“I can't quite believe this, it feels like a dream of mine,” Lianne La Havas gushed as she tuned her guitar. A few hundred people had packed the aisles of Amoeba Music in Hollywood on a Friday afternoon in September to catch a free gig from the buzzy U.K. import.
The 23-year-old singer-songwriter was reveling in her moment, which began with her debut album, "Is Your Love Big Enough?,” which was released in the U.S. in August. Brimming with understated production, poetic lyrics and La Havas’ guitar-driven blend of soul, folk and jazz, the album caught the attention of heavyweights such as Prince, John Legend and Stevie Wonder (he left her a voicemail singing one of her songs).
Following a year where Adele's booming voice carried the torch for British soul, the South London-raised La Havas is catching heat. Her album peaked in the top 5 on the U.K. chart, Bon Iver took her on the road and she was shortlisted for Britain's coveted Mercury Prize (Alt-J took the honor).
After her brief set at Amoeba, La Havas is still beaming backstage. Before returning to the U.K., her schedule was jam-packed with commitments, among them a writing session for Beyoncé’s upcoming album. In advance of her Friday show at the Roxy (she was originally slated to open for Legend before he postponed his fall tour), Pop & Hiss talked with La Havas about genre identity, influences and building her confidence as a songwriter.
Your music is this fantastic fusion of folk, R&B;/soul and jazz. Can you talk a little bit about influences?
Well there are many. I find specifically, though, that I've always been drawn to strong, luxurious-voiced females. One of my favorite singers being Ella Fitzgerald, for example. I love the music of Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu and more recently the music of Laura Marling. All these women share a strength and a wisdom in their voices and music that really makes me want to make music and sing.
When you debuted, critics tossed your name in with a bevy of soul singers, including Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu. These are women who really broke the mold for modern soul. Do you feel you’re part of that?
It's an honor to be mentioned with the likes of the aforementioned artists. I'm very influenced by a lot of them. I suppose I see myself as a modern soul artist. All the songs from the record are autobiographical, and this is the way I've chosen to express myself as a singer-songwriter-guitarist. There are obviously many great artists doing their thing, but if I can remain making music and be remembered in 10 years, I'll be very happy.
Because your music blends so many sounds, do you feel like you identify with any particular genre?
I feel quite the opposite. I almost wanted to create a genre. I just play guitar and sing what I feel -- I've never thought about the genre it may fall into. As long as it sounds nice, it is what it is.
Storytelling drives your music. How’d you build the confidence in your ability as a songwriter?
Hard to say really, but I think it's just one of those things where you have the desire from an early age to make rhymes and melodies and to play an instrument. Then you start living and growing up and, as I'm quite an emotional person, I found that to write about my feelings was a good way to make myself feel good. It's very enjoyable to make music. That being said, I'm normally only confident about the songs I think are good. I'm my own worst critic.
Did you have any battles with the label about the material?
No full-on battles. There was a time when they didn't seem as enthusiastic about a song that I'd written that I was very enthusiastic about, and it took a little while, but after I found a better way of sonically interpreting it, the label was more than happy to feature it on the record. It also became a single. It's the song "Forget."
If you had to pinpoint one thing about your music that you at least hoped connected with the crowd most, what would it be?
I'd say that I hope the emotional delivery of the songs and the lyrics and the musicality connects with the crowd. Any crowd. This is always my objective when playing live.