La Havas Brings Her Soulful Songs Across The Pond

London-based soul singer Lianne La Havas has already made a huge splash in the United Kingdom. Now, she hopes to make an impact on this side of the pond. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with La Havas about what's at the root of her creative process.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away.

Singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist Lianne La Havas has already made a big impact at home in the United Kingdom. Now she hopes to gain some more fans here in the U.S., and I doubt it will be very hard with her soulful and very edgy sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST AND FOUND")

LIANNE LA HAVAS: (Singing) Come upstairs, and I'll show you where all my, where my demons hide from you. Just look at who I have become. I'm so ashamed you were the one that made me feel the way I do. You've broken me and taught to me to truly hate myself...

HEADLEE: That was "Lost and Found," from Lianne La Havas's latest album, "Is Your Love Big Enough?" It debuted at number one on Billboard's Heat Seekers Chart earlier this year.

We wanted to learn more about this emerging star and find out what is at the root of her creative process. So we've invited her to join us. Lianne La Havas, welcome to the program.

HAVAS: Thank you. Hello.

HEADLEE: Let's start off by talking about one of your very first singles. It's called "Forget," and we'll take a listen here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGET")

HAVAS: (Singing) Waste all your time writing love songs, but you don't love me. All too familiar, well, it feels wrong. I think you're just lonely. Do you mind? I found another new way to look at you. Use your time to pack away your every verse and every rhyme. Forget all the words that let you break my heart. Forget...

HEADLEE: All right, so we read this story that you wrote this because your ex-boyfriend needed a favor from you. Is that true?

HAVAS: Pretty much. He was also involved in music, and he actually recorded a lot of my early demos. And I was, you know, very in love with him, and then he broke my heart. But it wasn't until much later - when I had found a new love and I was fine - that he decided to ask me if I'd like to sing on a song that he'd written about me, saying that he was still in love with me and he was being silly back then, et cetera. And I declined, and wrote "Forget" instead.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGET")

HAVAS: (Singing) Forget that I'm the person tearing you apart. So if you heed my sound advice, there is no need to tell you twice. So if you heed my sound advice, there is no need to tell you twice.

HEADLEE: And in the liner notes, you make a point, though, to thank your exes, and you say this: Thank you to my ex-boyfriends for the love and the passion, the joy and tears, the hate and the sorrow, but never indifference. Thank you for making me feel.

So obviously he and others like him made an impact on the album.

HAVAS: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. He was the main one that did. I guess he was around at the beginning of the whole process of me discovering myself musically. And that was the kind of at the beginning. I was about 19 when I was seeing him. And that sort of trauma went on for a little while.

(LAUGHTER)

HAVAS: So I ended up writing quite a bit about it, and a lot of it ended up on the album.

HEADLEE: Well, let's go back a little bit further and talk about your childhood and your parents. You have such an eclectic style. I can't imagine that your background hasn't fed into it. You're of mixed race. Your mother's Jamaican. Your father's Greek. He was the musician, and I understand he taught you the basics of music. But your childhood ended up being a little bit rocky. Tell us a little bit more, and whether or not it ended up affecting your songwriting.

HAVAS: Well, I guess everything that's happened in my life has somehow fed the music I make now. And I was brought up by my grandparents, but I saw my parents very often. And my grandparents were singing a lot in the house, singing church songs and things like that. So I used to sing with my grandma. And then I discovered singing for myself through just discovering the music that my mum was listening to, such as she loved The Fugees, Mary J. Blige and Jill Scott and people like that, so my childhood suddenly became very filled with lots of soul music.

HEADLEE: Good soul music.

HAVAS: Really good soul music. I felt particularly connected to it for some reason. It just really made me want to sing. And that was from singing a Lauryn Hill song was the first time I really enjoyed singing and it felt like an actual, you know, just a nice sensation in my body.

HEADLEE: Well, what about guitar playing? I understand that you started playing guitar and 18, which means you've only been playing for about five years, which is kind of amazing to me because you play well.

HAVAS: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Did guitar also come naturally?

