One night last October, Lianne La Havas’ life changed on a dime. The 22-year-old London-born singer, songwriter, and guitarist had been asked to appear on the influential British music show Later… with Jools Holland (a rare invitation for an unknown artist), and she made sure to take advantage of her moment. Cutting a striking figure in a white pleated skirt and side-swept poof of hair, with a radiant smile spread across her face, La Havas performed “Age”—a playful tune about a dalliance with an older man—with effortless grace and charm. When the show aired, the reaction was instantaneous and unanimous: Lianne La Havas was on her way to becoming a star. “With her electric guitar strung high, and her beautiful, smoky, vibrato-rich croon of a voice enunciating every word, she seems to be confiding in you directly, with no filter in between—a strange (and rare) mix of fragility ... and impregnable, ensnaring confidence,” raved the UK’s Sunday Times about the performance.
“I just hoped to play well and not make any mistakes,” La Havas says with characteristic modesty. “It actually felt like the first time I ever sang in front of an audience at school. I was terrified!” Her undetectable stage fright notwithstanding, the captivating performance spoke volumes about this young newcomer, who, at that point, had been signed to Warner Bros. Records and subsequently released two EP’s in the U.K. (Lost & Found and Forget). She was also busy writing and recording songs for her full-length debut album, Is Your Love Big Enough?
Following La Havas’ performance on Later…, her London club residency sold out in a few hours and she was tapped by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who had also appeared on the program that night, to open his band’s North American tour in December 2011. She was nominated for the BBC’s Sound of 2012—an annual poll of music critics and industry figures to find the most promising new musical talent (past winners include Adele and Jessie J).
Then Prince called and invited La Havas to visit him at his Paisley Park studio in Minneapolis, where the two spoke about music for hours and played guitar together. (“We were kind of jamming, and he fed me a line on the bass while he got on the drums,” she recalls. “We were just having a fun evening.”) Stevie Wonder turned up at her sold-out show at L.A.’s intimate Bootleg Theater (capacity: 450) and chatted with her for an hour afterward. “He was very complimentary about my songs and said it was like listening to India.Arie for the first time,” she says.)
La Havas was recently hand-selected by the legendary Robert Plant to open for him and she is also set to open for her longtime hero Erykah Badu in London—a bill that she has described as a “dream show” for her, recently telling NYLON Magazine, “I’d love to support Erykah Badu, just so I could meet her.”
What those musical legends have undoubtedly responded to is not only La Havas’ obvious talent as a vocalist and songwriter, but also her warmth and ability to connect as a performer—qualities that extend to Is Your Love Big Enough?. Recorded in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, the album was produced by fellow Brit Matt Hales (Aqualung), who also co-wrote several of the songs. “The first time I saw Matt, I felt like I knew him already,” La Havas says. “He really helped nurture my strengths; I just trust him.” She formed a songwriting partnership with Hales and followed him to Los Angeles, where, in 2010, she was offered a development deal with Warner Bros. Records, giving her the luxury of time to develop her lean, nimble approach to blending soul, jazz, and folk. Together La Havas and Hales conjured up the songs on Is Your Love Big Enough?—a stylistically diverse collection where rhythmically fueled songs like the handclap-filled title track and “Forget” (co-produced by Hales and TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek) co-exist comfortably alongside songs driven by delicate piano melodies or finger-picked acoustic guitar rhythms like on “Lost and Found,” “Everything Everything,” and “No Room for Doubt,” a lullaby-esque duet with American alt-folk artist Willy Mason, who also co-wrote the song.
“I feel like we've made a very eclectic-sounding record,” says La Havas. “I'm really pleased about that, because I love the idea of creating something you can’t put into one box. My voice and guitar-playing tie all the songs together. I’m very influenced by jazz, as well as soul, blues, and folk music, because of the storytelling elements. I'm singing about my life and am drawn to writing about the complications of love and being in love, like on ‘Age,’ ‘No Room for Doubt,’ and ‘Forget.’ ‘Is You Love Big Enough?’ is more about the love I discovered for myself while spending time alone in a new setting. I was able to process my thoughts and find true happiness through music. It’s also a little ode to my guitar, because when I found it, I had a sense of moving forward. That’s why I thought the song’s title, which Willy Mason actually came up with, would be the perfect album name, because it encompasses all of the songs. The album is like a map of the route I have taken through life and love over the past three years.”
The daughter of a Greek father and a Jamaican mother, La Havas fell in love with music at a young age and cites her parents’ tastes as a huge influence. Her dad, who played accordion, piano, and guitar, favored jazz artists like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, while her mother loved female soul-R&B singers like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Mary J. Blige. La Havas remembers wanting to sing herself at age seven after watching Lauryn Hill belt out a gospel tune in Sister Act 2. She wrote her first song at age 11 but didn’t sing in public until joining the school choir at age 13. Having played piano for several years, La Havas started on guitar at 18 and credits the discovery for her growing confidence as a songwriter. “I never thought I’d be able to do music as a career though,” she says. “I was convinced I wanted to be an art teacher.” She enrolled in college to study art but dropped out to pursue a career in music after joining a circle of friends who wrote and recorded music while attending London’s famed performing arts institution The BRIT School. One of those friends asked La Havas to accompany her at a gig and also introduced her to British singer Paloma Faith, with whom La Havas toured as a back-up singer. She also performed in bands, put her music up on MySpace, and found management, which led her to Hales and her future.
Now La Havas is ready to take center stage herself and win over American audiences with the August 7 U.S. release of Is Your Love Big Enough? by Nonesuch Records. “I hope people can find some sort of connection to the music or the lyrics,” she says. “Maybe they have been through something similar and can relate to what I’m singing about. Hopefully I’ll make some new fans and have more fun times ahead. America is a big country, but I’m ready for the challenge.”