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‘I embraced the chance to have a rest’: the return of Lianne La Havas

The singer-songwriter and guitarist hasn't released music in five whole years. Now in her 30s, what does she have to say about taking your time, love and creativity?

06 May 2020

Lianne La Havas has been away for a long time. Five years have passed since the singer-songwriter’s last album release, Blood, in 2015. But sitting in front of me (pre-lockdown), hair piled up and twisted into a big kinky bun, wearing a slouchy crop top, clutching a hot drink and laughing throatily, she’s back to reclaim her place in the music industry. But does she feel comfortable talking about everything that’s happened to her in the interim?

Lianne’s last big release was bolstered by her friendship with Prince, who listened to her album ahead of release before he died in 2016 and arguably helped raise the 30-year-old’s profile internationally. But she has been singing and playing music since she was seven years old, growing up in south London, where she still lives. She was discovered on Myspace in 2008, the same year she taught herself guitar. She started releasing music – woozy, vibrato-filled tracks – in 2011, with the backing of Warner.

The sound on her new self-titled album is reflective of the same key elements that we’ve come to know and love her for (clever lyricism, big voice, smooth, lush, layered backing, twangy guitar), but is in many ways rougher and rawer. The theme of her album this time around is very specific. It’s linked to her absence from music, she explains, which came from the realisation that she had been touring solidly for seven years and a difficult breakup. “I just embraced the chance to have a rest because of stuff going on in my life and romance, you know? Lots of things were changing and I decided to not stress myself out too much about my output.”

The romantic entanglement she refers to forms the narrative to her album, which takes you on a journey of three vignettes. The first delicately lays out the early fumblings and joyous honeymoon of a new relationship. The second revolves around the dark break up period. And then the third luxuriates in the ecstasy and sometime loneliness of finding your independent self. It was written after the breakup because, Lianne explains with a smile, “I can’t write when I’m in the thick of it. I think I’ve got to calm down a little bit.”

Having listened to her new album in full, it’s not a surprise when she reveals that when she enters a relationship, she goes all-in. “In the past, I was definitely tunnel vision,” she says slowly and carefully, almost as if she’s articulating it for the first time. “They’re everything. I must do absolutely everything and then kind of forget about myself for a bit.” While she doesn’t want to reveal too many specifics about the person who the album refers to out of respect, she does detail her heartbreak. Like so many of us, she would pour herself into the person, and it would leave her vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

“I was falling asleep and I could hear the melody and the first word in my dream”

On ‘Please Don’t Make Me Cry’, she’s written a plea to the person she’s in love with to not hurt her. If you have to beg someone not to hurt you, is it time to let the relationship go? “I think it was probably time to let go a few tracks before that!” she exclaims, laughing and shifting in her armchair. More broadly, the song is an “instruction manual” on how she needs to be treated in a relationship. “The main thing would be just don’t make me cry. Seems quite obvious!” 

After seven years of singing songs that became old friends, the making of the album came about quickly, in flashes of inspiration over the past 10 months. “I just let it kind of come out however it was coming out,” she says. “With ‘Paper Thin’, for example, I was falling asleep and I could hear the melody and the first word in my dream.” It’s one of her favourite tracks on the album and she starts humming it, in one of the interview’s many interludes. ‘Paper Thin’ is the second single release ahead of the album and claws at the heartstrings. ‘Bittersweet’ was the album’s first release, a COLORS hit which finds Lianne closing the chapter on the relationship.

When we move away from the topic of love and loss, Lianne is visibly relieved. She says that the process of writing the album wasn’t cathartic in and of itself because she had already dealt with the emotions it brought up, but, naturally, you get the sense that she still isn’t comfortable reliving some elements of her heartbreak. She points out that much of the album is “ecstatic” and “empowering”. It was inspired in part by Destiny’s Child’s and gave her the opportunity to start thinking about her live performances in a way she hasn’t previously – dances she could feasibly do while holding a guitar.

Later in the interview, she says that she has further ambitions for the guitar. “I look up to lots of female guitarists and I want there to be more shredding, that would be good… I would like to be doing proper solos instead of just the rhythmic stuff in a few years.”

“They were assuming that I didn’t like my black side. But I love my whole entire family and I was raised by the Jamaican side”

However, another topic that possibly makes Lianne uncomfortable is talking about blackness. While in the press release for the album she is quoted as saying “I have a platform and I represent black girls”, when asked about representation, she keeps her answers broad. “I think it’s very important, particularly for young girls, that there’s some representation of some kind…  I’m not perfect but growing up I don’t really know who there was that I had, that looked like me. There was Scary Spice, but that was about it. Certainly not anyone playing the guitar or doing music or from London.” Her mentor, of course, was Prince and she is hesitant to compare herself to him. “He was a master oracle so I was happy to take advice from him, but if anyone wants to know anything, Auntie Lianne will be here!”

Though her last album, Blood, focused on her Jamaican and Greek heritage, perhaps following Twitter controversy around the #BritsSoWhite hashtag (which she deemed “racist” in 2015), she seems nervous to talk about race in depth. When pressed, her views seem bound up in the idea that her mixedness led to her feeling like an outsider growing up, someone who was “not really one thing or the other”. She extrapolates: “I always grew up wondering why can’t you just talk to people and be what you want to be. It’s like they [people on the internet] were assuming that I didn’t like my black side or something. But I love my whole entire family and I was raised by the Jamaican side of my family… No one knows your story, exactly.”

Lianne is fun to be around. She’s a jokester, with a massive grin which lights up the room, who has the easy ability to fall into the type of sarcy British humour that means you’ll instantly want to be her mate. She still hangs about with friends she made before she became famous. “You get better at finding those people that like you for you,” she says. “I’d get a bit scared if someone just has this idea of me because of singing, because of my music. I’m a bit savvier with who to trust and who to trust in the industry.” Nowadays, she’s “definitely a bit more suspicious of everyone” and their intentions.

“I think a lot, so I always want to chill, but if I can chill while I’m getting things done, even better”

Though she doesn’t feel like she’s grown up in the public eye too much – “I can get the bus and I’m fine” – she does recognise that she had an unusual level of exposure at a young age. It’s perhaps for this reason, as well, that she’s become more hesitant to trust people.

In a prescient way (with regards to lockdown), she also talks at length about her type of slow-form productivity. She likes running, painting, knitting and other crafts – explaining that they calm her down and centre her. “Having a craft that you can just do while you’re sitting is really good. I feel like I think a lot, so I always want to chill, but if I can chill while I’m getting things done, even better, that’s the tell.”

And now in her third decade, her new album on the horizon, she has clear ambitions for the future. “I would like to own my shit more because I can. I’m grown now. It’s great realising that I can use this life that I have, this one life, fulfillingly and have wonderful experiences if possible and take care of my loved ones and maybe have a baby!”

Lianne La Havas’s self-titled album is released on 17 July 2020. Pre-orders are available now