There's a pleasant breeze up here on top of the Williamsburg Bridge, one of New York's architectural gems and the connector between the plentiful dive bars of Manhattan's Lower East Side and Williamsburg, one of Brooklyn's hipster breeding sites. Just an hour ago, it wasn't so mild. Lianne La Havas—the humble London treasure perking up ears across the pond—and I just got lucky.
When a New York summer finally turns on, it turns on, and on this sunny July day, the graffiti-bombed bridge is a magnet for the upper rungs of the thermostat. La Havas, an unfortunate victim of rush hour traffic, was running late. However, what could've been a blemish on a busy day turned into a blessing from Mother Nature. Moments after she finally arrived with her cheerful four-person posse, the sun dipped away behind a blanket of clouds, knocking the temperature down and sparing us from inevitable sweat.
Lianne came primly dressed, with her pressed natural tresses knotted in her signature double buns on top and the rest of it tucked into the collar of her top (she hasn’t trimmed it properly yet). Her petite frame is outfitted by a cropped black and white tuxedo blouse, with little gold buttons fastened all the way to the top and a loose pair of gray trousers cinched by a vintage black belt for shape. A few modest piercings decorate her earlobe, her makeup is minimal and her short, manicured nails are pale peach. And on her feet are a pair of metallic platform sandals not ideal for walking up the bridge's incline, but she’s not changing. “I’d rather not be seen in them,” she says to her manager politely when asked if she’d like to change into her flip-flops. Unlike me, she's a trooper.
There’s a sass to her, and a sense of methodology and control that, to be honest, was unexpected. While she is warm, vibrant, easy to talk to and has plenty to smile about, she's not as sugary and youthful as her stage presence often suggests. At first it feels like a stark contrast to the very green 2012 Lianne playing show-and-tell at the VIBE offices—back when I was new to the industry as an intern, myself—with a honey sweet smile and a voice to match melting over the strums of "Connie," her ice blue Danelectro Silvertone guitar. Now, a few months shy of 26 years old, youthful girliness is replaced by confident womanhood, sure statements and ever surer vocals. As listeners old and new, native and foreign will soon learn with her new album Blood, pinning down anything with Lianne, image or sound, is a misstep.
The follow-up to Is Your Love Big Enough? —her 2012 LP that was nominated for a Mercury Prize and an Ivor Novello Award, both high honors in the U.K.—will initially feel like a sharp deviation from the sound the masses got comfortable with. Upbeat songs like "Age" were cinematic stories, and ballads like "Lost & Found" were deep and hauntingly melancholy. It's music that makes you feel things in 3D, seeking to answer her inquiries and mourning imaginary lovers. "I have never felt the mood of a song before with an artist," Damn Sue singer-songwriter Sam Dew said via email, who contributed his pen for Lianne's "What You Don't Do." "You just feel her presence whether she is with you or not. It's an experience." At the time, a split from an old beau served as motivation but now, in a happier relationship—she actually met her English boyfriend in New York during a previous trip—and a new state of mind, Blood is noticeably more sanguine. “I wanted something to be a departure from the first album but in a way that was inclusive,” she says of her new album’s boisterous paean of a first single, “Unstoppable.” “For me, that one summed up who I’m becoming and seems to feel right as the first.”
The closest resemblance to Is Your Love lies in "Ghost," a mainly acoustic delivery that shines a lone spotlight on crystal clear vocals and hollow, hovering wind instruments. With sonic markers like the flirty "What You Don't Do," thrashing "Never Get Enough" and romantic "Wonderful," Blood goes beyond the neo-soul, post-Jill Scott vibe lazily bestowed upon Lianne. Ten tracks boast traces of jazz, metal, reggae, R&B and doo-wop in their DNA. It’s a fun, exciting mix of sounds. And while I may not always know what I'm listening to immediately, I know I like it.
Even more notably, Lianne outdoes herself vocally on this project, exploring the pockets of her voice she hadn't toyed with prior. On "Midnight," one of Lianne’s personal favorites, she managed to impress herself during the recording process. "I was surprised by it after we did it. It felt like nothing I’d ever done before. And it felt like I’d never sang like that before. I’d never played a guitar part like that before. I’d never done a beat like that before. Just loads of firsts."
