“I needed to make something that was really mine this time”: Lianne La Havas on her musical destiny

The London guitarist on why she had to sieze control of her own destiny on her self-titled third album, how she still finds herself in a second-hand Harmony Stratotone, and why she had to remind herself that playing guitar “is who I am”.

Very few filmmakers are granted final cut, and with it the chance to present their unfiltered creative vision to an audience. In truth, most art lives and dies in the hands of others as commercial considerations and competing tastes tighten their respective grips. The music world is no different, but on her new record Lianne La Havas has wrangled something close to that ideal. Here, any triumphs or failures will be hers alone. “I needed to make something that was really, really mine this time,” she says.

La Havas decided that her third LP would be self-titled immediately following the release of her second, Blood, back in 2015. After breaking through with Is Your Love Big Enough? three years earlier, her star rose quickly. Album two was supposed to set the seal on her arrival in the majors but while positive reviews and solid chart performances rolled in she felt deflated by production compromises and performing songs – including the single What You Don’t Do, a surefire hit on paper that went nowhere – that she didn’t write.

“It’s not that I have negative relationships with the other albums, I really do love them, but I don’t know if I like that feeling of being complimented for something I’m not 100 per cent standing behind,” she says. “I needed the rest of my career to be about decisions that I’m proud of. I want you to see how I’ve progressed. There’s always been a lot of people helping me, advising me, and I appreciated that. But I got to a point where I knew what I wanted and that I could do it on my own, working with who I wanted to work with.”

Lianne La Havas
Image: Hollier Fernando

Taking control

As a result, Lianne La Havas was self-produced and assembled alongside collaborators with whom she had forged a bond, from her regular bandmates through to composers and producers including Matt Hales, Beni Giles, Sam Crowe and Mura Masa. “Basically, the only opinions I would take were of the people I trusted the most,” La Havas admits. “It was wonderful to have them understand what I was trying to achieve, and then to see it come to life with everybody feeling as invested as I did. There are lots of decisions when you do it yourself. It’s a big upheaval – it took over my life for the past three or four years. But that’s what I do.”

Perhaps appropriately, the end result is a record that seems to re-centre its writer, leaning heavily on the give and take between voice and guitar in a manner that Blood studiously avoided. The lead single, Paper Thin, unfolds over honeyed, slightly off-kilter chords that are unmistakably hers, landing somewhere between the Velvet Underground and D’Angelo.

“I love it when you work out a song and it’s already chords that you like. I felt like it helped me define my musical identity”

“That was in the back of my mind,” she says. “I was like, ‘I would love for you to hear that I play guitar’. There was a conversation at the beginning of the second album campaign where, for some reason, I didn’t want to play guitar for a bit. I was like, ‘I want to dance, I want someone else to learn my parts.’ And, of course, it felt completely wrong.

“I had spent all of that time making up guitar parts, learning them, and playing them, to the point where I was like, ‘Hang on a minute, this is who I am.’ The idea was to further establish how I feel about making songs with a guitar – that it doesn’t have to be strummed open chords, it can be music. It can be a piece on its own, and whatever you sing is complementary. Really, that’s how I feel about what I make. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Lianne La Havas
Image: Joseph Okpako / WireImage / Getty Images

Gold standard

As much as the production choices on Blood skewed glossy, the song Green & Gold provided impetus for La Havas’s style on its follow up. Its latticework of guitars would find a welcoming home on Lianne La Havas, but its uber-sleek rendering would not. Here, she has chosen instead to foreground the bare bones nature of her writing on highlights like Green Papaya, a stark, beautiful cut that sings thanks to dextrous playing and subtle, considered vocal harmonies. “As much as I love Blood, it’s sort of unclear that I’m a guitarist on there,” she observes.

“I tried to add drums to Green Papaya but they detracted from the song. I wanted you to be able to hear everything I felt and heard that first day that I made that song with Sam. It was really such a revelation, because I had to learn a new guitar part in order to make that song exist, to even come up with the melody. We tried to take away the buzzing of the guitar using some plugin, we tried to redo the vocals, but that made it not what it was, which made me feel good. I just had to go back to what it was.”

Lianne La Havas

Sitting at the heart of the record is a cover of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes that speaks to La Havas’s aims. The expressive half-speed version of the song, from 2007’s In Rainbows, has been part of her live repertoire for years, and was tracked following an ebullient performance at Glastonbury in 2019. At first glance, it could comfortably be a La Havas original – she inhabits its rolling gait and sparks a stunning wig out at its denouement – but over time it becomes a conversation with Radiohead’s original because it exists on its own terms to such an extent.

“It’s the kind of song I wish I had written,” she says. “When I was working it out the first time I remember thinking, ‘This is just like what I’d want to play.’ It had really beautiful, emotive chords with shapes I was familiar with. I love it when you work out a song and it’s already chords that you like. I felt like it helped me define my sound and musical identity. We were able to get a distortion pedal in there, and have a deeply groovy drumbeat, and that late night bass. It’s a very sexy, sensual version. Its lyrics really resonated with me and what I was going through. It felt perfect for the middle of the album, and perfect for signifying to me how the rest of it should be recorded.”

