If you scan the long list of thank-yous attached to Lianne La Havas’s first full-length album, Is Your Love Big Enough?, you get a very clear sense of the person who wrote them. Squeezed to an almost illegibly small size, they still barely fit on the page, full of inside jokes, all-caps exclamations and sentimental reminiscence—she’s even ordered them chronologically, because “that seemed fair.” Less than a year removed from the release of her debut EP, Lost & Found, she’s not cynical about the international fame that is very quickly befalling her.
When we caught up with her yesterday, on the eve of her album’s US release, La Havas was every bit as gracious as she is on paper: grateful to have the support of an American label, honored to be receiving so much critical praise, privileged to collaborate with her favorite artists. And yet her humility does nothing to detract from her ambition—in fact, they go hand in hand. She put it best during our conversation: “I’d just like as many people to hear the music as possible. Then they can make their own minds up, and then it’s fair.” Most everyone who’s heard her blend of folk and soul has made up their mind: in the UK, where her album was released in July, she was launched into a #4 position on the charts, nominated for BBC’s Sound of 2012, and met with unequivocal praise in the press.
The draw to her music is as hard to define as the thing itself; with stripped-down jazz instrumentals and a voice that is affecting but never overpowering, she’s not interested in a specific mood or sound—she’s interested in self-expression, and that inspires as many upbeat love songs as it does more somber, out-of-love numbers. Is Your Love Big Enough? is a collection of intimate memories, from her saddest relationships to her happiest break-ups, and everything in between. And while she sings about her private life, she’s never esoteric; in fact, what makes her album so deeply personal is what gives it universal appeal.
Today, we’re pleased to debut “Don’t Wake Me Up,” the opening track from Is Your Love Big Enough?. Our interview with La Havas follows.
ZACK ETHEART: There are a lot of references to New York on Is Your Love Big Enough?. How much time have you spent here?
LIANNE LA HAVAS: Well, the first time I came here, I wrote that song. It’s about how much of a great time I had here. It’s a great place to be alone, I think. Having previously been around a lot of people, I was able to process my thoughts in a positive way, I found, from being here. So I just found it very inspiring. I’ve been here three or four times since then—maybe five. I’ve played a couple of shows here as well, and I’m about to play another one later on in September.
ETHEART: What do you like to do when you’re here?
LA HAVAS: Well, I like shopping. [laughs] This is a great place to shop. There’s so much great food in the city, and just generally always something going on. I love it. I just ate at a restaurant called Café Colette, which is in Williamsburg. It’s just amazing. I go there every time I come to New York, and it’s just delicious food. It feels like it’s lovingly made, and it’s such a cool spot.
ETHEART: Where was the first place you ever performed your own music?
LA HAVAS: It was in a bar called Biddle Brothers. They’re a pub in East London.
ETHEART: Do you think you’ll go back anytime soon?
LA HAVAS: I live very close to it. It’s kind of my local place, and I’m friends with the owners and the people that go there, generally. I know a lot of people around there, so I’m always in and out. It’s a great hang spot.
ETHEART: Do you feel like you’re a part of what people are calling “neo-soul” in Britain? You’ve got Adele, Emeli Sandé, and yourself. Is it a real movement? Do you all hang out? Or do you think that’s a gross oversimplification?
LA HAVAS: Well I don’t know if it’s a gross oversimplification. [laughs]
ETHEART: [laughs] Sorry.
LA HAVAS: I do think that my music is different to those ladies. But I think they’re both very fundamentally honest about their performance and they seem to really enjoy singing like I do. I don’t know if it’s a movement, I just think it’s nice that some more honest music is coming to the surface at the moment, which I think is great in a world so full of lots of pop music and boy bands. So I respect them for that, very much.
ETHEART: And how did you meet Willy Mason? You guys sound like a perfect pair on “No Room For Doubt.”
LA HAVAS: [laughs] Well, I’m a big fan of his music, and I was before meeting him. But we actually met on the underground in London. He was in London recording his new album just over a year ago, and I just happened to get on the same train that he was on. They were going to a show, and I just went along, and we got chatting. That’s how we stayed in touch. I found out that he’d be in New York at the same time as I was gonna come, so we decided to get together and do some writing.
ETHEART: That’s incredible.
LA HAVAS: [laughs] Yeah. I think the best meetings are organic ones that you don’t need to organize.
ETHEART: Your song “Forget” begins with the lyric “Waste all your time writing love songs, but you don’t love me,” which I thought was a pretty great. Do you think of your songs as love songs?
LA HAVAS: Well, I guess so. I think the general theme of the album is love—the love you have for yourself, the love I have for a boyfriend, a lost love, being confused about it, finding a new love, that kind of thing. So, yeah, I’d consider most of them to do with love in some way, but only a few of them are actual straight-up love songs—like, about being in love.
ETHEART: Yeah, most of them are about love with serious issues. What’s that about?
LA HAVAS: Well, I hope that I’ve illustrated some of the other facets that there are to love, which there are many [of], and there’s always a confusing situation that can be documented. It helps me to work it out, I guess, in my head. And the thing that makes me the most happy, happier than anything, is to write music, to make songs and to sing. It’s a way of writing it down, like in a diary, for example. It feels good to get it out.
ETHEART: Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to music?
LA HAVAS: [laughs] Well, depends whether you’re guilty about them. I love all types of music. And there’s always something good in stuff that’s considered cheesy. I quite like ABBA. [laughs] I think [theirs] were genius songs. They did so well, and everyone knows the songs. I think that’s a real achievement, and people overlook that a lot, but I think they were genius songwriters.
ETHEART: Some people have compared you to Amy Winehouse. What do you make of that?
LA HAVAS: It’s a great honor to be mentioned in the same breath. I was very influenced by her, and her voice and her singing of her pain, and playing guitar and just being a normal girl. She just wants to express herself. I loved her and I still listen to her music. I think in the way that we both have sung about our lives, I guess that’s where the comparison comes.