Blood isn't necessarily a certain kind of album. Quite simply, it's just her album. “Nowadays music comes from so many things and is so many things by so many different types of musicians that it almost excludes listeners by calling it one thing,” she tells me, her grin fading a bit. Lianne has an overall aversion to typecast musical styles, and would prefer her offerings just be dubbed as “melodic” before being lumped up under one genre. "I always like when I can’t put my finger on music. I strive to have that in my own music. I never like anything to be too specific. I let it be what it ends up being rather than it having a certain style.”
From the cover art (for which I had to seek further explanation) down to the grab bag of rhythms, consider the new LP an exploration of her family, her upbringing and her heritage. "We have the marble behind my head representing Greece,” she says of Blood's cover. “Then the flowers, the birds of paradise representing the Caribbean, Jamaica. And then me at the forefront just meaning that’s part of me and I’m a product of that.” It’s something she's come to understand more and more with age. When she was a kid, she was quick to refer to herself as Greek-Jamaican, but she’s since reevaluated what it really means to say that.
"The whole thing with me is that I never considered myself of anything," La Havas—née Lianne Charlotte Barnes—says of the culture she identifies with most. "I was raised by my Jamaican grandparents but in South London, so I grew up with this London accent but was constantly around very strong Jamaican accents. Equally, when I went to see my dad, it was him speaking Greek to my grandmother and his sister and brother. I’ve always felt like a part of everything but not a part of anything, in a weird way. I just consider myself quite simply a Londoner. English through and through."
The recording process for this album was particularly instrumental to La Havas’ sense of discovery. She racked up on frequent flyer miles working with the album's handful of producers and collaborators. Paul Epworth in London. Jamie Lidell in New York. Matt Hales and Mark Batson in L.A. But the most memorable experience came from her time with Stephen McGregor (or Di Genius, as he's known professionally) in the tropics. For the first time, she flew down to the island of Jamaica to dive into the second half of her heritage—her mom's family is from Manchester, Jamaica and her father's is from the Greek cities of Athens and Corfu—to link with the reggae and dancehall producer. Instead of tacking the labels of Greek and Jamaican to her lapel, she honors her bloodlines through her music. Lianne took the cyclical, hypnotic nature, minor and major chords and general "unusualness" of Greek music and fused it with the ease and attitude of Jamaican reggae. “What struck me about the overwhelming sense of Jamaican music was the attention to the groove,” she says. “The emphasis on in-between the beat. The offbeat, which I’ve always loved and never known when until I went to Jamaica.”
Jet setting aside, Lianne did plenty of living between the two projects. She moved house, broke up with her boyfriend, got back together with him, broke up again, fell in love properly with someone else and saw her great-grandmother turn 93. Not only is Blood a diary of her hectic past 365 days, but an audio celebration of self, the people who matter most to her and the rich culture running through her veins. “The album turned into a collection of songs about a lot of themes, but they can all come under the main umbrella of 'blood,' meaning family and connection to that,” she says, occasionally looking off to watch the rickety J trains whizz by.
As far as Lianne’s creative process is concerned, despite her claims of being super orderly and “science-minded,” the album was made with a go-with-the-flow attitude. She followed her ear as she recorded about 25 songs and narrowed them down to the select 10. The trimming process was easy because unused and standalone bits of songs were recycled and added to more solid ones. “I never like wasting songs,” she says. “If there’s a good bit in something, you can just take it and put it in something else. It wouldn’t matter until it’s released and mastered.”
Based on the ease at which she talks, you’d think Lianne’s been doing this music thing all her life, well aware of her standout voice and how to best utilize it. It wasn't always this way. In reality, she was a late bloomer. Sure, her father played the accordion, piano, harmonica and guitar around her and gifted her instruments as a youngin’ "just to see if [she] was interested." But she privately stumbled across her gift as a seven-year-old attending South London’s Ravenstone Primary School, several years before she felt comfortable enough to share it. “I was walking home after having a small bust-up with my best friend. She decided she wouldn’t be friends with me anymore because she was going to be in the popular girl group after singing a song from Sister Act 2, ‘If You Want To Be Somebody,’” she recalls. “I walked home in a huff like really sad, thinking, ‘I could do that.’ Then I just tried singing the song and thought, oh, that felt really nice!” It wasn’t until she was 13 and auditioning for her school choir that others’ ears were privy to her pipes. “My singing teacher stopped me during the song I was doing and she was like, ‘Where have you been hiding your voice?’ I dunno, I’m sorry I was just really shy. That’s when I realized that maybe it sounded nice to another person.”
