on it. And then I would start describing the textures that I was hearing, saying, "Have you got a bass sound that's like this, but maybe something else on top of that that's a bit more flute-y, something like this, then we'll put guitar on it?" And he just sort of went with me until we had built this tremendous chainsaw-esque bit of music. Basically, I've always wanted to just fuse everything, like nice Bossa Nova, kind of rhythmic, silky something with a really harsh, buzzy kind of erratic music and beats with a distorted vocal. That's what we ended up with [laughs].

Chainsaw, that's exactly it. How'd you decide which songs to keep adding pieces to and layering, like that, versus the ones where it's still just pretty much you and the guitar?

I think it depends on the song. It felt like "Never Get Enough" wanted to be louder and angrier. I also like to make the songs sound like what the words are about, and then you can have that nice kind of...there's something else that you can grab from it. But generally—because I'd also like to be a producer in the future, so I think about this a lot—I think with songs you kind of just have to let them lead the way of what they need rather than you chucking stuff at it just because. It needs to feel like it would be necessary, you know?

Is there anybody in the pop or hip hop realms who pushes you, influences you, makes you think?

Can I say Alabama Shakes? I love Alabama Shakes. The new album is amazing; I was intrigued on the first album, but this one just really struck me, caught me off guard, actually. I think her voice is so powerful, and I haven't really heard anything like it, so I'm just in awe of Alabama Shakes. And Kanye West continues to surprise me. I saw him perform, actually, at the BRIT Awards—

With the flamethrowers?!

Yeah! I heard there was this huge disconnect with the people watching at home. But I was there and just thought it was amazing and it was so bold; it was like I was watching an art piece, like he knew what he was doing. It was so intense and different.

What influences you outside of music? Films, books, weird Internet stuff...

Mostly like actual photography. I went to a Guy Bourdin exhibition in London at Somerset House and it was so amazing and that was kind of... I went to see it around the time where it was getting to the point where I had to decide on my album artwork and what to do, and I thought, "What a good idea, to have carefully constructed compositions for a photo." Like, why wouldn't you compose a photo like you would a painting? And then genuinely I love films. I love Woody Allen; Annie Hall is probably one of my favorite women in film. Yeah, I dunno, lots of things—just the way things are shot, the way the scene makes you feel because of the colors and movement, stuff like that. I think a lot of people making music videos want to make films, so it's like a little halfway. 

So what about playing live for this tour? Do you have a concept of what you want to do?

So the live show is now a little bigger, which is nice, and now I feel like I have just some of the most amazing musicians in the U.K. I'm biased, because they're all incredible. I want people to dance, obviously, because of the nature now of this album, there's just a few more opportunities. But, equally, I want people to feel really emotional. So yeah, it's a little bit bigger, got some better lights [laughs], which is nice, and I have incorporated the album artwork into the set, so I think it looks really beautiful.

What's the vibe of being in the U.S. as a performer, for you? Do you feel really comfortable? Do you feel like a stranger?

Whenever I leave my home country, I feel in a strange way more free because no one necessarily knows you, so you can almost just do what you want. I do feel very welcome here and I'm lucky enough to have a very nice audience here, from what I've experienced in the past. They're very, very cool people and very forthcoming with their appreciation. And I love traveling, so it is a great perk of the job, just getting to come here and hang out. New York is an extremely cool city to me, so it's great.

Cooler than London?

It's great [laughs].