Lianne La Havas isn’t just a pretty face. The 26-year-old Londoner with Jamaican and Greek ancestry has pipes that could make music lovers weak in the knees. Dreamy yet self-assured, sultry yet sweet, her vocal stylings have been compared to the likes of Amy Winehouse and Alicia Keys. La Havas’ 2012 studio debut, Is Your Love Big Enough?, garnered the Album of the Year award from iTunes U.K. President Obama even added her to his summertime Spotify playlist. She is currently on a 21-city tour in support of her latest release, Blood.
La Havas spoke to City Pages from Washington D.C. ahead of her gig Tuesday at the Varsity Theater.
City Pages: You were going to be an art teacher before you decided to pursue music. What made you change your mind?
Lianne La Havas: I didn’t know that I could do music as an actual job. It wasn’t in reach. I wanted to do something creative, so I thought art teaching would be good. I fell into a very musical crowd around the same time I was studying art. Musical friends led me astray. My life took a different turn. I decided to take a couple of risks. Very luckily, I’ve managed to make something out of it.
CP: Your new album is said to be informed by time you spent in Jamaica with your family. What about that experience inspired you?
LLH: So many things. I had the opportunity to go on vacation with my mother a year ago. I’d never been to Jamaica. When we went there, my album process was already underway, but I didn’t have that many songs, and I didn’t have a direction. So I took a break and came back feeling so inspired, unexpectedly. That was part of the reason for calling the album Blood. I’d imagined the title before and I liked the word, but I had nothing to relate it to. But once I’d been to Jamaica, the title made complete sense to me.
CP: When you’re writing a song, what is your work style like? Is it structured, spontaneous, cyclical, or something else?
LLH: If I’m working on my own, there’s no set structure or place that I do it in. If I’ve got some time and a guitar, I’ll make up whatever. I do like to use studio time and the opportunity to work with good producers; that’s when I bring ideas I’ve formulated on my own. We’ll start with a beat or I can play the idea and they can help me finish it, or we’ll both start completely from scratch. There is no set method. I just see how I feel, how the other person feels, and take it from there.
CP: Is it ever uncomfortable collaborating with other people on such personal material?
LLH: I like to trust the person I’m working with, honestly. I find if I don’t get along with them, the lyrics don’t come easily, and I get shy. If I love the person, it’s very straightforward and feels a lot more natural. I’ve been lucky to work only with people I really like.
CP: Does making music still feel pleasurable or does it feel like work?
LLH: If it’s with someone who’s like-minded and you can inspire each other, it’s the best feeling in the world. I’m always looking for that feeling because that’s what makes you want to do it.
CP: You’ve recorded with Prince at Paisley Park [for his Art Official Age album]. What was it like being in his space? Were there any nerves associated with that?
LLH: Only what you can expect because he’s so amazingly mysterious. Obviously I’m a fan as well and it’s crazy meeting a living legend. He made me very comfortable and he’s a lovely guy. It was all very surreal and also completely natural at the same time.
CP: You’ve enjoyed a fair amount of success with your music. Is there anything you miss about the time before you were discovered, when you were an unknown?
LLH: If there’s anything, it’d probably be never having any pressure, never having to be anywhere, never having any actual commitments. I wouldn’t swap this for anything, just so you know. But sometimes you want to stay in bed a bit longer and I can’t do that anymore.
CP: How do you unwind when you have the chance?
LLH: I like to hang out with my boyfriend or cook. I like to stay at home and organize my things so I feel grounded. I go shopping. I play guitar. Stuff like that.
CP: Is fashion another form of artistic expression for you?
LLH: I definitely think it is another outlet. I’ve always been interested in fashion. It’s only recently that my eye for my own style has become refined. I’ve made it into something I’m comfortable with, [a way of] expressing my personality without words.
CP: How would you describe your style? Do you prefer vintage? Designer?
LLH: I think my strength is finding something in every place. I do love second-hand but I can walk into a shop and I know what might work. I love creating crazy combinations. I think you can find gems everywhere.
Lianne La Havas
When: 8 p.m. Tue., Oct. 6.
Where: Varsity Theater.
Tickets: $26-$38; more info here.