Music
3:28 am
Mon November 5, 2012

Lianne La Havas: 'The Golden Girl Of British Music'

Originally published on Mon November 5, 2012 10:07 am

Lianne La Havas was pretty much unknown until she appeared on the influential TV show in Britain called Later with Jools Holland. It was just her, singing and playing guitar. Her voice was clear, pure and soulful. The song she performed — called "Age" — was both jazzy and sassy.

"Time seemed to stand still," wrote one critic of La Havas' live performance. There were much more established artists on the music show that day, but Alison Howe, the producer, says La Havas was the standout.

"She was perfect," says Howe. "In that short amount of time, that two-and-a-half minutes or so, it was just her space, and she held her own."

The song "Age" is about one relationship ending and another one, with a much older man, beginning.

"I met an older man just after this guy dumped me," says La Havas. And one night that older man introduced her to an older singer.

"A song called 'Cow Cow Boogie' by Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots, and it had this rhythm," she recalls.

And with that rhythm — and her own romantic predicament in mind — La Havas had a new song.

La Havas' TV debut made an impression. More and more critics started writing about her, and sales of her CD picked up. But the singer is hardly an overnight sensation. Even though she's only 23, she did plenty of open mic nights at pubs, sang backup for lead singers and spent hours working on her songs.

She grew up in London. Her father is an amateur jazz musician and a bus driver. When her parents divorced, she went to live with her grandmother and started singing when she was 7. La Havas credits her teachers for encouraging her to keep at it.

"It got to the point where I was having singing lessons, but I wasn't able to afford them," she says. "Then my head teacher said she'd pay for the lessons so I could continue. I thought that was amazing. She said, 'You can't not sing.' "

La Havas is also crazy about the guitar. She named the guitar she plays now "Miss Connie," after the grandmother who raised her. When she was learning to play, she discovered not only inspiration but also instruction on YouTube. She came across the late jazz guitarist Emily Remler. La Havas was especially taken with Remler's version of "Red Blouse Bossa Nova."

"I loved the tenderness with which she played, the way her hands looked," La Havas says.

The video was part of an instructional series that Remler made on how to play advance jazz guitar. La Havas says she learned chords from watching Remler but also did what felt right to her. And sometimes that means La Havas veers away from tender strumming toward what she calls a "dirty" sound, like on her song "Forget." Remember that younger man who dumped La Havas? "Forget" is about him.

The past year has been very good for La Havas, as she was nominated for a Mercury Prize in the U.K. Stevie Wonder also left her a voice mail message singing one of her songs, and Prince invited her to jam with him. Some critics have even compared her to Adele.

Musically, La Havas is very different from Adele, but Alison Howe, producer of Later with Jools Holland says in some ways they are cut from the same cloth.

"They have great voices. They have unique styles, that are unique to them," Howe says. "They're not being someone else. They're being themselves. They're natural singers and songwriters."

Howe notes that, in the case of Lianne La Havas, her skills will only continue to grow.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

For anyone aiming to be a pop star it helps to be able to take risks. Of course, it also helps if you're as talented as the young singer/songwriter we're about to hear from. One critic called her the Golden Girl of British music and she may just be the next big thing.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this profile.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Lianne La Havas was pretty much unknown until she appeared on a popular, TV show in Britain called 'Later with Jools Holland," just her singing and playing guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGE)

LIANNE LA HAVAS: (Singing) Why do I love him? He don't love back. When I call his name, he turns his back. The weather is growing cold and I want him back again...

BLAIR: Time seemed to stand still, wrote one critic of Lianne La Havas' performance. There were much more established artists on the music show that day, but Alison Howe, the producer, says La Havas was the stand-out.

ALISON HOWE: She was perfect, that short amount of time that she performed that song, two and half minutes or so, it was just her space and she held her own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGE)

HAVAS: (Singing) Not a coincidence he left because, my older man was ready to love me like the woman I am. Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh...

BLAIR: The song Lianne La Havas played is called "Age" and it's about one relationship ending and another one, with a much older man, beginning.

