You probably haven’t heard of Lianne La Havas. But I’m betting that you will. A lot.
With the release this week of her new album, Is Your Love Big Enough?, British-born La Havas takes a bold step into the spotlight with catchy melodies and undeniable skill.
This silky voiced ingénue isn’t afraid to get a little raw, and that’s what I like about her. La Havas deftly interweaves soulful, jazzy pop-friendly vocal melodies with jagged instrumental phrasing with a result that is extremely listenable and fresh. Yes, I need to hear it all again!
La Havas got her big break when she was asked to perform live on the Later… with Jools Holland show in the UK, an unusual appearance for an unsigned artist. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon also appeared on the same episode and La Havas caught his eye. The result? La Havas opened for part of Bon Iver’s tour. What followed was a flurry of activity including a creative session with Prince, and now, the release of Is Your Love Big Enough? on Nonesuch Records.
I spoke to La Havas the day her new album was released in the U.S. Here’s what she had to say:
Today’s a big day in the U.S. for you, right?
Yeah, very much. The album is out now, and I’m thrilled about it so it’s been a good day.
You played the piano for many years. What made you pick up the guitar?
Yes, I played piano and sang. But I found when I started learning the guitar, that I connected with it more as a way of accompanying myself. But also, I ended up just really liking it, and I love playing guitar-only pieces as well. I just really felt it far more than the piano. My dad showed me the first few bits that I learned on the guitar. His knowledge of the guitar is quite basic, so he just taught me everything he knew. And then I kind of took it from there. And I found it so satisfying to learn new things on the guitar, which I still do and I still find it just really fun. I think that’s the best thing I ever I decided to do – was to learn the guitar.
Did you have a guitar around or was it something that you sought out?
I loved playing, you know, the piano and various musical instruments. I just wanted to expand my knowledge, I suppose. I was hanging out with some friends who played guitar, and that was a good way of getting to know certain chords and to see what they were doing. I just wanted to have new way of writing songs and accompanying myself that was more portable as well.
What kind of guitar do you play? Tell me a bit about your gear.
My guitar is a Danelectro, and it’s a Silvertone model from 1964, and it’s a hollow body. And I found it in a little store in New York in the Lower East Side called Rivington Guitars. I had two other electric guitars before that. But this was the first time that I saved up money to buy specifically a guitar that I would really like to play. And I found that one through the guy in the shop, and he just brought it to me. I never would’ve picked it out just looking at it. Actually, I can’t imagine playing any other guitar now. It feels like I’ve owned it for a lot longer than I have. I’ve had it for a year now, and it’s my favorite.
Isn’t it interesting when you find that right guitar? That, in itself, is inspiring.
It really is. It really, really is. I just felt so connected with it because no two guitars, well no two instruments are exactly the same. So when you find one that is perfectly suited for you then it’s like a special thing.
So do you travel with that guitar from 1964? You are a brave woman!
I do. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I do everywhere. But I’ve got a hard case for it, which is very heavy and annoying to carry around, but it’s worth it so I can fly with the guitar without it getting damaged. It’s all about the safety of the guitar.
What do you plug it into?
On stage, normally, I have a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe when I play my gigs with the band. But when I’m playing just solo, I’ll normally go through the DI and I’ve got a SansAmp, which I think the sound comes out really nice. That’s what I recorded, actually, for the guitar on the album. It’s mostly through a SansAmp. Or I have a portable Roland Cube Amp, which is like a practice amp, so I take that around with me as well.
That’s all very compact!
Yeah, very much. I mean, if I could avoid having any pedals or anything and just have it all in one unit then I would. ‘Cause yeah, I just like traveling and just relying on only what’s there, you know? But it’s also fun to explore the different sound possibilities once you start getting into that world of pedals and things, and amps. It’s all pretty exciting.
I really like how your songs have these sort of stark, raw, guitar parts that maybe even are a little noisy. And then you have these beautiful, velvety vocals intertwined. That must be a purposeful arrangement you’ve done, because you’re not just strumming along with your vocal parts. It’s all very kind of intricately interwoven.
Yeah, it’s nice of you to say. I feel like I wanted that to come across. Because of all the chords that I like playing and the voicings, I think that opens up a nice window for the possibilities of where the melody can go. And I like to feel that the melody flows through what the guitar is doing. I like finger-picking, I like syncopation, and I like those kind of rhythms. So if the guitar is doing something that counteracts the voice, then I think it can be a more satisfying piece of music rather than just singing across the chord, you know? Because there are so many fun things you can play on the guitar, why only limit yourself to just the open chords? I like having something exciting to play on the guitar but also something exciting to sing as well.
Is it hard to sing over those guitar phrases? You must have to practice that a lot!
Oh, yeah, definitely. Practice and then it becomes more synchronized. But then it’s really satisfying when you synchronize. And that’s just really fun. I’ve been touring a lot now so I’ve gotten used to playing the same songs all the time, so yeah, I feel pretty comfortable now after touring. That really helps, I think.
Speaking of touring, let’s talk about Bon Iver. Did you get to meet him when you were on Jools Holland's show? Or was it just that he became aware of you?
Yeah. That’s how he first saw me and I had seen him already. I was a big fan already. So it was nice to be on the same lineup as him. And then, he asked me to support him on his tour off the back of that show, which.... that was amazing.
It’s one of those moments that every musician hopes will happen, right?
Yeah, you really do. You really do. You just want the musicians that you like to like you as well. And I’m really proud.
You’re kind of new to this game. What’s the best piece of advice someone has given you?
Just to be myself. Be yourself. The honesty and the truth is the best thing and I think that always comes through. And also, just to make sure that it feels right. If it doesn’t feel right, then it’s wrong! Be yourself and trust your gut.
And do you have any advice of your own that you can share?
Hmmm. Do something that you like the sound of. If you’re going to write songs, make sure it’s something you’re happy to play night after night and that you’re proud of. And make sure you don’t compromise who you are or your integrity just because maybe, you’re impatient about the success. It’s always a gradual process and hard work really does pay off. So don’t be afraid of hard work. It’s extremely satisfying when you can achieve something because you trusted your gut and you have the honesty to stay true to yourself and be patient and work hard.
So what’s coming up for you? Are you going to be touring the U.S.?
I’ve got a show in New York coming up. And I’ve got a show in Canada, actually, in Montreal. But I’m not allowed to announce the name of this person but I’m going on tour with a big artist. But he OR she will be announcing that soon. So I am going to be touring the U.S. in the Fall, as the main support for this artist.
How exciting! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just that the album is out now. It’s called Is Your Love Big Enough? And I’m very happy for being featured in a guitar magazine, because I love guitars, and I love talking about guitars, and I love playing guitars, so it’s a great honor.
Photo: Claire Vogel
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Dean Markley, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the co-producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.