From that moment on, the powerhouse vocalist who can bellow and blow as easily as she can tease and whisper on a track has become a force to reckon with. Like Adele, Sam Smith, Amy Winehouse and other English jewels plucked from the soulful family tree, Lianne's big voice is held in high regard. However, everything comes from something, and she cites some of her strongest influences—and theirs—as United States-bred singers. “Without Erykah Badu or Lauryn Hill, I don’t know if you would have Sam Smith. Do you know what I mean?” she says. “Obviously we have different tastes, but in the U.K. I know for a fact that we love music of the Americas.”
And time has proven that the Americas love her right back.
. . .
Prince just brushed past my shoulder and barely anyone around me has batted an eyelash. It’s pouring outside of Bowery Ballroom, and more and more damp bodies pile into the atrium of the cozy Chinatown venue. They’re in the midst of an elaborately dressed and afro’d music legend, who just slinked up the back stairwell and to the balcony to get an unobstructed view of the stage. Instead, all eyes are all on La Havas, the focus of Prince’s attention and the star of the evening busy lulling and charming the crowd with her voice.
With a brand new (and finally permanent!) band in tow, Lianne kept the energy high with a potpourri of old and new material. While a seductive duet performance of "Wonderful" with Keenan O'Meara had the crowd shrieking by song's end, it was the vocal freestyling of oldies like "Au Cinema" and "No Room For Doubt" that had La Havas faithfuls grinning from ear to ear. Her confidence was electric (the energy she exudes is a hazy midpoint between sexy and sweet) and daring riffs and runs breathed new life into old tunes. The crowd—white, brown, black, white-haired, red-lipped, tattooed, suited and slack—is as diverse as her ethnic makeup, but they're singing along to their favorite songs with the same enthusiasm across the board.
But back to the most famous fan in the room. After first covering her song “Lost and Found” at a show, The Purple One has been singing Lianne’s praises and supporting her in one way or another since 2012. “She is Joni Mitchell to me, the way she tells a story, the way she puts those interesting guitar chords underneath it,” Prince told the Chicago Tribune, likening her to the influential jazz/rock/folk musician. He gave her the spotlight during his eight-minute Saturday Night Live set and her voice was woven into his funky Art Official Age song, “Clouds.” Before that, she visited Prince's Minneapolis home and she returned the favor by opening up her East London flat to him for afternoon tea and a secret show.
That’s a pretty damn hard cosign to snag. It speaks to the iconic status she’s reaching towards, but she’s quick to pull the humble card and kill the hype before it starts. “I don’t think I’m great.” She throws back her head in laughter when asked when she came to the realization that she was a great singer. “I think I want to earn greatness and I’m just at the beginning of this whole journey, really. I want to be remembered in 30 years and still be doing it in 30 years. And it’s totally possible. I’m on my way, maybe, to greatness.” She checks herself this way, her “own self-doubt” keeping her two high-heeled feet firmly on the concrete while her repertoire soars on its own. “I’m very critical of my own performance and my own writing,” she says. “I like to think I have pretty good quality control. But I feel like I know if it went well and I’m not afraid to say I think that was good.”
Lianne’s only in town for a few days doing light promo for Blood, but she’ll return to the East Coast again in the fall for a string of shows supporting the sophomore effort. For now, she’s simply drinking in experiences like these, inaugural strolls across bridges and sold out shows, reflecting on the milestone moments in her blossoming career. “I remember a seated show I did in Scotland to about 90 people in the room. I played the last song, then they stood up at the end,” she says, giddy at the thought of her first standing ovation, the first of many more to come. “To come thousands of miles away from my home and then realize that someone’s listening to me is just amazing.” —Stacy-Ann Ellis (@stassi_x)
'Blood' is out on iTunes July 31 via Nonesuch Records, a Warner Bros. subset.