HAVAS: I met an older man just after this guy had dumped me.

BLAIR: And one night that older man introduced her to an older singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COW COW BOOGIE")

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singer) Out on the plains, down near Sante Fe...

HAVAS: A song called "Cow Cow Boogie" by Ella Fitzgerald with the Ink Spots. And the rhythm ching-ching-ching ching-che-ching-ching - that kind of thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COW COW BOOGIE")

FITZGERALD: (Singer) A most peculiar cowboy song. It was a ditty he learned in the city, comma ti aya yeah. Comma ti yippity yeah...

BLAIR: And with that rhythm - and her own romantic predicament in mind - La Havas had a new song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGE")

HAVAS: (Singing) Is it such a problem if he's old? As long as he does whatever he is told. I'm glad that it's just my heart that he stole and left my dignity alone...

BLAIR: The song made an impression during that TV debut, and more and more critics started writing about Lianne La Havas. But she is hardly an overnight sensation. Even though she's only 23, she did plenty of open mic nights at pubs, sang back-up for lead singers, and worked on her songs.

She grew up in London. Her father is an amateur jazz musician and a bus driver. When her parents divorced, she went to live with her grandmother. She started singing when she was seven. At school, Lianne La Havas says her teachers encouraged her.

HAVAS: It got to point I was having singing lessons, but then I wasn't able to afford them. And then my head teacher said that she'd pay for the lessons, just so I could continue having them. She said you can't not sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS YOUR LOVE BIG ENOUGH?")

HAVAS: (Singing) Found myself in a second. I found myself in a secondhand guitar. Never thought it would happen, but I found myself in a secondhand guitar...

BLAIR: That second-hand guitar Lianne La Havas sings about is named Miss Connie, after her grandmother.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS YOUR LOVE BIG ENOUGH?")

HAVAS: (Singing) Is your love big enough for what's to come...

BLAIR: La Havas is crazy about the guitar. When she was learning to play, she discovered not only inspiration but instruction on YouTube. She came across the late jazz guitarist Emily Remler.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "RED BLOUSE BOSSA NOVA")

HAVAS: There was a piece she would play, "Red Blouse Bossa Nova." And I just loved the tenderness with which she was playing the chords, and the way her hands looked.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "RED BLOUSE BOSSA NOVA")

BLAIR: The video was part of an instructional series that Emily Remler made on how to play Advanced Jazz Guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN INSTRUCTIONAL VIDEO)

EMILY REMLER: Your other three fingers down. Your pinky remains constant on the fifth fret.

HAVAS: I learned chords from watching her, for example. But I just also just did what felt right to me.

BLAIR: And sometimes that means Lianne La Havas veers away from tender strumming, towards what she calls a dirty sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGET")

HAVAS: (Singing) Waste all your time writing love songs but you don't love me...

BLAIR: Remember that younger man who dumped Lianne La Havas? This song, "Forget," is about him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGET")

HAVAS: (Singing) So pack away every verse and every rhyme. Forget, all the words that let you break my heart. Forget, that I' m the person tearing you apart...

BLAIR: The past year has been very good for Lianne La Havas. She was nominated for a Mercury Prize. Stevie Wonder left her a voicemail message singing one of her songs. Prince invited her to jam with him. And some critics have even compared her to Adele.

Musically, Lianne La Havas is very different from Adele. But Alison Howe, producer of "Later with Jools Holland," says in some ways they're cut from the same cloth.

HOWE: They have great voices. They have a unique style that's unique to them. They're not being someone else. They're being themselves. They're just really natural singers and songwriters.

BLAIR: And, in the case of Lianne La Havas, Alison Howe believes her skills will only continue to grow.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WAKE ME UP")

HAVAS: (Singing) They say some things are better left unsaid. But I'd take my life just to stay in your bed. Well, I know...

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WAKE ME UP")

HAVAS: (Singing) I know of my heart and soul, 'cause I know you. I can reach through. Don't wake me up. I'm trying to find you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related program: