Once fearful of singing in public, Lianne La Havas now has a Mercury Prize nomination to her name and a legion of celebrity fans. Andy Welch meets the rising star ahead of the announcement this week of the Mercury Prize winner
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was once a time when Lianne La Havas didn’t know she could sing. And but for a little playground jealousy when she was aged seven, it could have stayed that way.
“I was in primary school and my best friend wanted to hang around with the cool girls,” explains La Havas, who grew up in Tooting and Streatham in south London.
“She sang a Spice Girls song for them and they let her in the gang. I was devastated and thought I’d lost my friend.
“That night I went home and thought I’d try singing for myself, just to see if I could do it and maybe hang around with them too.”
The schoolgirl discovered she could actually make quite a pretty noise, although she kept it a secret from her family for some time.
She says she became “obsessed” with Lauryn Hill’s performance in gospel comedy Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit and began singing the songs from the film to herself.
“Singing was always my secret thing,” she says. “If ever I was in my room singing and heard someone coming upstairs, I’d go silent and just sit there not answering. Even now I’d struggle to sing in front of my friends and family.”
When she was 11, her father, a multi-instrumentalist, taught La Havas piano and within three years she was regularly singing lead parts in her school choir.
Fast forward a little and at 18 she first picked up a guitar, an instrument on which she now displays frightening ability, effortlessly combining jazz, folk and soul styles.
La Havas, now 23, spent some time singing backing vocals for the likes of Paloma Faith, but was signed to a label herself in 2008 shortly after playing her first solo performance. “I’d only written one song of my own then, really,” she says.
It wasn’t long before more arrived, making up the majority of her debut album Is Your Love Big Enough?
Released in September, it reached No 4 in the charts and just a few weeks later was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize alongside the likes of The Maccabees, Richard Hawley, Alt-J, Michael Kiwanuka and Jessie Ware.
The album was recorded between London and LA, mostly produced by Matt Hales, perhaps better known under his artist name Aqualung.
It’s stunning, showcasing La Havas’s breathtaking voice, while each deftly arranged track blends nods to her influences – Lauryn Hill, Mary J Blige and Jill Scott among others – with La Havas’s unique way of telling a story.
“It’s mainly a break-up album,” she says, “so there are a lot of songs about my ex; Gone, Forget and Tease Me and things like that.
“Those songs are about one person, and we don’t talk any more so I don’t know what he thinks about them. There are love songs about my boyfriend, though, and I was with him when I wrote them so I know what he thinks. His reaction was very positive!”
La Havas’s easy storytelling style translates to her live shows, where she playfully introduces each song with a tale about how it was written and what it’s about. It’s an endearing trait, drawing the audience in and making each performance feel like a two-way experience.
“It’s also a way of calming my nerves,” she says. “If ever I’ve got butterflies, I talk to the crowd and it seems to relax me. Plus I just love chatting to people.”
As for the Mercury Prize, which is awarded on October 10, La Havas has as much chance as anyone with this year’s contest generally viewed as wide open.
“It’s amazing to be nominated. I didn’t know until the day the shortlist was announced – I was asked by the organisers if I was free on the night of the ceremony, which is their way of telling you you’re on the list.
“Obviously critical validation isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of being a musician, but as a UK artist, it’s a dream. Just being nominated is enough and feels like winning.”
And her pick for winner? “I’d go for Alt-J. Or Jessie Ware. Or Michael Kiwanuka or Ben Howard. Oh I don’t know,” she says, laughing.
“I’ve played a lot of gigs with Michael and Ben and they’re both such lovely guys, exuding happiness. That’s got to count for something.”
La Havas is just off the Eurostar back from Paris when we speak, while the past few weeks have seen her perform all over the United States, Canada and Europe. She’s doing particularly well in France, while a forthcoming support tour with John Legend in the US should open many more doors across the Atlantic.
“People talk about breaking America, and it’s clearly brilliant, given that it’s such a hugely important, English-speaking country, and they have great taste in music, but I want to play wherever people want me. Success is success, I guess,” she says.
After her US tour with Legend, she’s off to Australia for a run of shows and will return to the US for a tour of her own.
The future’s certainly looking bright – La Havas has already attracted a legion of A-list fans, including Prince and Stevie Wonder, who contacted her to say how much they admired her music.
“I didn’t have any expectations of what my life would be like after I’d released my album,” she says, “just as I had no expectations of what making a record would be like, I just got on with it.
“Things have happened very quickly for me, and my job probably involves a lot more promotion than I thought, but I still love performing which more than makes up for it.
“A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into making it, but the reaction makes it all worthwhile.”
Is Your Love Big Enough? by Lianne La Havas is out now. Lianne La Havas is shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. The awards ceremony takes place on October 10.