HAVAS: Well, I had the opportunity to start learning when I was actually seven years old. But at the time, for some reason I just thought it was only for boys, the guitar, so I wanted to play piano instead. So my dad showed me some bits and pieces on the piano. But it was around the time that I met that boyfriend - who I speak a lot about - and he had a lot of friends who played guitar and bass and drums and things, and I just thought it would be interesting to have another way of expressing myself, another instrument that was a bit more portable than a piano. So I decided to learn and I found that after about two weeks of making my hand do the thing that my dad told me, this finger-picking pattern called the claw hammer, I was trying to do it for two weeks, and then suddenly my hand remembered how to do it. And then I found it very natural to find my way around the guitar from then on.

HEADLEE: And yet it suddenly makes sense to me, Lianne, that your guitar playing is inspired by these jazz guitarists and your singing is inspired by soul artists, that it suddenly becomes clear to me with the amalgam of your sound.

HAVAS: Yeah. I guess so. I guess so. There's so much stuff that I'm into. I kind of always wanted my own music to just sound like, like me, I suppose, like if I was music it would be the music I make, I think.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. We're speaking with singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas.

What you're talking about is music that sounds like you. It's a very personal and intimate process, and yet you have duets on your album.

HAVAS: Yeah.

HEADLEE: You did a song with folksinger Willy Mason called "No Room for Doubt."

HAVAS: Yeah.

HEADLEE: Let's take a listen to it first.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO ROOM FOR DOUBT")

HAVAS: (Singing) You caught me, guilty, taking the pieces of you. That night, you took flight. I couldn't decide what to do. I won't let a safe bet continue to make me go blue.

HEADLEE: So what happens to this deeply personal, intimate process when you collaborate closely with another musician?

HAVAS: I think the intimacy can remain and I think it did in my case because I'm such a big fan of Willy Mason and I've known his music since I was about 13 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO ROOM FOR DOUBT")

LIANNE LA HAVAS AND WILLY MASON: (Singing) We all make mistakes, we do. I learnt from you. We all make mistakes, we do. I learned from you.

HAVAS: So to have the opportunity to just even make friends with him was amazing. And from knowing his music I felt like I'd known him a lot longer than I had when we started playing music together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO ROOM FOR DOUBT")

WILLY MASON: (Singing) I tiptoe, too slow out of the door to your house. I know you know that this way leads me out. Outside, too bright. You're within I'm without. You're within. I'm without.

HAVAS: (Singing) We all make mistakes...

LIANNE LA HAVAS AND WILLY MASON: (Singing) We do. I learnt from you. We all make mistakes, we do. I learnt from you.

HAVAS: (Singing) Please sleep softly. Leave me no room for doubt.

MASON: (Singing) Please sleep softly.

HAVAS: (Singing) Please sleep softly. Leave me no...

So it felt just very - strangely very natural to share our deepest thoughts with each other. And it was actually a very enjoyable experience because I was, you know, I wanted to impress him. I wanted us to make a song that we both liked and I'm just very grateful for how it turned out, because every time I hear that song now I just remember where we were when we were making it and how lovely it felt to be writing music again after a period of having not written much, and then meeting him and then all these words coming out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO ROOM FOR DOUBT")

MASON: (Singing) I learned from you. We all make mistakes, we do. I learned from you. We all make...

HEADLEE: Your kind of part of a British female invasion here in the U.S.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: I mean we've got...

HAVAS: Am I?

HEADLEE: ...these the powerful voices of the women of the U.K. There was the late Amy Winehouse, of course. Adele.

HAVAS: Yeah.

HEADLEE: Duffy.

HAVAS: Yeah.

HEADLEE: You. What's going on here?

HAVAS: Well, it's very nice that you mentioned me in the same breath as a powerful singer. I've always wanted to be one of those.

HEADLEE: You are.

(LAUGHTER)

HAVAS: Yeah. I don't know. I feel like, you know, there will always be really good singers in the world and it just happens to have been in the last kind of six or seven years that some British ones have come to the surface with something meaningful to say and they've been singing it in a really meaningful, powerful way.

HEADLEE: You know, I mean the love song is particularly complicated. It's always a risk to write a love song, I think, and especially an album that's almost entirely about love. That could be a risk. I mean it's certainly the most popular form.

HAVAS: Mm-hmm.

HEADLEE: But it's also often the most ridiculed, the most satirized. Do you - are you careful before you go to write a love song? Are you even conscious of it?

HAVAS: Normally I begin writing a song with just with aim to express something, and sometimes I don't know what I want to express until a sentence comes to my head that will sum up everything about how I'm feeling at the time. And it just happened that a lot of the songs that made the album have been about my relationships or you know, being in love or being out of love.

HEADLEE: Well, since you mentioned that, let's take a listen to this song. This is called "Age."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGE")

HAVAS: (Singing) Why do I love him? He don't love back. When I call his name he turns his back. The weather is growing cold. And I want him back again. I kind of know this other guy but he's rather old enough to be my father. So he's not the one for me 'cause I fancy younger men. I'm at a loss. Not a coincidence he left me because my older man was ready to love me like the woman that I am.

HEADLEE: So I hope it's OK to ask you if this is based on actual personal experience.

HAVAS: Of course. It is. Yes. After being heartbroken from the guy I was seeing that "Forget" is about, I met a gentleman who was not exactly old enough to be my father, but...

HEADLEE: Close enough for jazz.

HAVAS: Yeah. Exactly. Perfect. I'm going to use that in the future.

(LAUGHTER)

HAVAS: But yeah, so he was a bit older than me but somehow we were completely on the same wavelength and I fell in love. But it didn't come - it came with some confusion in the beginning. So knowing whether to let my heart continue to be broken by a guy who was my age or go with an older guy who completely understood me. And it became clear and, you know, it was great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGE")

HAVAS: (Singing) Oooh. So is it such a problem that he's old? As long as he does whatever he is told. I'm glad that it's just my heart that he stole. And left my dignity alone. So is it such a problem that he's old?

HEADLEE: When you write the way that you do, so personally...

HAVAS: Yeah.

HEADLEE: ...your album becomes almost like a journal entry, but edited. The best journal entry ever.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: I wonder if you go back to your songs. I mean you must change them, you must alter them a little bit so that they're not exact reflections of what happened in your life. And then is that then surreal to be almost your life but not quite?

HAVAS: Well, every lyric has remained to be true.

HEADLEE: That's amazing.

HAVAS: And I did play a lot of the songs before they were recorded for the album. I did demos of them and then geeked them. But every time I sing them I just remember everything that they're about and I use that to just deliver them in the appropriate way. I want to put across how I was feeling. And I mean audiences tend to put their own meanings to songs anyway, and I'm obviously very happy to talk about what they're all about. But when you play them to people, it's kind of a nice connection between you and the audience when they can apply their own meanings as well. So I like to think I've left a little space for interpretation in, you know, songs other than "Age."

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: You're getting ready to start a U.S. tour in early 2013, so very soon here.

HAVAS: Yes.

HEADLEE: Introduce Americans to who you are, to people who maybe not hearing, not have heard your voice or your name before this.

HAVAS: Yeah. Yeah.

HEADLEE: What will they be coming to see?

HAVAS: Well, I'm Lianne La Havas from London. I've just turned 23 and I play electric guitar. And I'm very influenced by the blues and soul music and jazz, and I sing songs about my life and I - I will talk to the audience if they care to hear my idle chitchat. I'd like to think I'm making a type of music that is very honest, yet appealing.

HEADLEE: Very appealing. It's a great album. And I recommend people go pick it up.

HAVAS: Thanks very much.

HEADLEE: Latest album is called "Is Your Love Big Enough." It's available now. Lianne La Havas is a singer and songwriter based in the U.K. She joined us from our studios in London. And as I said, her U.S. tour begins early in 2013.

Lianne, have a wonderful holiday and thank you so much for joining us.

HAVAS: Thank you very much for having me. And same to you.

HEADLEE: And we're going to close out our program today with a little more music from Lianne La Havas. Here's another one of her songs. It's called "Elusive."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELUSIVE")

HAVAS: (Singing) I'm next to you. He says my destiny lies in the hands that he sent me. Lies in the hands that set me free.

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more tomorrow.

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