Lianne La Havas: Reborn

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better”.

Two months before the release of Lianne La Havas’ third studio album, she put out a lockdown friendly visual for “Paper Thin”. The first minute of the video is a loop of La Havas hula hooping in slow motion in her garden. A strong summer sun and a blue sky serves as a charming backdrop, the weather typical of sunnier climes more akin to the Caribbean than the UK. Progressing into clips of a rose burning and candid shots of La Havas, the grainy aesthetic makes the video cinematic, soaked with nostalgia. Although abstract, like all great art, intertwined is purpose.  

“I had the idea in my head for ages that I really wanted to do slow motion hula hooping. I asked my boyfriend to film me doing it in the garden. I directed him, told him the angle I wanted and paired it up with the music. It worked in a weird way, which started the whole process of making the video. I’ve always got a bit stressed about videos. I always imagine what they could be but they end up being something else because they’re directed by someone else. And some of them I love, but some of them I’ve always had a stronger idea of what they should be and they’re just not… that. So this is the first time I could actually visualise it myself and execute it myself, and I was so happy to do that! And some of it was filmed in Streatham Common! Streatham is beautiful…” 

As we sit at a safe distance in the scenic Rookery Gardens (fittingly) by Streatham Common on a mild July evening, the feeling is tranquil. The serenity of the setting, a beacon of nature rare to the area, matches La Havas’ calm. She is a week away from releasing her third album, five years removed from the sophomore. A long period of time between albums has been necessary. A clear headspace is required for what she wanted to achieve; ownership. Control over her art has led to a new found freedom and in the words of Albert Camus, “Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better”. It’s the ability to be unbounded in expression, telling a story that is completely your own, conveyed wholly in your own way, which is only right in her eyes.

“I think it should be obvious by now, that… it’s my art. So I can do, whatever I want with it, even if it doesn’t quite work. That was the whole point of calling the album ‘Lianne La Havas’, and making it about myself. I didn’t not want to be able to have any element that wasn’t completely my own decision, and that’s how it’s turned out. I didn’t like being criticised when it wasn’t my choice, because I’d be like, ‘I didn’t do that bit!’ But if this gets criticised, then it’s like, ‘you know what? It was my choice’.”

The idea of ownership of one’s art may escape a younger artist, and in Lianne’s eyes can be difficult, “if they don’t know themselves yet”. The success she found at a young age, from supporting major artists like Bon Iver and Alicia Keys, releasing her debut album to acclaim and playing at the mother of all festivals in Glastonbury, allowed her to gain valuable experience. Finding oneself is an ongoing journey, but being thrust into the limelight, one can get lost in the music, and struggle with identity. A longing for home, and an understanding of her heritage took La Havas to Jamaica with her mother, looking deeper into her roots. The intention of the trip was a holiday, yet what would seem like a fateful occurrence, her record label arranged a studio session with the legendary Stephen ‘Di Genius’ McGregor.

“I was on holiday with my mum, and the label got in touch with me asking if I was interested in meeting Stephen McGregor. I was like, ‘absolutely’, she smiles. I went to Kingston and met him, and his whole family. We had an instant connection. I think he’s amazing, we really got on. We made a song that day, with my mum and my two cousins sitting there. It was the first time that they were able to see what I do, in real time. It’s quite a private process, making stuff in the studio, so this was special.” 

Formative in the inspiration behind La Havas’ second album, ‘Blood’, Di Genius was known initially for creating authentic, raw riddims deeply entrenched in Dancehall. However as time has progressed, so has his production style. Writing/producing for international stars such as Nelly Furtado, Shakira, and John Legend, means that giving him the definition of being a Dancehall artist is lazy. La Havas can relate, possessing a disaffection for being regarded in genres such as ‘Urban Contemporary’ over the years. A black, female artist with a guitar, the music industry struggles to find a box they can put her in. La Havas thankfully has never allowed them to, most recently exemplified by her unlikely cover of Headie One’s ‘Both’, in BBC Radio 1’s live lounge alongside Little Simz in 2019. A Drill song with a classic House sample, La Havas’ decision to do her own rendition is symbolic in her refusal to be labelled.

It proves that her internal compass is more aligned than ever, which has manifested into her latest work. “I feel like this album… really is mine. It’s done by me, about me, about my experiences, about my viewpoint on whatever it was I was going through. I did it on my own terms… and I produced it myself,” she beams with pride. It was a statement of intent to call it my name because I wanted to be really proud of it.”

The intent is achieved across the album, which begins with her comeback single, the beautifully composed ‘Bittersweet’. Although not cathartic on her admission, the song is an effacing of the things that made La Havas unhappy and a welcome to a fresh start. It begins with a wooing, Sunday morning feel before crescendoing into a paragon of roaring vocals, expunging the negativity of a broken relationship. The quality of the song permeates across the album, her voice at its gorgeous best, and the range of melody expansive throughout.

The production is never overbearing, and allows La Havas to breathe over the instrumentation. She dives into personal depths with the aid of long time collaborator and friend, Matt Hales (Aqualung), crucial in articulating her thoughts. “With him, it’s a lyrical thing. I don’t like writing lyrics with anyone else, it’s either on my own, or I run it by Matt… he just helps me with saying stuff, how I want to say it.” It’s this assistance that enables the listener to hear Lianne’s perception of love in every dimension. It can be “when a girl meets a boy” like on ‘Read My Mind’, or love of self as explored on ‘Sour Flower’. At times it’s warm, fuzzy and intoxicating, at others, despairing, lamentful, and exasperating. “It’s very complicated … it’s never quite as simple or straightforward as you would think.” The complexities toe a thin line, perfectly paralleled on ‘Green Papaya’ and ‘Courage’. Sister songs with bare acoustics, both exude melancholy, the former an ode to the comfort of another half, the latter desolate, praying for strength to fight the loneliness following breakup.

Like the proverbial silver lining, the cloud of loneliness, whilst difficult, allows one to process emotion, and find fulfilment in their own company. “I find it hard being on my own… but, I have had those moments when I’m totally fine with it, and adore it, and I love it. So that’s something I’ve learnt, that it’s great to be on your own, and have me time. And this album is me time. Well the first half is, not enough me time, the second half is all about me time (laughs).”

Self-discovery, inside and outside of music, has brought Lianne closer to an understanding of what she wants going forward. Musically, she sees herself being at her “most prolific” in her thirties, with greater confidence to execute her vision. Her Greek father, a multi-instrumentalist himself, has always told her to “play music for pleasure”, and she intends to continue abiding by this mantra. Whilst she fantasises one day of maybe living abroad in Brazil or California, she still regards South London, where she currently resides, as being home for her. Being close to her family and friends, those she can trust, has great value, especially in difficult times. “Having a support network is so important. If you can have… people you can trust, that know you… then you can feel more supported when not able to support yourself… because those times definitely do happen.”

The idea of home for Lianne is pervasive, a place of stability and familiarity, which provides that comforting space. Rightly so, it is inextricably tied to her perception of love. “Real love is… home. And making a home with that person, if there is such a person. I’ve always connected love to a sense of home and belonging… and freedom. You shouldn’t feel like you’re tethered, you should feel like you’re… free.”