La Havas bares heart and a lot of soul

It isn’t just Prince who’s sitting up and taking notice of the singer some are claiming is the heir to Amy Winehouse, writes Ed Power

LIANNE La Havas thought she was dreaming. “Prince invited me to his studio in Minneapolis,” says the Brit soulstress. “We talked about music and jammed. It was a magical place. Surreal is the only word to describe it. I was star-struck.”

His royal purpleness discovered the Londoner randomly. La Havas’s record company was streaming her show from London. Prince saw the broadcast and was smitten.

“He called me up the next day for a chat,” La Havas says. “He told me he was a fan. We talked about Joni Mitchell and about songwriting in general. And then my battery went. Can you believe it?” This was a rare moment of bad luck for the UK singer. A soul belter in the tradition of Amy Winehouse and Adele, La Havas’s career is rocketing towards the stratosphere.

Critics are in a swoon over her. Along with Prince, cheerleaders include Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Jools Holland. Everything is going right for her.

“I’m grateful for all the attention I’ve received,” La Havas says. “The exposure is extremely flattering. People are saying such nice things. It is good that the music is getting out there. As an artist, that’s all you can hope for.”

La Havas says she would love to record with Prince. It’s too early to say if something is on the cards. Her priority is her forthcoming debut album, co-written and produced by Aqualung’s Matt Hales.

Hales isn’t well-known in this part of the world, but the LA-based Brit has had success in America, where Aqualung’s sub-Massive Attack trip-hop has a big following.

Before meeting Hales, La Havas worried whether they’d hit it off. She’s shy and doesn’t always find it easy to share her music with others. They got on from the start.

“I’d been a fan of Matt’s for a while,” she says. “In the flesh, he turned out to be everything I’d hope for. It’s always a strange experience, going in to write with someone. Meeting Matt was a big turning point in my life. I’d never opened up the songwriting side of myself before. I found it surprisingly easy.”

Prior to hooking her up with Hales, La Havas’s management team had arranged get-togethers with a series of writers. Some went better than others.

Several were downright disastrous. She actually recorded the bones of an LP with TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek. The results were rejected as too far-out by her label.

“I was introduced to a lot of writers over a small period of time,” she says. “That can be quite draining, especially if the chemistry is not right.” Still, she doesn’t have any regrets. “I learned so much about my songwriting and how to work in a studio. That said, it is interesting that labels ask you to do this, especially if you are female writer. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”

Some singers might wilt under those sort of pressures. La Havas took it all in her stride.

“If you are comfortable operating at that level, then you develop the confidence to walk into a session with a stranger and make your mark. Sometimes it’s a good idea to push yourself in that way,” she says.

Born in 1989, La Havas grew up in Streatham, south London. In her teens, she wrote songs and played pub gigs but found it difficult to get past her stage fright.

She’d considered attending a stage school, such as The Brit performing arts academy, alma mater of Amy Winehouse and Adele. She wasn’t convinced she could make a living from music, though. As a back-up plan, she went to university and trained to be an arts teacher.

Everything changed when burlesque singer Paloma Faith offered her a job as a backing vocalist. Required to hold her own in the spotlight, La Havas grew into her talent. Soon, it was clear she was potentially a bigger star than her boss.

A label bidding war for her signature ensued. With soul singers in vogue, La Havas’s potential was obvious. As with the best soul music, her songs are intense and passionate.

She’s got a sense of humour, too. The early hit, Age, is a wry serenade to an older boyfriend (whom she is still with). “To be honest, the age difference isn’t that enormous,” she says. “I was 18 when I wrote it. I guess it probably seemed much bigger then.”

La Havas is a private person. However, being a songwriter means you often finds yourself baring your soul on stage. Many of her songs, for instance, are about another boyfriend, an ex who treated her badly.

“If you write music, you are opening up and sharing,” she says. “Inevitably, you are going to write about personal things. It’s part of the job.”

Like Adele, there is every possibility La Havas will be a global phenomenon. She already has one successful US tour under her belt, supporting arena folkies Bon Iver.

“That was an experience never to forget,” she says. “We played all across America. I had to perform without a band. So it was me on stage in these big venues. We got on really well. In his own way, I would consider him [Vernon] a soul singer. ”

La Havas has been on taste-maker radars since late last year (when she made her first appearance on Later…With Jools Holland).

But fans must wait until July for her album Is Your Love Big Enough? The delay means she is touring a collection of unfamiliar songs. Is this frustrating? “I’m always worrying whether I have enough ‘new’ songs in my set,” she says. “Then I remind myself that, just because I’ve been hearing my album for two years, it doesn’t mean anyone else is familiar with it. The thing that makes it exciting for us is going out there and meeting new audiences all the time and bringing the music to them.”

* Lianne La Havas plays Academy Dublin tonight. The album Is Your Love Big Enough? is released in July

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