Lianne La Havas
La Havas playing the Royal Albert Hall in 2016. Image: Joseph Okpako / WireImage / Getty Images

Capturing the rush

Love and sex are a major focal point for the record, which loosely tracks the rise and fall of a relationship across its 10 songs. Extending beyond the lyric sheet, though, La Havas sought to capture the rush of infatuation, lingering uncertainty, and total vulnerability musically. Unusually for a concept piece, it seeks to make an emotional connection before it makes an intellectual one.

“I was writing a lot of the music before the words happened,” she says. “I think I realised that for me to make music without words is also an expression of that feeling. I was really excited to learn that about myself, that I could emote without saying anything. It’s almost like I used the music to help me figure out what to say. I thought, ‘Well, what does this sound like?’ and it ended up matching perfectly with the mood that was created with the music.”

“I had spent all of that time making up guitar parts, learning them, and playing them, to the point where I was like, ‘Hang on a minute, this is who I am’”

La Havas has spent the past five years figuring out how to transpose her life experiences into musical statements like these. As much as Lianne La Havas pulls the listener in multiple directions, sometimes all at once, it’s not a record of transient emotion. Having lost her grandmother and great-grandmother, and navigated a breakup, extended periods of travel between the UK and US helped to crystallise how she felt about herself and her work much as time spent in Jamaica, her mother’s home country, did prior to the release of Blood.

“I’ve realised that is how I am, I need time to understand things to get me to the next chapter,” she says, before adding: “When you leave your home for a bit, you get to understand yourself in a different way. You’re used to understanding yourself in that context, because you’ve always been there. When you go somewhere else you’ve taken yourself out of your own context. I just seem to find it very inspiring.”

Lianne La Havas

Nylon fashion

La Havas grew up in south London, living with her grandparents following her parents’ split. With her mother close by, working punishing hours as a postwoman, they were asked to babysit and, as La Havas put it in one interview, “I sort of never left.” Her father, a keen amateur musician, also remained in her life and rustled up her first guitar when she was in her late teens. “It was a steel-string nylon,” she laughs. “It was meant to be nylon but they messed it up. It’s a shit guitar, but it was my first, so I still have it and I love it. It was an eBay thing. The price was right, like £30. My dad didn’t want to pay postage so we drove to Stevenage to pick it up.”

La Havas was initially driven to play by the women around her, including former bandmate Charlene Soraia, before tuning to influences from further afield. “I couldn’t believe my eyes when Charlene played,” she remembers. “Her hands looked so natural, like they were meant to be doing that. I was inspired by her, as well as Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged album.

“I already loved The Miseducation… and the Fugees, and finding out that she played guitar was mind-blowing. Then I discovered my all-time favourite, Emily Remler. I am obsessed with her. I am so glad that she walked the earth. She was a jazz guitarist, mainly, but she composed her own music as well as accompanying legendary musicians and singers. I found her instructional tutorials on YouTube.”

Another key influence in La Havas’s story is Prince, who championed her music from the very beginning, and once held a press conference at her home amid the heady days of his 2014 Hit and Run tour. His death in 2016 continues to weigh on her, particularly following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests. “I don’t know if I have accepted it yet,” La Havas admits. “It took a really long time for it to feel real. What I take comfort in is the time that we did have together.

“It was surreal, like a dream: ‘Prince is coming to London tonight. Can you be here at this time?’ It’d be two in the morning and he’d be in a private members’ club waiting with drinks and snacks. It was so mysterious how he made his way, stealthily, around the planet. I really miss him. I really miss his work. I miss his voice. I wonder what he might say about what was going on in Minneapolis. I’m sure he’d have something profound, and beautiful, and useful to say. And he’d probably be doing something.”

Lianne La Havas
La Havas playing a lawsuit-era Ibanez archtop in 2017. Image: Suhaimi Abdullah / Singapore GP via Getty Images

Perfect Harmony

On her new record, La Havas did a little bit of mingling with a Stratocaster but the album’s backbone is her 1964 Harmony Stratotone, and a fondness for nylon-string acoustics that foreground the ornate textures of her fingerpicking. “I was immediately familiar with it when I bought it,” she says of the Stratotone. “It felt like it had been mine for a really long time, and I didn’t know that an instrument could feel like that. I like that it’s almost harp-like when you go up the neck, and also kind of piano-y. It’s got a roundness to the tone. Nylon is the natural progression for me from my electric. You can make it whatever you want it to be.”

Releasing self-titled records at opportune moments has become a common move, but La Havas embodies the idea of a reset more than most. Her third album is her most considered and honest to date, arriving adorned with gossamer leads and indelible melodies that provide a direct channel to her inner workings as a musician. “It’s like a synchronised dance between the hands and the voice,” she says.

Lianne La Havas is out now on Nonesuch/Warner Bros.